Doctoral Student Training: The Hazing Process Qualification Exam

Feb 20 2010 Published by under Education, Mentoring, Tribe of Science

One contentious part of graduate student training in the US system is the mechanism by which we evaluate student potential for continuing on to the dissertation about halfway along.
Oral or written "qualification" exams. Closed book, open book or take home. Research or grant proposals. Review articles. On specific subfield topics or designed to cover the breath of the fields defined by the Department itself.
It is almost always a constant argument within the faculty, within the student body and between students and faculty about the "best" way to construct the process. I recall that over the course of my doctoral stint, my training department had three distinct qualification processes in place!
As a student I was a big fan of the breadth exam, either written as closed-book or as oral exam. My rationale was basically what I saw as the continued "value" of me getting a doctorate from the department in question. It was a matter of the reputation gained by other grads from the program conversing with scientists across the field. I wanted them to come across as informed as possible, to as many discussants as possible.
Maturing through the career arc, I care less for this. Mostly because I've come to realize nobody that is judging me now gives a rat's patootie what University or Department of -ology appears on my doctorate. They care about the papers I have published. Period. Full freaking stop.
So if I were dictating a graduate program, I'd be looking to enhance the ability of the students to publish papers. This would pretty much rule out the examination approach.
My younger self would be absolutely appalled.

70 responses so far

  • zoubl says:

    How would an exam prevent a student from publishing? The program I was in had abolished rotations, instead. I'll never know whether this was a good thing, but it enabled students to get a full year of thesis-related research, in addition to their classes. The head of the program felt that rotations were a complete waste of time. I had an excellent publication record as a grad student, as did most of the students in that program.

  • Chris says:

    How would an exam prevent a student from publishing?
    The argument is that every minute you spend in classes and studying for exams, is a minute that you're not working on your research. Hence, more classes = less papers.
    My qual involved writing a research proposal and defending it, which I think is totally sensible. It proves that you know how to come up with a hypothesis and test it in a rigorous way, which is the core of doing science. Knowing that all of the students who graduate my program have some ability to think scientifically is nice.

  • Dr. O says:

    I agree with the idea that most people aren't very concerned about where your doctorate is from. And I hate the idea of an all-encompassing written exam. But I do think the qualifying exam is still important to see if the student is capable of thinking like a scientist...before investing considerable time and money. In my opinion, the best way to do this is assess their ability to plan out a project, write up a proposal and defend it. This can be outside of the student's field or directly applicable to their research, and should be done in their 2nd to 3rd year. Otherwise, how do you really know if they are thinking or just sliding by on their peers'/mentor's good graces?

  • qaz says:

    I go back and forth on how I feel about quals. When I was a grad student, the program I was in had the attitude that there was a field-general set of information and "we'd be embarrassed if you graduated without knowing this information". They ensured we had that information by requiring we pass four classes, each of which contained several major exams (36 hours to complete some pretty tough problems). The catch was that you could retake those classes as many times as necessary as long as you were "making good progress in the program". (In practice, no one actually retook them more than once, and most students passed them on the first round.) In my current program, we have a pretty hefty written qual. There's a debate in the faculty between those who want to use it as a test to weed out the weak and those who want to use it just as a way to "ensure the student has the information". One thing we have in our current program, is that we have lots of ways for students to recover if they don't pass the qual. (Rewriting questions, retaking classes, etc.) In practice, the qual has been very successful in identifying gaps in students' education that we can then fix.
    In the programs I've seen, the written qual is general field-specific information while the oral qual ends up being a thesis proposal (often written as an NRSA or the equivalent), which is thesis related. I think having enough background across a broad swath of a field (beyond the narrow in-depth focus of a thesis) is a very good thing that produces stronger graduates better prepared for science.

  • Thise says:

    It may be informative to consider students who come from graduate programs that don't have quals (as tends to be the case in Europe). As a population, do those students seem to be missing anything compared to their US counterparts that can be attributed to the quals process?

  • Arlenna says:

    I think layering on the gatekeeping without a comprehensive look at the students' big pictures is just a total waste of potential. The proposal defense-style evaluation is one of the best ways for them to demonstrate the gestalt of what we want them to be able to do, so I think it should be the only gate they have to pass to get to their dissertation candidacy. If they can do a good job of that, they will do a good job of getting (or helping their mentor get) funding, synthesizing and focusing their work, and publishing those papers.

  • My grad program had a bit of a mix of everything.
    General proficiency exams were given during the first 2 years. In theory, these written exams were supposed to cover key concepts in different divisions of the discipline. In reality, they often became tests of how well we knew a given prof's favorite topic. Many felt these exams were useless... and they were abolished the year after I completed mine. Grrr.
    We also had a prelim (start of 2nd year) and a qual (3rd year) that covered our research. The prep was time consuming but useful-though it was never clear why there were two such exams. During our final year, we had to do an original proposal on a topic outside of our research interests in NRSA (or comparable) format; although we had to demonstrate that we really had thought about it, it was more of a formality. IMHO, the final year is a bit late to see if a student can really think for him/herself.
    From the research productivity/publication standpoint, it seems that making the qual about the student's research plan makes the most sense. Taking out the exam period altogether? I don't know. I think some students only really start digging into their project's background when they have a very concrete reason (like staying in the program) to do so.

