Mentoring in higher education

A lot of colleges are initiating mentor programs at the undergraduate and graduate level because they can benefit students in a number of ways. They can help them navigate a new environment, assist with school work, help students find people of a similar culture, or prepare them for their future career. These programs take on all shapes at the university level. Many students come to college with no true idea of what they want to do with their life. If they are paired with a professional or peer mentor that has more experience, they can leave college with direction and maybe even lab or work experience to get them started on their career. If they moved here from another country, maybe a peer mentor can help them find people from the same culture and help them adjust to the differences in everyday life.

Despite mentoring programs having a number of benefits, they require a lot of work, money, and time. If they aren’t formatted properly, mentors and mentees can feel like they have to go to something that they don’t really want to go to. If the organizer doesn’t put any time or money into the program, the relationship falls apart and no one benefits.  A lot of the time, mentoring works best when the relationship forms naturally. Some people don’t necessarily want a mentor or don’t feel like they need one and so they feel uncomfortable being assigned one.

From my experience with mentoring programs, they have never ended well but have always had good intentions. For example, this semester I participated in the Virginia Tech Early  Engineering Mentoring program as a mentor. The program is put on by the College of Engineering graduate school and pairs new graduate students with existing graduate students. I volunteered as a way of giving back to the University that I felt has been great for me and my career. In my undergrad, I participated in a mentor program for incoming international students. The program paired us up with students through email and expected the relationship to take off from there. Naturally, I met with my mentee once and we never met again. The program at VT was much better but resulted in the relationship being forced.

There are of course other types of mentoring that can happen in universities. If a student works under a professor for research, the professor can become a professional mentor for that student. These types of relationships are much better because the student is actively seeking out a mentor with the intention of gaining experience and knowledge allowing a more organic relationship to transpire.

My thoughts from this post come from an article posted on The Chronicle of Higher Education:



The recent Harvard lawsuit

I have been following the lawsuit against Harvard over race-based admission processes and the effect it has on Asian American applicants, over the course of the semester.  For anyone who is not familiar with the case – a group called the Students for Fair Admissions is suing Harvard for requiring Asian applicants to have higher GPA and SAT scores than applicants of other racial and ethnic backgrounds. They also assert that Harvard assigns personal ratings to its applicants and that Asian applicants are typically rated lower than other applicants. The case has gone through the courts and now we are waiting on the ruling which could take several months.

What this case is actually determining is the place for affirmative action in higher education. The plaintiffs claim that they support diversity in academia but what they also want from the court is “a permanent injunction prohibiting Harvard from using race as a factor in future undergraduate admissions decisions.” If this case goes in the favor of the plaintiffs, it could be the end of affirmative action in admissions processes. No matter the ruling, both sides say they are going to appeal.

This is not the first time a case has come against affirmative action. In 1996, it was ruled in California that race can’t be used in admissions processes. It came to the courts because California was seeing a lot of students that weren’t prepared for college (or maybe they weren’t prepared for them…?) This resulted in a decrease in the paucity of Black and Hispanic students that were currently being accepted in the California school system. There have also been other small cases, such as those that ruled that hard race quotas can’t be set for an incoming class. But the California case is an example of what could happen if affirmative action is repealed.

Do the Asian American’s have a case? I think they do, and this stems from the personal rating scores. However, it doesn’t seem that the personal rating scores are something that can be changed by Harvard. Harvard determines the personal rating scores from the applicant’s recommendation letters. These are often written by teachers, mentors, and guidance counselors. Harvard can’t change what these letters say and they base the scores on the same metric as all other applicants. However, we are measuring what is said to be a minority group on the same metrics as other students. In the acceptance process, it is clear that admissions officers allow leeway to students that have had difficulties in their life or don’t come from an upper-middle-class family. Maybe, the same acceptions need to be made for Asian applicants. They likely have a different culture than white Americans so maybe it isn’t fair to measure them along that same metric.

The future of the university

With each passing year, students attend college to earn a degree that prepares them for their future job all the while, student loan debt grows to over a trillion dollars. Students leave their universities with their shiny new degrees and enter the workforce bright-eyed and ready to please. But more often than not, these students are not prepared for the required tasks of even an entry-level position. Students are graduating with four-year degrees and forced into a part-time position with poor pay and no health insurance until they gain that experience. Some decide to go to graduate school to specialize but most master’s degrees don’t pay a stipend meaning that these students rack up more loan debt.

This has to change.

This is not sustainable.

It won’t stay like this.

Because it can’t.

