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Author Topic: firing graduate students?  (Read 11277 times)
toothpaste
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« on: April 18, 2012, 11:46:22 pm »

I'd like to know more about what Fora members think about the right (?) of faculty to fire graduate students. I teach in a program where the graduate students are really mixed--some excellent and some really poor. Do you think individual faculty members can and should refuse to work with enrolled students who have made some progress in their coursework but are clearly bad at the independent aspects of producing original research? What are the obligations of faculty to students in programs, and to their colleagues? If you refuse to work with a graduate student, but the program does not actually expel the student for failure to make progress, must some faculty member step up to the plate? Does a program have an obligation to find advising for a student whom the most likely faculty members (by topic and method) reject?

Obviously I cannot talk about specifics here, but as this has crossed my mind more than once over the years, the specifics do not matter much anyway.
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lohai0
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« Reply #1 on: April 19, 2012, 12:07:21 am »

From where I sit (grad student) our program has a similar mix of grad students. Right now, we only work for faculty on summer, but we get those jobs on a FCFS basis where faculty have no right to refuse. Usually, this means that the worst grad students get the best jobs, because the best grad students are working on supplemental projects when the summer list comes out. The grad students who do not do research other than these summer projects like the status quo. Personally, I would love to see faculty have some hiring power. (Full disclosure: I am not in a lab science field)
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daniel_von_flanagan
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« Reply #2 on: April 19, 2012, 12:48:52 am »

Faculty have every right to refuse to take on or continue with a student.  Departments can try to level workloads by giving the faculty with low advising loads heavier teaching or service loads, and in some fields you need a certain quota of advisees to get promoted, but for PhD work the onus is for sure on the student to find an advisor willing to work with them. - DvF
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systeme_d_
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« Reply #3 on: April 19, 2012, 1:24:53 am »

I agree with DvF. 
I will add only this: there should be some kind of mechanism within the department that prevents underachieving students from continuing within the program.  In the humanities, it is often comps.
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larryc
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« Reply #4 on: April 19, 2012, 3:02:26 am »

In our MA program, everything is part of a course, including two courses of thesis/project writing. If you don't write the thesis, you cannot graduate. No dramatic "firing" is needed.
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toothpaste
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« Reply #5 on: April 19, 2012, 7:51:58 am »

So what is supposed to happen to the student who cannot get an advisor to commit? Can the program really abandon the student?
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kshenko
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« Reply #6 on: April 19, 2012, 9:16:34 am »

This will heavily depend on the local "culture" of the department.

As a grad student, I saw a few of my peers get fired by their advisors.  Some found new advisors, while others dropped out because nobody on the faculty was willing to take them. Unless the firing occurred for research-related reasons (e.g., the research interests didn't match), fired students were considered damaged goods; as a result, they typically had a hard time finding new advisors.

Where I teach now, advisors aren't allowed to fire grad students.  So, if things aren't working out, we need to talk to the student and hope that s/he would look for somebody else to work with.  That's the extent of what we are allowed to do. 

Naturally, some people are "better" at this than others...  For instance, some of my colleagues would make things so difficult for them that they have to leave (e.g., not speaking to them at all, not responding to their e-mails, not acknowledging them at all in research meetings, etc.).  I, on the other hand, have a heart-to-heart with the students when things aren't working out, telling them that it would be in their best interest to find someone else to work with.  Some students don't "get it" and stay with me...and make little progress.

toothpaste, from what I have seen, when doctoral students can't find anybody to work with, they generally end up dropping out.  I have seen one instance, though, in which the DGS volunteered to supervise the student--although their research interests were entirely different.

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kaysixteen
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« Reply #7 on: April 19, 2012, 9:58:21 am »

I have seen this problem in grad school myself, where a perfectly acceptable student, excelling in all work prior to getting to the diss stage, cannot readily get a prof to accept him as a diss advisee.  The dean was underwhelmed by this, since the student claimed that this would in fact be akin to flunking the student out of the program, when he had not flunked.  The student got hu's advisor.  It was an interesting fiasco to watch.
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anisogamy
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« Reply #8 on: April 19, 2012, 10:33:32 am »

toothpaste, from what I have seen, when doctoral students can't find anybody to work with, they generally end up dropping out.  I have seen one instance, though, in which the DGS volunteered to supervise the student--although their research interests were entirely different.