  • Geoff says:

    True, once one is working in one's field, the only thing that matters is one's papers. But I am more than my work, and there is a more abstract value to being well rounded (an attitude which has probably already marked me as doomed for academia!). I'm glad that my program required a qual, for the same reason I'm glad that as an undergrad I had broad distribution requirements. I was forced to broaden my knowledge base at a time I would have preferred to, perhaps, get more sleep, or delve deeper in my area of narrow interest. It was difficult then, but TODAY, I would be the poorer without it.
    I'm constantly thankful for all the times in the past when I had to sacrifice some sleep or some sanity to learn more about things I would have sacrificed for short term comfort. (Even if, yes, it has slowed down my progress on the path to monomaniacal specialization that seems necessary - just from the sheer amount one must know to reach the cutting edge - to have a career in science.)

  • pinus says:

    I have always been a fan of writing/defending a proposal, with a bit of general knowledge questions thrown in during the oral exam. It seems like everywhere I have been it changes every single year. The trick is to get through it and get down to fucking work.
    Also:
    Geoff...
    Well rounded = academia? really?

  • lylebot says:

    I suspect that most grad students think whatever system they went through is the best. It's just human nature.
    I, like you, prefer systems that get students publishing papers sooner. It's possible to do that and still get breadth, and I think the system I went through (which is obviously the best) accomplished both of those goals for many students. But then there were students who would try to "game" it, with varying degrees of success, and no matter what the system is, those students will exist.
    In general, I tend to doubt that the degree of emphasis on breadth is all that important: the students that care about breadth will pick it up regardless, and the students that don't won't.

  • Zeno says:

    I've been both successful and unsuccessful in grad programs. At an earlier stage in my life, my stint in grad school coincided with the department's decision to shift the emphasis from a series of written exams demonstrating breadth to the oral exam emphasizing ... no one knew. Some thought the plan was to emphasize readiness to do research, while others thought the oral exam was the new venue for breadth demonstration. I passed the writtens but got bushwhacked in the orals (my puny excuse being that the process was hijacked by the committee's outside member, who was allowed by the passive committee chair to grill me on stuff that had nothing to do with my area of research interest; I know, I should have been ready for anything). It was exasperating.
    Later, in another program, the written part was more like a dry run for compiling a research paper (and it did serve as the framework for my dissertation). The orals were designed to see whether I was ready to execute the proposed research project. That time it all came together.
    But probably too late to really turn me into a researcher. I have a solid teaching load in a job I love at a community college and research is a luxury rather than a job skill. Funny how that turned out. I actually got more original work done before enrolling in the first university's grad program.

  • Hope says:

    If all you want is to increase the number of papers that grad students publish, then get rid of quals altogether, along with classes. Of course, it might then become clear that a grad student’s publication record says a lot more about their advisor/lab than it does about their ability to conduct independent research. This could lead some to reevaluate exactly what they’re supposed to be getting out of grad school and what the appropriate metrics for success are. But this would be a good thing….

  • Charles says:

    DM: Agreed that breadth doesn't really affect senior researchers' evaluation of a young researcher. That said, do you think that the breadth you gained by taking quals has helped you do more/better researchers? I'd like to think it has in my case, but having trouble coming up with specific examples.

  • msphd says:

    DM, I'm glad you're finally growing up. I agree with this post.
    Personally, I think that there could be some kind of entrance/placement exams for grad level classes. That way you could place out of things you took in college, but still get some breadth or additional depth where you need it for your thesis work. But classes at the grad level should be optional and tailored to each student's background and project. Even in college, the focus is too much on grades and exams and not enough on learning the concepts well enough to apply them to new problems.
    Hope says: a grad student’s publication record says a lot more about their advisor/lab than it does about their ability to conduct independent research. The first time I read this I thought it was cynical; then I realized that it would work in my favor if more people realized that it was my advisor's obsessive insecurities that prevented me from publishing more. So I think it's really true.
    Unfortunately the system is set up in such a way that the student and advisor have different motivations, and receive different benefits, from publishing. Conflictofinterest and corruption.

  • bsci says:

    I got my degree in a program with a research proposal based oral qualifying exam rather than a survey-of-the-field exam. (There's no way I could see how a program-wide general knowledge exam would work in my inter-disciplinary, broad field)
    Like other people commenting here, I really liked this system. Writing a proposal (in grant-ish format) is an important part of graduate education. Mine eventually became a successful grant application for an NIH grad student fellowship.
    It also makes sure a committee of faculty (NOT including the advisor) can seriously evaluate students at a point before they are trying to finish up a dissertation and run out the door. From my experience, the qual exam is where I got to sit down individually with each committee member and discuss the strengths and weakness of my research ideas and what they expected me to know to carry them out (i.e. what they'd test me on during the exam)
    Professors, of course discussed research with me at other times, but being able to say, "You are on my committee and we need to meet," is a powerful way of making sure faculty commit to helping students.
    Finally, studying for the exam was great time to delve into the background literature relevant to my research. Yes this takes away from actively doing research, but being able to tell my adviser, I can't do X because I'm reading papers for my qual exam, was useful.

