Friday, September 05, 2008

Graduate School Reflection

When looking for a good graduate program, most people focus on the adviser. After all, with as individual-driven as graduate school is, having an adviser who checks in every once in a while and cares is a nice thing to have. However, I don't think most people think about the department. That's probably because there's no help there. It's probably the case that wherever you go, the department doesn't care about you or its classes. The department will do its best to screw you over. The department will put you through hell... but maybe that's their job. Maybe everyone gets a good hazing as a rite of passage on the way to joining academia.

I suppose it could be worse. One thing I didn't realize as an undergrad is how much the department really really doesn't care about them. Undergrads are a little bit like the coppertops of The Matrix; they plug in and go about their lives not ever realizing that they're just there to generate revenue. There's no social good. There's no professional obligation to educate young professionals. It's all about the money.

One day I sat in on a meeting of large donors to The College. A marketing person from The College or The University gave a PowerPoint presentation on improving the ranking of The College. One major topic of discussion was about which pictures to put on the front of brochures that are mailed out to other Colleges who contribute to the rankings ("Ah, yes, but what type of people both become engineers AND become deans of engineering colleges? Maybe engineers prefer charts, but deans prefer pictures of people walking on grass!" (no joke)). Another topic was how many graduate students to accept in order to maximize one variable in a large formula that contributes to ranking. Too few graduate students and you have too few research dollars being spent, but too many and the professor-to-student ratio is all upset. No talk of "excellence" or anything like that. All about marketing and presentation. Oh... why was I there? I had to sit and be pretty so the old donors had some young people to talk to during the dinner.

Welcome to a research I university.


clay said...

I have had a slightly different experience with school. I don't see antagonism as much between students and The Department as I do between The Department and The University. (At least out here) it is The University that appears uncaring and bureaucratic (and which lacks any notion of compassion when I forget to have one of their worthless forms signed). In such cases, The Department will stick up for me and make sure that I get what that I need or that my stipend keeps coming.

So I agree with you that the further up the bureaucracy I go, the more I find that schools are run by bean counters. But at least at the department level, a lot of people are still on my side.

I believe this to be true of undergrads here as well, but part of that is because the undergraduate population of EEs is so small. So rather than herd them through, the department actually has to fight to keep them from becoming lawyers and MBAs.

Ted said...

I have a feeling there's a scaling effect. OSU is the largest university in the nation, and so each department is pretty large and bulky itself. Students rarely have to interact with the university level. In fact, students rarely have to interact with any other departments. Nearly everything goes on at the department level, and different departments have different policies. Just the PhD qualifier and candidacy process varies greatly from department to department.

On the other hand, I've had better luck dealing with the university than I have with the department. That's possibly because students rarely have to deal with the university because the department is so large.

For example, the *department* was going to cut my monthly stipend in half without any prior notice this summer. The university didn't have much power to help me (even though a university policy was what eventually saved me), but they at least gave me some encouraging words (before telling me that I was at the mercy of my department). It took a lot of extra running around on my part to get my department to give me the normal funding level (I wouldn't have been able to pay rent with a half stipend for the summer quarter).

The department is going through a lot of turmoil right now. Recruitment has fallen DRAMATICALLY over the last couple of years. We only have about 60 incoming freshmen for next year, and we're used to at least 100. That has greatly reduced the department budget *AND* reduced the number of classes available for TA support. My adviser wanted to make a one-time purchase of an educational DVD for one of his classes. It would have been in the neighborhood of $200 and would have gotten use over multiple years. He got turned down. Another example... The end-of-quarter surveys that students fill out used to get processed by work-study students who typed the responses in (to keep them anonymous) and shredded the originals. Without telling the students, the work-study process has been short-circuited and now the handwritten surveys get copied and put in TA mailboxes directly. I have been telling my students this over the last couple of quarters, and they're all surprised to hear it. They were still under the impression that handwriting got masked through some process.

While recruitment is falling at OSU's ECE, new specializations in the engineering *college* are sucking money away. We have had a BioMed graduate program for years that now is expanding into an undergraduate program. There are courses that BioMed students take out of the ECE department (image processing courses in particular). Those courses used to be cross-listed, but then the BioMed program dropped the BioMed appointment for the ECE profs (in order to save money). So ECE dropped the cross-listing (so that no enrollment dollars would go into the BioMed department).

Oh, and I don't know why ECE enrollment is down. OSU's ECE program is one of the few programs that attempts to maintain several "specializations" at once (Comm/SP, Electromagnetics, Circuits, Materials, Power, Control, Digital/Computers, Photonics). I think it has spread the department thin and made it difficult for it to shine in any particular area.

Part of the reason I made the post so snarky was because I was in a particularly snarky mood. In reality, things probably aren't as bad as I would like to make them seem. Nevertheless, I frequently wonder about how different things would have been if I would have gone somewhere else. (note: I am more than happy with my choice of *ADVISER*; this commentary is about the larger structures that make it hard to get work done)