Thursday, May 21, 2009

Oral Tradition II

PhD preliminary exams are complicated beasts. Following my post on the topic yesterday, a number of commenters mentioned the political aspects of the exams, an excellent example of the complexity (and potential unfairness to the student) of this type of gatekeeping exam.

Why have these exams? There are negative reasons (we need ways to purge the graduate program of students who are unable to do PhD research) and positive reasons (students interact with faculty and get input about their research) and lots of room for politics, irrational decisions, and stress. (see comments from yesterday for further details and rants)

My experiences as an Examining Professor in oral prelims this year have so far been very positive, but some of my colleagues report traumatic experiences for all concerned, raising a troubling question: Should issues other than the student's intellectual skills be considered in whether the student passes or fails?

Such as: Should the advisor's tenure status affect the outcome of a preliminary exam?

The simple answer is of course no. Most people would probably answer that ethics and fairness and standards and so on require that the advisor's professorial rank not affect the outcome of an exam, so perhaps the more interesting question is:

Does the advisor's tenure status affect the outcome of a preliminary exam?

I am not talking about the obvious cases in which of course the student is going to pass because the abilities they exhibit in the preliminary exam, in whatever format it is given, are so awesome that there is no question whatsoever that the student will pass.

It's the marginal and even the terribly bad cases that are tricky. I use the term marginal to denote a situation in which the student has either obviously or very likely failed the exam in the 'objective' view of the committee, using traditional measures by which knowledge and intellectual potential are assessed.

In a case for which I have only secondhand information, the fact that the advisor was a tenure-track faculty member who needed to have some PhD students graduated or almost-graduated when coming up for tenure was discussed during deliberations about whether to pass or fail a student who had not done well in a preliminary exam. In that department/university, it is apparently an important element of the tenure evaluation that a faculty member have successfully advised or co-advised a PhD student.

In the physical sciences, it is difficult for an assistant professor to recruit, advise, and graduate a PhD student in 6 years. It can be done of course, but you have to be lucky in terms of funding, projects, and students.

I don't actually believe that the tenure hopes of an assistant professor who is otherwise doing well would be derailed by a lack of graduated PhD students, but I can see how it would not look good to have a student fail and/or not have any students on track for getting a PhD in the near future. I can also understand being anxious to avoid a perceived weakness in the tenure file, especially if one is a perfectionist. And assistant professors with only a few students need to keep making progress on funded research projects; failing a student on an exam has consequences beyond the impact on the student.

If marginal or failing students pass their prelims because the advisor is an assistant professor, that is clearly unfair to students with tenured advisors who enjoy no such advantage. On the other hand, if we assume for the sake of argument that the advisor's future would be imperiled by a failed student (and also assume that the student's failure was despite the advisor's best efforts in advising the student), is the impact on the advisor a fair consideration?

I have been thinking about this situation ever since I heard about it. If the prelims were really bad, I think the student should fail but be given a lot of feedback and a chance for a re-take in the near future. Perhaps the student could get back on track in time for all concerned to benefit. And if it still didn't work out, the department chair and/or department promotion & tenure committee can surely find some nice words to say about the advisor's heroic efforts with struggling students, giving him the advising credentials he needs for his tenure file. That doesn't help the student and it doesn't solve the problem of what to do about the research project that is in progress, but I guess I've had enough students and projects crater in the course of my career to know that life and research go on, and it's best if they go on without dysfunctional students.


Anonymous said...

I don't think a professor's tenure status should have any impact on passing or failinh marginal students in their prelim. Otherwise the exam is no longer about the student but about the advisor. this makes a complete mockery out of the exam so we might as well not even have it in the first place and save everyone a lot of time.

Anonymous said...

I have spent time as a faculty member in an engineering dept at two different research universities. Both places had features for PhD qualifying exams that I think enhance fairness:

- the schedule for taking the exam is rigid; there is no choice for the student or advisor
- votes on the outcome from the exams are made by the entire faculty (based on scores assigned by a small committee) without knowing the names of the students.

This second strategy is crucial, it seems to me, to avoid the "politics" side of things.

On the topic of marginal students for untenured faculty, I cannot think of any examples (after seeing > 100 exams of this kind) where someone who was truly marginal on an exam that is relevant to their discipline then goes on to produce stellar research results. So an unintended consequence of passing a marginal student to "help" a young colleague may be that the colleague is then burdened for years with a marginal student. I recognize that there are situations where this may be better than no student at all, but often this is not the case.

Shannon said...

When I started reading this, I thought you were going to go in a completely different direction. A case can be made that the marginal students of pre-tenure professors should not be passed because they will be a MAJOR time suck that will detract from making progress towards tenure. Marginal students need more work (advice, review, revisions, hand-holding, etc.) to complete their research, leaving junior faculty less time to do their own thing. Tenured faculty, while also busy, may be able to make a bit more time for this. Of course, I say this coming from the social sciences where having a student in a lab is not critical to my research. But as a junior faculty member, I would rather have no students than marginal students.