  • Lyle says:

    Although I never finished the degree the defend 3 research ideas theme was used in the qualifying exam (field geophysics). While looking back on it from 36 years perspective it feels different than it did at the time. This was done at the begining of the second year of the program, and was quite an intense experience. Of course you needed to have the background to explain why the problem was significant and to put the problem into broader perspective as part of the exam. It was an all oral exam that lasted a couple of hours.
    Basically it probably was the high stress point of my life, as I went into industry after leaving school, and the stress there was never as intense.

  • Jim Thomerson says:

    I took a qualifying exam made up of questions submitted by all the faculty. I passed, but either that year or the next, it was demonstrated that some of the professors were completely dishonest in their grading of their questions. The qualifying exam was such a departmental embarrassment that it was dropped and forgotten about.

  • whimple says:

    The qualifying exam is our last chance to throw out the students we regret having admitted to the program. That aspect of it is useful, even if the other motivations for the exam are either marginally positive or negative.

  • Neuro-conservative says:

    Just to shake things up -- how about this "modest proposal":
    At end of 2nd year: a tough general knowledge exam, with failure leading to terminal Master's degree (at most); maximal career path: lab tech.
    At end of 3rd year: Write grant proposal (NRSA or other NIH/NSF format). Review in departmental "study section."
    Students with triaged applications are ineligible for Ph.D., but can continue on an abbreviated doctoral path, call it a "Sci.D.," indicating that their maximal career path is Research Scientist -- Ineligible to submit federal grants.
    Students within the 25%ile "payline" can continue to Ph.D. on "PI track". Students in the 25-50%ile can revise and resubmit one time to determine whether they end up on the PI track or Research Scientist track.

  • bsci says:

    whimple,
    Your comment seems like an inefficient and probably unethical way to kick students out. Why make all students study months for a test so that you can subjectively fail the students you want to kick out? If you want to kick students out, create and annual work-proposal and review process. If the students get a bad evaluation & can't improve they're gone.
    Neuro-conservative,
    The grant process has way too much randomness in it. Would any faculty member want to bet their entire career on a single application? Would a program actually kick a good student out because he/she wasn't able to figure out how to communicate science on a first grant-writing attempt?

  • lamar says:

    1. do a better job recruiting and evaluating program applicants (maybe some years you take no new students into the program).
    2. get rid of (mandatory) classes, exams, and (mandatory) rotations.
    3. have one measuring stick: obtaining the NRSA (or NSF in some cases). organize training around this goal. work toward obtaining a successful fellowship award, in addition to publication of research, should be the primary focus. just the education you'd get in re-submitting your F32 is far more valuable than any "core" course or unnecessary rotation. have students critique each others' F32s.
    4. mix in a heavy rotation (at least several a year per student) of journal clubs and research presentations. communication of science is critical. learn how to dismantle a paper and put it together, take an engineering approach.
    the skeptic here would no doubt say: "but some students couldn't handle this type of advanced preparation; they still need to memorize cranial nerves and work out yeast genetic problem sets in our slew of core courses". to which I'd say: "yes this mentality is why you have a glut of worthless PhDs."

  • dahly says:

    We have a general written exam at the end of the 1st year which is based on reading 30-40 papers over a month and then taking an exam designed to test your ability to understand and integrate the science in the papers. I liked this since reading and comprehending scientific papers is extremely important to learning how to write them and how to do science in general.
    Then there is an exam at the end of the second year which is an oral defense of a written thesis proposal. This is also useful because it gives you a chance to practice (and be evaluated on) scientific writing. Since it is based on current/future thesis research, it also is an opportunity to kick out students who don't have a clear research plan and haven't made sufficient progress in their first two years.

  • Cashmoney says:

    WHAT Lamar?? If you can't rattle off the muppethugging cranial nerves in your sleep are you really a scientist? Geez!

  • Joe says:

    Whimple is correct. Prelims are a great opportunity to get rid of students whom you regret having admitted. I, and many colleagues, use them as such.
    Your comment seems like an inefficient and probably unethical way to kick students out. Why make all students study months for a test so that you can subjectively fail the students you want to kick out? If you want to kick students out, create and annual work-proposal and review process. If the students get a bad evaluation & can't improve they're gone.
    No. You clearly don't understand. It's very difficult to kick a student out of a program without a solid objective excuse. A failed prelim provides that excuse. Students need to understand that their performance is not only judged during things like prelims. Faculty opinions about students are endlessly formed and re-formed. Every interaction with faculty is an evaluation. By the time a student makes it to his/her prelims, I guarantee you that faculty have already decided whether the student has promise or not, and are simply looking to prove/justify their already-formed opinion.
    The biggest common silly mistake students make is disappearing from the lab for weeks to fret/prepare for prelims. Don't. If you're on the edge of tolerability already, your apparent lack of dedication to your work and unreliability will be the last straw. On the other hand, it's amazing how typical it is for good lab members to 'show promise' during a prelim even if they need to work on their writing/organization/oral presentation/whatever skills.

