Work-Life Balance in Graduate School

Graduate students on research and teaching assistantships occupy a strange space somewhere in between employees and students. For many of us, being a graduate student is our full-time profession, and we rely on our stipends to pay living expenses and any tuition or fees not covered by our assistantships. Our schedules tend to be more flexible than those of a normal job, but this flexibility comes with the knowledge that the time and effort it takes to complete a graduate degree often exceeds the typical Monday-Friday 9-5 schedule. There are some weeks where I have worked 40 hours in just 3 days, balancing field work, lab work, and grading obligations. There are others where I have worked noticeably fewer than 40 hours, especially if you don’t count time spent in classes and completing coursework towards total working hours.

This ambiguity in expectations, combined with the general culture of academia that rewards hyperproductivity, can lead to very lopsided work-life balance among graduate students. While searching for relevant articles, I found this one from Inside Higher Ed, by Danielle Marias:

https://www.insidehighered.com/blogs/gradhacker/achieving-work-life-balance

While the article shared some good tips for balancing research and other activities, I found some of the comments to be discouraging. For example, one commenter wrote:

“Personally, I cringe when I hear my graduate students talk about “balance.” You have a relatively short period of time to acquire the skills and knowledge necessary to become a scholar/researcher. Anything that pulls you away from these requirements jeopordizes your scholarly development. To be clear, I’m not saying there is no time for family or friends–there is. What I am saying is that there is no substitute for prolonged concentration, hard work, sacrifice.”

The same commenter clarified their stance later:

“My point is simple: Sacrifice your hobbies and extracurriculars while in graduate school and even during the years leading up to tenure. There will be time to play later.”

I worked in a lab for several years where this was the advisor’s mentality. I started out working ~60 hours a week in order to balance field work, lab work, grading, and my own course work. When that wasn’t enough, my labmates and advisor encouraged me to put in more hours and work harder, so I started pushing 70 and 80 hours weekly while taking a full course load. I regularly pulled all-nighters to finish coursework and meet grading deadlines. My grades dropped to the point where I had multiple professors express concern. My mental and physical health suffered. I even fell asleep at the wheel while driving between field sites. Luckily, it was so early in the morning that I was the only one on the road. No one was hurt, but I was terrified. Getting more sleep was not an option, so I started chugging coffee and caffeinated drinks during the long weekly drives. I shortened or skipped my regular workouts and stopped attending department seminars and social functions. It still wasn’t enough.

Near the end of my first quarter as a grad student, my advisor started a meeting by asking how I was doing. When I replied “Ok, how are you?”, he asked, “No, how are you really doing?” I held back tears as I explained that I felt like I was spread too thin in every direction, my coursework was suffering, and I felt physically and mentally exhausted. His response: “So, how is that manuscript coming along?”

I decided after that meeting to switch out of the PhD program, and ended up leaving with an M.S. degree after 2 more very difficult years. I still wonder whether I could have worked harder and done more, and whether his expectations were ever attainable to begin with.

For comparison, the advisor who I am currently finishing my PhD with is a strong advocate for work-life balance. She encourages us to take time off, and reminds us that it’s okay to be less than perfect. I am so much happier and productive now than I was during my M.S., even though I’m working far fewer hours each week. I’m active in departmental activities and outreach, and enjoy spending time engaging in several hobbies outside of my work. I still concentrate, work hard, and sacrifice, but it is overall a much more sustainable balance.

 

 

Tech and Innovation in Higher Ed: Interacting with Students on Social Media

While searching for interesting articles on technology in higher education, I stumbled across Kelli Marshall’s article, “It’s Getting Personal in Here” for Chronicle Vitae (https://chroniclevitae.com/news/1423-it-s-getting-personal-in-here), in which she discusses social media interactions with students and their effect on student-teacher relationships.

With the rising popularity of Twitter and Instagram and already widespread use of Facebook, students are gaining access to details about faculty members’ personal lives that may not have been available to them a few years ago. While this can help make faculty more relatable, it can become problematic  if interactions shift towards inappropriateness or if posts are unprofessional.

