Friday, May 26, 2017

Blaming the victim?

In the previous 2 blog posts, I discussed some sobering figures on the graduate experience, and how this is probably (partially) related to the lack of advisor evaluation (and training?). And then I read this column from "A growing phobia". The author, with "30-plus years as faculty member" experience, proposes his (I assume a white man wrote this) solution to a student's fear of interacting with their advisor:  
"But if you are the student, understand that these meetings benefit you, and that it is your responsibility — not your supervisor's — to set them up. You need to be able to organize your thoughts, rethink experiments, present experimental results and interpretations and consider your next steps. These skills will make supervisor meetings less frightening and more useful."
So no mention of how the advisor can help the graduate student with the underlying causes of this fear? Because there are some clues scattered throughout the blog post:

  • "The supervisor, with the best of intentions, provides constructive criticism"
  • "remarking on the slow progress of one PhD student's research project at our second review meeting"
  • "Three months later, I repeated my concerns"
  • " I was too busy to notice for another six months."
  • "I was horrified when my suggestion elicited tears."
  • "Ideally, your supervisor will be empathetic until you can acclimatize to feedback and criticism"
Maybe I am reading too much into these comments, but look at the accompanying artwork: towering, stern male figure vs cowering grad student. The student does not fear the criticism per se, but the supervisor.

And how can we (supervisors, advisors, professors) create an environment that does not create this fear? This recent article reports on a survey done in an undergrad setting, but the conclusions are equally applicable to graduate advising, I think. Some of the facilitators are difficult to change or impractical ("Professor has good personality", "Professor gives their phone number"), and some of the suggested facilitators are behaviours that are difficult to quantify or change, such as encouraging, caring, inviting and open, willing or eager to help. But some suggestions are very practical and, if grad student interactions are important to you, relatively easy to implement (I added the bold to certain words):

  • "Professor uses and answers email"
  • "Professor has many and flexible office hours"
  • "Professor has accessible office hours"
And doing these things would show the student that you care. When you are too busy to notice the absence of one of your own students for six months, maybe it is no wonder that a student does not feel important or valuable.

Tuesday, May 23, 2017

New lab member!

Welcome Jennifer Gleason! Jennifer recently finished her MSc with where she looked at aquatic macroinvertebrate community composition:
"The Northern Prairie Pothole Region (NPPR) of Alberta, Canada contains numerous shallow marshes that serve as important habitat for wildlife and provide many essential ecosystem services. Many of these pothole wetlands have been destroyed or degraded by agricultural activity, prompting research into their condition and management. Aquatic macroinvertebrates are frequently used as indicators of environmental condition in rivers and lakes, but their effectiveness as indicators in prairie pothole marshes is not clear. I discovered that, contrary to my predictions, macroinvertebrate richness and community composition at family-level resolution do not respond to land use. Instead, macroinvertebrate community composition in pothole marshes is structured primarily by hydroperiod, which ranges from temporary, through seasonal and semi-permanent, to permanent marsh classes."
 After her undergrad degree, she worked at BIO, and for her PhD she will combine both expertises (molecular identification and macroinvertebrate community composition) to investigate anthropogenic influences at the landscape scale. Very exciting!

Tuesday, May 16, 2017

Joining the modern scientific conversation

I am slowly finding my way through the mystery that is twitter. The interface seems so inaccessible to me, everything so tightly bunched up, with lots of symbols, and  secret conventions that are almost Dan Brown masonic in nature. If you need to google how to interact with twitter and find articles like this, either I am getting old or the organic development of twitter needs a redesign/reboot (or both).

But more and more people are using it in a science context, so I feel the need to get on the bandwagon, or at least know where the bandwagon is going, and how to get on and off quickly. So I decided to highlight 5 tweets that got my attention, where insightful, or captured some poignant moment from the CSEE meeting.
Carolyn's tweet is especially funny, because if you look closely, you can see Bob Holt, one of the founding fathers of spatial ecology, looking in from the outside ;-)

Anne Salomon's public talking skills are summarized in this one picture from her presentation.

Isabelle Côté's introduction was in rhyme, a first for me and a lot of CSEE members I think!

(Mild?) Frustration in less than 140 characters.

Another UoG grad student influencing society beyond science.

Wednesday, May 3, 2017

Students learn the most from each other

This is something we have known for the last 10 years (or 20) through for instance the research done by Eric Mazur and collaborators. They showed that using peer instruction improved student learning of physics concepts by 20% in a real-world, class setting, compared to a "regular" lecture-based approach with the sage on the stage imparting their wisdom to the young susceptible minds!
That is a fine example of a very deliberate teaching practice. Sometimes the learning is much more ... unexpected. In Winter 2017, I organized a graduate course called "Ecological statistics through time" that was mainly student taught, by design. I will devote some blog posts on some of these experiences, but one of the fun outcomes was something I did not (could not) anticipate.

The students in the course had a wide range of experience with R, from 3+ years of daily coding for a MSc degree to just one undergrad intro stats course. This made teaching R a challenge, because I had to constantly try and accommodate these extremes (with varying levels of success probably). But the advantage was that I had plenty of best practice examples that did not come from me, but from their peers. For instance, I have collected and created some best practice documents for R coding in the Resource page on my website.

But what is not on this page, and what a lot of students had fun with for their final reproducible coding assignment, was something that they learned from Joey. He and Sharon posted some R code for their discussion, and it had this header:

And this style showed up in some modesty in their peers' code: 

But some also went to town with this idea, and went beyond expectations:

And it is hard to pick the best one, but this is one of my favourites:


Wednesday, April 26, 2017

The thorny subject of assessing graduate advisors

One of the most satisfying aspects of graduate school is working together with graduate students to solve fun, important, novel problems. This "working together" can cover the gradient from supervisor, to advisor, mentor, and collaborator. However, from the perspective of a graduate student, the leadership style implied by these different terms can have important effects on graduate student well-being (last week's news item). In one of the mentioned articles, the authors explicitly quantified three different leadership styles:
"Turning to the leadership style of the PhD supervisor, we see evidence for a better mental health in those PhD students who are advised by a professor with an inspirational leadership style (OR is 0.868 for GHQ2+ and 0.908 for GHQ4+). No significant associations were found between an autocratic leadership style and the experience of mental health problems. However, when PhD students were exposed to a laissez-faire leadership style, the risk of experiencing psychological distress significantly increased."

The university spends a lot of time to discussing how to assess undergraduate teaching, but assessing graduate advisors has received a lot less attention. And now there is strong evidence that this assessment has important, positive consequences. A recent article reports on results from a study at eight research universities that concluded that:
"... was a much more effective system for classifying and tracking the performance of supervisors. This has led to problems being addressed earlier, the removal of “totally unsatisfactory supervisors” and an 8 per cent increase in timely completions."

The assessment criteria were: the current and past number of students advised, graduations within the completion period, and "student rescues". While these are relatively easy to quantify, they do not necessarily address some of the aspects covered in the first quote. This would involve graduate student (past and present?) input, and this is where the thorns come into the picture. Because of the close nature of the advisor-graduate student relationship, what would you ask, when would you ask this, and who would you ask it to?