Wednesday, April 7, 2010

Smart but Slow Students

[based on some of the comments this post is getting, I think I'll do a full-blown follow-up where the grad students talk back to the proffies... stay tuned for more info]

My forever-student in the M.A. program (seriously, folks: he started in fall 2004, vanished off the face of the earth for ages at a time on more than one occasion) not only finished an excellent thesis right before I left on sabbatical; he just won our college's "best thesis" award.

Whoo hoo!

I don't think he's going on to a Ph.D. program -- getting through even the M.A. proved to be a challenge, and I'd have to mention it in any letter I wrote. And it's a shame, because he's obviously got the intellectual firepower to do it.

So, what do you do with students like this: intelligent, excellent writers, creative thinkers, but inconsistent? Ones that drift in occasionally with a stack of truly superior work, then you don't hear from them for ages? I'm sure he won't be the last of this breed, and I'd love to hear some other opinions.

And yes: he was working full-time. But still: five years for an M.A.?


Comrade PhysioProf said...

In the natural sciences, this can't occur, because our PhD students are paid--frequently from laboratory funds controlled by the sponsor and obtained from federal agencies such as NIH or NSF--to do their research. If they are not diligent about making ongoing progress in a timely fashion, they eventually get booted.

b(oston)s(cholar) said...

Please don't be too hard on the present and future grad flakes. I got my MA in an English department where full time work was the rule, not the exception. Very few people who worked so much could finish in two years. Three, four, or five years for an MA was common enough, as was not finishing at all. Trying to do both full time work and grad school means you're probably going to not sleep very much, not produce the best intellectual work you otherwise could, and/or flake out on one side of your double life regularly.

The alternative is to take out a pile of loans, so that you can be a better student and get the degree faster. But it's a degree that won't get you a job to pay back the crushing debt.

Good thing, though, that there are people willing to put themselves though one or the other form of hell--now that I'm a PhD student, the MA students' tuition is supporting my glamorous lifestyle. The humanities MA is such a racket...

Anonymous said...

this is why I haven't tried going back for a subject masters(I'm a librarian). I figured out, based on the campus being almost 2 hours away (once you figure in time finding parking) and them having classes twice a week in the middle of the day(which my employer would have gladly let me shift my hours as possible, but because our library's hours are shorter in the summer, it would have meant taking no classes in the summer, and who really wants to go to work for several hours, drive two hours to class, class, two hours back, straight back to work until late that evening?) that it would have taken me five of the maximum possible 6 years just to get the classwork done for the masters...Just because working full time 2 hours away meant no other choice.

But, working full time does not explain why he would just disappear with no word.

(I do wish some places would take a bit of pity on librarians who don't intend to become non-librarians who want to get a subject masters and do class schedules a bit differently to make them appropriate to both full time and part time students... library schools do this already obviously, and I LOVED having long once a week afternoon or evening classes because we actually had time to get into the meat of everything before it was time to leave - I would have thought that would be an appealing thing even in more academic areas, but apparently not)

Medieval History Geek said...

Depends a bit on the work too. I'm assuming this wasn't the case for this student but I finished my MS over a 4 year period while working. I knocked off 9 credits over 2 semesters with a 1 hour commute (one way), then my employer moved me. Two years later they moved me back and I was able to finish over about 18 months, including an absolute killer stretch where I took 3 weeks' vacation to do the full-time summer thing. This was in Education so they're used to working students - at least scheduling of required courses generally wasn't a huge problem.

I guess my answer to the "What to do with him or her" question from a student (and later an educator) perspective would be, "It depends." Decisive, huh?

Notorious Ph.D. said...

Let me be clear here: I'm glad I didn't give up on this guy. But I came very close several times -- I mainly figured that the long silences meant that he had just decided to quit and couldn't face me to tell me.

But I also can't in good conscience recommend him to a Ph.D. program. BS, I totally get where you're coming from. I worked only 20 hours a week during my two years as an M.A. student, and finishing on time sent me into full meltdown at least once every two weeks. It was only the many close friends I'd made (who were all going through the same thing) who kept me even halfway sane.

And the program I now teach in is like yours was -- pretty much all of our M.A. students work full-time (all of our grad classes are night classes). I figure that an M.A. should thus take about three years, four if there are really extenuating circumstances.

And while hiding from one's advisor is as much a part of grad school as comps or the thesis, doing so repeatedly erodes our confidence.

What about the rest of you? Where do we draw the line between reasonable accommodation and the boot?

Anonymous said...

no word whatsoever, AND the classes are night classes, etc?

throw him under the bus!

No but seriously - that's a whole different ballpark than if it was a student trying to work out work schedules to take classes in the middle of the day and who let you know what was going on...

This does make me think that perhaps some fields are more open to students who are employed... given my movement away from the idea of studying musicology recently, this might prompt me to start looking at graduate school again if not all academic programs are set up like that!

Janice said...

We haven't seen much success with part-time students in our M.A. Somehow the research and writing component really is a killer when combined with other obligations and duties.

Full-time, our research essay stream can be completed in just under twelve months with real focus. The thesis stream takes close to two years for a full-time student in the best case. When I see full-time students struggling to make that mark, I fear that no part-time student could ever manage it!

We have re-admitted straggling students, but usually only once they've shown clear progress on the thesis or essay after some time away. That means they've had an unofficial "re-upping" with their supervisor who'll see if a chapter can be elicited and hopes for a completion. Sometimes it works but more often, it seems to lead to nothing.

Given your student's struggles with the M.A., I'd agree that this is someone unsuited for a doctoral program. Especially as many places have limited funding and limited patience with snail-like students, however brilliant they are as scholars and writers. Perhaps a career as an popular author might be an option, instead?

Something She Dated said...

I'd say the thesis speaks for iteself. Though I'm sure it must be INCREDIBLY irritating to have some so unreliable even as a mere floater in your life...academia generally has a sign above its clubhouse doors..."as long as you're brilliant"...does it not? I'm guessing Einstein had a problem with schedules...but I'm just sayin'

Anonymous said...

As an older woman in a situation very similar to your student's (only worse--MUCH worse in terms of time), I hope he took the time to tell you how grateful he was for your continued support. I have been working on my dissertation for thirteen years (ack!) through a huge host of life problems, full-time outside work, full-time interior problems :) and so on. I'm nearly done, at last, and the work is good, but without the help and support and general cheerleading of my advisor, it wouldn't have happened. (I'm doing this for love, not for a job, which to me makes it even more amazing that she and my institution have stuck it out.)

The long silences, by the way, don't mean I/we/he have quit, but simply, at least for me, that I have nothing to show and am completely distracted. Thanks again, to you and to my advisor, for keeping us going!