As an aspiring educator who uses Twitter regularly for science outreach, this is something that I think about often. I believe in the importance of showing that scientists and academics are well-rounded people with personal lives, but I try not to share too many personal details. For example, my most recent posts include a link to our conference talk that was featured in the weekly newsletter of the main professional organization in my field, and a picture of my pet tortoise trying to eat a book (she mistook the photo of lettuce on the cover for actual lettuce, which she loves). I’d estimate my feed is about 50% science outreach and updates or retweets related to my field, 25% interactions with other people and commenting on their posts, 20% pictures of my pet tortoise/houseplants/garden, and 5% other topics. I don’t post anything that I wouldn’t want students or employers to see (or my dad, who enjoys reading my Twitter posts).  I follow many of my professors who are on Twitter, but our interactions are mostly limited to retweeting interesting articles or updates about the department. 

With Facebook, it’s much easier to control who can see your posts. I don’t use Facebook for professional purposes, so the only issues I have with Facebook and my professional life are deciding what to do when undergraduate students send me friend requests.  I try to only accept requests from undergraduate students that I interact with regularly in person and am (ideally) not in a clear position of power over. As a graduate student, this second part can be a little tricky, since there is often at least an unspoken hierarchy between different academic levels. If a student working in our lab sends me a friend request, I only accept if I know them well and don’t think it will cause any conflicts of interest. If a student in a class that I’m TAing sends me a friend request, I wait until after the course is over to respond, to avoid potential questions of favoritism.

I am friends with a few professors that I have worked closely with or taken classes with on Facebook, but again, we don’t interact very much beyond “liking” posts and occasional comments. As far as I know, most of my professors are not on Facebook or keep their accounts private, and follow similar criteria for accepting friend requests from students.

What do you all think? Should faculty and students be friends and/or follow each other on social media? Where do you draw the line between being relatable and oversharing? Have you had any experiences where social media interactions with students caused issues?

 

College admissions scandal: What were the motivating factors?

I was catching up on the news of the past week, and came across numerous articles about the college admissions scandal that has unfolded recently. NPR published a detailed summary here:

https://www.npr.org/2019/03/12/702539140/u-s-accuses-actresses-others-of-fraud-in-wide-college-admissions-scandal

In short, 50 people (and counting) are accused of various crimes committed as part of an 18-year scheme in which wealthy parents paid William Singer to help ensure that their children would be accepted to elite universities. In some cases, Singer bribed athletic coaches to falsely claim that the children were being recruited for their teams. In others, he arranged to have somebody else take their SAT tests and/or bribed test administrators to help improve their scores. In still others, he assisted them in getting extra time for tests by falsely claiming to have learning disabilities. Along with Singer, the list of accused includes several former coaches, test administrators, and well-known clients who paid large sums for Singer’s services.

As details emerge, news articles describing or responding to specific components of the scandal have also emerged. For example, students with learning disabilities and those who advocate for them have publicly called the accused out for taking advantage of unjustified accomodations, and explained how this can make it more difficult for students who do need extra time or privacy to get it (https://www.npr.org/2019/03/14/703006521/why-the-college-admissions-scandal-hurts-students-with-disabilities?fbclid=IwAR2bU29doHsBqW6KKEG5UUUtwxsiNS12GgKlXPU8fQUaNsp1xYZxSCqvE6c).

NPR also published an article on whether or not admission to elite universities was correlated to higher income and higher satisfaction later on (https://www.npr.org/2019/03/13/702973336/does-it-matter-where-you-go-to-college-some-context-for-the-admissions-scandal). There is some evidence that students who graduate from one of these schools have a higher income, but their chosen major was a much stronger predictor of future income. Interestingly, satisfaction and fulfillment were not tied to college selectivity in the study discussed in the NPR article.

In the coming months of investigation, I’m very interested to learn more about whether or not the parents involved in the scandal were primarily motivated to help their kids have a better future, or whether more selfish factors (i.e. social status, exclusive reputation, etc.) led them to cheat the system. I’m also interested to see what happens to the students who were admitted under false pretenses, many of whom were supposedly unaware of their parents’ illegitimate assistance. Will they be allowed to stay at the universities? Will they face criminal charges as well? If they have graduated, will their diplomas be rescinded?

What do you all think? Should the admitted students be punished along with their parents? Or should we give them the benefit of the doubt? Will the negative publicity and humiliation of knowing they were admitted under false pretenses hurt their futures more than the illegitimate admissions may have helped them?

