Monday, June 04, 2012

MA Misery

We have a small MA program here at NWU.  It serves mostly people who feel geographically located and don't want to move elsewhere along with the occasional person who did a BA here and thinks this school is the be all. 

Our program isn't great, alas.  Part of it has to do with resources, and part with our students.  It's not that some of them aren't capable.  But even the most capable students tend to think of getting an MA here as a part-time thing, so they put it on the back burner, especially after their first year.  That means that they take a partial or full load of classes their first year, and the structure means that they usually get the work done.  And then they're basically told to find someone to write a thesis with.  Sometimes, they have a good idea, find someone, and get right to work, finishing in a year.

But sometimes, not.  Other things get in the way.  And then a couple years go by, and they think, oh, I need to finish that.  Or they get a letter telling them that they need to finish by the next semester.  So they think of something to write on, and do a desperate search for a thesis director.  Then they apply for extra time.

I'm working with three thesis students now.  Two of them are on their final extensions.  Both had extensions before they even asked me to be their director.  And both are desperate to finish. 

The thing is, with both of these two students, they tend to contact someone (me, in these cases) and they want to finish.  And they have an idea, so I give them feedback.  And then six months later, they come back with a half-assed draft of a prospectus or something, and want to get things hopping.  It's not that I'm unsympathetic, and I try to read quickly, but when I hear from someone only after six months, and suddenly they expect me to tell them they're geniuses and doing great stuff when they aren't, I get frustrated.

I think the problem is that my expectations are that graduate work should be a fairly high priority, at least as high for the student as it is for me.  And they have way higher priorities, but still expect me to read and respond to their work quickly, even during the summer (when I'm not on contract, but I am trying not to be a jerk about it).  Further, it's all done longish distance, because they're closer to here than anywhere else, but don't want to arrange to drive 50+ miles to talk about a chapter.

Now back to reading.  I don't know what to say to this student about this chapter. 

I've told the third student that I don't want to hear every six months, but expect more regular contact.  And I actually have high hopes, since this student hasn't gotten anywhere near the point of needing an extension, has done a draft of a chapter, and has a really solid idea.


  1. For once, you're making me happy that Heartland U doesn't have a master's program. This sounds like a real bother.

  2. I was one of those masters types. My excuse was that I got into med school, so thats why I couldn't finish my thesis. I ended up finishing it on Christmas break my first year of school

    Can you give them deadlines? Like " I'd like you to work on this section and meet with me again in two weeks."

    I know its supposed to be up to them, but I know myself if I have n externally imposed deadline I work so much more towards that than some internal one I try to set up for myself.


  3. Our programs have a lot in common. About eight years ago, we decided to combat the tendency for students to disappear with all but their final papers or theses with two changes.

    First, we instituted a mandatory course in methods in their first term. Students learn about the discipline and also build their own research proposal. It's complete at the end of the term, ready to go to the department.

    Second is to circulate and publicize the milestones of students in the essay (1 year) and thesis (2 year streams). When we did the sample schedule, we realized students really needed at least a rough draft in June if they hoped to complete their essay for the committee by August 15. Thesis students need to be done in April of their second year in order to make a summer defense.

    Determining a research topic, supervisor and all that can't wait until coursework's over. Changing that requires significant buy-in across the program, though.

    In the meantime, set up a weekly or, at most!, every other week email check-in with your student to keep everyone on track. My student who's aiming to finish this summer handed in a very rough first draft last month and we've had two email conversations ss well as one face-to-face meeting in the meantime. I consider him well on track for completion.

  4. Thanks, Peggy and Janice; I think you're right that I should set fairly serious deadlines.

    One difficulty is that a fair number of our students are teachers, and they're way busy working during the school year when I'm available and under contract. They're also often parents, and that rightly takes a lot of time and energy.