Saturday, February 7, 2015

Weekend thirsty on pulling the plug


My conscience bothers me. I get lots of students who want to become astronomers, like I am. They tell me I’m “inspirational,” and “awesome” (both recent comments on the-site-that-shall-not-be-named). I admit the Galaxy is a fun place (you’ll need to have this fish in your ear). My classes and research do give my physics department much of its intellectual vitality (which isn’t difficult since we have so much deadwood, and they certainly enjoy the overhead on my grants).

The problem is that almost none of my students have the aptitude or work ethic to become professional astronomers. Herrgott im Himmel, do they SUCK!

How bad are they? Most of my graduate students can’t understand significant digits, which is an error that first-year undergraduates are taught to avoid on their very first day of college. No matter how, and no matter how many times, I try to explain significant digits to them, the effect is NO EFFECT WHATSOEVER. That we only have undergraduate and M.S. programs (and no Ph.D.) is no excuse.

Yet another former M.S. student recently flunked out of a low-tier Ph.D. program, unable to pass their qualifying exams. Yet another M.S. student recently scored a single-digit percentile on the GRE physics exam. Good astronomy Ph.D. programs want them in the top 50th percentile. Great ones (like Caltech, some Ph.D. graduates from which get tenure-track jobs, albeit after many years as postdocs) want them in the top 25th. Typical ACT scores of professional astronomers are over 29; typical college students have ACT scores of 22-23; the 25th/75th percentile of my students get 17-22. 

Not a one of my students ever come to meetings of the local amateur astronomy club, which are right here on campus. So much for how badly they want to become astronomers. Virtually none stay up past 10 p.m. to take advantage of the fine observatory and weather we have on campus. I’ve had multiple students say to my face that staying up past midnight would be a problem for them. What in heavens’ name do they think it is that we do here?

Perhaps standards are too low? Too bad, since my administration is on the "student success" bandwagon. I do recognize that many of my students need to work 20+ hours/week for money. So did I, risking my life on a daily basis driving taxis in Chicago. I don't like to pay most students out of grants, because they simply cannot or will not do the work. What exactly is it that my students think I can do for them, if they're unwilling to put in the effort?

One problem is that I know what good students look like. During a summer research program, I got an undergraduate from Yale whose end-of-summer report could have been a very nice M.S. thesis. He's now yet another struggling postdoc, doing his damnedest to get a tenure-track job, like the standing army of other postdocs in astronomy today.

I know you have to be patient to be a good teacher. I've done my best for 15 years now, but come on: this is leading lambs to the slaughter. It’s just plain cruel to encourage students of this caliber to take an interest in a field as demanding, and with so few jobs, as astronomy. 

And yet, when I was young, like all astronomers I was told “You’ll never make it,” by losers who got drool on their ACT tests. I recognize the importance of late bloomers, and of others who struggle with education because they see things differently: Einstein was one of them. I recognize how important it is for a teacher not to judge too soon. I therefore have a strong inhibition toward saying, “You’ll never make it” to anyone, even when it’s SO richly deserved, for laziness or negligence or sloppiness or apathy or illiteracy or innumeracy.

(Q) When exactly do you pull the plug? Where, exactly, is the point of no return? Is there one? If there is, should you acknowledge it? If so, how? Aren’t we wasting people’s time and making a mess of their lives, not to mention running up titanic tuition bills at their expense, when we don’t?

36 comments:

  1. Since when do undergrads not like to stay up late? And they have an observatory available and a pretty dark sky and reasonable temperatures and a lively professor, and they don't want to take advantage of all that? Sheesh, when I was in college, I took Astronomy for Poets just so I could get into the observatory. Rode my bike to the observing sessions (a mile off campus but three from my apartment) in winter, in New England. It was a blast! As were the hot toddies afterwards.

    When do you pull the plug? Speaking as a late bloomer, I'd say you're right to stay encouraging to the undergrads. Can you make it mandatory for each class that they attend a couple of star parties with the amateur group?

    I say pull the plug on unprepared graduate students, and the earlier the better for all involved. With your current crop, would that mean culling almost everyone in your program?

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    1. I do feel like a sergeant whose platoon runs away every time the enemy shows up. If I were to shoot them for cowardice, I'd have to shoot nearly all of them. My administration wouldn't like that.

