All posts for the month April, 2012

I am quite worried about the state of this country’s graduate education system.  While I am sure we are cranking out record numbers of students with advanced degrees, I think the quality of education has been severely eroded.  This stems primarily from the desire of many universities to build large, well funded research programs.

Unfortunately it seems that over the years a ‘large, well funded program’ has essentially become synonymous with running a consulting company.  To understand why this is you have to understand the different types of funding engineering faculty can get.  One can split it into government funding and industry funding with the vast majority of the money coming from the government.

Let us consider the smaller industry funding first.  This money comes as either a grant or a gift.  Gift money is essentially unrestricted and companies give it for a couple of reasons.  First is to build relationships with academic research groups which helps in preparing and recruiting students.  The second reason is that gift money goes farther because universities typically do not charge overhead on it.  Grant money on the other hand is charged overhead (typically around 50%) but there is a contract in place and deliverables expected.  Thus, the company has much more say in what research should be conducted and what results should be delivered.  Gift money is probably the best type of money someone can get because it is essentially unrestricted.  However, unless a faculty member has had a very long relationship with a business, gifts are usually very small (tens of thousands of dollars) and are hard to rely on because of natural business cycles.  Grant money from industry is probably the worst type of money you can get because there are usually many deliverables.  I.e. companies are looking for tangible results from their investment.

Government money makes up the vast majority of funding.  As an engineer there are two primary sources of government funding, the Department of Defense (DoD) and the National Science Foundation (NSF).  Depending on the specific type of work, engineers also get funding from the Department of Energy (DoE), the National Institutes of Health (NIH), and NASA.  Funding from NSF is arguably the best because it is largely unrestricted, allowing the faculty member and the supported students freedom to explore interesting ideas that may not have been explicitly proposed.  DoE and NIH funding can also be fairly unrestricted.  NASA funding was always relatively small and it is almost completely gone now.  The vast majority of engineering research funds come from the various DoD agencies.  This is probably the worst type of funding there is from an academic freedom perspective because DoD wants specific results and will not continue funding a program unless they get them.

While I am not suggesting that having deliverables and expecting results from a funded research project is bad, I do think it diminishes the academic experience and the education of the students supported by the funds.  If a faculty member is being pressured by a funding agency to deliver results (or lose the funds) that faculty member will pressure the students working on the project.  The faculty member then becomes a manager, the students employees, and the research group a small consulting company.

Putting pressure on graduate students to get research done is not necessarily a bad thing.  However, it seems to always results in the student spending less time on their courses/education and more time on their research.  If the work is truly graduate level research the students should need to spend at least a year doing mostly coursework to build a deeper understanding to perform the research.  The pressure to get immediate results distracts students from learning anything besides what is directly needed to get the results.

This pressure also affects how faculty members advise their students.  Students are frequently directed to take the minimum number of classes required and steered towards easier classes requiring less work.  A light course load will mean there is more time for research.  I was shocked to hear that students in one lab are actually told not to do schoolwork from 9:00 to 5:00 because that is when they are ‘working’.  This environment is really the same as they would have working in industry and taking courses towards an advanced degree in the evenings.

In fact, it seems like in many situations the students would be better off doing just that.  Even if you consider the tuition the students do not have to pay, the money they make is much less than the money they would be making in industry.  The only reason I can tell for students not opting for this is the necessary classes are not offered in the evenings.  Maybe as more and more classes are offered online we will start seeing students take this route.

Thus, one has to wonder why companies are still willing to hire graduate students.  This is likely because these students are usually the smartest and hardest workers.  Going to graduate school does not change that, and the classes they do take and the research they perform do likely better prepare them.  Unless they are doing the exact same type of research as they did for their thesis (which is highly unlikely) the lack of focusing on courses, learning, and broadening and deepening their knowledge will make them less prepared than they could have been.

While a previous post explains why I do not enjoying advising (graduate) students, that should not be interpreted as not wanting to have any graduate students.  In fact, I would like to have a graduate student or two.  While I will not like the managerial aspects of having the students, the energy required to manage two graduate students will not overwhelm the joy of teaching them.

I will now try to explain why then I do not have any graduate students.  The reason is essentially all about funding.  I have written many proposals over the past few years (mostly in collaboration with other people).  The vast majority of the funding I have requested in these proposals is to support graduate students.  Unfortunately, none of them have been funded.

