Time management – private sector vs grad school

How effectively are we using our time as graduate students? When I was pursuing my master’s degree a while back I wasn’t too concerned with this issue because I was less aware of the pool of knowledge surrounding me. My goal was to just do well in school and as long as I got good grades I was happy. I was ofcourse much younger then and such a philosophy sounded more than reasonable. When I graduated I thought I knew a lot because I had done great in school, however after I started working I realized that I knew very little. I bought more books when I was working than when I was a student.

As far as the time dedicated to my profession is concerned, as a practicing engineer I was working at least 8 hours a day and many times I was also working evenings and weekends. So I was doing every thing I could. There were many times where I would find myself in stressful situations but I felt that I was learning a lot and a weekend off or a vacation felt well deserved.

In graduate school on the other hand the level of accountability is not as demanding as the private sector for many reasons. First and foremost we are expected to work a least 20 hours a week compared to the 40 hours in the private sector. The consequences of poor performance in grad school are much milder than the private sector. In grad school if you under perform in an exam you get a B which is not a big deal. This is due to the fact the the professors are very lenient and liberal in grading. In the private sector if you don’t perform well you may loose you job.

So from a time management perspective there are stronger incentives in the private sector to effectively manage time. Don’t get me wrong, I am sure that graduate students are  working very hard, however the relatively more relaxed environment in grad school allows us to have fun when we feel like it and get things done a later time. When you start abusing with this liberty or flexibility, then you get to the point when you do the minimal required work  and spend the rest of the time doing something else. I don’t think this is the ideal balance.

I think academe is a great place to work in and if someone is self-motivated, then that person can strike the balance between having a fulfilling professional life and a meaningful social life.

Hiring based on GPA

I am sure that most of us have had bad days, sick days, down days, special circumstances that have influenced our performance during an exam. That performance in turn has influenced our overall grade and consequently our GPA. So is it fair that we get reduced to just or GPA when we apply for a job? While some people may think that the answer to that question is no our future employer needs to have some criteria to decide. Si let me give you an example of how two of my past supervisors decided on this issue. One of them wanted the applicants to indicate their GPA’S and also include a copy of their transcripts with their applications to see what classes they had taken and whether or not those classes were relevant to our practice. The other supervisor looked primarily at the attitude of the applicant during the interview process. He claimed that given a certain level of IQ and a good attitude than that person is easily trainable. I agree with both methods and I am sure that they ultimately looked at both sides, i.e. academic performance and attitude. But to get back to the original question. Is the GPA an indicator of our future performance? I think it kind of is. We may have a few bad days which might have influenced our performance during a particular exam but these events are typically the exception and not the rule. So if we studied hard consistently during the four years of college or for the additional years of the Master’s or PhD program then this hard work will reflect itself in a good GPA. So an employer is trying to select a candidate form a pool of applicants all of which are applying for an entry level position (no previous experience) then the GPA one of the few things that he can look at and decide based upon. He won’t have time to get to know the applicants at a personal level other than just the impression that he will get during the interview process.

Questions that may come up during an interview

Last week we discussed the differences between a resume and a curriculum vita. While many people agreed that the primary difference was the length with the resume being shorter this topic led to another conversation. Should you include personal information such as marital status, number of children etc in your CV? While one student said that in some cases you are required to provide that information other believed that it was illegal.

Another question that came up was what would we do if we were asked such a question during an interview for faculty job? Do we just answer the question or do we somehow try to finesse it? The professor suggested that we finesse it. I can understand that if the interviewer clearly violates the rules by asking an irrelevant question to the interview process such as inquiring about the marital status or the number of children that we should not feel bad about choosing not to answer that question.

The problem is though that the question, even though irrelevant, may be a result of either genuine interest or an effort from the interviewer to have a conversation. So if the question is shut down indelicately then it could have negative consequences. My position is that even if the question is irrelevant if the answer does not bother you then you can just answer it. The reason for this is that the people interviewing you are the ones deciding whether or not you get the job in the fist place and whether or not you are warded tenure in the future. So you don’t really want to turn them off for technical reasons. If these people would like to find out personal information about you they will do so sooner or later. The goal is not just to get the job but to also get tenure later on.