But these problems are just as much a problem with universities as they are with the government, the economy, and the health care system. Already, we are talking about universal health care and free college. Higher education will be entirely free in the state of New York for residents of New York for student families that make under $125,000 a year. This amount encapsulates a large proportion of the middle to low-income residents of NY which are those that are coming out of college with the largest amount of debt. I imagine more and more states will move toward this model eventually leaving more states with this model than those without. People will start to move to states with this model and other states will have to follow to save their economy.

To touch on students coming out of college ill-prepared to handle an entry-level job: Some schools have incorporated an internship or co-op requirement in their curriculum. While this is incredibly important, it is also adding time to earn some degrees which is adding more debt on young Americans whom are just starting their lives and have nothing. This can be combatted by making school more trade-like. Students would take classes on top of working with a local company or in more lab-like, hands-on environments (for schools in small towns with no companies). And this would be started early rather than being done for just ten weeks the summer before their senior year of college. If they are afforded the opportunity to work with a local company in their future job of choice then companies would pay them for their work. Either of these methods would prepare students early for their future job and could mitigate the need for 2-5 years of experience on a job posting.

Technology in higher education: tweeting for scholarships

I recently read an article discussing a new trend of students bringing publicity to a university and in return, the student gets a scholarship or even a full ride to the college. The platform of choice for this article was twitter and the phenomenon started when a prospective student asked LSU how many retweets he would need to earn free tuition. This started a trend in 2017 of multiple students emailing various universities to ask how many retweets they need to get a full ride. Most universities respond with the location where a student can find scholarship opportunities.

However, there is more to this than meets the eye. Many college-age people in the US are incredibly immersed in social media and understand that these platforms are one of the many ways that universities and businesses can market themselves. There is also the issue that colleges in the US work very much like a business so marketing and money from private donors are incredibly important to them. But that also means that certain applicants can buy their way in if they come from a family that donates a significant amount of money to the university. The university says it awards scholarships to students based on academic merit but students whose family donate probably have an easy time getting in and maybe even getting a full-ride based solely on their families donation rather than on that students grades. So, if publicity from twitter brings notice and subsequent donors/money to the university, it is surprising that there isn’t a scholarship that exists in this facet.

If a student asks a university how many retweets they need, and the university gives them a number, it is likely that the student would have to become quite the entrepreneur to gain that number of retweets. It may also require so skillful marketing of their own. These are good qualities to instill in young students, especially those that want to go into business and marketing.

There is also a new, immerging issue that many students are more than qualified to go to college but don’t have the funds to get through. Tuition costs are rising across the country in both public and private schools but the funds of incoming students and their parents are not. More and more students are having to fall back on loans and scholarships but these don’t always cover all the costs associated with college. Providing an entrepreneurial scholarship for an incoming student that meets a ‘retweet’ quota first seems like a great new-age scholarship that will also help students who are capable but just not quite able to pay the bill.


The details matter

This week I found myself incredibly satisfied with my advisors mentoring. I know, that’s so rare for so many students. I often feel like many graduate students get a laundry list of tasks to complete with no actual instruction from their advisor. That’s how my master’s advisor “mentored”. But this method leaves students with a learning curve for so many things, particularly if the student has been instructed to do something that is completely foreign to them.

I know advisors were in our shoes at one point in their lives, how could they possibly have forgotten so quickly how much they struggled with what seems like everyday tasks for them now. I like to believe that maybe they are just really smart and never went through these struggles. But there is also the possibility that they remember and they know that they learned the most when they struggled. Or worse, they know and don’t want to take the time to do some real mentoring.

Let’s go back to that part about advisors being really smart and not knowing that their students struggle sometimes. Do these people make the best mentors? In my experience, the answer is no. They also make the worst professors. These people also seem to be the norm in academia. What are us laypeople to do!? The best mentors I have had in college/grad school are honestly those that have been doing their job for the shortest period of time and are the least far removed from the learning portion of their lives. I have occasionally had a professor that has admitted to struggling with material and found a way to teach it that is not confusing. I have also had professors that have taken the time to make a nice lesson plan.

That’s it, that’s the key to being incredibly smart and being a good mentor/teacher. Taking the time to consider how their teaching methods come across to their students and acting on it. But many professors are lazy when it comes to teaching and would rather be doing research. This is such a backward thought to me. I feel like if you take the time to engage students in class and ensure that you have reached them, then they are more likely to go to graduate school. Once the student is in graduate school, they will be happier if their advisor takes the time to teach them good research practices, valuable resources, and doesn’t make them feel like they are always behind by not taking the time to teach the proper methods.


