triage, money, teaching - what is important

S. Boomer sarai at
Tue Sep 2 12:49:44 EST 1997

A couple of thoughts:

First, I agree with recent posts that suggest triage should occur earlier.
In our dept., the generals take place at the beginning of the third year -
but typically, students are not failed outright... they are given the
chance to retake after 6-12 months... most, over the course of the year,
slowly atrophy and leave.

There has been a new push to do much more extensive rotation evaluations -
such that a possible bottleneck/triage point is actually at the end of the
first year.  This has been influenced by a combination of factors, perhaps
the most powerful of which are SPACE and MONEY - two biggees that I
haven't seen discussed in terms of triage.  Yes, student performance at
the bench is central but, as Julia pointed out so well before... the
funding status and space issues (in many cases) are enough to tip some
scales.  Over the last several years, our dept. has suffered a lot in
terms of PIs losing money and incoming students all wanting to work in 1-2
labs, which are full... there isn't that wide-eyed openness to just
rotating wherever... students come in connected and aware (maybe
stubbornly so).  People do find places to work but it is seldom where they
wanted to be at the start - and there is more use of a strange new
"probation" status that never used to be applied during the first five
years I was here.  

Space and money loss has definitely tipped the scales on a few people
"being encouraged to leave" over the years and I would be curious to hear
from others about this side of the triage issue.  It seems that there is
this sense of - well, if the student is four years or less, mediocre - and
the money runs out... well - they should be handed the masters.  If the
student is 5 years or more, has a publication (regardless of medicrioty),
well, they can get out faster with the PhD.  My ex- certainly fell into
the latter category.  His boss was out of money and he was basically told
- at 5.5 years - well, you have one more quarter - you have to teach for
your pay (he'd been teaching intermittedly for a few years during dry
spells) and it doesn't really matter what you finish in terms of your
dissertation goals.  John actually had to pay his own tuition in order to
defend the next quarter after this, which many people (faculty and
students alike) felt was reprehensible.  He had about 6 publications,
though - mainly simple characterizational studies of new species of
bacteria based on 16S work... some committee members raked him for not
telling a more complete story but money was really at the core of this
one.  Another friend at 4 years was sat down and "encouraged to leave"
after the boss ran out of money - he was in the middle of his first paper,
having passed his qualifying exams.  He had begun to, like me, embrace the
idea of eventually using his PhD to teach small college - which is a
terrific stigma among many faculty I know (fortunately, NOT my boss).
Here was a case where this guy would have really benefitted career wise
with being given the chance to teach on the side (as John had to do much
of his career due to lack of funding) - but his boss didn't support that
at all.  I'm watching another friend nearly get "encouraged" out, a year
after she had a child (and five years into the program).  She's fighting
it hard... but, again, money is at stake - as is that great perception of

Anyway - Julia's comments about teaching influencing things is something I
haven't seen much of directly.  Our dept. FINALLY got smart and began to
delay teaching requirements until the second year.  I applaud this
because, as it has been, students come in and have to rotate, take
classes, and teach - nobody benefits from this kind of stress.  Now, given
the "triage" selection at year one based on rotations, students are given
more of an opportunity to get a feel for research and to actually do it
fully when it matters.  The situations I described above, however,
certainly do involve teaching:  John having to teach several quarters
beyond the first year to earn his keep for the PhD is a new trend in our
dept.  However, the other guy being just kicked out - even though he
WANTED to teach (and maybe would have been happier in other aspects of
life had he been given the chance to teach for his keep) - seems
inconsistent.  It would be nice to find some consistency to everything,

Ellen's comments about what makes a good researcher, though, trouble me a
bit - because, again, we have to ask ourself (especially in light of the
job market) what a PhD really is about.  I noticed that Ellen, like me, is
here at the UW - I think we still are the most highly funded public
university.  Coming from a small liberal arts college, I had no clue what
big research was going to be like - what it meant to say that you were
willing to put your entire career into the hands of grants... what tenure
(or lack of tenure) meant at a big school.  I have learned a hell of a lot
here at the UW because, sadly, research is EVERYTHING - publications are
EVERYTHING - tenure/power/space/money are EVERYTHING... and teaching is
often, sadly, stigmatized.  For me, student performance is just a
sidelight to the bigger forces of money and space.  I'll just end with the
rhetorical question: is that how the education behind the PhD should be


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