Expectations (of graduate students and supervisors)

I have been running a research laboratory for close to 15 years, and I’m ashamed to say that I have not written down, formally, my expectations* of graduate students and their expectations of me. I regret this, especially since there are amazing resources out there to help with this discussion. I would argue that differing levels of expectation is probably a key source of conflict in research laboratories, and having a solid agreement between graduate students and supervisors is key for success.

Here is some context for my laboratory: I run a mid-sized laboratory (currently with three MSc and three PhD students and two undergraduate Honour’s students), focused on studying arthropod ecology.  As a Professor, my job involves teaching, research and administration. When running my research laboratory, the three tasks overlap – for example, I’m a lab ‘administrator’ in some ways, including ordering supplies, dealing with budgets, working on policies related to laboratory safety. I am also a researcher – perhaps doing research directly**, and certainly helping students with their research, from project design, to field logistics, analyses, and writing and editing manuscripts. I am also a teacher, and supervision involves different kinds of teaching, from leading lab meetings, teaching graduate-level classes, to taking parts in scientific debates, and sharing interesting literature. I assume my graduate students see my ‘roles’ as being varied, and sometimes fuzzy, because they really are! In recent years, my administrative duties at the University have increased, so I’m certainly not in the lab as much as I used to be, which can be tricky for everyone.

After a terrific laboratory meeting about expectations, my students pointed out that a lot of what is written below can be considered more as a philosophy about supervision, graduate school, and running a laboratory. This is quite true, and valid, but I think there are some concrete expectations that emerge from some of the bullet points, and the more vague and intangible expectations are a good starting point to the development of formal agreements with graduate students. With this in mind, I have agreed to work with my students (individually) to develop a “student-specific” document to outline a plan for meetings, communications, timelines, research priorities; that kind of living document will be a way to formalize specific expectations, plans, and contingencies when things don’t go as planned – such a document can give weight to the broader ideas around expectations, and allow for accountability (as that document develops, I’ll be sure to share a draft form on this blog).

For now… let’s get into some of the ideas around my expectations of graduate students, and their expectations of a supervisor.

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A lab environment… should be a team environment!

As a supervisor, my expectations for my graduate students are as follows:

  • Celebrate diversity, be respectful, be honest, and be ethical.
  • Be part of the team: I expect my students to be engaged and active members of the lab. This includes taking part in laboratory meetings, and being responsive to activities in the laboratory. This could include showing up for lab clean-up days, replying to emails related to lab events and activities, and generally working to be an integral and important member of the lab.
  • Be productive: graduate school is a full-time endeavour, but being productive in work does not necessarily mean working unreasonable hours; being productive is about working well. It’s about quality, not quantity. I do not expect my students to be in the lab all the time; if work is progressing well, and students are reading for comprehensive exams, or have other tasks that don’t require them to be physically present, it’s quite fine that students are not in the lab during regular working hours. However, at other times (e.g., when there is a lot of microscope work required), I do expect to see students in the lab on a more regular basis. I do not count hours, but if productively is not where I would like it to be, we will have a discussion about this, and determine ways to see that work is being done well. Related to this, I do hope that my students to have a life outside of graduate school and that ‘work-life-balance’ is happening, and hopefully this helps promote wellbeing.
  • Communicate: I expect my students to communicate with me, on a regular basis. I will discuss the importance of this at the start of the program, and establish a system that works for both of us. Communication includes (most importantly) keeping me in the loop on their project development, but also around issues they are facing, complications with their work, and certainly about their schedules (e.g., if they will be away for extended periods of time). I need to know when things are not going well – otherwise things can go off the rails rather quickly – being proactive on communications is essential.
  • Develop a research project: a core part of graduate school is developing a research project. I expect my students to do this, with me. The project will likely be a mix of my ideas and their ideas, done with knowledge of literature and ideas, from the broader scientific community. I expect PhD students to develop their project with less input from me (as compared to MSc project development)
  • Keep research as a priority: although I’m very keen on science communication, and outreach, and keen to have students that are engaged in many parts of the graduate student experience, at the end of the day, the research is a priority. “Keeping an eye on the ball” is important, as we are all working with limited resources (mostly time and money!), and the reason students are doing a thesis-based MSc or PhD is because there is an interest and passion for the research, and the current path involves this research-intensive stage. It must be the overarching priority.
  • Be organized: I expect students to be organized; successful students students use an agenda, plan ahead, and think ahead. I expect them to come to meetings with the appropriate documents (prepared and forwarded ahead of time) and with questions prepared. Being organized is a key step towards effective time management and that is essential for success in graduate school (and beyond!).
  • Apply for funding when appropriate: I will do my best to find funding for research, but at the same time, I expect my students to be on the lookout for any funding opportunities relevant to their program, whether it’s applying to a fellowship to get them through their final year, or applying for funds to offset costs for attending conferences.
  • Be responsible for the program: I am well aware of many deadlines, and overall program requirements, but it’s also the responsibility of students to know what courses they need to take, and when to take them. Being aware of deadlines is essential for supervisors and students.
  • Finish on time: I expect MSc students to finish in under two years, and PhD students to take around 4 years*** to complete all degree requirements. There may be exceptions to this, but these should be rare, and should be discussed well in advance. My role as academic guide is to help students through the program, and help design projects that are feasible within the time limits mentioned; the students are also responsible for trying to reach these deadlines and communicating when they cannot. I am a very strong believer in avoiding ‘extended’ MSc or PhD programs: it is seldom a good idea.
  • Publish: While I provide opportunities for joint-authorship with my students, I expect my students to publish their main thesis chapters, in suitable peer-reviewed journals. Ideally, (some of?) these publications should be submitted before the student graduates, or at least within a reasonable time frame after graduation. For me, this time frame is certainly within a year of graduating. I expect to be a co-author on papers that originate from a student’s thesis work, provided I have earned that authorship.
  • Be responsible for data: I expect my students to have good data management procedures, and any field books or raw data sheets be copied regularly. I expect data-back up to be happening on a regular basis. I also expect all data files will be submitted to me at the time a student graduates.
  • Collaborate and mentor: I model a collaborative research approach and expect my students to share what they are doing with each other, and work collaboratively whenever possible. I expect my more senior graduate students to mentor more junior members of the lab. I expect my students to seize opportunities to collaborate with other students (provided it complements their own research, and doesn’t distract too much from their own research!)
  • Read: Reading narrowly and broadly will help students become better scientists. I expect my graduate students to be aware of broader happenings in science, as well as the specifics related to their projects.
  • Do #SciComm: Communicating science is a central skill for scientists. I will give students opportunities to go to conferences and I expect my students to present their work at these conferences, and to spend time and energy on developing effective science communication skills. 
  • Be independent: I expect my graduate student to be independent. I’m a busy person, and I’m not in the lab all that much. I travel, teach and have a bazillion meetings to attend. Therefore, my students need to be able to work independently. I will not micro-manage; I will not be a ‘helicopter supervisor’. I’m hands-off, much of the time, although I will be available and accessible as needed.
  • Be creative, take risks, have fun: Graduate school is a wonderful time in a career, and I certainly do my best to create an interesting work environment for my students. I hope this is an environment that will allow for students to feel comfortable being creative and taking risks. Also expect there to be ‘play’ and ‘work’ and that in many cases, the lines between the two will blur.

