Monday, November 1, 2010

Annual reviews for students

When I first got to Prodigal U, I was a bit surprised by the number of formal reviews our grad students undergo. At PhD U, we had a 2nd year oral exam (not on research, with a few profs assigned to a whole cohort by sub-specialty), a General Exam (on research with the student's committee), and our defense. Since a PhD take 5-6 years, this is one review every 2 years or so, and is not too uncommon a pattern in my field. Here at ProdigalU, our students have a presentation based review every year, and I find I like this system very much.

For the student, it means a closer relationship with the professors on the review committee (which is the set up on a student by student basis) who see them every year. On the committees I have sat on, we are able to provide specific project related feedback, which can be a huge help to them. It also means more oversight, in case an adviser (through ignorance or maliciousness) is not acting in a student's best interests in terms of their research and training. The process also insures that students get to give high stakes presentations of their research at least once a year, which is much more practice at giving talks than I had as a newbie grad student.

For the professors, it is really nice to see the annual progress made by various students in the department. I was amazed this year to see just how much difference a year has made in scientific maturity for some of the students I am reviewing. It is also a way to keep up with what is going on in my colleagues labs, and perhaps spark collaborations. In addition, advisers can get some feedback or advice from peers on how to handle situations with their trainees from people who are familiar with their work. Though I haven't used this yet, I can see that it is a great potential resource. The major downside is that a proper review takes an hour, and we all have to review our own students, plus other students in the department so it can eat up a lot of time.

I admit I was a bit dubious when I first heard of this system, but I have been won over by seeing how annual reviews work in practice. I think it is much better for our grad students than the system I experienced, even though it is a time sink for me at a point in my career where I am already overscheduled.


Schlupp said...

"in case an adviser (through ignorance or maliciousness) is not acting in a student's best interests"

What do the other committee members do in such cases? Because based on my experience, they'd perhaps complain a bit but finally "decide" that it's the advisor's business, even though the committee could and should *theoretically* help the student.

Bashir said...

My old department just implemented yearly meetings. There's no committee, just a required meeting between the advisor and student to explicitly go over the student's progress. I guess we had a lot of advisors who meant well, but were too hands off.

prodigal academic said...

For the ignorant, committee members ask the advisor pointed questions after the student has completed their review during the closed door discussion (like "Will they be presenting these results at meeting this year? How are the papers coming along? What journal will this be sent to? What kind of timeline for completion do you envision?"). This seems to help clear up minor issues before they become major. For minor maliciousness, just the idea that someone is watching seems to spur people towards better behavior.

For serious problems, I don't really want to get too specific, especially since these are mostly things I heard about, since they happened before my time. In one case, there was a personality issue between a student and their adviser, so the review committee became an advisory committee, and oversaw the student as a committee to dilute the impact of the bad advisor-advisee relationship without forcing the student to abandon the work completed. In another case, a student picked up a co-adviser. I think my colleagues take this responsibility pretty seriously.

I've seen a lot of places that use a hands-off, sink-or-swim approach that works well for a subset of students, but really closes out people who need a little more guidance at the beginning from completing their degrees,

Jean Grey said...

My current department has these annual review things. The students despise them and think they are a waste of time, while I think they are a fantastic idea and wished that I'd had that luxury as a grad student! The 'personality issue' that I had with my advisor might not have lead to such an unfortunate outcome if my grad department had annual review.

Gerty-Z said...

We had these in my grad program. They were great, and really helped students stay on track. Other programs I have been able to observe since then don't do this, and I think it is to the detriment of the students. I hope that my new dept. will be able to implement something like this someday.

GMP said...

Interesting post! I've never encountered annual reviews, but they seem like a great idea. The only problem I can envision is that some of my colleagues are impossible to pin down even for the prelim (equivalent of your General Exam) or defense, so it would be a major PITA to have to schedule something with them every year...

Hope said...

Sounds like this is working well where you are – good for you! I can see the advantages that you point out, although I’m not sure why a grad student couldn’t interact with members of her committee whenever it was necessary without these yearly meetings.

I think Schlupp’s point is an important one, however. This arrangement works well because you and your colleagues take this seriously. Ultimately, if people don’t so this, yearly reviews become just another meaningless box to check – like some comprehensive exams/defenses that I’ve seen. I suppose giving people more opportunities (i.e., once a year) to do the right thing could itself be an incentive … but I remain skeptical, especially in light of the recent (and very unfortunate) shenanigans I’ve witnessed in my dept.

prodigal academic said...

Thanks for all the comments!

Dysfunctional departments are dysfunctional even with good procedures in place. If the department is working as it should, with professors taking their responsibilities as mentors seriously, students will have a good experience in general, no matter what procedures are in place. If not, they don't. I picked my department because it looked very collegial when I interviewed, and I am happy to say that that is the reality now that I work here. Annual reviews are a useful tool in a department like ours, because it helps everyone stay connected with students outside their groups just in case something goes wrong. Even "good" professors can have an unfortunate personality clash, so it is good to have backup!