Some people love graduate school, but most of us want to finish it up and get started with our real lives.
A couple nights ago I met a nice guy from Utah who was finishing his thesis at a university about 5 hours away. He had just moved here to take a job. After only two weeks, he was totally immersed in his new job, and I asked him if he was concerned about being able to finish up his thesis. He said, "Oh, no, not at all. My university's only 5 hours away, and I've only got a couple months of work left on it."
The idea of starting a new life or a new job a few months early – say, before we’ve wrapped up our dissertation – sounds pretty good. After all, some people telecommute from home, so it should be a snap to telecommute back to the university and finish up our dissertation away from the anxieties of campus. For instance, you could now start your new gig (maybe as a professor) in June instead of August. Your plan would be to move, get settled, wrap up the dissertation, and get two months of a tempting new salary.
When I was a PhD student, someone told me that if you want to know how long it will take to finish your dissertation if you move away, you use a simple formula. You take your best guess of how long you think it will take to finish, then you triple it and add three months. So if you think you have 2 months left on your dissertation, and you move away in June, you won’t be finished until following March – in 9 months instead of 2 months (2 months x 3 + 3 months = 9 months). This is a rough rule-of-thumb, that varies across schools, departments, and people. Still, when I heard this, I wasn’t going to take any chances. My lease was up, but I spent the last two months crashing at the apartments of different friends so I could wrap it up before I move away to start my Asst Prof gig.
What happens when you move is not only that it takes time to get resettled and you no longer have the support structure of your PhD program (and the “in sight & in mind” attention of your committee), but you also don’t feel the urgency to finish. You’re settling into a new role, and everybody's happy to have you around. But in a few months when your department chair asks whether you’re through, it’s going to be awkward to answer.
You might not have the option of completing a dissertation on campus, but if you can, it’s worth sleeping on
couches until it’s done.
Post Note: Four months after meeting the guy Utah, I ran in to him again at the same game cafe where we had originally met. He was excited having moved, and he was excited about his new job. What's notable was that he never mentioned anything about his dissertation, how it was going, or whether it was finished. Since his dissertation had been an enthusiastic 80% of our conversation during the first time we met, I'm guessing he hadn't made the progress he had expected to make.
• Non-native English speakers and shy students have a hard time participating in large classes. Class Previews help them. An hour before each class, I hold a Class Preview that tells people the discussion questions I’ll be asking that day, and then we discuss them ahead of time. Anyone’s welcome to show up.
• For large classes, try to have TA office hours every day (or M-Th)
• Try to be super specific about what you expect for an A assignment, and what your policy is on late assignments and missed classes.
• Rather than having both the final exam and their project due at the end of the semester, I frontload the course with the most work and move their project up to the half-way point.
• Letting students drop their lowest scoring assignment reduces their anxiety and the pressure they feel.
• By having students turn in two copies of their project (one to grade and one to file), it helps ensure the same projects don’t show up year after year.
• I have a screen-down, no-laptop policy. If people say they are taking notes, I ask them to send me the notes after class to see if what I’m teaching is coming across like I hope.
• Class insight cards can give class contribution points to well-prepared, but shy students.
• Extra credit opportunities are great. They help reduce student anxiety.
• If your course is cross-listed with both undergrads and grads, the graduate students will need to do something more (usually about 20-25% more). I also have four specialized class sessions (and a dinner) only for them.
• I try to organize the course into very discrete sections. This way I can frequently review each section in class before I start a new one. This way it very discretely shows how the parts of the course build on each other.
• The Final Project was renamed “Integrative Assignment” and moved to the middle of the semester. They have to work a lot harder early on in the course, but the quality goes up, and their Finals Week stress level goes down.
• You can get the most from a guest speaker’s visit if – before class -- you require students to read something written and published about the guest speaker. (It also makes the guest speaker more of a celebrity). On the day they speak, I will usually show a short Youtube clip of them before introducing them.
• I want the last class session of the semester to be valuable. After they turn in their exam and their course evaluations, I give them the option to leave. For those who stay, I tell them stories of two big lessons I learned in life (the hard way), and how they can deal with challenges in the future. It’s an unusual way to end the class, but it always ends it on a high and memorable note.
Good luck writing a great syllabus, having a great course, and having a triple-great semester.
I went to a small college in a small town, and I clearly remember my advisor having me and my college sweetheart over to his home for ice cream on the day I finished my senior project. That re-re-reconfirmed to me that I wanted to be a professor. Next, when I was in my master’s program, three of my professors each had us over to their homes for dinner on the last day of the classes. It was so cool, I still remember where I sat and what we talked about.
Over the past 30 years I’ve had well over 500 dinners, parties, game nights, or jam sessions at my home with graduate students, visiting scholars, summer interns, teaching assistants (TAs), advisees, colleagues, lab teammates, and so on. For instance, the last class session of every graduate class is a dinner, we have welcoming parties for every single new person in the Lab (and going away parties when they leave), we celebrate every time we get a major grant or major paper accepted by having a potluck, and when I have a speaker or colleague in from out of town we’ll usually also invite a student or two to join us for dinner.
These dinners and parties were always lots of fun. They created loads of team commitment and a lot of great lab enthusiasm. They made new people felt very quickly accepted and valued, and they reinforced how much veteran lab members were appreciated. They also seemed to be a highlight for visitors, since it was a break from the restaurant routine, and it allowed them to talk and laugh with a lot more people.