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Being a supervisor can be like setting out pylons in a construction zone.

Here is what I will try to provide to my graduate students – this is what I perceive to be their expectations of me (note: my current students helped with this section):

  • Celebrate diversity, be respectful, be honest, and be ethical.
  • uphold and transmit the highest professional standards of research and scholarship” (that one comes straight from my University)
  • Be supportive and human: I will develop a working relationship with students that will be based on the philosophy of being a good human! This means being supportive of my students, and to be there when they need me. A supervisor’s role is certainly to give advice (even long after graduation), and be a person they can depend on. I will strive to be compassionate, patient and empathetic. I recognize that everyone has ups and downs, and will have dark days as well as bright times: I will be supportive through all of this, and will work with my students to help them through their program, despite the challenges that will be thrown their way.
  • Be available: related to the previous point, I will be available to my students. I recognize this is a struggle at times, but when a student needs a meeting, I will help make this happen. I will answer emails, and meet face-to-face as necessary. They will know about my schedule, so it’s no surprise if I’m away on vacation, or otherwise unavailable. (as an aside: this is something I have to work on, and increasing face-time with my graduate students will be a priority going forward)
  • Communicate: I will do my best to have open communications with my students, from laboratory happenings, progress on research, troubleshooting, or just basic planning. The communication may be via different types of media (e.g., social media, emails or phone calls) but regardless, I will communicate.
  • Compromise: when discussing this document with my students, we talked about the power imbalance in Academia. It’s important to be honest about this power imbalance, recognize it’s there, and understand the stress it can put on students. Conflict can arise in part because of different priorities of students compared to a supervisor: for example, a supervisor may see a short-term gain by having another publication, whereas a student may need to devote some time to professional development activities, and see that ‘critical’ publication as being less time sensitive. This is further confounded by the power imbalance; therefore, a supervisor needs to be willing to see these differing priorities, in the context of potential power imbalance, and be willing to compromise.
  • Take the feedback: A supervisor has to be willing to be criticized, and be willing and open to comments from students. This becomes especially relevant when there are agreed-upon expectations!
  • Edit: A key role of a supervisor is to read and edit manuscripts, proposals, thesis chapters, etc. I will try to provide timely feedback on written materials. The definition of ‘timely’ is difficult to pin down, but optimally this will be within a 2 week window, provided there is advance notice and planning.
  • Provide funding: I will provide adequate support for research activities, from helping fund research assistants for the summer, to making sure students are not out-of-pocket for airline tickets or field supplies. My job is to make sure research can happen, and a big part of this is funding. We need open communication about funding, from the start, so that my students are supported, financially, in all parts of their work.
  • Help navigate graduate school: a supervisor has to help establish a research project, set-up committee meetings (help fill out the relevant forms), organize comprehensive examinations, sort out potential examiners for a PhD defense, and have good working knowledge about the policies and procedures at the University around graduate school. Although the program is ultimately a student’s responsibility, a supervisor has a key role to play in navigating the program. I will try to be organized on these tasks.
  • Leverage my network: Whenever possible, I will use my own contacts and network to help my students. At times, it may be necessary for students to get in touch with experts outside of their own network, and I will facilitate this as much as possible.
  • Help get jobs: I know my students, care about them, and recognize they will pass through the lab on the way to a career. I have a responsibility to help them with this transition, and as such a supervisor needs to be ready to write letters of reference for students (even at the last minute!), and send interesting job opportunities their way.
  • Troubleshoot: I will be there to help troubleshoot, whether it is issues with a collaborator or fellow graduate student, or laboratory equipment failure. I will make sure most stuff works and model steps to problem solving.
  • Provide a safe laboratory environment: I will provide a safe work environment by following the standards put in place by my University. I will ensure there is adequate training, dissemination of policy, and good practice. I will work with my University and my students to make sure any problems are dealt with in a timely fashion.
  • Space and supplies: I will work to make sure students have the physical space they need in the lab, and the equipment they need, from IT support to insect pins.
  • Send students to conferences: I will send students to conferences, and pay for these (in part****). For MSc students, this may be 1-2 conferences over the course of their degree, and these will likely be national-level conferences relevant to their field of study. For PhD students, this should include at least one international conference, preferably towards the end of their degree.
  • Sign stuff: I will sign stuff for my students, whether it is expense reports, or forms for scholarships.
  • Put out pylons: although I expect my students to be mostly independent researchers, this model does not apply to all students, and problems will occur. When necessary, I will play a more active role in direct supervision, have weekly meetings as necessary, and work in a more ‘hands-on’ manner with students. I like to see a supervisor’s role as one that involves setting up pylons in a construction zone: ideally a student can navigate this zone with just a few pylons, placed here and there, and I will help facilitate a route through the zone with as few pylons as possible. At times, however, more pylons are needed, perhaps placed closer together, and navigating through a graduate program may require more help for some students. Creating a laboratory environment in which it’s safe to take risks, and safe to fail now and then, is also important, so at times, veering into the construction zone is fine, and I may not stop a student, but I will help to find a way out.