The last grant I received (about four years ago from NSF) requested funds to hire two graduate students, one in physics and one in ME.  Unfortunately, while the grant was funded, the funds provided were about half of what was requested.  With such a limited budget for the work proposed the co-PI and I decided to hire a post-doctoral researcher.  (Note that with the exceedingly high tuition at PSU and the fact that the full amount must be paid for supported students, it actually costs about the same to hire a post-doctoral researcher as it does a graduate student.)  Even if the grant had been fully funded, the funding period was only three years (typical for NSF).  With it taking (on average) five years for a student to finish a Ph.D., there would more than likely be at least two years during which the student would not have funding unless another grant was awarded.  With funding rates so low and my success rate not that encouraging it was hard for me to be comfortable telling a student they would be supported as a research assistant for the entire time.

In many regards it is much easier to manage post-doctoral researchers because they can be let go (and are expected to be let go) once the funding runs out.  Making sure students have funding whether it is from a research assistantship or a teaching assistantship generates a great deal of stress.  I realize that it should not be overly stressful on me but it is.  I feel obligated to make sure a student has support for their entire stay at PSU.

Another benefit to hiring a post-doc for me in particular is that I can readily find someone with a strong background in theoretical mechanics (needed to do the research I propose).  The reason this is so important, especially at PSU, is that our graduate curriculum in theoretical mechanics (at least in engineering) is in shambles.  I will discuss this further in future posts.  Thus, for me to get someone up to speed in all the fundamentals means that I either need to find a student willing to learn a whole lot on his/her own, or I have to spend a tremendous amount of energy teaching them.  While I would expect students to have to teach any graduate student (or post-doc) quite a lot, having to teach them everything is a huge added burden.

All that said, I will continue to request funding to hire graduate students, and will do so when that funding is awarded.  I will also continue to look for the rare student that has his/her own funding and is interested in doing research that requires a deep understanding of physics and mathematics.  Unfortunately, the intersection of these two sets is very small.  Almost all the students that might have their own funding are domestic ones.  Almost all the students interested in the necessary physics and mathematics are foreign.

Maybe as China and India become wealthier nations I will start to see well-prepared foreign students coming to the US for graduate school with their own funding or fellowships from their government.

I was pretty shocked when my boss recently came to the conclusion that I do not like teaching students.  That is actually one of the things I like most about my job.  In the end I think she took my dislike for advising to mean I dislike teaching.  I can understand the connection but it forced me to think about the differences between teaching and advising students and how someone could enjoy one but dislike the other.

It basically comes down to the fact that I utterly hate managing people, and while advising consists of a great deal of teaching it also requires a great deal of managing.  Thus, the thing I enjoy most is actually teaching/helping other people’s students (or co-advising students).  I think this is also why post-docs are attractive.  They usually do not require much less teaching than graduate students (since their background does not usually match their current project) but they seem to require a whole lot less managing.

Loathing managing is not something I discovered later in my life; I remember feeling this way in high school. In fact, a big reason I decided to go to graduate school was to be able to have a job in which promotions did not mean managing more and more people.  (Although I realize now that is not necessarily the case in academia.)  The structure I saw at a Ford plastics plant (where everyone had a BS) and an IBM research lab (where everyone had a PhD) made me realize I needed an advanced degree to avoid the managerial track.

I am not sure why I hate managing so much.  Part of it is obviously that I am not very good at it.  However, that is more of a result of disliking it so much, i.e. I loathed managing before I realized I am terrible at it.  It is likely just a personality trait and similar to why many great athletes do not make good coaches.  While I enjoy helping people and giving them advice, I dislike telling them what they should do.  Everyone should just think for themselves.

This personality trait is also probably why I am a terrible recruiter and promoter.  I recall reading an article about the, so called, Fab Five who began their college basketball careers at Michigan while I was there.  In the article they mentioned how Juwan Howard and Chris Weber had very different personalities when it came to helping recruit new players.  The coaches would always have recruits spend a lot of time with Juwan because he thought Michigan was the best place in the world and would tell them they should play at Michigan.  Recruits spent very little time with Chris even though he was the best player because he was not a good recruiter.  He would basically tell them they should make up their own minds and go to college wherever they wanted.  I am much more like Chris in this regard.  While I never tell students they should not come to Penn State, I also do not pretend to think it is the greatest university.  There are a lot of reason students should want to come here, but I could say that about almost any university.

This seems to have a lot to do with ‘sales’, another thing I hate and am terrible at.  Managing is essentially very much like sales in that you are selling people tasks.  My terrible ability to sell myself and my research will the the topic of a future post.