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    2. Heck, I stayed up to 3am programing in (FSM forbid!) visual basic for two quarters as an unpaid, uninvited (but tolerated because I was willing to work) assistant just to be feel all sciencey.

      And since I contributed to the week when we imaged a MACHO micro-lensing event in the 17th and 18th magnitude and got the same time-line and brightness ratio as the big boys I got to feel very sciencey, indeed.

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  2. Yep, that is an interesting question. One could cooly point out the statistics to them (e. g. "1 in XXX with your entrance credentials go on to finish a graduate degree") but, from what you said, many of them wouldn't be able to interpret the statistics.

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  3. I don't know about pulling the plug one the ones who show up on their own (as you note, that goes against all current trends in higher ed), but is there any way to recruit a better class of students, formal or informal (I know, in your abundant spare time)? On the informal side, I'm thinking retirees (maybe through Osher Lifelong Learning Institute or something similar?), both because they'd be enthusiastic and hardworking themselves (and are reaching a time of life when many people need, and/or can get, less sleep), and because they might become your allies in making the current students shape up, and beating the bushes for other ones. On the formal side, how about all those STEM programs, camps, etc. for elementary and high-schoolers belonging to under-represented groups? Yes, you'll have to deal with more than a few who are along for the ride, but if you get enough pre-college-age kids coming through your observatory (preferably chaperoned for most of the time by someone competent and enthusiastic who *isn't* you -- that's where the retirees, or any decent grad students you've got, and can spare for a few hours, come in), you might just snag a few truly competent and hard-working potential students along the way. Of course, you'd probably end up kissing up to quite a few frogs along the way as well, and wasting a lot of time (both doing the visits and raising money for them), and. . . .

    Still, it seems to me that you have what a lot of us/our departments claim to have, but probably don't -- a rare, if not unique opportunity. The trick is to find people who will truly take advantage of it.

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  5. I've heard the postdoc problem for astronomers is particularly severe among the STEM subjects. I was surprised to learn how long a well-funded astronomer at my school spent as a postdoc.

    If your visiting Yale undergrad could write a nice master's thesis but still struggles as a postdoc, why not pull the plug on all of them? You're doing them a favor, whether they or your administration knows it. Pull the plug as early as possible.

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    1. Pulling the plug on all of them has occurred to me, and in the back of my mind, it isn't a bad idea. I'll get by, continuing to try to teach physics to engineers. Astronomy does generate a lot of public interest in science, though, and I do have a good record with placing students as local K-12 science teachers.

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    2. Then make it clear to any aspiring atronomers that this is their fate: you love sstronomy as a hobby or you use it as a stepping stone to a career as a teacher or other job. You probably do that already but maybe you need to be more explicit.

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    3. I do, but the 18-to-22-year-old mind is astonishingly adept at rationalizing "It won't happen to me," when presented with 1 in 3 or 1 in 4 or 1 in 100 or worse odds, as Harriett points out above.

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  6. It's no different in math.

    I am the advisor of record for about 20 of our UG majors. This experience has made the difference between "math major" and "future mathematician" even clearer. (Even mathematician in the applied, industry or gov't sense). I'd say we have on the order of 60-70 majors at any given time, about 35 graduating each year. Most pick the major by "dropping down", after Engineering or Architecture turns out to be too demanding. The better ones will go to med school, or are engineering or physics double majors. Maybe about three per year (honors students) apply to grad schools in math. More than 60% will use their degree to become a high school teacher, or their uncle has promised them a job at the bank. Sad to say, the teaching-oriented folks often have trouble with one-variable Calculus, and stick to courses like "history of math" or "geometry for teachers".

    Also, if there are "late bloomers" in math, they must be rare. If you haven't shown well above average aptitude and single-minded interest for the subject by age 15, chances of becoming a research mathematician are very low. The reason is that it is a heavily cumulative subject, both in terms of knowing stuff and in training your brain to enjoy operating in certain ways.