John Vidale said...

I thought you were heading toward increased skepticism about viability of students of flailing pre-tenure faculty, given that the longevity of their advisor is in doubt (but you weren't).

These exam, IMO, should be synoptic - projecting as best one can the future of the examinee to best judge his/her success. Factors in this kind of futurism include everything from job prospects in the chosen specialty to infrastructure and expertise in the department for the work proposed. Thus the status of the advisor is a relevant factor.

These are not SAT tests, and one should not restrict discussion to abstract and uniform criteria if the exam is to best serve the dept and the student.

Jennie said...

This is an interesting concept and reminds me of someone at my grad school. He was marginally passed at prelims, asked to retake a course, beef up on a few other things, ect. But he passed. His adviser had not received tenure yet. However, shortly after the adviser received tenure she told him that she was short on funding and he needed to finish soon, like that semester. Unfortunately he didn't have the time to acquire all the data for the Ph.D. so he had to leave with a Master's degree and he had such a short time to look for employment, one had to feel sorry for him. In light of your post I sure hope they didn't string him along just for the sake of the adviser trying to obtain tenure. It wasn't fair to the student.

Wanna Be Mother said...

I found it amusing that you said "giving him the advising credentials he needs for his tenure file". I suppose your story was about a man so in your head it was a male tenure-track faculty member, but a woman could be put in the same situation.

I have a friend who failed his exam for what I perceive as departmental politics. That sucks. He is very smart. Oh well, their loss I suppose.

Unknown said...

I find it a little repugnant that the passing/failure of a student could come down to what looks best for the advisor's tenure file. The student with a marginal exam then becomes a tool for the PI's success/failure. Does this student know that the exam committee's decision was based on the best interest of the advisor rather than the best interest of the student? Either way the student may then be under implicit pressures to graduate and make the prof look good. This seems really unfair to me - isn't the candidacy exam supposed to assess the student's knowledge and aptitude? If so, then the advisor's tenure file shouldn't come into it at all. Then again, being a student who had a really miserable (although successful) exam experience myself, my views might be very student-centric.

Kevin said...

The purpose of the exam is to determine the likelihood that the student is going to finish the PhD. The adviser has some influence on this, in that a weak student can finish a PhD if the adviser puts in heroic efforts to prop the student up. If the adviser is going to leave in a year, it may be fairer to fail a weak student right away, rather than after their adviser leaves.

One failure that I saw early in my career came from a very weak student whose adviser was moving into a high administration post on campus. The committee was not impressed with the student's work, and in closed session grilled the adviser about how much time and support he could provide the student. There was no one else at the university with the expertise to supervise the research, and the student clearly couldn't finish the PhD without a lot of help. Since the adviser admitted that he would not have the time the student needed, it was the unanimous vote of the committee to fail the student. I still believe that this was the correct decision, though a student with a different adviser might have gotten a marginal pass for the same performance.

Am said...

I posted yesterday as a female graduate student in the physical sciences who will defend soon. I am at a big name university with only two assistant professors in the department and neither are on my committee; instead, I have a committee of three men around the age of 60. The politics are different in this case, and the advisor has the biggest say as to whether the student will pass the defense. I find a lot of committee members have little to do with the student during their time in graduate school and expect the advisor to prepare the student sufficiently.

One particular member (who've I referred to as a "frienemy" of my advisors) didn't read my paper for one of my past examinations. He came to the presentation with no understanding and harshly criticized me during the talk, which was OK. Afterwards when I mentioned to my advisor that if the professor hadn't asked me to skip the intro and hadn't been trying to read the paper during the talk, then he might have understood more (and criticized me less). My advisor's response was that this professor is in the process of writing a million dollar grant, why would he read your paper?

I also agree in giving the student a second chance at the qualifier. Also, failing students at their final defense looks bad for the department.

Maybe add this to your questions for tenured faculty.

"Does the advisor's "frienemy" status affect the outcome of an exam?

Alex said...

I don't know if you take requests, but since you've been posting about issues in supervising graduate students, do you have any advice specific to students in terminal Masters programs? My institution doesn't have Ph.D. programs, but we do have M.S. programs, and I have a thesis student right now. The department I trained in didn't have a terminal M.S. program so I have no exposure (not even second hand) to such programs. Even worse, this student's program is in a department other than mine (the project is interdisciplinary), so I can't walk into the office next door and get advice on the proper way to deal with M.S. students.

Global Girl said...

I think many things that are not the student's performance influence the outcome. This may be one I haven't though about before. I just figure the standard laundry list of biases are the automatic likely suspects: sexism, racism, homophobia, ableism, etc. I hadn't considered that advisor politics could, but it seems unlikely that all over the world, people on such committees all manage to set all such concerns aside perfectly to only objectively focus on performance.

People are people, and my experience is that people in STEM fields are particularly bad at thinking about and acknowledging their own biases. If you never self-reflect, you will also never find the biases you have, and thus you will continue on using them. Prelims are a classic situation where unconscious bias can come through, bias of many different kinds.