Wednesday, June 22, 2016

Doing research with so-so students, by Froderick Frankenstien from Fresno

Since at least the early 1990s, many universities have recognized the value in involving undergraduates in research. At my university, several provosts and presidents have praised my physics department, because we have several active research programs that involve many students, despite our being a small department. I'll admit that involvement in research can benefit undergraduates: it make all the difference we me, as an undergraduate. Research gives undergraduates face-to-face interaction with faculty, useful for getting letters of recommendation. It also gives them practical experience and skills, also useful for finding jobs upon graduation. Perhaps most importantly, it inspires students to dream, by showing them how what they're learning in class is useful. 

Nevertheless, as Peter Feibelman points out in "A Ph.D. Is Not Enough," "Only some of your graduate students will really contribute to your research. Others will break your equipment, contaminate your samples, and install bugs in your computer programs." Undergraduates are harder to mentor in research, since they know less.

It's even harder at my less-selective university. Our best graduating seniors have a tough time scoring above the 50th percentile on the GRE physics exam, the minimum that many R1 universities consider for admission to their graduate programs. My best student in the past 15 years scored in the 65th percentile, which got her into a good, but not great program. Some of our students score in the single digits, but the most recent student who did so is now happily developing automation systems for an aerospace company.

Still, mentoring many of our more typical students has taught me a lot. It includes:

- Never once have I had a research student who pulled their own weight. Every last one of them, even the best I get, has been more work for me to mentor them to do a research project than just doing the project myself. It's not unusual for this ratio to exceed 5 to 1, or even 10 to 1. It's been a while since I've had a student who achieved nothing at all: maybe it indicates I've been getting better at mentoring, since instituting weekly research meetings as well as weekly journal club with all the students working for me together. Still, for cases like these, I suppose the ratio would be infinity to 1.

- Only very rare cases can program a computer, in any language, at all. This means that only some projects are doable.  We can analyze samples of 100 or even 1,000 objects, but the latest, computer-generated samples of 60,000 are out of the question. My only hope is that R1 researchers will see our papers, wonder why we can't do what we really should be doing, and then do it themselves, with their superior resources.

- I give my students lots of credit for writing things that I mostly wrote. It's not unusual for an M.S. thesis I've mentored to be about 80% written by me. I was more idealistic with my first M.S. student, holding him to the standard I was held to in grad school, and the resulting draft was embarrassing: it took him two semesters to do something a colleague of mine at Yale figures out in 15 minutes. So, before submitting the thesis formally,I redid a lot of the writing, and I continue to do lots of writing for my other students. I do have them write a preliminary draft, but it's rare for any page of it not to require substantial revisions, by me. I wouldn't be so generous with my students if I didn't have tenure.

- Every university administrator of course wants me to bring in as much external funding as possible. I'd admit it can be handy for running a research program: who do you think pays for all the travel around the world, to get data, and to conferences, to show off results? Still, my conscience bothers me sometimes.  Frankly, I don't think involving students of this caliber in research is a very effective use of taxpayers' dollars. This is why, whenever a student asks to do a research project with me, during the first semester I always pay them with academic credit, not from a grant. Students who do work out and get to be paid from grants nevertheless still need to be carefully watched. I've also had no shortage of students who are dishonest with filling out their time sheets, by claiming they'd put in substantial hours immediately after telling me they have nothing to report.

- Projects can get dragged out for many years. It took me eight years to get three so-so students to complete a project that should have taken a good one, or me, three years to complete. Still, I did publish it in a refereed journal, with all the students listed as co-authors, much to the pleasure of my administration, and all these students went on to good jobs, two in nuclear power and another for the government.

- Never have even my best students put heart and soul into research, the way I was when I was an undergrad. What they give me is almost always not that much different from term papers by undergraduate non-majors in my general-ed class: really, what they think is the least they can get by with.

- Some of my students have subsequently gone to grad programs, usually in low-tier programs. What usually happens is that they get used for a year or two as cheap labor to run labs, and then bounced out by qualifying exams. They subsequently go on to a not-bad record of getting jobs in K-14 teaching. 

- My best students always seem to be busy with something other than what I have for them, such as maintaining their GPAs. When these same students take my classes, they get `A's, but again, only by doing the absolute least they need for it. It's never anything near 100%, in the way I often impressed my elders since I was in Kindergarten. I was often asked, "How come you know all this?" I'd answer, "Reading."

- There are many projects that students can't help with at all. Some of these are left over from my postdoc days, receding into the ever-more distant past.  I hope I can turn them into papers published in refereed journals during an upcoming sabbatical, but some of them are getting old enough to worry me whether the science won't have become beside the point.

