Archive for: February, 2013

Undergrad advising: When to hold em and when to fold em

Feb 28 2013 Published by under [Education&Careers]

Last night I got in a conversation over twitter based on the following:

My reasoning for disagreeing with this statement and the conversation it spurred are complicated and better suited to a post than a back and forth on twitter.

I'll start out by saying that grades are an imperfect measure of a student's abilities and I don't think a failure here or there is a big deal. Yes, I had some bad grades on my transcript and have never been an A student. When I'm considering graduate student applicants, GPA is not something I put a huge amount of weight on so I am in no way saying that a student who does poorly in a couple of classes should be directed to another major.


I advise a lot of undergraduates. Because our major is large and our faculty numbers are not huge, I have ~60 advisees a year. These students are all declared majors who have completed at least one year at the university. Whereas the numbers are hard to pull together because my list can fluctuate from year to year, I would guess I've probably had advising sessions with roughly 200 different students. These are students from a wide range of backgrounds with different sets of constraints.

Most of these students make my job easy, but the rest can make up the difference. I'll provide a hypothetical student to illustrate what I see on a semi-regular basis. Let's call him George.

I request a meeting with George because he is on my "concern list" from the Dean's office. He's a third year student with a 2.8 GPA, but he's taken Chem 101 3 times and still can't clear the grade threshold to move on. Considering our major requires 4 chemistry classes, this is an issue.

I look closer at his transcript and the 2.8 GPA is misleading. In the classes for George's major, he's got a 2.1 GPA and it's his minor in Psych that is pulling his overall GPA up. While the proximate cause for our meeting is George's chemistry problem, ultimately he is in danger of not graduating because his Major GPA is so low (we require a 2.0).

There are two options here:

1) I can get George in touch with tutoring services for Chemistry if he hasn't already been working with them. I can encourage him to get additional help in his biology courses, but tutoring is rarely available for upper-level classes. I can tell him to keep soldiering on and cross my fingers that he's not going to drop below a 2.0 in the next few semesters and be faced with completing enough credits to graduate but not being allowed to with a Biology major.


2) I can talk to George about why he wants to get a bio degree and try and understand the motivation to pursue something that is clearly very difficult for him. I can point out that he does quite well in Psych and wonder if he could see himself going in that direction. I can work with him to see what his options are and how he can move forward.

The first choice is the easy one for me. It requires me to do little but hand out some phone numbers and move on with my day. But here's why I think it's the wrong choice.

First, the numbers at my university demonstrate that a shocking* number of the students who never graduate from here drop out within a credit-year of completion. Why is that? Well, from my experience I see students get told "You can do it!" for so long that they give up when they realize they are nearly done but would need to get straight A's for their last semester or two just to graduate with the major they have been pursuing. And the message "Anybody can do it if they just try!" isn't exactly comforting to these students and alienates them.

Second, a large number of the students I see who are in grade trouble don't really want to be biology majors. This cohort of students is disproportionately "first generation in college" students who have parents expecting them to graduate and become doctors, etc. The number of "premeds" with sub 3.0 GPAs I have had to have a frank conversation with is mind numbing. I may not care about GPA and standardized test scores, but you know who really does? Med schools. Generally these students are unhappy and have interests elsewhere, but needed to be helped to see other options.

Third, college isn't getting any cheaper and some of my students need to get into the workforce with a degree. Letting them spin their wheels while they hemorrhage money is not doing them any favors. If there is a reasonable alternative that they can sink their teeth into, it's worth a discussion.

Fourth, it is easy for us to say "I failed a class and look at me now!" because through whatever turn of events, it worked out for us. But we do so without ever thinking about how many students had a similar trajectory and never made it. People use revisionist history all the time to wax poetic on how they got where they are. But where this gets especially problematic is when one is dealing with ethnic, socioeconomic or other factors that stack the deck against certain students making it by perseverance. I know this is where people like @DNLee5 where coming from at times during our conversation, and I agree. Sometimes there isn't an easy solution, but I would rather see a student get a degree in a different major than see them walk away from university, 75% of the way done.

In the end, I see it as my job to make sure the students get a degree that they can use. Sometimes that means rethinking priorities or re-evaluating the student's own interests. Sometimes the pressures keeping them swimming against the current are internal and sometimes external. But the answer in not always just to stick with it, because that ignores (and exacerbates) the loss.

*I can't recall the number off hand, but it was somewhere in the neighborhood of 40-50%, which floored me.

27 responses so far

The NSF shoe drops

Feb 27 2013 Published by under [Education&Careers]

We knew this was coming, but it sucks all the same. NSF announced today that they are cutting 1000 new projects if the sequester happens, as expected. Honestly, I don't really have much to add, it's a little numbing. I have a pending project that has cleared a lot of hurdles to get to the point where NSF was willing to fund it.

Now I get to watch that vanish. And for what?

17 responses so far

Daycare ecology

Feb 27 2013 Published by under [Et Al], LifeTrajectories

Every daycare has its own unique balance of individuals. The kids all take their roles: leader, follower, quiet, attention whore, crier, etc. Where your child fits into the room dynamics says little about them in the long term and can change as other kids come and go from the population. But there are certainly niches that are more or less desirable as a parent. This is particularly true WRT the predator / prey relationships.

If you have ever gone to pick up your child and been confronted with the dreaded "incident sheet" you immediately think "Fuck, please let my kid be the one who got bitten." Whereas that may be counterintuitive, you have to bear in mind the alternative. If you have the class biter, you basically feel like you are raising this:


Our first child was the preferred prey of the class biter. As much as it sucked to pick up our daughter looking like she lost a battle with a lamprey, we were also sympathetic to the parents who had to sign the "yes, we realize our child is a bath salts incident away from being Florida Man" sheet. You can't reason with a toddler and explain why it's bad to cannibalize your friends. They don't get it. You can discipline them after an incident, but it takes time for them to change their behavior. As a parent all you can do is wait and avoid eye contact with the other parents of kids in the room, because some get it and some think you spend your every waking moment teaching your child to devour the competition.