I realize this is long-winded, and detailed, but it needs to be. Expectations are drivers of success in graduate school, and essential for good supervisor-student relationships. I encourage other Academics to develop this kind of document, and have this discussion with students, before they come to your lab, when they start, and during the program. It will benefit everyone.

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* To be clear, I certainly have discussions with students about expectations, but talking about it isn’t as good as having it stated more explicitly in written form.

** I don’t “do” all that much direct research anymore; although I try to get out in the field with my students, and certainly edit/write manuscripts, my research is not mostly at arm’s length to my students. I have traded field work for a desk job… 

*** Time for completion for PhD programs are more variable, and they should be. When I state ‘4 years’, it’s much more of a goal than a reality. However, I feel strongly that there are very few reasons why a MSc should take more than 2 years, from start to finish.

**** Funding for conferences will not come out of a student’s own pocket, but I do expect students to apply for relevant travel funds, or for departmental funding, to help offset costs to my research grants.

Goodbye chalkboard! The opportunities and challenges of teaching in an active learning classroom

This year I have the pleasure of teaching my Population and Community Ecology class in one of McGill’s Active Learning Classrooms – this one is touted as been quite exceptional, and I’m keen to put it to the test. Over the past 4-5 years, I have been teaching my quantitative ecology course almost entirely with chalk. In fact, I have actively argued about the value of teaching with chalk, and about a move away from technology can be beneficial to student learning, to my own teaching, and overall a very positive experience for all. Now I’ll be faced with this kind of environment when teaching my class:

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A view of two of the group tables in the Macdonald Campus active learning classroom; each “pod” seats 12 students (in three wings), and each is colour coded, and linked and adjacent to a screen and whiteboard

So why change?

One problem with the Chalkboard it that it doesn’t easily allow for ‘capturing’ the content from the board. Students need to write their own notes (which is good, in my opinion), but at times there may be specific equations, graphs, or other content from the board that they wished they could have captured, but failed to do so. The Active Learning classroom allows an easy way to overcome this – as the tablet/screen that is in the room has a smart pen, and acts like a chalkboard (or, rather, kind of like a smartboard, except that the instructor uses the screen at the podium in the middle of the room). I can therefore project this board, and teach as if I was using chalk, and everything I write is projected on one of the screens. The big benefit here is that I can save everything I write as a PDF (or other file type), and upload the notes to the online course management system. This approach still encourages students to come to class and take notes, but doesn’t put them in a position to rush with notetaking, and live in fear of missing something that I write on the board. Here’s an example from the first lecture (it’s a bit clunky, and I’m not used to writing on the screen yet, but hopefully will get more seamless as the term progresses):
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Another great benefit of the classroom is that it allows a second screen to be projected simultaneously as the first screen – I am thinking of primarily using this second screen to project graphs or equations directly from the textbook, through the use of a very high quality document camera. This saves me from having to hand-draw graphs (I do this very, very poorly – drawing straight lines is NOT easy!), and will allow the students to see the very direct ways that the content relates to the course’s textbook. This photo below shows how this looks: in that example the textbook cover is projected on the left screen and some ice-breaking questions are presented on the right-hand screen.