- Half-baked ideas about what specific research to do, and how exactly to do it, won't work with my students. A symptom of having been helicopter parented is when students expect you to micromanage them. For such students to be productive at all, I have little choice but to micromanage them: refusing to do so and insisting it's "not my problem: do your own homework," the way I was told when I was a student, simply will not work. Every time I have I mentored exceeding mediocre students in research, they always get tangled in something, requiring me to cut them loose. To be fair, students can't read your mind. You will need to have something specific planned, since expecting students to have ideas, use their imaginations, take the initiative, read the manual, think creatively, etc., the way Henry Moseley did for Rutherford, the way good scientists do when making good scientific progress, is expecting a bit much. No, we have to work lower on Bloom's taxonomy.

After all this, you may wonder: why don't I just give up? I get paid the same whether or not I do research, as too much tenured deadwood in my department so amply demonstrate.

The answer is that, at least, it keeps ME active. With my 4/4 teaching load, which whenever I request release time to make it 4/3 I feel like Oliver Twist with his bowl out, it would be easy to allow teaching to consume 100% of my time.

What university professors know quickly gets out of date, if they don't stay active in research. My undergraduate education was badly marred by old proffies who were abusing their tenure and coasting to retirement. They hadn't done any research in 20 years, and taught us a whole bunch of stuff that was out of date, such as how to develop photographic plates.

Research is especially valuable to the few of my students who do go on to graduate programs in my field. It is also valuable to the many of my students who don't, particularly the ones going into K-14 teaching. It does help them to have some experience of what it is that scientists do. Also, everyone around me says they like what I do. So, I keep at it.

- Froderick Frankenstien from Fresno


  1. I don't have anything like your depth of experience but I can speak to many of these points.

    - Not pulling their own weight. Check. But I had mentored young grad students and REU students as a post-doc so I knew that was coming. A five-to-one ratio is not only believable, but suggests that you're doing something right. My rule of thumb from when I was a senior post-doc and kept getting handed students to bring up was that a research ready student will be a net loss for the first summer, and should be a positive contribution by the time the next summer rolls around. But how long does it take a undergrad to put in the kind of work a graduate RA does in a year? I've never found out, and it is their eventual grad schools and employers who benefit from my efforts to train them.

    - Abysmal lack of programing skills. Check. And our "computer information science" department doesn't help. The intro programing courses are designed to turn-out second-rate database administers and web monkey; they're no use for students in math or the physical sciences at all. (Seriously. They don't do arrays in the first semester! I still can't fathom that.) I've had a project waiting for a student with the programing skills to do it for two years now.

    - They need a lot of support in writing. Check. When a "research student" turns in a paper that makes me say "Holy Discovery Channel documentary, Batman!" you know it is going to be a long project to whip the paper into shape.

    - Taking too long. Check. But that is to be expected at my place because nine out of ten of our students work (most of them full time or nearly so).

    - I've actually been lucky enough to get a little soul-felt effort from time to time, but only with a deadline looming. They are just too busy for it to be continuous.

    - I've only had one research student and three others apply for grad school so far. The research student got into a good industry-supported arrangement at a third tier Ph.D. program. She'll never be an academic, but she'll probably get to do R&D when all is said and done and that's what she wants. None of the rest got in at all, though one landed a job that is now (18 months later) sending him to a graduate program for their own purposes.

    - GRE subject exam. One student took it. Twice. Lowest quintile both times.

    - Independence. Mine need close supervision at the start, but eventually they do start bringing me ideas for new avenues and invesitgation. Mostly the ideas are pretty bad, but at least they're putting their creativity to work; by the time we've hashed a few over in detail they are starting to learn how to spot the real stinkers for themselves. I'm actually optimistic that the students I send out of here won't be the cause of hair-loss in their inaugural workplaces. But maybe I'm just naive.

    - Minimum effort. Yep. In spades. Though the one that got into grad school came to be about six weeks before graduation and said "You know all those time you said we really needed to do the reading? I tried it this semester and it actually works!" Despair and elation are a strange combination of emotions.

    So why do I struggle to do this? Three reasons.

    First, it does help the students. Second when the students get internships with local industrial concerns it helps them impress their bosses so those companies come looking for more interns, which helps more students and the reputation (such as it is) of our department and university. Finally, I have a lot of emotional energy wrapped up in my identity as a researcher, and I don't want to give it up completely not withstanding my 12 credit hour per term teaching load.

  2. I and my colleagues have problems similar if not identical to these. Well, mostly THEY do, because my research career has been winding down and I can't get enough time near a lab even to mentor a student project. So I collaborate a lot and experience it at thesis committee meetings, lab meetings, and in the run up to defenses when I have to read the drafts. Oh. Oh. The writing. I need a drink just thinking about it.

