Friday, May 9, 2014

more structure or less?

After all these years of attending classes and having a pre-structured week there comes the time for each student, when they have to start their thesis work. For many this seems to be a scary thing and I remember that I had no clue what was expected of me when I started with my first thesis. In my undergrad institution there was no structure at all that would have helped to get me on the right track. I worked in my group for several months without having a real topic and during the whole thesis period I saw my professor only twice. Looking back I'd say that the PhD student who supervised me, was quite overstrained with this supervision job - something I can very much understand by hindsight. It's not easy to supervise an undergrad student when you have to keep your PhD thesis going at the same time - with a professor who is not around very often. I wasted a lot of time during my thesis and even though I've showed up every day early and stayed late my progress was slow and I wrote until the very last day possible. I would have loved to have a bit more structure given to me during my thesis.
At my current university the system is different. Still it is a big step from doing solely coursework to suddenly having a thesis project to work on. But the system is set up in a way that it gives as much structure as possible, means a Master thesis is designed as a course. A bunch of thought through topics to choose from, fixed starting date, fixed date to hand in the final thesis, a date to hand in the literature overview, a date to hand in a progress report, to give a test talk, .... . From a students perspective it might seem that doing a thesis is just another course you have to attend. But it's not! And this is the point where the expectations of students and their supervisors usually don't match. If you don't attend a course but you do well in the final exam, you might still get the credit. If you do a thesis, you have to continuously work on it. You can't do all the experiments or simulations in the last few weeks and expect everything to work and expect that your supervisor will be there to help 24 hours a day.
Unfortunately, this insight often comes quite late to some of the students. They don't seem to understand that if you start your "Master thesis course" a couple of weeks late that you have to catch up right away if you want to keep your head above the water. And even if you are used to go for travels in the semester break, it might be a good idea to spend this time in the lab instead. A decent literature overview takes more time to prepare and to write than some homework about the content of the last few classes.
Most supervisors (I guess) have a chat with their students about their expectations and about a thesis being so much more complex than a course. But still a lot of them (including myself) complain about students who do not show up for weeks and weeks, who send in terrible drafts seeking advice 24 hours before the deadline and who need several months to complete the safety paperwork to be even allowed to enter the laboratories. How can they not care about their own degree?
How can you make it clear to the students, that with starting a thesis the bar has been set higher? How can you motivate the students, who are not self.motivated enough? Where does this "I don't care" mentality come from? We had a lot of discussions about this but can't come up with a decent answer. Do we need even more structure? Or less? Have we lowered the bar too much and should we fail more students? Do we need to take them by the hand even more or is there something in our way to communicate that the students don't get that we are serious about this?
Are there any strategies out there to get your students on track? I'd love to hear about them.

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