feedback for students

Penny Riggs riggs at
Thu Sep 18 11:51:09 EST 1997

Bharathi Jagadeesh wrote:
> I have a question for PI's, peripheraly motivated
> by a question asked in the money/self-esteem thread.
> How do you give feedback to students/and post-docs
> (who are supposed to be trainees?)? What is "good"
> performance?
> I think part of this problem has resulted from the
trend toward going directly from BS degree to PhD.
I once worked in a lab where the PI required all of
his students to get the MS degree, whether or not their
main goal was the PhD.  This tactic, although unpopular
with some, accomplished a few things:
1) It allowed a student to test the waters and pursue
a graduate degree without making a commitment to a PhD;
2) A PhD isn't for everybody.  Students who didn't seem
suited for academic life or a supervisory position, could
be encouraged to consider other types of employment options;
3) It added variety and experience to our graduate careers:
although expanding on the MS project for the PhD was possible,
most chose PhD projects that were only tangentially related
to the original MS project;
4) The PhD students often helped suggest/plan projects for
the incoming MS and undergrad students, so we could try our
hand at mentoring.

I could go on, but the point is, it is becoming more difficult
for students to bow out of PhD programs.  In my limited experience
in only a couple of graduate programs, stopping at the MS degree
was not only discouraged, but looked down upon.  One particular 
student I knew wanted to go into sales and didn't enjoy supervising
others.  He wanted to get an MS degree, but got a lot of pressure
from faculty to stay in the PhD program.  He eventually followed his
own instincts, got the MS degree and went to work as sales/support rep
for a biotech company, and still says he has no regrets.  

Faculty members who take on graduate students and post-doc "trainees"
must give feedback -- if a student performs well, that should be
rewarded at least with a compliment.  I would think "good performance"
means the student is technically competent, carries out the experiment
properly, is capable of assessing the outcome of the experiments, and
more importantly, is capable of determining "the next step," or at
least has a clue what direction it should be.  If the student is struggling,
maybe other types of careers are an option, or maybe that student
just needs a little more encouragement/advice etc.

It has always seemed to me that the decline in MS degrees
has been associated with the increase in low-paying post-doc
jobs.  Used to be that brand new PhDs could land faculty
jobs because they had more experience than one narrowly-focused
graduate project permits.  Now, most biology-related faculty
jobs require post-doc experience, so new PhDs take on post doc
jobs as a step toward that future job.  

Now if someone would just explain to me why the payscale for
postdocs at most universities is less than the payscale for
technical staff....  When I worked as a technician with a BS
in biology, I made more than the postdoc we hired.  Always thought
there was something wrong with that picture.

Ok, I'll get off the soapbox now -- flame away ;-)

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