Wednesday, July 28, 2010

Getting Thesis Committes to Work for the Student: A Modest Proposal by a Student who's Been There and Back Again

I have often said that I like to live my life in clusterfuck: the week I got married, I decided to adopt my first pet and buy my first car; in a 2 year period I started grad school, bought a house, and bought a business.  You get the idea.  But lately, I'm starting to think maybe I just live my life in coincidence.  I have recently become part of a coalition of grad students at my institution fighting to get the school to take our career development seriously.  It hasn't been an easy fight, but we also have our allies among the faculty.  Our idea is to get some sort of centralized aid for students to learn about their options as scientists, to improve their scientific communications, to connect with potential employers/mentors, to learn what steps they can start taking to make themselves attractive for future grants, institutions, etc.  Students weren't being asked to review papers or grants, or encouraged to network at meetings, or guided with how to get a PI position, and worse, they were well aware of the bottleneck in positions as one climbs the academic ladder.  So, because a coalition of students doesn't necessarily have the power to force PIs to help their mentees with their careers, some students and myself have been working on an end run-around, to get our fellow students the development they need from the school if they can't get it from their mentors.

Now, one might say - and many have - that this is the job of the thesis mentor and, to a lesser extent, the committee members.  Well the problem is, to be perfectly frank, the mentors just aren't cutting it, and committees don't care*. 
Coincidentally, the same week I presented at a faculty meeting about this subject, there was a post on Drug Monkey discussing another job of mentors and committees gone awry: keeping the students' time to graduation appropriate.    Now, there are a number of things students can do to minimize risk of a bad mentor, which I've covered before.  The choice of committee members is almost as important as the choice in mentor.  Assuming a 5-member committee structure where one member is the mentor, I would advise choosing at least one member who is more senior than your mentor, one member who is more junior, one who is an expert in what you are doing, and one who does something completely different.  The caveat I'd add to the first, is that the member who is senior to your mentor is not going to take over and dictate your project (yes, I've seen this happen multiple times).   I would also advise that it is even more important to have at least one committee member besides your mentor that you are comfortable going to in a time of crisis, personal or professional, and at least one member besides your mentor that is very active with and supportive of students.  The former is because from what I have witnessed, a slight majority of students have some sort of crisis during the 4-6 years they are in grad school: abusive mentors, data being stolen/tampered with, divorce, a parent becoming critically ill, unexpected pregnancy - these are all things that have happened to my fellow students and friends during school.  You need supportive committee members to help get you through tough times and to help you set reasonable goals for yourself during them.  The latter committee member mentioned above - one that is active with students, such as a dean or director of education, or someone who is involved with multiple graduate courses - is because a person who is constantly in contact with students has a little better grip on the reality and needs of studentship than a faculty member who isn't as involved.  Furthermore, they are more likely to be interested and engaged in your development as a scientist.

Unfortunately, in the end, all a student can do is minimize risk; students do not have the power to prevent bad behavior on the part of committees or mentors.  There are, of course, routes of action to pursue if something does go wrong: committee members can be replaced, deans can be consulted, HR can even be employed.  Of course, none of these routes are without politics or drama, but sometimes rocking the boat is necessary for one's sanity.  Trust me, I've been there.

To widen this discourse, however, I'd like to talk about what can be done to prevent mentors from abusing their students and committees from shirking their duties.  And I've borrowed a concept from every other employer in the world: OVERSIGHT.  At all of the institutions I've worked for/been a student at, there is little to no oversight in the mentorship aspect of a faculty member; annual reviews are largely based on grantsmanship and publications, with a little bit of teaching thrown in for posterity.  But there is little accountability for mentorship.  I propose that the eligibility of faculty members for acquiring students should be partially based on continued evaluation of their mentorship and stewardship on committees.  These evaluations should be done by the education arm of the graduate program, rather than through their department head, where their usual annual review originates, and faculty mentors should be required to do an annual self-evaluation of mentorship as well.  While feedback/exit interviews from all lab members should be taken into account, it is also important to protect trainees from any sort of reprisal that might occur if a faculty member ferrets out who said what.  As you can see, I'm not entirely sure of the logistics, however I think making faculty members accountable for the quality of their mentorship/committee membership in a tangible way - that is, ability to recruit students - will both encourage faculty to improve themselves and perhaps discourage those faculty who might naturally abuse students from taking on mentees.  The old system of rumors of who is good and who isn't, leaving students to traverse the murky waters themselves and figure out the old boys networks while doing good science is archaic and gives the faculty too much power relative to trainees; it's got to go, and I think centralized, fact-not-rumor-based evaluation and accountability is the way to go.

*At least, this is what I am hearing from my student colleagues; my interest in this subject piqued because my mentor was doing a good job in this department, and conversations with my fellow students revealed that they weren't getting the kind of development I was.

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