    My standards have shifted over the years. I used to demand publication-quality writing, and I used to force them to rewrite till it got there. Many burned-out red pens later, I became better at seeing the substance through the style, and I relaxed on the latter. My present standard is not "I could submit this to a reputable journal" but "I could rewrite this and submit it to a reputable journal." Yes, we get first drafts that are so incomprehensible that they would need to be rewritten to even be rejected. No, I will not rewrite their thesis just to deposit it with the library; nobody will read it anyway. But I will (and do) rewrite for the pub.

    Students are definitely an investment, and looking at work output alone, the return is negative. Where it becomes positive is indirectly, in at least two areas:

    1) Students at least bring some new energy into the lab, inasmuch as the dynamic changes every year as students rotate in and out. While a new student is working up a proposal, you can dare to dream of possibilities, which is a nice counterpoint to the dashed expectations you hold for the student who is struggling to finish.

    2) Since admin doesn't give a fuck about your research (or anything else about you) except for the dollars it brings in, the fact that students bring in dollars can be spun to your advantage. For example, when admin tries to stick you on yet another soul-sucking committee, you can respond "I'd like to help with that, but I'm already at a lack for time mentoring my students as it is, and I wouldn't want to harm our time-to-completion published on the website, and YOU KNOW THEY'RE PAYING TO BE HERE."

    OK, I've got to go prep for a committee meeting. The irony of my advising colleagues to practice #2 above is that I am less able to.

  3. Froderick, although I admire your efforts and your commitment to mentoring students, I wonder if you are doing them--and our society--no favors in the long run. I'm not sure what the alternative would be, though. Clearly, these students would just disappear if you did shift your expectations upward. I think we're all kinda screwed if these "children are the future." On the bright side, since they have no idea how to lead or manage or take initiative, their own kids should be a lot more self-sufficient and resilient. Or maybe they'll be even more incompetent.

    1. We can always hope they get better, which certainly won't happen if I give up. But yes, when our new dean starts to press me to bring in more external funding, I am going to point out that we are sitting at the kiddie table.

    2. It absolutely sounds like they are better prepared than they would have been because of your heroic efforts (and I mean that sincerely). Here's the question: Do they suddenly become self-sufficient self-starters once they enter the workforce, or are their bosses having to invest the same kind of time and energy that you did.

    3. One can also hope that they at least come away with greater insight into how knowledge is made, even if they don't reach anything resembling competence at making it themselves. That *might* inoculate them, just a bit, against hucksters, demagogues, et al.

      At least one can hope. . . .

    4. Few to none of them appear to have chronic unemployment problems. Many of them attend our annual physics graduation dinner, and seem cheerful enough. Of course, almost none remain in professional astronomy for more than a couple years after they finish with me: most wind up in K-14 teaching, or energy or other industries. I suppose, then, that what I do does help---but jeez Louise, it wasn't what I signed up for.

    5. I'm not doing what I signed up for. But I still feel, much of the time, that I'm doing what I was prepared for. Between the minor and major annoyances comes a certain satisfaction.

      So your trainees don't stay in the field. But the fields they wind up in... they're good ones, yes? They make headway, and some of them incite passion for seeking to know in at least some students, correct? It is enough, more than many could claim.

  4. Frod, you're kind of prolific today. How are we going to kill the site if you create interesting, original content for it? Did someone sneak amphetamines into your Cheerios this morning?

  5. As you can see from the quality of the typing, Bubba, there was no sneaking.

    1. So you're saying you were fully aware of the additive?

  6. Let's just say I picked a bad day to quit sniffing glue.

  7. I've enjoyed Frod week (sort of like shark week, but with fewer teeth and more staples).

  8. Hey, Frode, yer rippin' it up with that misery. I was a little shocked by this line: "It's not unusual for an M.S. thesis I've mentored to be about 80% written by me." Pardon my French, sir, but what the fuck? Let the punks tank. I cannot imagine for one second having/letting my thesis committee write even one word of what I finally turned in. Seriously, Frode, put down the glue. If they can't write a decent thesis, they don't get a degree. The world doesn't need a bunch of unqualified graduates out there mucking up the works. Flunk, man, flunk!

    1. The problem with this approach is that I'd have to flunk every last one of them, and no science would get done. Don't worry, their GRE scores keep them from mucking up the works. See also the last four paragraphs, on: Why don't I just give up?

    2. It's much like being the sergeant of a platoon that runs away every time the enemy is sighted: if I were to shoot them for cowardice, I'd have to shoot all of them. My admin wouldn't like that. If you want a really disturbing thought, remember: most of them wind up as K-14 teachers, and they are highly regarded here in Fresno!