Archive for the 'Mailbag' category

Advice for the new grad student.

Sep 08 2011 Published by under Academia, Mailbag, Teaching and learning

This post was prompted by an email from a friend who is about to start graduate school requesting words of advice (or warning). After I replied to that email, I noticed an excellent post by Prof-like Substance that may also be helpful to newbie grad students, so go read that, too.

The ordering of this list has less to do with importance than the order in which these occurred to me.

The financial stuff (written assuming a graduate program in which the graduate student receives some sort of financial support):

1. Find out the schedule to pay fees for the term (as well as what the prevailing policy is on late payments), and get 'em in. (Even though the part you have to pay as a grad student is likely less than the support you're getting in terms of tuition reimbursement, etc., late fees can snowball.)

2. Find out the schedule for your RA/TA paychecks (assuming you'll have some sort of stipend) and check them religiously to make sure they are neither smaller nor larger than they're supposed to be. Why you do not want to be paid too little is obvious. But, it's also a hassle to be overpaid, because eventually someone who's doing the accounting will discover the error, and you will have to write a check to pay the money back. If your too-big paychecks have gone unnoticed by you except to the extent that they have let you buy fresh vegetables to eat with your ramen noodles, you may not have extra money sitting around when you need to fix the error if it has gone on for awhile.

3. If you're in a situation where you're paid a lump sum at the beginning of the term, find out whether you need to pay estimated taxes (since there often isn't withholding from the lump sum). You do not want to have the IRS on your ass while you're studying for quals.

Integrating into your department and university:

4. Find out which functionary in your department knows how all the gory details of registering for classes, getting an advisor, filing the right paperwork for candidacy, getting paid, etc., work and who is disposed to share this information with new grad students. Cultivate this person's goodwill, regularly.

5. Cultivate grad student friends from outside your department. They will help you figure out which features of life in your department are weird and which are typical of graduate programs in your university. They will also help you maintain something resembling perspective. (Plus, they might know some good, cheap places to eat meals.)

6. Locate the library stacks where dissertations from grad students in your department are shelved. From time to time, browse a thesis or two to absorb the local expectations about format, the appropriate level of detail for literature background and description of materials, methods, and results, etc.

7. Make it a habit to attend the public portion of thesis defenses in your department so you become familiar both with the format of the defense and with the approach of the faculty in your department (collectively and individually) to grilling the candidates. (This may help you develop a short list of faculty you'd be happy to have on your own committee.)

8. When shopping for a research group, spend as much time as you can with the grad student members of your prospective group. Go to group meeting (to see how they interact with the boss and with each other). Arrange to drop in while they're doing research-like activities. Trust your gut about whether this is a social setting that will suit you.

9. Research advisors who already have tenure are often (but not always) more open-minded about the diversity of effective work habits of grad students than are research advisors who are trying to get tenure.

10. Have fun! Grad school may be a means to an end you are pursuing, but it will also eat up at least a few years of your life. Those years ought to be enjoyable as well as productive.

2 responses so far

An open letter

May 03 2011 Published by under Communication, Mailbag, Passing thoughts

To the large multinational company trying to interest me in blogging about a "fun" story from its "sponsored news-site":

It's not that I really begrudge you your effort to get something (more eyeballs on a website that puts your company and its research in the most flattering light) for nothing. Hell, people at my day job try to get me to add value to their agendas while providing no return for me All. The. Time.

I put that down to human nature (even though, as a multinational corporation, you are an individual in only the most strained and legalistic sense).

However, when you pester me to do so in multiple emails, identical but for the persons identified as their senders, you actually make me even less likely to do your thinly-disguised greenwashing bidding.

Also? I'm unlikely to do any free shilling for your huge-profit-making corporation in a world where you persist in paying no taxes.

Kisses,

Dr. Free-Ride

One response so far

Can nothing be done about the exam-talkers?

That isn't a typo -- the issue is students who talk to each other while taking exams.

I received the following via email from a reader (lightly edited to remove identifying details):

I'm wondering if you and your readers can help me analyze this situation.

I caught two students talking during an exam.

This is not the first time for this pair. The first time this happened, I explicitly communicated my expectations about conduct during an exam to all of my students, specifically stating that talking during an exam will be taken as cheating. The academic integrity section of the undergraduate bulletin also states that conversation during an exam is not allowed.

After the second incident, I wanted to penalize both students with a zero for said exam and forfeiture of the dropped-lowest-exam-score policy. The students immediately said they will appeal to the dean and their parents have been hounding the chair as well as the administration.

The message I'm getting now is that I cannot prove the talking during the exam actually took place (although I saw it). Not only that, I'm basically being bullied to drop it for fear that the parents will file a law suit, maybe because the administration has decided the university cannot deal with another scandal after a recent one fueled by alcohol.

My question is, when did talking during exams become acceptable? (That it's acceptable is the message I'm getting regardless of what's written in the academic bulletin). I have not been teaching long but have read about faculty being fearful of repercussions when reporting cheating students. I don't want to end up like that, compromising my principles for fear of repercussions such as loss of job (I'm not protected by tenure). Unfortunately, this is where I am headed. This whole incident is very demoralizing. Is it too much to expect students to abide by a shared code of conduct during exams? Is this response by chair and administration common?

I'm going to give my advice on this situation, but since my correspondent specifically requested help from you, the commentariat, please post your advice in the comments, making sure to point out ways you think my advice goes wrong.

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17 responses so far

'My work has been plagiarized. Now what?'