My advisor did this as well, but I don't know the full story behind why the advisee with wildly divergent interests from our advisor had trouble keeping an advisor whose background was closer to her own.  I don't think there were performance or competence-related concerns.
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tinyzombie
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« Reply #9 on: April 19, 2012, 10:43:09 am »

So what is supposed to happen to the student who cannot get an advisor to commit? Can the program really abandon the student?

Yes.  In places I've been, that's called inadequate annual progress.  One of the requirements for adequate annual progress is getting an advisor in a timely manner.  Another requirement is assembling a committee in a timely manner.  Another requirement is N (usually 2 or 3) annual meetings with the entire committee to review current progress and to get permission to continue.


I don't think it's helpful to think of "abandonment" in this context. If you don't do the work, you suffer the consequences.
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larryc
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« Reply #10 on: April 19, 2012, 10:51:15 am »

So what is supposed to happen to the student who cannot get an advisor to commit? Can the program really abandon the student?

In our MA program, someone would take the student on. I have one student like this, he is never going to finish and after prodding him two or three times I let it slide. He is no trouble.

At the doctoral level, I think if a student passes courses and comps the program has an ethical obligation to provide an advisor for that student. But I am in the humanities where grad students require a library carrel and someone to read their drafts, if they ever complete any. I can see how it would have to be different in the sciences.
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kshenko
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« Reply #11 on: April 19, 2012, 11:25:42 am »


I don't think it's helpful to think of "abandonment" in this context. If you don't do the work, you suffer the consequences.


In many cases, I agree. 

At the same time, I genuinely feel that some students, despite their hard work, would be better off doing something else. In such cases, guiding them out could be the best thing that can happen to them.  I have seen too many cases whereby students insisted on staying despite our efforts to guide them out--only to find out, 8 or 10 years into their grad student careers, that they weren't going to make it.

I have one such student right now...  I have been trying to give her all the support she needs to learn, but she can't complete the simplest of the lab tasks and doesn't seem to get anything beyond the concrete, surface terms.  When she writes lit reviews, for instance, they are basically book reports. To top it off, she decidedly blames me for her slow progress and poor performance.  I wish I could just fire her...
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shrek
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« Reply #12 on: April 19, 2012, 11:38:35 am »

In our doctoral program, we try to carefully match the applicant to a mentor or mentors. The mentor must agree to take on the student if the admissions committe admits them. If there isn't a mentor to be found, then the applicant is not admitted. Given this context it's difficult for a mentor to "fire" a student, but it can be done. We do annual progress evaluations. Students send in a report of their activities, and a checklist of accomplished required milestones. If a student is not making adequate progress (we have suggested timelines for accomplishment of the varioius milestones), they will get a warning letter. If they still fail to make progress in the following year, we can recommend dismissing them (this would be done with input of their major advisor-- b/c sometimes it's true that projects take longer than the timeline suggests, or there are other exenuating circumstances, but if there is no progress on many fronts that's a red flag).
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mountainguy
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« Reply #13 on: April 19, 2012, 11:45:40 am »

A well-thought annual evaluation or other benchmarking process is most humane, in my opinion. That having been said, I agree with others that a faculty member does have the right to refuse to work with undeperforming students.
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kshenko
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« Reply #14 on: April 19, 2012, 12:18:59 pm »


In our doctoral program, we try to carefully match the applicant to a mentor or mentors. The mentor must agree to take on the student if the admissions committe admits them. If there isn't a mentor to be found, then the applicant is not admitted.


That's the case at my institution, too. In fact, each faculty will pick students, and, if an applicant with a perfect GPA and GRE scores doesn't get picked by a faculty member, s/he doesn't get in.  However, applicants that look great on paper CAN surprise you. 

Sometimes, I think applicants "fake" their research interest to match mine--just to get in, and I fail to detect it (especially when I only get to interview them on the phone).  Once in, they seem completely detached from what we do in my lab and their performances suffer.   Other times, applicants who were trained as undergrads by prominent scholars in my field come highly recommended.  Then, I'd find out that they are great undergrads who don't have what it takes to become independent thinkers-scholars.

Annual evals are useful in informing students as to how they are doing and making recommendations (that they leave, in some cases).  Unless they actually fail classes, comps, etc., though, bad annual evals alone won't be sufficient in my program in getting students out if they want to stay.
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