There has been much angsty press in recent years about how kids don't have much free time to kick around and just be kids anymore. Those of us who grew up in an era when our parents sent us out the door to walk 3 miles in a blizzard to school or let us run around outside with our friends for hours are surely more creative and independent than those of you who (mis)spent your youth being shuttled in a mini-van from violin lessons to soccer to Mandarin class every day.
But what about today's overscheduled professors? If we have absolutely no 'free' time to think and muse and contemplate and play pretend games, will we lose our ability to be creative and independent?
That's actually not what I want to talk about today. A more practical consideration that is related to the issue of overscheduled professors is that it is very difficult to get more than 2 (or even 1?) professor together in a particular room at a particular time for a graduate student's preliminary exam or thesis defense. Anyone who has been involved in the scheduling of one of these events, either as a student or as one of the professors, surely knows how complicated this can be.
These exams are mandatory for the student and the professors, but they have to be squeezed into the interstices of our days, and finding a 3+ hour block of time when everyone is available is exceedingly difficult, as dramatically illustrated by this e-mail from a graduate student:
I am a graduate student at the stage of writing my thesis and planning my defense. Right now I am having a very difficult time scheduling my thesis defense. Some of my committee members have additional responsibilities at other universities or significant administrative duties. While it is possible for a committee member to Skype the defense if attending in person will be too hard, it's still been very hard to find a date and time that works for everyone (and for which a seminar room is still available). And some of my committee members are reluctant to commit to any dates at all, because they are worried that some of their other obligations will come up. (And at the same time, the other members who are able to be flexible are getting mad at me for not scheduling something already.) I have had similar difficulties with every committee meeting I've had. This time it is especially frustrating because I would like to defend before the university-wide deadlines for this graduation cycle. I am not alone in this situation -- nearly every other graduate student at my university has had similar experiences with difficulty scheduling committee meetings.
I know that faculty have a lot of other responsibilities and often find serving on thesis committees to be burdensome and a low priority. However, I am only asking for at most 2-3 hours of their time, and this will be the last time I need to do so. I also feel that once a faculty member has agreed to serve on a student's committee (which they are not obligated to do), they should accept the responsibility of making time for the requisite committee meetings, qualifying exams, and thesis defense to the best of their abilities. What do you think is the best way to alleviate this situation? How can I politely convey to my committee that while I understand the difficulties they face in attending/Skyping my defense, I really do need to schedule a date as soon as possible? Also, what policies do you think universities could adopt to make this process simpler and less burdensome for both faculty and students? Personally, I wonder if limiting the number of committees (possibly all committee not just thesis ones) a single faculty member could be on would help lower the burden. Also, perhaps it would be worthwhile for the university calender to build in meeting/defense times -- i.e. no departmental seminars/meetings/classes/etc during 1-2 weeks each semester to allow for committee meetings, qualifying exams, and defenses? This would also benefit students because it would give them a set schedule at which milestones need to be met, and it would make things easier for the registrar's office and university administration because it would ensure that defense dates are properly tied to graduation deadlines.
What are your thoughts?
My thoughts involve sympathy for your situation. My own PhD completion was delayed by months, resulting in my degree having the next year's date on it, because one professor was unable to find time to read my thesis, much less agree to a defense date.
I also appreciate that you realize professors are very busy. However, it isn't necessarily the case that the inability of some professors to find time for your defense means that you are a low priority or a burden. That doesn't help you get your defense scheduled, but I think it's important to realize that, for some professors, particularly just before the end of a term, finding ~3 free hours during the work day is simply not possible.
In general, the times that work best for me are: (1) final exam week, unless there is a conference, although, even if there isn't a conference, sometimes during finals week I have all-day meetings that are scheduled at this time specifically because classes are over; and (2) the time slot reserved for faculty meetings in a week when there is no faculty meeting (although if you have professors from other departments that have faculty meetings on different days/at different times, this window of opportunity doesn't exist).
I can also sometimes squeeze in an exam or defense by canceling (rescheduling) an office hour, research group meeting, or committee meeting. If that's the only option, I am willing to rearrange my schedule. Also, now that my daughter is older, I have more flexibility in the very early morning and the very late afternoon, but these times used to be more difficult for me for scheduling early/late exams, especially if my husband was out of town.