This is all relevant this week as the tables have turned and we were faced with signing our first incident sheet from the predator's side. It sucks as much as we imagined.

19 responses so far

Time to DO something

Feb 26 2013 Published by under [Politics]

Scientists are great complainers. In particular, we love to complain about funding. Funding sources, reviewer 3, Program Officers, etc., etc. Part of that is the hope that if we complain loud enough someone will actually hear us and care.

But we can do more than that. As Gerty-Z has pointed out, you have an opportunity right now to have your voice heard. @nparmalee is in DC right now speaking on behalf of the Parkinson's Action Netowrk. She has very generously offered to hand deliver letters to Congress on our behalf.

The door is open, it's your turn to do something. Write up a quick letter and get in touch with Nancy. We need a voice and we need to take as much action as possible NOW. Many of our grants hang in the balance of what happens in Congress over the next month and NIH is already planning for the worst. If you need more reason, take a look at how your state will be effected by the sequester.

Get writing.

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Because it's cold out there

Feb 22 2013 Published by under [Et Al]

No responses yet

Repost: The 7 stages of grading

Feb 22 2013 Published by under [Education&Careers], [Et Al]

There's not many posts that I repost more than once, but this one rings true at this time of year for me every. Single. Year. So here it is. Again. Original here.

1) Immobilization: "I can't believe how many tests I have to grade. Why did I do essays? Am I a masochist? I can't wait a few days before dealing with those."

2) Denial: "Do I have a thick accent or speak in another language during class? The students don't seem to have understood anything I have said. Am I in the right country? Where am I?"

3) Anger: "Why are my students trying to kill me? We went over this concept for 20 minutes, had a lab on it, and 40% of the class gets the answer right?"

4) Bargaining: "Maybe if I grade a few, then reward myself with something, it won't be so bad. Three exams, then ice cream. Mmmm, ice cream."

5) Depression: "Why am I even doing this? Am I horrible teacher? Do they tune me out? And why did I eat so much ice cream?"

6) Testing: "Maybe if I curve juuuuust slightly, I'll avoid a riot."

7) Acceptance: "Whatever, it's one test. Where's the scotch?"

One response so far

Oh, NOW I get tumblr

Feb 21 2013 Published by under [Et Al]

It's a convenient spot to post all of someone's crazy.

5 responses so far

What's your favorite journal like as a friend?

Feb 20 2013 Published by under [Et Al]

Cath is cracking me up today with her post about her mental anthropomorphism of her journal RSS feeds.

While browsing journal TOCs in my RSS reader earlier today, I realised that I seem to have subconsciously assigned human personalities to some of the journals I read most frequently.

For example:
Current Biology is an extrovert who enthusiastically dives into any ongoing topic of conversation, and talks with their hands a lot. Fun at parties;
Nucleic Acids Research is an older man in a tweed jacket who quietly talks with great authority about the arcane technical details of his obscure hobby over a cup of Earl Grey;
Genome Research is that one friend who always has the most recent smart phone and tablet;
Oncogene is an old friend from my grad school days. They don’t seem to have moved on much in the intervening years, and I don’t see them very often, but when I do it’s always nice to catch up and reminisce.

Is this normal, or have I developed a very specific form of synesthesia?

I weighed in on those hipsters, C/N/S, but what are the journals in your particular field like? Go Play.

One response so far

Can someone get Clara B. Jones an "American Voices" panel in The Onion?

Feb 19 2013 Published by under [Education&Careers]

Regular readers of The Onion will likely be familiar with their "American Voices" segment, in which average people weigh in on topical issues. Read through a couple and you'll begin to get a sense of what the subscribers to the ECOLOG-L list get treated to semi-regularly.

Some of you may remember Clara B Jones from her previous public comments (summarized here). If you don't feel like clicking through, Dr. Jones has previously suggested women freeze their eggs to facilitate reproduction once reaching senior promotion levels and revealed that she gave up custody of her offspring to pursue her career in science.

Seems like a good platform from which to dispense career wisdom to women in science, no?

Well, she seems to think so. In her typical randomly numbered ramblings this week, Dr. Jones comments on the circulation of two blog posts to the ECOLOG list, on the topic being or becoming a grad student in ecology. Random point number 7 in her tirade is:

i am somewhat exercised by your post because, IMO, too many young, especially, female, applicants don't bring much to the table that others don't already know or that cannot be readily duplicated or that is mostly generalist-oriented.

Ladies! Why are you such bad grad school candidates? Why can't you bring something interesting to the table? Have you even frozen any eggs yet? WTF?

In typical fashion, Clara couches a semi-valid point (the need to bring a skill set) in a giant hot mess of sexist commentary (women are disproportionately bad at all things in her eyes). As we found out the last time I mentioned this on the blog, many people think it's totally fine for her to make these comments without anyone making a big deal of it. To that, I have and continue to say "bullshit". If those same comments came from a man, many would be offended. That fact that they come from a woman shouldn't change the reaction to the same 1950s style undermining.

Public sexism in any community is bad for the long term, regardless of the source of that ignorant opinion. Clara B. Jones has repeatedly demonstrated her unsuitability to comment on any issue facing women in science today, particularly as it relates to families. I suggest the community views every email from her with the following mental image:

14 responses so far

The secret

Feb 18 2013 Published by under [Et Al]

Several students have asked me why I don't post slides before the lectures. While I have several valid reasons for not doing so, the secret is they're not usually done until <1 hour before. Shhhhhh

7 responses so far

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