However I understand that if they are looking for someone who will dedicate most of his/her time to academic work and they find out that you are married and have kids you may not get the job in the first place. So I could see why people may want to avoid answering such questions.

On Motivation

One of the assignments on the topic of motivation was to watch two videos from Daniel Pink. He made some convincing arguments that the traditional ways of motivating people don’t always work. I think to some degree everyone would agree with that statement. However I have the impression that most business owners and college professors are convinced that the traditional ways work therefore they are skeptical to try something new. It really takes a person with a clear vision or someone who can buffer the losses to try a novel concept and see if it works. Now, why is it so hard for the people in charge to change their minds. I think the primary reason is that the traditional ways do really work most of the time (which is the other way of saying that they don’t always work). The exams make us study hard and as a results we learn something. The same applies for all other course requirements such as homeworks, projects etc. When the class will be over we will leave with something. That could be knowledge, class notes that we can refer to in the future, homework and exam solutions etc. I remember when I started working I would open my class notes and homeworks to see how I solved a particular problem so that I could apply the same strategy in the real world. So no question that the traditional methods work that is why they have become traditional. However I agree that there is room for improvement. I remember a friend of mine saying that, at the company that he worked for, he would have been more motivated if the system was not based on fear.  One can say that the interests of the industry and academe are different because  the industry is primarily driven by profit rather than the desire to learn and academe is more inclined towards learning because it is an educational institution. However the two are related. If an employer provides such an environment where the hard working employees can feel secure and rewarded for their hard work they will be motivated to work even harder and produce more. Bu if the employer is shortsighted and chooses the squeeze every tiny bit of profit from his employees by overloading them he will soon realize that this strategy will have benefits in the short term but huge liabilities in the long term. The losses of losing a valuable employee are much greater than the short term benefits because when that employer leaves the overall quality of service that the company can offer to its clients will be immediately depreciated and that is not something that can be quickly recovered. A similar theme is taking place in academe. The traditional ways are producing good graduates and will continue to do so and even if nothing changes life will go on and we will be fine. But is that the best we can get from the given situation. Clearly not, so it is our job as future faculty members to acknowledge the status quo and incorporate our dissatisfactions as students and employees in to our teaching philosophy and style. When Weimer talks about the traditional methods in her book “Learner-Centered Teaching” on page 98 she states “Nevertheless, these heavy handed approaches do produce results. Students end up learning in our rule oriented environment and as a result of the motivational sticks we apply. At issue is whether these are the only or best conditions for learning and whether their short- term gains are offset by their long term liabilities.”

On Attention

The article by Nicholas Carr “Is Google making us stupid” was very interesting and thought provoking, but just as interesting and well said was the response by Larry Sanger. Carr says that the net is chipping away his capacity for concentration and contemplation. I agree with him. I suffer from the same disease. However as Larry Sanger says” It is ridiculous to bemoan a state which is self-created; that is a sign of weakness of will, of indiscipline, not of victimhood. Carr actually blames it on “computer engineers and software coders” who build things like Google—which is silly. Indeed, to that extent, Carr profoundly misunderstands the nature of the problem: to pretend that you can blame others (programmers, no less!) for your unwillingness to think long and hard is only a sign of how the problem itself resides within you. It is ultimately a problem of will, a failure to choose to think. If that is a problem of yours, you have no one to blame for it but yourself”.
All I can say is, well said Mr.Sanger.
If the Internet is preventing us from focusing or concentrating then anyone can log off to contemplate or get in touch with his or her uniqueness. There was a time where we were complaining how hard and inefficient it was to obtain information and now we are complaining that we are overwhelmed by it. It is natural for people sometimes to feel a greater sense of responsibility when it comes to learning or knowing because the information is now available at our fingertips. But it is our job to prioritize and avoid a situation in which we are drowned by information but starving for wisdom.