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I have been trying to transition my course into more of an active learning course, and set an active learning challenge last year. Overall I felt this was very beneficial, but the traditional lecture theatre (where I have taught in the past) is not conducive to active group work and student collaboration. I’m excited that the active learning classroom is ideally set up for this: the 84 students in the class sit at seven separate tables, each with 12 students, and the tables are designed into three wings of four students each. This is optimal for group work, and provides many opportunities for different sizes of groups. Next to each table is a whiteboard and screen, and each table can project (independently) onto their screen. Students then have many options to collaborate and work on problems. I’m excited about this, and look forward to having groups of students work on problems together, collaboratively. The interesting thing about this space is that it doesn’t seem that big, yet is a classroom that holds 84 students! It’s also designed so that the noise level isn’t overwhelming when students are working in groups.

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Students writing out ideas/answers to some questions, with their groups (from two different groups – notice the different colours?)

During the first lecture last week, I asked students how many of them had previously taken classes in the Active Learning classroom, and of those that did, many stated they did not enjoy the classroom. A little more discussion revealed that the students who disliked the classroom said their instructor used the room as a traditional lecture hall, and taught with powerpoint slides, from a podium. This clearly doesn’t work – the podium is in the middle, there are multiple screens (students say they are confused about where to look), and there are pillars that run right through the classroom (unavoidable since these are support pillars – and the classroom is in a basement); the ‘feel’ of the room, when used for traditional podium lectures, is all wrong. To use an Active Learning classroom means moving away from a podium-style lecture.

I certainly have a challenge ahead: in order to fully use the classroom’s potential, and make it engaging for the students, I have to ensure the technology and space is used properly. I’m only at the very start of term, so I will certainly report back on the experiences as the course unfolds. That being said, the combination of the technology and design is really promising for an active learning environment for my ecology class. It may just lead to the abandonment of chalk for a smart pen…

Course outlines and student assessment methods now available for EVERYONE

I send around my course outlines, assessment details, and grading rubrics to a lot of people. Sharing these kinds of documents helps me get feedback from my peers/colleagues about ways to improve my courses or assessment methods, in turn improving the course. And my peers/colleagues may learn some ideas from me, and try new things in their own courses. I think it’s also rather useful for students to be able to access details about the courses I teach. This can help students decide whether or not to take my courses, or helps them best understand the style of assessments that I use in my classes.

Instead of emailing these documents around to people, I’ve decided to share them publicly on Google Drive*. I’ve made my course outlines from the last offerings of my two main undergraduate courses, St Lawrence Ecosystems, and Population and Community Ecology.

St Lawrence Ecosystems is a field biology course, with a deep focus on “natural history and its observation”, done via research projects (with significant science communication components), and with assessments such as natural history field journals.

Population and Community Ecology is a quantitative ecology course, with a strong focus on modeling, and I use many active learning techniques in the course. For the past few years I’ve also done a very enjoyable pod-cast assignment in the class.

Please feel free to read, discuss, and give me feedback about the course outlines and the assignment details (with rubrics). I’d love to hear the ways these may be helpful to you, and I’m always keen to hear how other people are teaching their classes too!

*I’ve now also created a resource page for this  blog, with access to this Google Drive

How are you doing? Perhaps not “fine”?

When asked “how are you”, many people give a default answer of “fine”. Although that may be true a lot of the time, I worry that not everyone is “fine” all of the time. In my experience, this is especially true at this time of year: the late autumn can be tough on a lot of people, as the semester is no longer new and exciting, and the dark days of November* are ahead.

I’m involved with a lot of initiatives on campus around ‘wellness’ of our community, from mental and physical health, through to trying to best understand our campus resources, and think about ways we can be proactive around well-being. Part of my goal is to increase awareness of services and resources available to everyone, and to ‘check in’ with people as we enter a difficult time of year.

I decided to write a letter to our community, but a member of our communications team suggested a video message may also help to increase awareness. So, here’s the video. It’s low-tech and done without a script, but perhaps the message is relevant to your own community. Please share if that’s the case.

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*I personally find November rather tough. A few years ago my amazing and insightful wife suggested I take a photo every day in November, to explore the beauty that the month has to offer. That helped me a lot, and I’m immensely grateful for her suggestion to see beyond the dreariness to embrace colour and texture. Honestly, I think that project helped me with my own mental health, and I no longer dread November to the same degree.

 

Questions from grad students: on stress, being a generalist, and publishing

I was recently invited down to the Arkansas to be a “student-selected” speaker for their entomology Department. Their graduate students decide on someone to invite down to Fayetteville, and the honouree gets to visit that lovely part of the world, meet with grad students and professors in the Department, and give a seminar. It was a fabulous trip, and it was incredibly special to be recognized by graduate students. Thank you!