  • cmc says:

    If the doctorate is from a top 10 school the name does count, very much. Below the top tier, probably doesn't. Breadth is needed for a creative career, narrowness for a job. The top schools have breadth requirements and comp exams in my field - wasn't any waste of time and helps me teach. If you don't have breadth, it might not be a good idea to teach except for an hour in your own specialty

  • Pinko Punko says:

    I strongly disagree- the quals (if they are research proposal and defense) are sometimes the only place where the system actually enforces training/testing on critical thinking and analysis of the literature. You can say these things matter during the actual research thesis, but they aren't necessarily enforced- see the PIs that micromanage the students, or farm them in teams with senior lab members, or treat them as technicians, or write all the drafts of the papers (not the students) or essentially abdicate training but favor instead indentured servitude. Quals are a hugely beneficial training exercise.

  • I'm set to take the candidacy exam in the next few months once I finish up my classes. The exam process entails generating three off-topic proposals of which one is chosen. A proposal (F32 style) is prepared for the chosen topic and submitted. Next a presentation is generated to go over the proposal and justify your experiments and hypotheses. All told this will probably keep me out of the lab for at least a month. This is also falling right at the same time where I am going to have enough data to get a publication out. So for a month to a month and a half, all research and scholarly writing for my project will be on hold. Depending upon your exam committees recommendation you can fail either the written or oral part and have to make the individual parts up or you possibly you can fail the damn thing. Which depending on your circumstances the committee may allow a retake.

  • whimple says:

    I never understood the purpose of writing mock proposals on semi-related topics. Why not write a real proposal on your exact topic and then submit the proposal for funding consideration? Maybe that just makes too much sense?

  • zoubl says:

    whimple -
    This would bias the process against foreign students, who are usually not eligible for federal support.

  • whimple says:

    No, the "submit for funding" consideration is just a bonus. The proposals would get graded internally for exam purposes just like everyone already does.

  • whimple-Doing the semi-related/unrelated proposal, in theory at least, is supposed to demonstrate the student's ability to independently identify an interesting question and develop a hypothesis, to see if he/she has simply learned to regurgitate what the adviser says or something more. Does it actually achieve this? Meh.
    In my program (see #7), this came quite late in the game; since I had already lined up my postdoc position, I used the opportunity to do some background reading for it (although what I proposed wasn't remotely close to what my postdoc lab works on).

  • bsci says:

    @Joe #24.
    If a program has a general-knowledge-based written or oral exam, using that exam for anything less than objectively evaluating students' general knowledge is unethical. There are more than enough ways a program can get rid of an under-performing student (not the least of which is the student not being able to find a faculty member willing to mentor or keep mentoring/supporting him/her). Of course, that would require faculty members to confront a student directly instead of hiding behind a dishonestly subjective test.
    I'll also note that a research proposal based oral exams ARE more subjective and would provide a more ethical way of removing a student. If the student can't find 3-5 faculty members willing to say they have a research proposal that's of appropriate quality, they can't continue.

  • DrugMonkey says:

    I have on more than one occasion written (and/or incorporated from collaborators) major sections of a grant proposal that are outside of my areas of interest. Well outside.
    More than one of these has resulted in an award of funding.
    /data point

  • becca says:

    "Prelims are a great opportunity to get rid of students whom you regret having admitted. I, and many colleagues, use them as such."
    Darn tootin. Just like tenure review is a great opportunity to get rid of faculty that you regret having hired. I'm sure you, and many colleagues, use that as such as well. Good luck at UAH.

  • cmc says:

    Grad programs are supposed to encourage their students to find individual paths of discovery, but most science training has become 'follow the leader'. Leader-followship programs do not advance science, they seek to advance their oown scientists and often miss on that objective as well. Science and humanity suffer as a result.

  • leigh says:

    i don't get some of the opposition i'm seeing here to the "weeding out" process of qualifying exams. (assuming here that the exam in question is formatted in a way that is reflective of what it takes to do science in the first place.)
    if a student doesn't have what it takes to pass a qual, why waste their time with continuing in the program? is it better to let them continue if they don't have a very good chance of making it through, and if so, why?

  • whimple says:

    Well, it is very nasty. Throwing out the students after two years is more convenient than doing a proper job of interviewing the students before admitting them. I kind of like the med school approach better where all the cuts are done right up front.

  • Throwing out the students after two years is more convenient than doing a proper job of interviewing the students before admitting them.

    Yeah, because if only departments could interview "properly", they'd be 100% accurate at identifying students who will be successful.
    Do you even believe this arrant bullshit, or are you just trolling?