Open Access

Wildlife Biology is an open-access journal focused on wildlife science and management, with the goal of “promoting a scientific basis for the conservation and management of wildlife and of human-wildlife relationships”.  This journal publishes a variety of empirical and theoretical work across several sub-fields within the overall discipline. Submitted manuscripts are evaluated by multiple peer reviewers and a subject editor. Wildlife Biology is published by the Oikos Editorial Office, owned by the Nordic Council for Wildlife Research, and supported by the Office National de la Chasse et de la Faune Sauvage (in France). It was established in 1994, and is published bimonthly. Their web site does not include any position statements specifically addressing the open access movement, but does claim that “publishing your work as Open access will increase the number of readers and make the published results more widely spread” (1).

Their publishing fee (€500 plus and additional €165 value-added tax if applicable) seems comparable or slightly low compared to other journals in the field, considering they do not charge by page. Authors from countries with low average incomes (based on Worldbank classifications) can apply for publishing fee waivers.

I’ll admit that I was a bit skeptical of this journal at first. Open access journals get a bit of a bad rap in our field, with some arguing that it can be easier to get manuscripts accepted due to less rigorous review standards. “Phishing” journals are also a growing problem in the field, leading some professionals to distrust lesser-known journals. I have read some articles of questionable quality in open access journals before. However, in skimming through the articles, this journal appears to be legitimate, with interesting articles and respected scientists included among the authors of recently accepted manuscripts. I’m excited to have found a few articles to add to my “to-read” folder, and another journal to keep in mind for my next paper submission.

 

References:

  1. http://www.wildlifebiology.org/about-journal/journal-information

 

 

Ethics

While skimming through the case summaries to select one to cover for this assignment, it seems that all of the violations I read about were related to data falsification or fabrication. The resulting investigations led to retractions of papers based on false data and a probation period and/or specific sanctions to ensure that future publications were based on non-falsified data.  Scientists found to have committed repeated violations were barred from contracting with the federal government for future research, usually for a set number of years.

Of these case summaries, one stood out to me because of the severity of the penalties and the serious negative consequences of data falsification:

According to the Office of Research Integrity (1), Paul Kornak, a former researcher at a Veterans Affairs medical center, was indicted on 48 criminal charges stemming from several serious infractions. He pled guilty to 3 of these charges as part of a plea deal, admitting that he had lied about a previous conviction and probation on his job application. He also admitted that while employed at the research center, he falsified information on potential study participants and including people in studies who did not meet inclusion criteria. A 2005 popular press article on the case further elaborated that Mr. Kornak “admitted to doctoring records for at least 27 patients from 1999 to 2002 as coordinator for clinical trials” (2). This falsified paperwork led to the death of one person, who was included in a study of chemotherapy drugs despite previous test results showing “impaired kidney and liver function,” which should have prevented their inclusion in the study (1).

As a result, Mr. Kornak was permanently barred from working with the federal government, sentenced to almost 6 years in prison, and ordered to pay $639,000 back to his former employer and the pharmaceutical companies that he had defrauded as part of his activities.

Given that his actions led to the death of a study participant, I’m surprised that the penalties were not more severe, although the prison sentence was apparently the maximum allowed length for criminally negligent homicide (2). I’m curious as to whether whether there was any additional  civil legal action related to these ethics violations.

As someone who is relatively unfamiliar with the medical research field, I found the fact that researchers would intentionally falsify data during medical studies particularly disturbing, given the potential effects on human health and wellbeing. While I understand that the “publish or perish” attitude prevalent in academia and research creates a lot of pressure for scientists to get results and present them, I don’t see how any publication could be worth falsifying data to get the results that you want, especially knowing that your work is likely to influence the medical care of countless unknown people later on.

 

 

 

References:

  1. https://ori.hhs.gov/case-summary-kornak-paul-h
  2. https://www.the-scientist.com/news-analysis/fraud-earns-researcher-time-in-jail-48058

University rankings

During our  discussion on mission statements in Monday’s class, we touched on whether prospective students might make decisions on where they want to apply based on university mission statements. While  some students said that they had looked at mission statements, university rankings were mentioned as a more commonly considered factor in decision making. In particular, university rankings were mentioned as being especially important to international students, who may not have the chance to visit campuses before applying, or might need to justify their choice of university to receive government funding.

I was curious about how these rankings are determined, and decided to do some digging. It turns out that there are a lot of different university ranking systems, and each ranking system considers and weights factors differently, resulting in some variation in ranking orders for schools. Despite the variation in order, the specific schools ranked highest were fairly similar across systems.

The top Google search result for “university rankings” was the U.S. News list of 2019 Best National Universities (1). This system places the most emphasis on student outcomes, such as retention and graduation rates, in calculating rankings. It also heavily weights faculty resources and “expert opinion” on the school’s academic quality, according to surveyed academic administrators and high school counselors.