Why do graduate students have to take so many classes?

In much of Europe, it is standard for a student to earn their BS and MS degree before entering into a Ph.D. program. Once a student has reached the Ph.D. level, they no longer have to take courses and their sole focus is on their research. A student applies to a Ph.D. program solely by getting accepted to a project.  It is incredibly common to have research that is only minutely related to the ideals of a department. This means that a students background does not always fit with the department they are accepted too. But the department does not require students to take additional courses to catch them up to the typical focus of their degree title.

In the US, it is incredibly common for students in graduate school to take additional classes past their undergraduate education. There is no requirement for a student to have a Master’s degree before entering into a Ph.D. program. The major difference between Europe and the US is that if a student enter’s a Ph.D. program with a Master’s degree, they are often still required to take classes. The number of classes a student has to take past the Master’s degree varies widely by school and discipline. For example, some schools have their students take only a few classes that are meant to help in their graduate career. These classes may include a coding class, proposal writing, and ethics, for example. Other schools have their students take upwards of 40 credits of science and math classes beyond their undergraduate coursework. Some schools don’t allow their students to transfer any courses from their Master’s degree, even if the classes are exactly the same. This is aside from the makeup courses a student may have to take if they come from a different educational background. The question becomes, how necessary is this coursework (aside from the deficiency courses) to students graduate education? There are a few cases in which this is warranted and other cases where the classes just become busy work and take away from a student’s research time.

I agree that having students take some classes past their undergraduate work helps orient them to the field. It also provides the opportunity to take courses that didn’t fit into a student’s rigorous undergrad schedules, much like the future professoriate course. Personally, I am in a class right not now that teaches me exactly what I need to know to do my research. It is low stress, and I’m learning things I’m interested in. I have also had to take courses that are required but have nothing to do with my research or my future career. They were simply bureaucracy. They were required courses to help me fit the knowledge mold the department wants me to adhere to when getting a degree from them. My question is, why?

There are a few reasons I can think of as to why students have to take coursework beyond a Master’s degree:

1. The department does not believe that the courses the student took for their Master’s degree are sufficient

2. The department is so interdisciplinary, it is unlikely that a student took the exact same course before, and the department wants them to know that material

3. The graduate school enforces each department to have a set number of classes for their students to take – so they can make more money.

This last point seems to be the most likely to me, but I can not find if the graduate school enforces a certain number of classes on the departments. There is one thing in particular that makes this last point incredibly likely. Colleges in the US are very interested in making money while colleges in Europe are not, and students in Europe do not need to take courses in their Ph.D. years.

It seems like graduate schools are always adding more requirements and more courses. The average time to earn a Ph.D. in this country is now 8.2 years with the longest average occurring in the field of Education (12.7 years) and the shortest time in the STEM fields (6.7 years) (NSF, 2008). I cannot find how the time to earn a Ph.D. has changed, unfortunately, but in the late 1800s, it took 1-3 years in the sciences and there was no thesis requirement.

There are a lot of unanswered question on this topic so your thoughts are appreciated!


Dr. Smart was not very smart

In November 2012, it was announced that a senior research associate of the University of Kentucky (UK) had been involved in scientific misconduct for over a decade. Over this time period, it was found that he falsified 45 figures in 7 grant applications, three progress reports, and 10 published papers. Some of these publications accumulated over 100 citations. He was highly renowned in his field and some of his research even led other scientist down research paths that would end up being a dead-end.  In addition, his research brought UK over $8 million dollars in federal grants.

As a result of these findings, Dr. Smart resigned from his position at UK and began working as a chemistry professor at a local high school. The university recommended that he retract or correct the ten papers in question. In addition, Dr. Smart agreed to not be involved in federal grant applications for 7 years starting from 2012. Dr. Smart had 13 researchers employed by him/his grants over this period, each of which were given 1 year from late 2009 to find other work. From what has been reported, these researches were not blamed in his misconduct and have all found work in other labs/institutions.

It appears that there was no request for return of the federal grant funds upon finding this misconduct. This is not surprising because where would the money come from? What is surprising is that Dr. Smart was allowed to keep his PhD which he earned in 2003 from UK. He went on to work for UK as a research professor. It seems as though this misconduct started during his PhD given that it was going on for over ten years and he earned his PhD in 2003. Is it possible that there is systemic misconduct at this institution that UK doesn’t want to get involved in? If this falsification happened during his PhD, it also means that his academic advisor was involved. There is no way he could have published falsified results without his advisor knowing. So now, there are potentially two researchers at this institutions that have been involved in academic misconduct. It is somewhat unbelievable that no one is looking at his advisor or is advisors collaborations.