    We try very hard to fight the image of math as a "service subject" on campus, but at the UG level that's essentially what it is, at least with our kind of student population. (The top 20 undergraduate programs and top 10 graduate probably produce close to 80% of native-born future researchers). The only upper-div classes that consistently get enough students to run are those who also attract engineering or physics grad students; the "more applied" ones. Pure math classes, even basic ones like complex variable, differential geometry or topology, rarely run these days; so our honors students take graduate courses in these areas. That's possible, since it is typically the first time our own graduate students are seeing those subjects, as a similar process takes place everywhere (beyond the rarefied places where professors come from.)

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    1. Our math majors tend to get jobs and we've sent a few to grad school. And this semester, I am teaching a topology course..the first time I've done this! I've had to scale back my expectations and go at about half the speed I had anticipated though. So far, the students seem to be enjoying it and have mostly made credible efforts on homework problems.

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  7. I was prepared to sympathize and relate some stories about my undergrad physics majors (yea, even in the upper division), but suddenly I'm not feeling so bad anymore.

    Most of mine have forgotten what they learned in the sophomore sequence, but it comes back to them when I sketch the basics on the board (in the middle of my advanced lecture that assume they knew all this), so I am able to go on. And convince myself that this time it will stick because they have a more "real" application to hang the understanding on.

    Alas, I did have one in my office yesterday who reminds me of this post. Not sure what to do with him.

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  8. I've been dealing with plug-pulling issues, too, but for second and third (and sometimes fourth) year undergrads who think they want to be engineers but are still trying to get through trigonometry.

    And I've found a solution for them that relies on an idiosyncrasy of our catalog. You see we have a "Industrial Engineering Technology" department that offers a BA of the same name. It's really a technician's degree and leads to technician jobs, but a few of their graduates get placed in jobs that have the word "engineer" in the title. So I gently suggest that as a "faster way to graduate" for students who are clearly never going to get through a proper engineering curriculum. They still have to pass trig and our two-semester College Physics course, but they don't need calculus or University Physics.

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  9. Why would you ever want to pull the plug when the student wants to continue? If there is one student who is happy to spend 80 years earning a degree and graduate at 98, so be it. People should have the right to make that choice, if that's what makes them happy. Of course, most students will quit or graduate long before that, even if it's later than the moment when you would want to "pull the plug". Why shouldn't they be allowed to persevere or to decide when it's time to move on? If they really are wasting their time, it's their life after all. And their or their family's money, which may be the deciding factor for some of them.

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    1. We are the students' advisors. We must guide them as they choose their classes and post graduate plans. Telling a student that i don't think he will pass my chemistry class isn't the same as not letting him enroll in it.

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    2. other reasones to discourage a student from pursuing a degree have to do with the way universities are measured by accreditation agencies and US News. Having a bunch of students who don't graduate for six years doesn't look good.

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    3. Does it really look much better if they are getting kicked out shortly before reaching the 6-year milestone just so they won't? Even if they did, in fact, have a decent chance of graduating soon after? Those people never graduate. Late graduation is still a better outcome than throwing all that effort and money away. Or, if allowing 6 years is reasonable and the accreditation criteria say nothing about 7, 8 or 9 years, a student who would continue that long might as well be allowed to do it.

      Some universities actually have the option to confer some kind of General Education degree or to create a special program for one student (a professional degree without the practicum that is required for licensing, for example). Students who continue for a really long time deserve, at the very least, such a degree rather than nothing at all. Some universities may end up providing degrees like that instead of expelling students outright. It is true that studying for many years only to get a "General Education" degree or a degree that cannot be used in one's chosen profession is rather disappointing.

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    4. Monica, you can feel free to revamp the accreditation process at any time. Until then, we have to work within the boundaries imposed by our superiors.

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    5. It may not be the advisor's place to tell them "you're not allowed to do this" and certainly not to tell them "you aren't good enough for this", but it is entirely appropriate for the advisor to say things like "if everything went perfectly for you from this semester forward you'd still need six semester to graduate and the federal government is going to stop giving you aid in three" or "given the average salary of bachelor's in this field you don't want to rack up $50k in student debt".

      Seriously, we're there to support them but also to advise them.

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    6. Why would I ever want to pull the plug when the student wants to continue? For the same reason I bang my head against the wall: it feels good when I stop.

      Another way to say that is that this human is not a Vulcan. It's emotionally exhausting to have to teach the same things over and over to the same people, to no apparent effect.