While these factors are all important in comparing schools, I was surprised to see that cost of attendance and financial aid availability for students were not clearly factored into this ranking system.  These two factors strongly influenced my own decision process when applying to universities, along with the school’s general reputation and program offerings.  Financial aid also played a large part in my final decision on where to attend. The other major deciding factor in my final decision was the opportunity to visit campus and meet current students during an interview weekend for the University Honors program, which helped me get a feel for the general campus atmosphere and student satisfaction. It wasn’t until after I was attending Virginia Tech that I began to care about rankings, first concerning campus food (we were #1 in the country!) and then concerning the College of Natural Resources’ high national ranking.

When searching for and applying to graduate school, rankings did not factor into my decision making at all. In my field of study, graduate tuition is typically paid for as part of a teaching or research assistantship, and most students also receive an additional stipend as part of their position. Thus, positions are very competitive, and the application process is more similar to a job application than to an undergraduate application. Advisors with funding will post open positions on job boards and conduct multiple rounds of interviews before accepting a student. Prospective students can also contact advisors whose labs they are interested in joining to inquire about opportunities, but this approach is less likely to result in an offer, as many professors will only accept new students when they have funding for them. It is not until a student has been offered and accepted a specific position with a specific advisor that they are directed to apply to the overall program or university. As such, I contacted several potential advisors and applied for positions, but only ever applied to two graduate schools (one for my M.S., one for my PhD). Similar to my undergraduate application process, I considered program reputations, but my decisions were primarily influenced by advisors’ research interests and open positions.

Classmates: I’m interested to hear how rankings influenced your application and decision process. Comment below and let me know!

 

References:

1: https://www.usnews.com/best-colleges/rankings/national-universities

 

 

Mission Statements

For this assignment, I examined mission statements from two universities: the University of California and Radford University.

The University of California is a large research university system with several associated labs and medical centers. Across 10 campuses spread throughout the state of California, this public university system serves nearly 239,000 students (1).

According to the University of California Academic Plan (2), their mission is:

“…to serve society as a center of higher learning, providing long-term societal benefits through transmitting advanced knowledge, discovering new knowledge, and functioning as an active working repository of organized knowledge. That obligation, more specifically, includes undergraduate education, graduate and professional education, research, and other kinds of public service, which are shaped and bounded by the central pervasive mission of discovering and advancing knowledge.”

This mission statement highlights the university’s role in accumulating and sharing knowledge. While it would be expected that a large research university would build its mission statement around research and the associated knowledge, I was surprised that this statement included little else in terms of key values. A more detailed description of the university’s commitments to teaching, research, and public service is included on the same web page. These descriptions seem to be  more focused on the societal benefits and services provided by the university to the state and general public, than on the benefits to individual students.  From this mission statement, increasing and spreading knowledge appears to be the number one priority, with students as a means to that end. As a prospective student, I would find this  web page somewhat intimidating and impersonal. Digging a little deeper, the individual campus’ websites are a little more welcoming, but still reflect the overall university’s strong research focus.

Radford University, on the other hand,  is a much smaller public university located in southwest Virginia.  It has about 9,400 students, most of whom are undergraduates (3). Here is its mission statement:

“As a mid-sized, comprehensive public institution dedicated to the creation and dissemination of knowledge, Radford University empowers students from diverse backgrounds by providing transformative educational experiences, from the baccalaureate to the doctoral level, within and beyond the classroom. As an inclusive university community, we specialize in cultivating relationships among students, faculty, staff, alumni and other partners, and in providing a culture of service, support and engagement. We embrace innovation and tradition and instill students with purpose and the ability to think creatively and critically. We provide an educational environment and the tools to address the social, economic and environmental issues confronting our region, nation and the world.”

This mission statement is very student-focused, highlighting the university’s commitment to inclusion and empowerment of individual students. While it also describes the university’s commitment to knowledge, it is clear that students are the priority, not just a means to an end. The web page with this mission statement also includes information on Radford University’s vision and core values, which echo the same themes of inclusivity and student-focused education . Overall, their approach seems much more well-rounded and appealing to prospective students than that of the UC system.

 

 

References:

  1.  https://www.universityofcalifornia.edu/uc-system
  2. https://ucop.edu/uc-mission/index.html
  3. https://www.radford.edu/content/radfordcore/home/about/mission.html