Maybe this institution breeds researchers that have a poor moral compass. If UK were to look into the advisor, they may open a large black hole that would bring a lot of bad publicity to the institution which would affect their grant money. But not looking into potential misconduct is an ethical issue in itself. Regardless, it seems likely that Dr. Smart is not the end of the road with this case.


Has grad school prepared us to be research professors?

As I read a proposal from my research advisor that was just funded, I find myself questioning if grad school prepares us to be research professors. Sure, by the time I leave here, I will know how to design an experiment, analyze the data, write a scientific paper, and understand what the current happenings in the field are. However, as I read this proposal, I question my ability to come up with a new, novel idea, that is also worthy of grant money. The proposal is well thought-out, thorough, but includes information that I don’t know if I would have thought of. On top of that, it involves collaborations with other schools and areas of study that I have never interacted with.

This leaves me wondering, how does one make these connections? Having connections will certainly assist in being successful in my field.  Maybe it’s easier than I imagine because every researcher is vying for grant money and needs a good collaboration from a neighboring field to successfully obtain it. On the other hand, what niche can I fill that my advisor isn’t already covering? I have a different background but, in the end, they are training us to be them.

Okay, so all that aside, let’s say I get a grant. Now, I have a team of grad students doing the legwork while I assist them to successful results. Sometimes, while I am carrying out a study now, I come to an issue that seems insurmountable. Now, as the principal investigator, I am supposed to know how to solve those issues. For me, I have a hard time knowing the solution unless I have happened upon that problem before. Maybe, it will happen while I’m in grad school, or maybe I’ll know enough about the area of study that I can figure out how to overcome it. But what if neither of those happens? Now, I have a grant that says I am going to do a thing, and I can’t figure out how to get there.

Okay, now on the flip side, what if I never get a grant or I get small grants? I have pressure from the department to take on grad students, so I do, and now their livelihoods depend on my ability to bring in money. Maybe the department will sustain them for a while but that can only last for so long. On top of having no money to support them, they can’t go to conferences which is important if they plan to go into academia.

Aside from this, I asked if I can write a proposal to gain this experience, and I was told that a student can not get PI status at Virginia Tech (or maybe it was my department?) Regardless, there are also very view grants that allow graduate students to apply as the intended PI.

Are other people in graduate school taught these things before finishing their degree? Or do they learn it after they have gotten a tenure-track position?

Mission statement of community college vs. university

I have found the mission statement of two institutions, one from my local community college and one from Texas A&M:

Community College:

MVCC provides accessible, high-quality educational opportunities to meet the diverse needs of our students.  We are the community’s college, committed to student success through partnerships, transfer and career pathways, and personal enrichment.

Texas A&M:

Texas A&M University is dedicated to the discovery, development, communication, and application of knowledge in a wide range of academic and professional fields. Its mission of providing the highest quality undergraduate and graduate programs is inseparable from its mission of developing new understandings through research and creativity. It prepares students to assume roles in leadership, responsibility, and service to society. Texas A&M assumes as its historic trust the maintenance of freedom of inquiry and an intellectual environment nurturing the human mind and spirit. It welcomes and seeks to serve persons of all racial, ethnic and geographic groups as it addresses the needs of an increasingly diverse population and a global economy. In the 21st century, Texas A&M University seeks to assume a place of preeminence among public universities while respecting its history and traditions.

Both mission statements speak of providing high-quality education to their students. They differ in that MVCC does not discuss research, or ensuring that their students become responsible leaders that serve their society. The main reasons for these differences probably lie in that MVCC is just a gateway for students that are heading off to university or they understand that students that come there are not preparing for a professional degree. They also probably receive less funding and aren’t a research institution, so it is not possible for the MVCC to add significant discoveries or developments to society.

Texas A&M also talks about serving persons of racial, ethnic, and geographic background. This is probably something that MVCC wouldn’t focus on because it is not very common for a person from another part of the world to come to the US to go to a community college. They do discuss serving the diverse needs of their students but this is probably more for people of different learning types and abilities.

The main differences in these missions statements are due to the focus of the institution and an understanding of the administration of the type of people that come to each institution. MVCC brings in people who are finishing a certificate, taking a few classes while working in the area, advanced high school students, or students that did not do well enough in high school to get into a prominent institution. Texas A&M is a university that grants Ph.D.’s and prepares students for a professional job or research. They also bring in a number of people from all parts of the world and they need to make sure they are meeting the needs of all those students and helping them to transition to a new country.