I'm not implying that the grad student who wrote to me does this, but some students will write to professors and say "Please tell me what days/times will work for you so I can schedule my defense." Clearly that is too open-ended. Other grad students will write and say "I'd like to have my defense on Tuesday, May 19 at 3 PM." Clearly that is too restrictive (although maybe it's worth a try in the unlikely event that one particular day/time will be open for all), and tends to result in a cascade of subsequent e-mails, each one specifying a different day/time.
Only once in my career has a grad student scheduled an exam first and then told me when he expected me to show up for the event. He checked in advance with the other (male) professors, but not with me. He was also on record as having stated that he didn't think women should be Scientists, so I quit his committee, as I didn't think I could be objective in the face of his lack of respect. He didn't want me on his committee anyway, so if his strategy to get me off his committee was to be rude, this strategy worked.
A reasonable first-try method for scheduling an exam/defense is for the student to send everyone an e-mail listing a few (3-4) possible days/times and asking everyone one which, if any, will work, and specifying that you need a reply by a certain day. If you don't get an e-mail reply by your stated deadline, go find the person(s), call them, e-mail them again, haunt them until they reply. Be aggressive but polite.
You can also be manipulative (but polite); for example, telling one person "Tuesday, May 19 at 3 PM is fine with all the other committee members. Does this time work for you as well?" (Don't ask if it is convenient -- no time is convenient -- ask if it is possible). If they have another commitment that cannot be changed, so be it, but at least you will have this specific information and can then work on another day/time.
If you are trying to finish before an urgent deadline, you can mention that, but only if you have left plenty of time between your scheduling attempts and the proposed exam date. Otherwise, if you suddenly have a crisis and need to finish soon and you ask your committee to rearrange their schedules for you, some of the crankier committee members might get a bit hissy.
I don't like being constantly badgered about scheduling, especially if I have already provided information about the possible times when I can/cannot meet, but there is a difference between a polite, organized, assertive effort to get an exam scheduled and a disorganized, obnoxious campaign by a student who assumes we professors should drop everything to help them defend at exactly the time they want.
There is probably a magic time in advance when scheduling is optimal. If you ask me in October about a May defense, I cannot commit to a day/time. If you ask me 2 weeks in advance, my schedule will likely be totally full. I can, however, figure out something 1, maybe 2, months in advance. There may be some graduate program policy on how far in advance an exam must be scheduled, but I have found that any such policy is routinely ignored owing to the wide availability of waivers and exceptions.
I have not found the advent of Skype etc. to help much with exam/defense scheduling. If I don't have three hours to spare, I don't have three hours to Skype either. Skype does help if I am at my home university and need to be at an event at another university (saving me travel days), but when I am traveling, the need to be in a quiet place with an excellent internet connection for several hours, taking into account time zones and unforeseen travel glitches, can be very stressful.
I like the idea of having some designated days when there are no classes or other meetings; I can't imagine that a week or two would be possible, but 2-3 days might be doable. If those times also coincided with a time when I had no proposals due, no conferences, and no other major deadlines, I wouldn't mind a few concentrated days of examining, with maybe 2 exams/day.
Another way that universities could help would be to extend the possible time in which a student can defend and still get their degree in that academic term or year. That won't help some people who need to leave and start a new job right away, but it might help some.
Maybe being over-committed on committees is a problem for some faculty, but I don't think that problem can be solved with a new rule limiting committee participation. A committee-max policy might actually create more complications -- what if everyone you wanted/needed on your committee was at their committee limit? And I don't think overscheduled professors are overscheduled because of student committees. It's all the other stuff that fills the days completely.
Somehow everyone gets their exams scheduled, even if it takes a while to accomplish and even if the process is highly non-linear. The process could be simplified if there were exam slots set aside, reducing the problems for at least a few people, but there are always going to be schedule collisions and moving-target schedules and professors who aren't organized enough to know what they are supposed to be doing a month or two from now.
Even if it makes you crazy, please try to be patient with us, continue to be very proactive in getting your defense scheduled, consider removing any extraneous committee members who are unresponsive (after documenting the history of uncooperativeness and discussing the situation with your adviser and/or the graduate program director), and.. good luck. You're almost done!
9 years ago