Quite a lot of my discussions with students ended up focusing on career development, pressures of the tenure-track run, and professional development. The students asked great questions, so great that I thought I would post them here, with some responses. (Surely other people will have better advice than what I have written, and please comment if you are so inclined!)

So many professors I know are always so stressed. How do you avoid burn-out, and why would anyone want to be a prof since it takes a real toll!

Indeed, there are days when the work is stressful, and pressures of the tenure run can be really tough. Grant writing, learning to run a lab, teaching and supervising all happen at the same time. Even after 14 years as a Prof, the stress can remain and still rears its ugly head. The job doesn’t get easier or stress-free over time.

I know this seems somewhat counter-intuitive at first, but for me, the best way to reduce work-related stress is to not work too much. You do not need to work 80 hrs a week to succeed in Academia, and finding balance between work and life is critically important. Even if you *love* everything about your research, take time away from it. Real time. Proper weekends. Find hobbies or activities that take your mind and body to somewhere else, whether it’s playing the ukulele or learning to bake. Making time for exercise is important too. A healthy body really does help with work productivity and lets you get a little distance.

The work will always be there. No matter how hard you try to get ahead on a project, the next task or project will be waiting for you. Nagging you and calling you name… Don’t give in!

This relates very much to the overwhelming urge to be a perfectionist, and do *everything* at an unattainable level. This must be jettisoned. Now. When you start to work a little less, you will actually start an important process of prioritizing and leaning the skill of time management. With less time at work, you will get more efficient with the time you do spend at work!

Why would anyone want to be a stressed-out Prof? Well… It remains a rather amazing job, and if that’s your career goal, go for it! But it doesn’t have to be a career goal, and we need to all do a better job at recognizing and valuing PhD career paths outside of higher education (check this out about “life after Academia“). Regardless, however, leaning how to manage stress and time are a part of the work, whether at a university, research institute, in government, or elsewhere. If you are doing grad work, it’s unlikely you will work in a “stress free” environment in your future.

We have to be so specialized during grad school, yet also need to figure out how to be generalists. How do we make that transition?

This is a great question, and very true! We become experts at the end of a MSc or PhD, and then are suddenly thrust into teaching an intro Biology class, or having to write a collaborative grant on a topic at arm’s length from our own expertise. For those interested in a career in Academia, the job requires people to be specialists and generalists, and that’s not always easy.

However, the transition is easier if you start taking small steps towards being a generalist early on. Often a qualifying (or comprehensive) exam during a PhD gets us thinking in more general terms, as that’s a time we are thinking a lot about how our research fits into a broader conceptual framework, or perhaps we are asked questions outside of our area, as a means for the committee to assess limits of knowledge. After these exams, it’s easy to slip back into our projects with a sigh of relief, and we delve back into become experts. It becomes a nice and cozy comfort zone. However, it’s important to start and keep some habits and continue on the path of being a generalist. Here are some ideas:

  • Spend a bit of time, every day, reading interesting stories at the periphery of your subject areas, whether that means checking out science blogs, listening to podcasts or following interesting people on social media. I do this every morning with a cup of coffee: I have a number of blogs I follow regularly, and I always check out tweets from scientists with an eye for interesting stories (e.g., Malcolm Campbell is a great person to follow). Most of these stories are not related directly to my area of research, but they help me keep up on what is happening in ecology, evolutionary biology, entomology and Arachnology, Heck, these stories sometimes help me rethink my own research, or give me ideas for new avenues of research. It’s a great use of time.
  • Try to attend any seminars offered by guest speakers, whether in your own department, or elsewhere. Often these guests are excellent speakers, and are doing interesting things worth hearing about. It is sometimes tricky to justify getting away from the lab bench, but exposure to different areas of study will help you become more of a generalist.
  • If your department offers a journal club, take part as much as you can, as this will expose you to new literature in other areas of study. The papers you will discuss may end up being great case studies when you first teach that intro ecology class. This will also help you learn methods, techniques and language from other disciplines, which will also help you later in your career, especially when you write collaborative and interdisciplinary grants.

How do we play the “impact factor” game with publications, knowing how flawed that index is! It’s sometimes so hard to know where to try to publish! Help!

Groan. This is a tough one! Despite the known issues with impact factors, some people/search committees still put value on perceived value of journals, and want to see a CV that has publications in “top tier” journals. The push for publishing open access (OA) is sometimes at odds with this, since not all OA journals are indexed in the same way as other journals, and some of the great OA journals coming on stream are not well known to some of the people that may be reviewing your CV.

So, the best advice I can have is to try to diversify your publications as much as you can, showing that you *can* publish in higher “impact” journals, but that you are also well aware of other publications venues, and most of all, that your work is of high quality. You can make a direct case on your CV or cover letter to help explain your logic, and there are excellent reasons why you might choose one journal over another despite a perceived difference in that journal’s impact.

What remains important in publishing as an early-career researcher is that it’s clear to any committee what *your* research is, and how you have made important contributions to your discipline, even if all your papers aren’t in top-tier journals. Any search committee  wants to know you can be a leader in your discipline.

Sometimes it seems “frowned upon” to say you want to work at a more teaching-focused college instead of a big R1 school. Why does this bias exist? 