I also think a lot of things could have gone wrong that fortunately didn’t. There was often lots of wine (especially before I married a sensible wife), these parties often lasted really late (especially before we had kids), and they were often pretty loud (even still). Sometimes people brought musical instruments and we jammed, sometimes we turned the stereo up to 11, and sometimes friendly police visited. Most of my colleagues tend to not have students over to their homes, partly because of what they imagine what could go wrong. They're partly right, but that's largely a shame. Because there's a solution.
Over the years as I started seeing how different things could spin off the tracks, I gradually came up with little rules of thumb I’d use to keep things in check. About 10 years ago, I honed in on six guidelines that have luckily worked well for us. For new summer interns or graduate students, I’ll stick to all of six guidelines. For long-term lab employees, visiting colleagues, or post-docs, we're a lot more liberal. Here's the guidelines that have worked for our parties so far:
Now, I used to have none of these rules or guidelines, and I was lucky. For example, when I was a single 30-year-old MBA professor at Dartmouth, I was having MBA students over to my apartment for end-of-semester dinner parties, and there’s a number of things that could have gone wrong. Fortunately they didn't, but these guidelines would have been a really, really good idea.
Some of my best memories as a student were when professors had me over to their homes. I admired them, and I wanted to be like them. Being invited over, made me feel accepted and like I was part of an inner academic circle. It might not mean anything to some students, but it might also be remembered by others 40 years later.
How to Teach for a Long-term Impact
There once was a legendary, larger-than-life professor. If Marvel’s 137th movie of this year is named UltraProf, it would be based on John Shank. He taught a dry subject (think Accounting), but his charisma and his orchestration of his class made each class session seem like 60-person David Mamet plays. Every class had passion, drama, and some surprising reveal at the end that people still talked about ten years later. Here’s a quote:
As a teacher John was at home at any level, and always brilliant. I could offer the testimonials of others, however, what brought his classroom performance home to me— and it was a performance in the truest sense of the word—was watching him at an Accounting Round Table at Pitt’s business school. He held 50 top financial officers in the palm of his hand while he presented his material. They were busy individuals with many things on their minds and schedules, but not a one left until John had answered their last question. I can assure you that their staying until the end was not out of courtesy (Bernberg 2008).
Although the opposite is true, some believed he was only about style. This is because he wore Brooks Brothers braces, walked with a MVP swagger, drove a Dartmouth green sports car, and he had a runway model wife who was like some VP of Finance somewhere. His office was professionally-decorated with French draperies, super-thick Dartmouth green carpeting, and a massive 18th century French desk which sat in the middle of the room so his desk chair could face the doorway. Even his two huge perfectly groomed dogs were effortlessly well-mannered. On Saturdays he’d come to work, and they’d sit on either side of his desk and face the door. They were like lions on either side of a throne, and he was like Odin . . . or John Wick. His dogs keep eternal vigilance. My dog wets on me and then licks my face.
This was 1992. Because he had about the highest MBA teacher ratings at Dartmouth's Tuck School and I had about the lowest ratings, he let me sit in on his classes so I could suck less . . . so I could learn better teaching strategies and classroom management skills. One Saturday during a Tuck alumni reunion, I stopped by his office and told him I had overheard some alumni who were still talking about what they had learned in a class they had taken with him 10 years earlier.
He looked up over the top of his half-glasses, and said, “That’s what they’re supposed to do. It means I’ve done my job.”
He said his goal isn’t to teach students to get a great first job (or to, analogously, get a high score on the GRE or MCAT), his goal is to teach them to succeed for wherever they will be in 10 or 20 years. Although he got outstanding teaching ratings, he brushed them off by saying that teacher ratings mainly measured the moment – they mainly measured the warm feelings a student had at the time. Ratings might capture style (which he was very good at), but they may not always measure long-term substance.
Last week, the school year ended. A lot of amazing teachers will take their course evaluation ratings and use them to improve their classes for next year. John’s view was that we need to also focus on the long-term impact of our courses.
I regret that I never had the presence of mind to ask him how he did it -- how he knew what long-term impact to aim at. Since he was on boards and did a lot of consulting with upper management, I suspect he taught his courses like he was teaching board members and upper management. That is, when he was teaching, he treated them like they were high level managers. That’s one way to do it.
A second way to try and teach for long-term impact might be to ask. After they graduate, it will be more apparent to them whether your course helped them live a better life (more useful, meaningful, successful, or whatever), and how your course might be improved. It’s easier to get this feedback than you might think. You’ve probably saved your class lists (somewhere) from 5 years ago. You might have their emails, or the alumni office will have both their emails and their snail mail addresses. You can simply ask them.
Ten or fifteen years after I left Dartmouth I was in Boston, and I rented a car to drive up to visit John. I wanted to thank him for being so generous, and I wanted to prove to myself that his office, desk, and dogs were as amazing as I remembered them. There was a different name on his door. I was too late.
I love the idea of trying to teach for a long-term impact. It’s like trying to create long-term memories. I sometimes think I can remember everything John said to me because he was always so intentional with every conversation. Just like he was with his classes.
At the next reunion, if his former student’s aren’t talking about what they learned 30 years ago, they’ll be talking about how hard he tried. That itself was a great lesson.
Fun, useful, or wacky experiences about getting tenure, teaching better, publishing more, and having an incredibly rewarding career.
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