      Another reason is that many of them don't really want to continue. They lack the imagination and resourcefulness to come up with something more worthwhile to do with their lives. Often, when I point out that K-12 science teachers are being hired since they’re in demand, they give me a look like there’s a bad smell in the room.

      More seriously: every now and then, I do get a good student. I spend more than enough time and resources spinning my wheels with the losers, to little or no effect, which would be better spent on the winners.

      By the way, I just found out some good news. I checked up on the former Yale undergrad, and just this year, he did get a job as a NASA staff scientist, at age 35 after 8 years as a postdoc.

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    7. If there are no jobs or the students are obviously not the ones who are likely to get the few available jobs, you might as well give them passing grades and let them graduate. It won't get them jobs they don't deserve but you'll be rid of them and they'll be rid of you and they'll stop wasting time and money. If they were to become nurses, doctors or engineers and somebody hired them, that would be different.

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    8. No. I should not just give them a grade (and effectively a credential) they haven't earned. That would harm all our graduate (past, present and future) who did earn the grades and the sheepskin.

      Why do I even have to type this?

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    9. As little as one generation ago, what we did in cases like these was to give them failing grades, precisely so they wouldn't graduate, at least not with a major in our field. It was highly effective at preventing them from getting jobs they didn’t deserve. This would often get rid of them, and they’d be rid of me. It would also prevent them from wasting time and money, at least in the long run, since if they wanted a college degree, they’d have to major in something else. Selected carefully, it might be something they could do.

      I think we need to be honest about failure. One reason is that engineering is indeed where many mediocre students turn, when they realize how demanding I can be. They also turn to our medical physics group, who train students to use MRI scanners, ultrasound, and X-rays to see what’s inside medical patients, without having to cut into them. I cringe at both prospects.

      Nowadays, of course, faculty dare not even tell students to “Do your own homework,” since we will be yelled at by parents and administrators for damaging their children for life. One effect of this is to encourage them to remain children, for life. College used to be considered a good place to “find yourself,” for students who didn’t know what to do with their lives. So much for that now, with college costs so out of control, thanks again to administrators.

      Thanks to all your comments, gentle CMers, I have decided to do what good scientists are supposed to do when an experiment disagrees with theory: go back to “the old drawing board” and re-examine my ideas from the beginning. What I am going to change is something I mentioned on the very first line: I will stop letting my conscience bother me about this.

      I am reasonably sure I’m doing close to the best job I possibly can. I do provide opportunity, and I need to keep providing it, patiently, since every now and then I do get a victory. Pulling the plug on all of them is still a possibility, but it should be considered the nuclear option.

      (I may get to exercise the nuclear option sooner than I was hoping. My department colleagues are talking mutiny, to get our not-very-forthright department Chair to step down. THAT’LL be an adventure. I’ve served as Chair before, but I was wanting to get more research done this semester, dammit. I’ll let you know how this goes, as it progresses.)

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  10. When I was 14, I loved the sig figs. How can grad students not get it?

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    1. They didn't have the gracious southern upbringing you and I had, Bubba.

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  11. This was a very good topic, and as an advisor I am confronted with it all the time. A student walks into my office, having recently declared a math major; I look at his/her transcript and...Cs in first-year Calculus. No evidence of even average aptitude for the subject. I ask them `why?' And the answer is some version of `couldn't think of anything else'. What that means is they can't write, so humanities are out. Can't do labs, so forget science. And engineering is too hard for them. That leaves...math? What do you plan to do after you graduate? `Uh, teach'.

    So often I feel like saying: `pick another major, this isn't for you'. But we don't have that authority, of course. Also, if we did cut off all the clearly incompetent, that would reduce the number of majors by about two-thirds. That means: no more upper-division math classes (they don't run with less than 12), except for those that engineers need to take. You can't run a major based on honors-type students (too few of them here), and we don't want to become officially a pure service department, and teach lower-division pseudo-math forever. So we accept all comers, and there is pressure to let most of them get by with a C, graduate and get out the door. The entire experience is meaningless for all involved, a waste of money and time. And nobody talks about it (except here.)

    Aaahh, a morning rant with my cereal...feels good.

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