I think this actually comes from a good place in that supervisors want the very best for their students, and the “best” is often thought of as a select group of R1 (research-intensive) schools. This ends up being pervasive in the culture of higher education, and there becomes an assumption that everyone wants to work in R1 schools but many end up “settling” for a lesser-known University. So, this means that all the profs not at R1 schools done really want to be there, and everyone is looking longingly towards greener pastures. This is, of course, entirely flawed logic because rankings are fundamentally flawed. But, speaking as both a parent and a supervisor, we don’t often think logically about those we care about and are mentoring. However, I firmly believe that it’s generally bad advice to bias any student’s thinking around their career path. An open mind is much, much better.

That being said, it is important to look critically at yourself and figure out what gives you the most joy and happiness. If you love being in the classroom, embrace it! If you can’t stand teaching but are at ease behind a lab bench or writing grants, embrace it! Then, once you have done this self-examination, stick to your guns and have an honest and frank discussion about this with those doing the frowning. Your supervisors and mentors really need to know what you want, in the best-case scenario, because they are a strong ally for you when you are looking for a job, whether it’s giving an informal reference over the phone, or writing a letter of reference.

Now, we all know that academic jobs are not that easy to get, and despite what you may *want* as a perfect job, this should not stop you from applying to any positions that you might be qualified: keep a open mind because you may find yourself in a R1 school, and you might love it (I know this from personal experience: I always saw myself at a smaller college/University yet managed to land a job at one of the big research Universities in Canada, even though I didn’t think I had a chance of landing the job! And, I’m very happy with the job).

Once you do land a job, and you are happy about it, spread the word. Discuss how great it is to be at your University, whether a liberal arts college, Land grant University, or Ivy League. They are all great.

The pillars of the ivory tower remain deeply planted, and despite increased interest in public engagement and outreach, Universities remain slow-moving, old, conservative institutions. Will this ever change? 

Ok, so this is a pretty big question. So big that it will wait for another post since this one is getting a little too long… I will save that for another time.

In sum, interacting with grad students at Arkansas was truly a delight. They were confident, bright, engaged and inquisitive. Spending time with a group of graduate students gives me great hope and optimism, and their insightful questions are an indication of this.

Rethinking the University Classroom: Ban the podium-style lecture, not the laptop

There has been a lot of recent coverage/chatter about bans on laptops in the lecture halls of Universities and colleges (e.g., see here, here and here). I am particularly interested when instructors implement outright bans on laptops in their classes, citing reasons related to distraction, both by students on their computers, but also distraction for students sitting nearby classmates with their screens aglow. There have also been some recent studies about how students retain and learn content more effectively when taking hand-written notes instead of typing notes. Are laptop bans the solution?

What bothers me about this debate is that most coverage actually skirts around the true issue, which to me is about a fundamental problem of podium-style teaching. A traditional lecture hall environment is not always a great place for teaching and learning. It is in those environments where the issues of note-taking and distraction arise, and where laptop bans occur. I certainly don’t hear complaints about laptops in seminar/discussion courses, or in those occurring in active learning classrooms.

The view from my seat in the lecture hall.

I was student for a day once. This as a view from my seat in the lecture hall. Students were using laptops to take lecture notes.

Here is my opinion: in most teaching environments*, laptop bans are unnecessary and should be avoided. Some students need to take notes with a laptop, perhaps because of a disability (eg, arthritis), and accommodation is needed. Sometimes it is useful for students to follow along a PowerPoint presentation, or fact-check or Google some of the content during the lecture (heck that could even provide opportunity for some class discussion!). If students are distracted, this likely indicates a bigger problem, and the instructor should look into ways to make the classroom more active and engaging. It is perhaps easier to look to issues with distracted students and laptops than it is to rethink the way material is being taught. We are living in a digital age with our students being true digital natives, and I worry that sometimes a ban on laptops is a reflection on biases by the instructor and, frankly, doesn’t reflect the world we live in.

Let’s make our lecture halls inclusive environments, and perhaps ban policies about banning laptops!

Ok, fine, but… but … but… what if other students are bothered by their peers with laptops? What if students just don’t want to be in that “required” course, and are grumpy… and become easily distracted? I think some of this can be solved. I suggest that all instructors have a frank and open conversation about technology in the classroom. A discussion about your concerns, and the concerns by students, can go a long way. It also may be useful and necessary to develop some guidelines around technology in the classroom – and perhaps adjust the seating plan to avoid issues with students being distracted. Check out if your University has a formal policy about this, and see how your thinking aligns with this policy (as an example, here is McGill’s policy). Another option to help with the “boredom” factor (a potential reason for distraction) is to allow “tech time” mid-way through a lecture. Stop halfway through**, give everyone a break for a few minutes (to stretch, nap, text or post to Facebook).

Or even better, rethink the fundamental ways you are teaching.

I posit that boredom and distraction in a classroom, and the broader concern about laptops, learning, and note taking, are because instructors are stuck in the “lecture hall rut”. The debate points again to a need to embrace active learning, and work to increase engagement within the classroom. Most profs only learned one way to teach: at the podium. It’s what we were exposed to during our undergraduate degrees: the podium is the standard. But it’s not the gold standard and a serious rethink is long overdue.

