Saturday, October 25, 2008

Dear Graduate Student...

At Big State U. all graduate students have an advisory committee that generally consists of their mentor, two (sometimes three) other faculty from their department and one person from outside their department. Right now I'm the outside person on three such committees. Two years ago I was part of the qualifying exam for one of these students. I came very, very close to failing her at the time because she demonstrated an almost complete lack of knowledge regarding some of the methods she was using. I happen to know quite a bit about those techniques since I helped develop them. I believed at the time that that's why I was asked to be on this committee. Apparently not. The student was surprised to find out I knew something about these techniques... Anyway, I passed the student in the end because she seemed to have a pretty good grasp of the other aspects of her proposed research. I told the student I would be more than willing to help her understand and use the techniques in question. I have seen nothing of her since (she's in a different building on a different part of campus so there's very little chance of running into her).

Now here at Big State U. graduate students typically have a meeting once a year with their committee to keep the members updated on the student's progress. Students are also encouraged to talk to their committee members on a regular basis (although distressingly few do so). Last December I remembered that we should have probably had a meeting with this student by then, and emailed her asking her if she would be setting one up soon. She replied that she hadn't really thought about it, but that it might be a good idea... Nothing further happened.

In April she sent out an email to her committee asking when they would be available to meet. Now asking four faculty members when they're available without providing potential times never works. I and one of the other committee members both replied that it would be a good idea for the student to provide a list of potential times so committee members could then indicate which would work. She replied that this seemed like a good idea... Nothing further happened.

About ten days go (it's October now) I get this email from said graduate student:

Dear Dr. Odyssey,
I am beginning my job search and would like to use you as a reference.
Graduate Student

Here is the ensuing email conversation that occurred:

Dear Graduate Student,
I am very surprised to hear that you are looking for a job. I assume that means you believe you will be graduating soon. I'm afraid that I cannot agree to act as a reference for you since I have no idea of how your research has been progressing. We have not had a committee meeting in two years and I have not seen you in that time.

I am also puzzled that you seem to believe you will be graduating soon. Typically the student needs the okay of their committee before starting to write their dissertation. I strongly suggest that you set up a meeting as soon as possible so that you can discuss this with your committee.
Dr. Odyssey

Dear Dr. Odyssey,
I have not been able to set up a committee meeting over the last two years because I haven't been able to find a time when both I and Dr. Mentor's Other Graduate Student can have a meeting at the same time. Other Graduate Student has three committee members in common with me and we want to save them time by having a committee meeting together.

I will be starting to write my dissertation by the beginning of November and hope to set up my dissertation defense for February.

I will do my best to set up a meeting by the end of the year or early next year. You can decide then whether you will act as a reference for me.
Graduate Student

Note: I am not on Other Graduate Student's committee. I strongly suspect the one person on that committee who is NOT on Graduate Student's committee is the outside person. It pretty much has to be.

Dear Graduate Student,
You really cannot have a committee meeting with Other Graduate Student. Each student needs to meet with their committee separately. I happened to run into one of your other committee members today and he has assured me that he does not want a joint meeting with Other Graduate Student.

Additionally, perhaps you did not quite understand my last email. Here at Big State U. you need your dissertation advisory committee to agree before you start writing your dissertation. Although this is generally a given, it cannot occur without a meeting of the committee. You need to set up a committee meeting as soon as possible.

Finally, I stand by my decision not to act as your reference. I have had no contact with you in two years and do not feel I could write a reasonable letter.
Dr. Odyssey

Dear Committee Members,
I am hoping to set up a meeting sometime in the next six weeks. When are you available?
Graduate Student

Sigh... I sent her an extensive list of times I would be available.

About five days pass with no further emails from Graduate Student. Then, late yesterday:

Dear Dr. Odyssey,
I cannot set up a committee meeting at this time. The one member of Other Graduate Student's committee who is not on my committee is traveling and hasn't replied to our emails.
Graduate Student

I haven't replied as yet... Obviously a call to Dr. Mentor is overdue. I strongly suspect that some of this is driven by Dr. Mentor, so it won't be a comfortable call.

Oh, and I do understand that I and the other committees members share some blame here. We have not been particularly aggressive in trying to get Graduate Student to organize meetings and I haven't made any efforts to meet one-on-one with her.


Liam said...

That's a shame, on at least 2 of levels. Obviously, some poor mentoring on the part of Dr. Mentor, who is probably a very controlling person. And, on the other hand, the student clearly has not used her other committee members to put pressure on Dr. Mentor to make sure things are progressing as outlined in the Rules.

JollyRgr said...

Oh dear.....I can see a disaster in the near future for graduate student. I can see a distinct lack of drive and organisational skills......and responsibility for ones own actions.

River Tam said...

I have found the most frustrating (and potentially injurous to the student's progress) interactions occur when
1) Students seem incapable of following clear directions

AND Either

2) their advisor is not paying attention to them
3) their advisor cares more about their own convenience and not the student's progress.

Sounds like you may have the unique combo of 1, 2, AND 3!

Goose said...

Oh that's just scary! Good luck with the call to Dr Mentor, which I'm sure will be just peachy! It's a real pity to hear things like this.