Sunday, December 1, 2013

Professors Must Break Away From the Undergraduate Mentality

A partial response to Ph.D. Students Must Break Away From the Undergraduate Mentality.

Being an undergrad is characterized by classes. Endless, time-sucking, life-eating classes. Classes that you have to take, classes where grades matter, classes that will determine your employment after you graduate. At CMU as an undergrad, we took ~50 "units" per semester, (~17 credit hours), which meant that we were "supposed" to work about 50 hours/week. We all probably worked more, because some "12-unit" classes took 20+ hours on their own. Undergrad was fun, but not sustainable. (I mean, we also lived in dorms. You can't do this forever.)

Immediately upon entering grad school (hopefully before), you'll be informed that classes, in fact, do not matter, and that you should stop optimizing for them. This is fine advice. After all, you won't be a great researcher if your main qualification is "did well in class." (Mor Harchol-Balter's excellent inside scoop to grad admissions makes this very clear: "did well in class" doesn't even get you in to grad school, much less out.)

However, the faculty still forces you to take classes. You'll get minimal credit for completing them, but you have to do so. In the article above, Jason even advises, "you should do more than the bare minimum amount of work needed for your courses."

Where does this time come from? Not from your research. It's one reason your job as a grad student stretches beyond the "standard" and healthy 40 hours (which may even be too long) into 60+ hours. Remember: that's doable for a limited time, as an undergrad, when you're living on campus, and it's kind of miserable then. It's not a prolonged lifestyle. Your advisors want you to take classes, and do research, and not work too hard, but it doesn't seem a contradiction in their minds. Your advisors want you to take classes during your magic time, that extra bit of time you keep hidden in your Bag of Holding or your TARDIS. Your advisors probably had this time; after all, as Philip Guo says, "Only about 1 out of every 75 Ph.D. students from a top-tier university has what it takes to become a professor at a school like Stanford." For the rest of us, that "magic time" is our sleep or our friends/family time. It's not a healthy tradeoff.

So we have some hoops to jump through that are causing us pain. Let's rethink this. Why mandate certain classes? Why mandate classes at all? I'd like to see a shift in how classes are perceived. Instead of forcing certain classes, or a certain number of classes, let students pick which classes will actually benefit them. Make all homework assignments, papers, and projects optional. You learn more, and build your career, actually doing research.

"But classes help you learn new skills that you'll need!" Yes, some do. And some assignments within those classes do. But some don't. Let me decide that. Let me pick which skills I want to acquire and how much of them I need. Treat me like an adult, not an undergraduate.