  • Joe says:

    I never understood the purpose of writing mock proposals on semi-related topics. Why not write a real proposal on your exact topic and then submit the proposal for funding consideration? Maybe that just makes too much sense?
    This is exactly what we do. Proposals can be NIH or NSF format, whichever is more appropriate. Granted, foreign students can't submit. But it's still good training. The other useful aspect of this is that the committee can give feedback on the project. This can be extremely useful. Not all advisors' ideas & suggestions are perfect, or perfect all the time.
    If a program has a general-knowledge-based written or oral exam, using that exam for anything less than objectively evaluating students' general knowledge is unethical.
    What the hell? Are you advocating standardized multiple choice qualifying exams? How else are you going to come up with something that is NOT subjective? And if you do, how long before students game the system?
    There are more than enough ways a program can get rid of an under-performing student (not the least of which is the student not being able to find a faculty member willing to mentor or keep mentoring/supporting him/her).
    No, there aren't. You can't easily kick out a student for underperformance. You just can't. Bad students, almost by definition, don't understand their shortcomings or cooperate. No bad student says 'oh, I guess you're right, maybe this career isn't for me', and quits.
    Darn tootin. Just like tenure review is a great opportunity to get rid of faculty that you regret having hired.
    Exactly. (and no, I'm NOT being sarcastic. This is exactly what tenure review is for. That's why they call pre-tenure the 'probationary period'.)

  • whimple says:

    Do you even believe this arrant bullshit, or are you just trolling?
    PP, your "people are disposable" "it's not a fucking carebears teaparty" attitude is pretty tired. Good luck to you with that.

  • bsci says:

    Joe,
    There is no perfectly objective evaluation, but every one of us has taken tests with with long-form or oral questions where we assume our answered was evaluated as objectively as possible.
    When you write, "I guarantee you that faculty have already decided whether the student has promise or not, and are simply looking to prove/justify their already-formed opinion... On the other hand, it's amazing how typical it is for good lab members to 'show promise' during a prelim even if they need to work on their writing/organization/oral presentation/whatever skills."
    I take that to mean if there are two students who did equally ok, not great, on the exam, you'd fail the one you didn't like and pass the one you liked. That is unethical.
    Also you can kick students out for under-performance. I've seen it happen. You can even kick a student out if a lab loses funding & no one wants to take the student. It might not be an easy conversation, but hiding behind an pseudo exam as an excuse is cowardly.

  • antipodean says:

    Nobody else seems to need them. No idea why you guys do.

  • PP, your "people are disposable" "it's not a fucking carebears teaparty" attitude is pretty tired. Good luck to you with that.

    What the fuck does that have to do with your bizarre claim that there is some "proper" way of interviewing students that is somehow better than how they are interviewed now, and would guarantee that those who are admitted to PhD programs will successfully complete them?
    And by the way, asshole, when have I ever asserted that "people are disposable"? You taking your cues from Shitlin now, and just making stuff up because it reinforces your perceived grievances?

  • Alex says:

    I strongly, strongly, STRONGLY believe in breadth. I have yet to regret the breadth I've acquired from taking electives, going to seminars not in my subspecialty, reading papers not in my subspecialty, and sometimes even doing side projects not related to what I'm supposed to be doing. This breadth has paid off in all sorts of ways down the road, it's helped me solve problems in my research, it's helped me as a teacher who has to present the course material to students with a variety of career goals and scientific interests, it's helped me work with colleagues from a variety of disciplines, and it's even led to some productive research projects that expanded the number of topics I can claim as areas of expertise. And I think this is partly a result of coming from a department that placed a HUGE value on interdisciplinary collaboration, to the point where my thesis advisor was in a department different from the one that I was formally enrolled in.
    That said, it seems to me that qualifying exams are a bad way to pursue that goal. My department had some core classes in the field that every student was required to take. The classes were not easy, and the attitude of the department was that if you can pass these classes you have demonstrated mastery of the core of the general subject area, and there's no need to now go ahead and do a qualifying exam. Get busy doing some research instead.
    Of course, this only works as a way of ensuring that every student has basic mastery of the general field if the department has confidence that the people teaching the first year courses adhere to properly high standards. But if the department has confidence in the standards of the instructors for first year courses, there's really no need to pile on another hurdle beyond first year courses. The way my department accomplished this was by having a committee oversee each class, rather than just a single person.
    We did have a research proposal qualifying exam, and it seems to me that if the main goal in the program is to produce research then asking somebody to demonstrate the ability to perform some of the tasks of a researcher is a good way to check on whether the student has a good chance of completing a thesis.
    On an intellectual level I actually think there's a lot to be said for asking a student to take a concept outside of the immediate research area and explain it in a deep way or solve a hard problem related to it, but I also think that deeper insights about the general field really only come from time and thought, not pressure cooker exams. If you want students to have some occasional time for thought, then let them focus on research, which sometimes means being very busy but at times can also just mean putting a lot of thought into something. But don't throw formal hurdles at them.