I received an email from reader Doug Blank (who gave me permission to share it here and to identify him by name) about a perplexing situation:

Janet,
I thought I'd solicit your advice. Recently, I found an instance of parts of my thesis appearing in a journal article, and of the paper being presented at a conference. In fact, further exploration revealed that it had won a best paper prize! Why don't I feel proud...
I've sent the following letter to the one and only email address that I found on the journal's website, almost three weeks ago, but haven't heard anything. I tried contacting the Editorial Advisory Board Chair (through that same email), but he doesn't have any specific contact information anywhere available on the web, or elsewhere. He is emeritus at [name of university redacted], but they won't tell me how to contact him. I asked a secretary there to forward my contact to him. I emailed website maintainers. Nothing yet.
Some questions from this: can one have a journal without having someone easily contactable for such issues? No telephone numbers? Who is responsible for catching this kind of thing? Reviewers? Could the community rise to the challenge? For example, could we build a site where papers that are ready for publishing get scrutinized for plagiarism? People would love that more than wikipedia!
Am I in any risk for even sending such accusatory emails? Should I contact the perp? What would he do? What can he do?
I hope to follow this through to the end. Feel free to use any of this as material. If you are interested, I'd be glad to update you. More importantly, I'd be glad to hear of advice.
Thanks!
-Doug

Doug appended the email message he sent to the elusive Editorial Advisory Board Chair (which I present here heavily redacted, just in case the guy turns up and makes an effort to set things right):

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27 responses so far

What kind of deception of human subjects is acceptable?

One of the key requirements that researchers conducting studies with human subjects must meet is that they obtain the informed consent of the participating subjects (or of a parent or guardian, if the subject is not able to give informed consent himself or herself). However, there are particular instances where giving the subjects complete information about the study at the outset may change the outcome of the study -- namely, it may make it practically impossible to measure what the research is trying to measure. If these studies are not to be ruled out completely, doing them necessitates some amount of deception or concealment, which seems to be at odds with the need to establish informed consent.
Of course, there are ethical guidelines for dealing with studies that require deception. But recently a reader emailed me about a particular study where there might have been concealment that was an impediment to informed consent rather than a methodological requirement of the study. Here are the broad details*:

Faculty members are solicited to participate in a sociological study of networking within their academic departments. Indeed, a university administrator strongly encourages faculty members to participate in the research by noting that the data it collects is expected to bolster a grant application geared toward funding "institutional transformations".
The information provided to prospective subjects on the consent form makes no mention of using the results of this study to secure further grants. Some of the faculty who are being solicited to participate in the present study have objections to the sorts of "institutional transformations" promoted by the grant program mentioned in the administrator's encouragement to participate.
Is the failure to mention this intended use of the study results in the consent forms a violation of informed consent?

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Should I be ABD before I have a baby? (and other questions about academic motherhood)

Feb 29 2008 Published by under Academia, Mailbag, Personal, Women and science

I recently received an email, prompted by my series about having a family and an academic career, asking for some input:

I am a mere first year in a Ph.D. program and am a bit older than the other students. I am wholeheartedly committed to the program I am also considering the seemingly traitorous act of having a baby.
Do you think it's essential to wait until ABD status?

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Ask an ethicist: How can I stand up to misbehavior in my field?

In the aftermath of my two posts on allegations of ethical lapses among a group of paleontologists studying aetosaurs, an email correspondent posed a really excellent question: what's a junior person to do about the misconduct of senior people in the field when the other senior people seem more inclined to circle the wagons than to do anything about the people who are misbehaving?
That's the short version. Here's the longer version from my correspondent:

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24 responses so far

Audience participation: help me flag good posts for non-scientists trying to understand science.

A regular reader of the blog emailed me the following:

Have you ever considered setting up a section for laymen in your blog where posts related to the philosophy of science, how research is conducted, how scientists think etc. are archived? An example of what I think might be a good article to include would be your post on Marcus Ross.
Part of why I like reading your blog is because you analyze these fundamental issues in science, and I believe that this will help any laymen who stumble upon your blog for the first time quite a bit. It certainly helped me! I had to trawl through tons of posts to get to posts related to these fundamental issues though (not that the other posts are not interesting!).

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Rules of engagement.

To address an issue that came up in discussion of posts on other blogs, I want to make clear the principles I follow when dealing with real-world scenarios here or via email:

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Summertime thoughts on final exams.

Jun 14 2007 Published by under Academia, Mailbag, Teaching and learning

While our exams were weeks ago, I know that some folks (especially high school students) are just finishing up. So these observations sent to me by a reader may be timely:

I believe that if students are passing their classes with a B and above they should not have to take final exams.
Most students drop letter grades when taking an exam that is an accumulation of material that they have to dig out of the crevices of their brain from 5 to 6 months ago. I cannot remember what I had for breakfast last week; how can we expect our students to try and remember what they learned in January by the time May or June comes?
Students have to take final exams in all classes and spend hours trying to study, just to stress themselves out and end up not doing well.
Yes, this is good opportunity for the student that has slacked off all year to try and bring their grade up, but let's not punish the students that put in the effort all through the school year, let's reward them with not having to take finals, in any grade.
I know some schools do this for Seniors, but to me it just makes sense to do it for all grades. In addition, it would be easier on teacher, less stressful on families. (My house was nuts for one month before finals and my Senior took them two week before my Freshman, and I have how many more years of this to look forward to?)
As an example my Freshman had a "B" average in Science before the exam, received a "D" on the exam and wound up with a "C" for the class, and in the midst of all this we had a death in the family. Talk about stress.........
Why are final exams given, what is the purpose and what does it really tell you about the student? It should be about what they do all school year, and not one moment in time.

My response after the jump.

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