Monday, November 29, 2010

Crazy idea for revamping the PhD program...

We still run Biology PhD programs basically the same way people did 20-30 years ago. Professors offer graduate classes in their areas of specialty, often formatted not terribly different from advanced undergraduate classes. Students very often struggle to find graduate classes in which they're interested either to fulfill a requirement or to learn SOMETHING besides what they're doing in lab. The efficacy of these classes, especially those "concept-centered", is often low... the students "learn" a lot the same way they did in undergrad, where a ton is covered of which very little is directly relevant to them, and the portion that was relevant would have been picked up anyway through independent reading. Meanwhile, we largely fail to train PhD students at skills or concepts they will actually need: 1) grant-writing (there's an exception with one class here at Duke), 2) what it really takes to run a lab, 3) developing and giving lectures in a class, 4) outreach and speaking to the public, 5) career options besides becoming a clone of their PhD advisor.

Why? Because we (faculty) are lazy is why- if it worked for us, it's "good enough." I'm currently floating a proposal with various folks in Duke Biology for a three year "PhD roadmap" that I'd love to get feedback on. Here's the outline. The objectives were to come up with a roadmap that would do all this while not being overly onerous or annoying to the students or faculty. In this vision, all pieces could be "optional", but this overall plan would be laid out as a suggested roadmap- with the exception of the year 1 spring class (for which we'd need the full cohort to participate for it to work).

Year 1-

Fall: A) Take "tools" coursework (e.g., statistics, programming, Matlab)

B) Take “tutorial” course(s) based on interests rather than the usual concept-courses. We'd ask in-residence faculty to set aside time to do a course or two wherein they just meet with 2-5 students every week (or every 2 weeks) for an hour or two to talk about papers in an area of mutual agreement. Basically, PhD students take the initiative to tell faculty what they want to learn/ cover, identify faculty with that expertise, and then
meet with them in small groups to cover that material informally through directed readings and discussions (NOT PowerPoint lectures!). Ideally, it would be mutually beneficial, as the faculty member could use it as impetus to read some of the papers in a stack on their desk (or virtual stack in their RSS feed reader)

C) Take Bio307 Grad School 101 course (half-semester, 1 hr/ week).

Spring: A) Student-driven journal club/ presentations (presentation dates organized in fall). This course would meet twice a week: Tuesdays are class-like presentation by student on a contentious topic of their choosing (graded by peers on clarity, comprehensiveness, etc., of their presentation
), and Thursdays, students read and discuss a recent paper relevant to Tuesday's class. The student's temporary advisor would attend to give feedback, answer questions which the student doesn't know, etc., but the student is giving the presentations.
The purposes of this class are: have students intensely research something IN WHICH THEY'RE INTERESTED and then present it (no better way to know a subject); real lecture-style presentation experience; NSF pre-doctoral fellowship preparation before year 2; increasing self-sufficiency.
It'd be required, but very low effort except that which hopefully they're very interested. There'd be no tests- if it's not your presentation week, you just show up, listen, and provide feedback/ discuss.

B) Can also take more tutorial courses based on interest.

Year 2-

Fall: A) outreach activity on topic of interest: must reach people outside college/ university setting (K-12 activity/ presentation, or public presentation, or something else). Use creativity, and present something in a way people not in the field (e.g., your grandmother) will understand.

B) Can also take more tutorial courses based on interest.

Spring: grant-preparation class, like that currently offered in UPGG? Good timing for DDIG or NRSA prep, since due in fall of year 3.

Year 3- Fall and Spring: A) Each semester, student identifies a "mentor" besides their advisor and meets with them for an hour every other week to talk about the job and maybe "witness" parts. This type of mentorship currently happens in J Reynolds' class on college teaching. Preferably, one of two semesters, student identifies someone NOT in the department to take on this role (med school, teaching position, industry, government, etc).

B) Take Bio308 course on career options (good place to find people who could be mentors, half-semester, 1 hr/ week)

What's with this whole blogging thing?

So, I post all the time on Yelp about local restaurants. I occasionally post on other blogs about science or academic procedures (e.g., in various PLoS sites). Is there interest in a merger of the two, and is there more generally benefit or interest in having such a blog? I'll play with this for a while and see if there's interest, cross-posting on FaceBook since there's already a group seeing what's there. Comments/ thoughts/ suggestions from bloggers or blog-watchers welcome!!! (Especially as to whether to do this such that it can be seen by the >250 students in my class next semester...)