  • cmc says:

    I'm not sure what all the whinging is about regarding comp exams. If you know the material, the exam is a few hours of anxious fast production of clear writing. If you don't know the material, then what are you doing in the field???
    I had to carefully show that the lead examiner's favorite theory was invalid, and that data in the referenced report had been selected to give a false finding. Concern -- oh yeh. Bad experience? Not at all. I knew I was right once I redid the calculations, and my other profs realized I was right -- so the (very upset) prof had to concede.
    Of course there are grad students who manage to get into programs but then are not capable of attaining a doctorate. They should be given their masters degree, and allowed to leave before they waste time on a dissertation. The comp exam is a good point to do some strong decision making.
    Whimple, you'd rather that we kept everyone like medical schools? Medical schools keep drug addicts, alcoholics, cheaters and other assorted ne'r-do-wells just to uphold an old tradition. They do dismiss students: they wait to the day before graduation and 'convince' them to 'resign'. Been there. Seen that. It is REALLY unethical because now the kid has to pay for four years of med school with no degree.

  • whimple says:

    You'd rather that we kept everyone like medical schools?
    Yes, although this is obviously a debatable point. For med school there are very stringent admission requirements and there can be stringent requirements because the number of MDs produced is tightly regulated so there will never be an oversupply of MDs. As a result, there is also a tremendous incentive to ensure that those admitted are successful with special help for those struggling for whatever reason. The PhD model operates completely differently producing as many PhDs as the NIH will pay for, and then some. Since this model inexpensively produces way more PhDs that we know what to do with, it matters much less if students drop off along the way. Neither system is perfect, but having seen both sides, I now think the MD model is the better way to go: not perfect, just better.
    PP: ...when have I ever asserted that "people are disposable"?
    You haven't. This is just the attitude I perceive from your writings. I guess this isn't the impression you're trying to convey?

  • bsci says:

    Whimple,
    I call BS on your paean to med school admissions. Yes, getting in is hard, but there's still a huge amount of randomness in the process. Very good people are excluded and some unqualified people get in.
    The difference is that med schools have financial and pride reasons to graduate everyone regardless of their quality once entering med school. This gives bad incentives to the under-qualified students and puts bad doctors into the workforce. MDs also have boards which are pretty much the same things has qualifying exams except they're done after the degree and after a person has paid more than $200K. Is that really a fairer system for the students?
    If you're advocating PhD programs accept fewer students, I'd love to hear which programs should be required to shrink, by how much, and who will be making these decisions.

  • You haven't. This is just the attitude I perceive from your writings. I guess this isn't the impression you're trying to convey?

    It sounds like you need to recalibrate your perceptions with fucking reality, holmes. Because I sure as fuck am not in the business of disabusing every random douche on the Internet of their misconceptions.

  • whimple says:

    If you're advocating PhD programs accept fewer students, I'd love to hear which programs should be required to shrink, by how much, and who will be making these decisions.
    I'd love to hear this too, but these are NIH-director-level decisions well above my paygrade.

  • Joe says:

    If you're advocating PhD programs accept fewer students, I'd love to hear which programs should be required to shrink, by how much, and who will be making these decisions.
    Oh, this is easy. Programs that require PIs to support grad students using grant money (e.g. mostly medical school/institute-associated programs) are shrinking. Especially programs where the faculty are on soft money too, because increasingly fewer of these sorts of jobs exist, and the faculty left in them are certainly not going to cut their own pay to hire a grad student.
    The good side of this, I think, is that fewer students will end up as cogs in machine labs. An increased proportion of students will be left in traditional academic labs where there are fewer people and actual interactions with the person who is supposed to be their supervisor.

  • bsci says:

    Joe, how exactly are students supposed to be supported besides grant money? Have them pay tuition instead of earning a stipend (i.e. like med students)? Rich donors? Significantly increase their teaching load and thus creating another thing to take them away from research and spend more time until degree (i.e. the original critique of qual exams)? I haven't surveyed anything, but is there any science PhD program where grants (institutional training grants or grants to PIs) don't play a large role in funding students stipends and their research?
    Whimple, I also don't see what the NIH alone can do regarding this. There's no stick I can imagine where it could penalize universities for graduating too many students in specified fields. Radically altering institutional training grants would still only be able to make crude changes.

  • whimple says:

    ...fewer students will end up as cogs in machine labs
    Well, a boy can dream, can't he? I predict the exact opposite: the demise of the traditional mentor/mentee academic lab and the continued expansion of the factory lab concept where the bulk of the $NIH goes to a few extraordinarily well-funded PIs who manage the research efforts of teams of slaves^H^H^H^H^H^H"trainees". 🙂

  • another young FSP says:

    whimple- I'm with CPP@38 on this one - are you just trolling?
    There are a lot of borderline applicants for grad school. Students who have crap grades in undergrad for one reason or another (excessive partying and poor study skills coming out of high school being two of the most common), but good research/real world experience after undergrad that shows they may have grown up. Students with excellent grades, but borderline recommendations or no research experience - sometimes because they worked their way through school and didn't have time for a research project. Students who look great on paper, but when you meet them for the interviews show a few weaknesses. Students coming in from a different field who want to switch focuses between undergrad and grad school.
    Each of these students has at least one big red flag in their record, but many of them also have a lot of potential. Are we supposed to ban them all, and tell them they never get a chance? I'd much rather let them in, let them try, and judge at candidacy whether or not they're succeeding in the grad school environment.