How to break the tradition? How about taking the active learning challenge? There are small, simple things instructors can do, even in large lecture halls (yes, there are infrastructure constraints – not enough of our learning spaces are built for active learning). There are amazing resources out there to better understand active learning, and why it’s important.

Learn from other instructors who are doing different things in the classroom – hang out with the innovators, and use their strategies in your classroom. Watch videos, take workshops from your teaching and learning units, and work with your chairs and Deans to rethink the classroom context.

Work to integrate technology (and laptops!) into the classroom – on-line quizzes can be done in class, with technology – perhaps with mobile devices, laptops or student response systems (aka, clickers). Try integrating social media to the classroom, via a course hashtag or course blog. Use the tools that students are using: this will work to increase engagement in the classroom. We are truly living in an exiting time for the integration of technology into teaching – it’s time to harness the possibilities and harness the power of technology, instead of ban it.

I won’t lie: rethinking why and how you teach the way you do will take time and energy. But the short term pain will lead to long term gains. Students will appreciate the efforts, the classroom dynamics will change, and I believe the amount of boredom and distraction will decrease. Active leaning is not just a catch phrase, it’s a meaningful and important way to improve the classroom experience, for the students but also for the instructor.

There is little need to ban laptops in classrooms that are active, engaging and break from the traditional podium-style lectures.

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*There are some kinds of classes in which laptop use can be questioned, such as a hands-on laboratory, field course, studio-class or with some seminar/discussion classes. However I believe these are a minority. (If there are other examples you know about, please leave a comment!)

** this strategy was shared by Prof. Matthew Cobb, at Manchester – he says it works very well!

How to succeed at University: twelve tips for undergraduate students

Note: this is an updated/edited post, it was originally published several years ago.

The start of term is an exciting time for those of us who work at a University. There are many new students arriving on campus, full of enthusiasm, hope, and questions.  As an Associate Dean, I meet many of these students, and I am often asked for advice during orientation week. Later in the term, I sometimes see students who are struggling, and looking for strategies to help with balancing their academic work with other priorities, or looking for ways to make their time at University a little easier. So, here are my twelve tips for success at University:

1. Work hard. At the end of the day, hard work pays off. You made it into University, which suggests you have the fundamental skill set required for higher education. However, don’t forget to keep your eye on the ball and buckle down and get the work done! It’s easy to get swayed by social life,  students clubs and activities, athletics, and by trips home to see family. These things are all important, and your well-being often depends on these extracurricular activities but academic success largely rests with a developing and maintaining a strong work ethic. Make lists, prioritize, and focus on getting the “job” of being a student done well.

2.  Listen to your academic advisor:  Most academic programs have an ‘academic advisor’ associated with them (e.g., see here for McGill’s website about advising).  These individuals are there to help you get through your program. Advisors typically help  with course selection, and help plan an academic program from start to finish.  When arriving on campus, you should book a meeting with your advisor, and more importantly, listen to their advice!  Advisors know the ins and outs of your program, and paying attention to them will help you in the long run.  You don’t want to end up messing up your academic program because you decided to avoid taking required courses early on in your program! Advisors can also help you get on the correct path should you wish to pursue research or internships later in your program, or a term away such as a field semester or an exchange program.

3.  Have an agenda, and use it:  This seems like pretty obvious advice, but you would be surprised how many students (and Professors!) don’t have a good system for managing time.  University is a lot about managing your time: getting to classes, dealing with e-mails, assignments, planning for exams, and squeezing in a social life, or a part-time job.  It’s a struggle to manage all these tasks, and therefore it is essential to develop a clear and straightforward system of ‘calendar + tasks‘.  Under calendar, include your class schedule, important dates and meetings, and most importantly, LOOK at the calendar regularly!  I personally prefer using an on-line calendar that syncs with my mobile devices – but some people prefer the old-fashion (yet dependable) hard-copy calendar.  For tasks, include short-term tasks (with deadlines – cross-referenced with your calendar) and long-term tasks, so that you are reminded of on a regular basis.  I use a small notebook for my task list, and it is always with me – for me, the act of physically writing down a task list helps me remember what I need to work on.   A good system for your agenda and tasks will make your life a lot easier.  Using an agenda and task list properly will also help you refine your time management skills, and these skills are truly essential to future success almost anywhere.

4.  Show up on time and don’t miss deadlines:  Again, this seems pretty obvious, but it’s also pretty easy to mess up.  Treat University like a professional job – you need to be mature, you must be on time, and never miss deadlines.  Try to have everything done early (with good time management skills, this is very possible!).   Being late to lectures, or having to ask for extensions on papers or projects (without extenuating circumstances), does you no favours, and  Professors, generally speaking, are not impressed by these behaviours.   At some point, you may need to ask your Professors for a letter of reference, and it is much better to be remembered as the students who hands in papers early, then a student who can’t manage deadlines.