Reflections on Weimer’s Chapter 2 – The Balance of Power

Here is what I have been doing while reading Weimer’s “Learner-Centered Teaching: Five Key Changes to Practice”. Whenever I read something that either does not makes sense to me or it is an outstanding convincing argument, I write down the page number and a short description and I reflect on it later on. Here is one example.

Weimer explains how she lets the students participate on establishing the participation policy in one of her classes. It seems like she is spending at least three class periods just to come up with a participation policy. My first impression was that such an approach was ridiculous. In engineering we simply don’t have the luxury to waste three classes to see how students feel about a given participation policy and whether they would like to make any changes to it. The material in most of the junior level classes in engineering departments is pretty similar not only in the United States but also around the world, so there is not a whole lot you can change because you need to cover a certain material so that the students will have the necessary background to take higher level classes. However in Weimer’s defense, she clarifies later on that the class in which she spent three classes just to come up with a participation policy was a communication class so communicating about the participation policy was already within the framework of the class.

As part of this example on participation policy she says that she was taken aback when one class proposed that right or wrong answers should count equally. Here is the rationale of the students for proposing this counter-intuitive idea:

(1) “When you give a wrong answer and the teacher points that out in front of the entire class, it takes a good deal of courage to raise your hand the next time”

(2) ” Teachers always tell us we shouldn’t be affraid to make mistakes, that we learn from them, so why shouldn’t we get credit for making them?”

In my opinion there is some sense in the first reason but it is by no mean an adequate explanation to validate the proposition. If someone is embarrassed by the way the teacher pointed out his or her wrong answer that this situation should be addressed by the teacher. The teacher may consider being more refined or more diplomatic next time he explains that the answer was in fact not the right one.

The second reason might be valid for elementary school level but definitely not for a college level. It is like saying, you can say whatever comes to your mind and you don’t really need to think hard about it because guess what, the substance of your answer does not matter. I am not saying that a student should be punished for giving the wrong answer during class participation, but he shouldn’t be awarded any points just for opening his mouth.

Finally Weimer beautifully answers the question:”How much freedom can they handle” as follows:

“……The amount of decision making it takes to motivate students must be
weighed against their intellectual maturity and ability to operate
in conditions that give more freedom at the same time they also
require more responsibility”


Reflections on Weimer’s Chapter 1 – Lessons on Learning

In page 7 Weimer talks about “the vastness of the literature on learning and the fact that this body of knowledge remains largely unassembled”. This statement is probably true not only for the subject of learning but for any topic. For instance part of writing a thesis or a dissertation at least in engineering is performing a literature review on the subject to see what other people have done so that the researcher can plan accordingly. However a student in the United States will read the articles related to his research that are published either in English or in one of the languages that the student speaks, while there may be valuable information out there in other languages. To address this issue there are technical world congresses that one can attend but the material that can be covered in these conventions is limited. Weimer beautifully describes this as follows: “We push the horizons of knowledge faster than we map the newly discovered lands”.

In page 12 Weimer talks about the idea of  collective construction of knowledge. I liked the fact the she distinguishes how this may “fit humanities fields where content supports  more tentative and less definitive conclusions”. She continues to say that ” It is more difficult to see how knowledge can be socially constructed in science math and engineering fields where there are more right answers and less disagreement about the status of knowledge”. One of the things that I have learned in this class is that people may have diametrically opposed views on a subject that according to me as an engineer there is a clear cut answer. It is fascinating to see how people that study social sciences, arts etc. are wired to think completely differently from someone who studies math, engineering or physics.

Another interesting argument that Weimer makes is the idea of constructivism where students are encouraged to interact with content in a particular topic regardless of their level of expertise. She also does not fail to note that the less experienced and knowledgeable learners will interact with content in less intellectually robust ways but she defends the idea of involving students in the process of acquiring and retaining information. I always thought that it would be fruitless for someone to wrestle with a concept prior to acquiring the necessary tools first, however now I am convinced that figuring out what tools you need first will be more productive in the process of learning how to use the tools because you already know what you are going to use them for.