  • cmc says:

    Whimple, I'm not sure what your relationship to a med school was but you didn't learn much. Stringent requirements - oh yes, grades, MCATs and . . . drum role . . . how attractive the student is. Yep, the little known but a very true entry criterion of U.S. medical schools.
    And how do they keep the students in their schools? Use the same tests year after year, and use items that have obvious design characteristics. I aced questions in fields in which I had no knowledge, e.g. pharm.
    I don't get what you are going on about -- of course some grad students don't have what it takes to achieve a Ph.D. Therefore, they should not receive a Ph.D. End of story.
    But you seem to think doctorate quality is a joke, and the Ph.D. is an entitlement program. If you couldn't finish your program, I can see why, quite frankly.

  • ponderingfool says:

    I found the qualifying process to be very useful in developing/focussing myself at the start of my research career to be in a strong position to write papers. Working in lab doesn't generate lots of quality research. Working in lab after thinking about what you are doing & knowing the literature in the field puts one in position to generate high quality research (not to mention makes it easier to write the actual papers).
    My experience was one at the start of the 2nd year in grad school after finishing classes & rotations in the first year. First summer getting myself situated in lab and developing a thesis idea. The qualifying exam for us included writing up our thesis idea as a grant proposal as well as with coming up another proposal on an unrelated topic using different techniques. The proposals were read and if good enough we then moved on to the next stage of the process, an oral where we presented both proposals to our qualifying committee with them asking questions throughout. It was intense couple of months but in the end I had really refined my thesis and by being forced to think about another topic led me to think of new experiments for my actual thesis project.
    Do I think if I skipped the qualifying exam that I would have had more articles our of grad school? No. The time spent forced me to really think about my project and see the value of thinking ahead. Other related departments have a qualifying exam latter and one that is not as intense, I see many of the grad students in those departments wasting a lot of time in lab doing more work than needed to generate the data they are looking for. Moral, don't just work hard, work smart as well.

  • neurolover says:

    "Joe, how exactly are students supposed to be supported besides grant money? "
    individual fellowships + training grants. Individual fellowships support meritorious students; training grants support meritorious programs.
    "Whimple, I also don't see what the NIH alone can do regarding this. There's no stick I can imagine where it could penalize universities for graduating too many students in specified fields."
    Not allowing grad student support on PI grants.
    Then, NIH would control the number of grad students, through the fellowship/training grant programs.
    That's effectively what NIH does, for MD's through the MSTP program (though only for MD/Ph.D's).
    I'm not sure that whimple is arguing that the MD programs identify more "meritorious" students on an absolute scale, merely that they make the decision earlier, and are incentivized towards supporting the students they accept. Ph.D. programs set the bar low, allowing easy entry, but then have few incentives to support the students they admit reach any ultimate goal.
    And, as someone wrote above, "Breadth is needed for a creative career" even if it's not needed for(or might even make it more difficult) the narrow focus required for publishing papers. Yes, publishing extensively in one's own field, especially if that field is popular is what's going to get you the job doing that particular thing. But, that's a risky maneuver, given that in many fields, there will only be 10-20 jobs in that "narrow field", if you've traded breadth.
    We have an obligation to allow students to acquire breadth, because they need it to think beyond their narrow focus (so that they don't become successful bunny-hopping researchers) and so that they have breadth to support their endeavors, if their attempts at the narrow field don't succeed.

  • bsci says:

    neurolover,
    fellowships and training grants ARE grants.
    Centralizing ALL money for grad students??? Who would have the authority to assign grad students to each lab? I'd love to see those faculty meetings. It would make fighting over lab space and shared equipment time seem like child's play.
    Also, wouldn't it be great to set up a system discouraging inter-disciplinary graduate work since it would waste part of a department's pot of available money.

  • whimple says:

    bsci, currently the bunny-hoppers are in charge of who gets grad students (and most of all the other resources too). Anything's better than that. It would be nice if the NIH would take some control of its research. They could start with grad students and let the system evolve from there (if the NIH wanted to, which the NIH certainly does not).

  • cmc says:

    This discussion has spun off its tether -- NIH taking "control of its research"?! You can't be a scientist if you say that -- the premise of science is an open mindhive.
    NIH answers to its funders too much -- we've had circumvented hyphothesis generation (point estimation re-re-re-re-search) due to their (pharm daddy) restrictions.

  • queenrandom says:

    how exactly are students supposed to be supported besides grant money?
    Well at my institution, no student is on grant money (to be more precise, the student stipend and benefits are paid for; their research budget is the PI's responsibility). We're supported by the school, which receives a budget from the larger institution. So it can be done. The big advantage to this system is that the student is less limited in which labs they can choose and if (knock on wood) a PI loses funding (or, in the case of a couple fellow students, the PI dies), the student can still remain in the school and move their project to another mentor with similar expertise. The drawback to this method, in my experience, is a greater tendency for bad mentors to pick up students as workhorses and invest less effort in their training.