5.  Go to class:   Lectures, labs and seminars are there for a reason:  they provide you with value-added content, and a context for the course materials.  It’s true that some of the content may be available on-line, or with a text-book, but in most cases, lectures or labs will help to draw connections between different content, and/or provide a valuable context to the material that might be available elsewhere. Labs or seminars provide important opportunity for hands-on and interactive learning, and this cannot be replaced easily.  Instructors take a lot of pride in lecturing or leading a lab demonstration, and most of them work hard to make the time worthwhile,  interesting, and thought-provoking.  You will soak up an amazing amount of material by just being there, and paying attention.

6. Keep up! This point is closely related to the previous few ideas – but is important to keep in mind as a separate item.  Assignments at University tend to sneak up on you – deadlines seem so far away, until you realize that there are three written reports due within a two week period, with Thanksgiving in the middle! Similarly, lecture content builds upon itself, and assuming you will just naturally be able to keep up may not be the best idea. Try to build some habits in your life so that you review the content soon after each lecture or laboratory, and/or spend a bit of time each morning prepping for your day and keeping an eye on the week ahead.  Do your best to stay on top of the material: in my experience, if students start to fall behind a little bit, this quickly spirals as the weeks pass by, and the stress level increases as you try cram for an assignment or final exam.

7.  Get help when you are struggling:  At some point in your University career you will likely need help, whether it is with difficulties with finances, a personal relationship, failing a course, or struggles with mental or physical health.  The University system is a compassionate and collegial environment and it’s a place with a lot of wonderful resources to help you when you are struggling (e.g., see this example for McGill).  Don’t hesitate to seek help when you need it, or if you know you already have some struggles with anxiety or depression, be sure to be aware of what resources are available to you ahead of time. If you are feeling sick, visit health services. If you are struggling with your program, touch base with your academic advisor. If you are feeling overwhelmed or isolated, touch base with counseling services. Know that you are not alone in your struggles (although it may feel that way), and the community will support you. As part of this community, you also have a responsibility to keep an eye on your classmates and friends, and if they need help, you can be in a position to direct them to the right resources.

8.  Ask questions:  In most of my classes, I tell students that there are no stupid questions (except for “Will this be on the exam?”).  This is very, very true.  If you are confused about a concept, or failed to get the point of a slide, or discussion, you must ask for clarification. Although it can be intimidating to ask a question in a large lecture hall, it’s important to try.  If you are confused, it’s highly likely that other student’s are also confused.  You are helping yourself, and your peers, when you put your hand up. In many cases, there is a on-line course management system for each class, and often there are discussion boards available: this provides another opportunity to ask questions of your instructor or TA, or you can ask questions that your peers may be able to help with.

9.  Get to know your instructors:    Whenever possible, get to know the instructors of your courses, be they Professors, Lecturers, or Teaching Assistants.  Most instructors have office hours, and these hours are there for good reason – they provide time to meet your instructor, ask questions, and have a personal connection with them.  Don’t be intimidated by instructors: we are people, too, and most of us recognize that life as an  undergraduate student can be stressful and difficult.  We can provide you help with course content, but also help direct you to other resources.  Getting to know your instructors also helps when you might be seeking a summer job in the future, or when you need a letter of recommendation.

10. Avoid ‘grade panic’:  I am living proof that it is possible to do poorly at undergraduate courses yet still have a successful career!  When I was an undergraduate student at the University of Guelph, I just about failed my first year physics course and I was terrified that this would make it impossible to succeed in any kind of career.  Of course this was not the case – a University education is much more than a single course, or a single quiz or examination – an academic program has many components and even if some of the components fall off the rails, this does not mean everything is lost.   Aim for excellence in your academics, but also remember that EVERYONE has bad days, performs poorly on an exam, or just can’t seem to figure out a particular subject.  This is normal, and you must keep everything in perspective!  Your University career is not defined by a single moment of failure – keep the bigger picture in mind, and don’t sweat the small failures.  In a University environment, success at everything is nearly impossible to achieve.   Keep a level head,  keep calm, aim for excellence, but don’t panic when things go wrong.

11.  Stay healthy: Your mother was right – eat your vegetable and get some sleep.  Invariably, influenza and/or a bout of gastro will whip through residence halls sometime around when mid-term exams are starting.  Your best line of defense is a healthy immune system, and part of that includes nutrition, sleep, and exercise.  I think it’s more important to be less prepared but well rested than over-prepared and exhausted – and if you attended lectures, your rested mind will be in a good position to access the course content. Related to this is a little reminder to “slow down” every now and then (I need to remind myself of this, daily). Take some deep breaths, perhaps meditate or do yoga, or just find a bit of quiet time now and then to pause and reflect.

12.  Have fun!   Life as an undergraduate student is truly incredibly. It is a time of personal growth and reflection, and it is an enriching experience on intellectual, emotional, and social levels.   Remember that you are immersed in an amazing experience. University provides a wealth of opportunities (student groups, sports, lectures, laboratories, and more), and you will make close friends, meet future colleagues, business partners or partners in life.  Don’t forget to take it all in – in the future, you will remember a lot of details from your University days and you want these memories to be more than sweating over deadlines and grade panic. Stay well.