  • queenrandom says:

    As to the discussion at large regarding preliminary exams, I think the biggest annoyance for me was that they were redundant and time-consuming. I had two years of required core coursework, each course with intense exams. After that, I had two days of intense written exams which were just a rehash of the coursework exams. Then, six months later, I did the oral prelim, which consisted of first a written NIH-style research proposal on my own work (based off of a mere half year of fumbling learning how to do the assay shitty preliminary data), an oral presentation to the department of this proposal, followed by a two hour oral exam which was both general questions and a defense of the proposal. So, my general knowledge got tested thrice, and 2 years were given to testing rather than the bench. I thought the proposal and defense was a good idea in theory, however I needed more time for benchwork since it was to be based on my own data, however I was forced to learn writing and presenting skills. The written testing was, in my opinion, a waste of my time given my intense coursework. In the last months of my thesis work, I regret not having had more time to do benchwork so I could have more publications behind me when I graduate (although this is complicated by the fact that I had to switch labs due to my first mentor getting fired and being a bad mentor). This would be much more useful for me finding a job than the repetitious testing and general coursework that ate up a year of my grad school career.

  • queenrandom says:

    Yikes, that was one too many "however." Revised: the proposal and defense were good in theory because it trained me in written and oral scientific communication. A drawback was that it was based on a rather short period of my own original research; the proposal would have benefited from more time to gather preliminary data.

  • DrugMonkey says:

    This discussion has spun off its tether -- NIH taking "control of its research"?! You can't be a scientist if you say that -- the premise of science is an open mindhive.
    I agree with you that a major strength of our NIH-funded system of research is the investigator-initiated proposal. The premise here is that the research which gets conducted is as democratic as possible in origin-anyone with a great idea gets to compete on an even footing for funding of the research plan.
    Trouble is....well, the real world. Only professors can write proposals for the University to submit and only certain people get hired. Only certain people, doing certain kinds of work, possibly from certain institutions excel at the game of getting funding.
    There are ways in which NIH 'takes control of' the process of science which actually work in favor of the democratization of science. K99/R00, ESI and other initiatives are designed to get scientific ideas funded that otherwise would not be funded. Affirmative action for topic domain (i.e., the RFA) is another way they take control of the scientific product to enhance the diversity of their portfolios.
    so the idea that NIH exerting more control is always a bad thing is just flat wrong.

  • cmc says:

    DrugMonkey -- HIH policy, guidelines, orphan dx/rx/sx adoption,and target areas are beneficial. But whimple, whoever he is, had got an idea that NIH should dictate to retain all students. He wants an 'in for the penny, on for the Ph.D.' policy.
    A no push-out policy is a very different issue than the one you raised: that some of these exams are wasting valuable time due to redudancy. (My position is that well-designed exams do not waste time . . . and that breadth is very important.) My grad program had a 3/4 attrition rate -- not nice, but it would have been far worse if those students had slogged through a failing dissertation.

  • bsci says:

    Whimple, I really don't get what you're saying. The NIH sets priorities and a system through which PIs get grants and will have the money to support grad students. Alternatively they set priorities and a system to give departments and schools grants to support grad students. If the goal is to get the "correct" number of grad students into the "correct" priority areas, the issue is how the priorities are set and not whether the money goes to a department or PI.
    If what you're really saying is there should be less grad students, then they should drastically cut the money available for supporting grad students across all mechanisms. That has no relationship to whether that money is going through PIs or departments.

  • whimple says:

    This doesn't have anything to do with qualifying exams, but since you ask, the difference between funding departments and funding PIs is that the former funds the people/institution and the latter funds specific projects. In my opinion the NIH should be more "people-centric" and less "project-centric", although this is clearly a minority view.

  • Toxicology Kat says:

    I'm about to graduate from a Master's program (at a university where that's the highest degree) and we had to produce and defend a proposal for our own research project before the end of our first year. This was to get us into the lab (or field, as the case may be) in a timely manner instead of taking classes and "thinking about" choosing a project. You better believe this got us reading the literature!
    Also, my PI (and probably most of his colleagues) specifically wanted us to choose topics that were NOT an extension of his work. (The undergrads only get to pick which of his projects they want to do; otherwise they spend a semester writing a proposal, the next semester trying to get it to work, and rarely getting any data out of it.) I'm going to be first author on the paper from my research, although our last grad student went to pharmacy school and decided he'd rather let the PI write his paper and take first-author.
    The only catch here is that few PIs have grants to pay students, and most master's students don't qualify for fellowships, so we either work (often off-campus) or take out loans if we don't have a spouse supporting us.

  • Im throwing my vote behind a Kirk Hammett version.

  • Ed Rybicki says:

    The US system is pretty much alone in requiring exams for postgraduate programme degrees, like MS(c) and PhD: the UK, Europe, Australia and others simply have a dissertation / thesis, and possibly a defence.

  • Anyway, most all (ahem Trick or Treat) of Erics list are top-notch films, even if they arent the SCARIEST EVER. The list seems more geared towards film buffs than horror fans anyway IMO.

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