Recently, my department has been discussing whether to (re)create a course for first year grad students that would be a “professors on parade” sort of course – that is, a course where a different faculty member leads the course each week. This proposal is in response to new grad students saying they’d like more opportunities to get to know faculty early in their grad careers. Depending on the format of the course, it could also help with another request from students: more training in basic academic skills (e.g., how to give a talk, how to make a poster, etc.)
One thing this discussion has left me wondering is how other departments do this, and how well it works in those departments.* So, today, I’m doing a survey related to how this works other places. I will follow up tomorrow with a post for my idea for a different twist on this sort of course – which I think is exciting but also perhaps doomed to fail. (edit: here’s the link to the follow up post)
Note: I am doing the survey as a google form so that I can look at the cross tabs. If you have been involved in this sort of course multiple times (say, once as a student and once as the person on parade), please fill out the form multiple times, once for each version of the course.
Please feel free to give more info on the course you were involved in — including what you think did and did not work — in the comments!
I took one of these courses early in my PhD, but it was later axed by the department. I have to say I enjoyed it- the discussion among students and between students and faculty was stimulating and really was a great introduction to the research happening in the department, and the intellect of your cohort. The workload was light for both students and professors, and so I think it came out high on the payoff/investment ratio relative to other graduate courses I took. If I remember correctly the format was that a professor gave a research presentation, and then assigned two papers (often not their own, but rather papers they thought important for / relevant to their research program) for discussion in the following lecture. I think we had to write down some critical questions about each paper, which is in part where our grades came from.
However, as you could guess by the axing, many did not share my positive views of this course. I think in particular the other students saw it as a waste. I was in a department that had a large MSc program, and so those students only took one course and really wanted something “useful” for completing their thesis I think.
My experience is that most graduate students only want to take “useful” courses, where “useful” means “teaches me the exact technical skills I need to complete my own thesis”. And that the rare students who are happy to take courses just because they’ll be interesting/fun/thought-provoking tend to be strong students who also tend to do other things they aren’t required to do (e.g., organizing reading groups, inviting visiting speakers, organizing social events…).
PoP (professors on parade – it had some formal name in the course catalog but everybody called it pop) was a required course my fist semester in graduate school. It was very minimal in preparation in that every week we read two papers from a professor and pre-discussed them on Tuesday and then the professor came in and we discussed them with the professor on Thursday.
After I left, this was replaced by a required formal sequence of 1 semester ecology, 1 semester evolution taught at a graduate level. This was much more work for the faculty but in my opinion better for the students.
But short of the alternative in my 2nd paragraph, I thought PoP worked well. It provided a bit of a broad survey of the active frontiers of research by its very nature. But its main values were social and skill oriented.. #1 – it provided a great format for the graduate cohort to bond (it is very rare for the whole cohort to take a class together) and #2 – it made the professors seem approachable and got grad students used to being in seminar-style classes and debating even with the authors of the paper and with people more senior than them very quickly. I expect it accelerated by two years the willingness (ability also but probably mostly willingness) of grad students to ask questions and be intellectually involved in the department.
My current department teaches a “Professional Skills in Biology” course (we cover grant writing, paper writing, paper review process, presentation skills etc – almost all by having students present their own work and then having peer feedback plus of course two professors). This course is also required. And I think is a very constructive and worthwhile course.
I think the theme here, It is a good thing having a couple of required courses in areas where students won’t take the courses themselves (the latter being mostly skill courses in stats and GIS). They need to learn more skills than they think they do.
I answered that the course I had was useful (as a first year grad student with mostly research presentations) but the benefits were mostly social. We got a better sense of the dept as a whole and I think quite a few of us based some of our committee members on being introduced that way. Didn’t learn skills but bonded with the people I started grad school with and learned more about the research going on outside my main interests. It was worth it.
Question: what are the other options for achieving the same goals, or at least some of the same goals? For instance, here at Calgary we have an off-site overnight annual retreat early each fall term for the EEB faculty and grad students within the Dept. of Biological Sciences. (Although in practice, not all EEB grad students go–it’s all the new students plus some of the more experienced students, and unfortunately only some of the EEB faculty.) The main purpose is social–help the new students get to know their fellow students and faculty.
We also have various other social events throughout the year to which anyone in the EEB group is welcome. The EEB holiday party, the Darwin Dinner, periodic “David Attenborough nights” to watch nature documentaries and eat popcorn…
The department I was in for grad school implemented a weekly breakfast that was a huge success. It increased social interaction among grad students, postdocs and faculty. We often discussed research both within and outside the department, as well. The breakfast (bagels, coffee, fruit, etc.) was funded by the department and the legwork was done by a grad student.
In my current department, we have a weekly informal seminar series that provides an opportunity for new postdocs and grad students to introduce themselves to the department. (So sort of the opposite of professors on parade.) First-year grad students are required to present a few times a year, corresponding with the end of their rotation projects. Those weeks are generally well attended by the department. New postdocs often present previous research. Talks are ~30 min, and two people present each week. Attendance does vary by week. (Most of the year is taken up by continuing grad students.)
I’ve participated in this type of course for both undergrads (I was a TA) and grad students (as a first-year student). They were different, but both were useful. Different universities.
I know the question posed was about grad students, but it was interesting as an undergrad course as well. The undergrad course was a brand new course for first year students planning to major in biology. Previously, most of these students would take General Chemistry first year, then begin a 5 quarter biology sequence that they wouldn’t complete until halfway through their third year. Which meant they barely touched ecology and evolution until third year, making it difficult for students to choose electives and find research experiences that fit their interests. The solution was this PoP course in the first year, alongside a bio-focused math/stats course. Professors from different areas of biology gave a 2-3 lectures introducing major concepts and research areas in that field. In the discussion sections, we taught the students how to read and interpret research papers using ones written or discussed by the profs in lecture (plus some classics), and at the end they all wrote a lit review. It was a little rocky since this was the very first time the class was offered, but the students seemed to enjoy it and came out at the end with some very solid writing. I’m not sure whether the course is still being offered–that was in 2011.
Here at Davis, our first year ecology course (2 quarters long) is PoP, but more of a hybrid between the two options Brian described above. Professors teach a major concept in ecology in their area of expertise for a week or two, sprinkling in their research where it fits, but as a whole it makes a fairly complete graduate level ecology course. Some students didn’t like having to take it, but most saw it as valuable and as a bonding experience for our cohort. I liked getting to know the faculty and it helped me choose classes and then committee members later on.
But we are big on cohort bonding and social events here. Most new students participate in a weeklong orientation trip where they meet a bunch of returning students and a handful of faculty members, and there are welcome dinners, weekly happy hours, post-seminar dinners, a big Mardi Gras party, etc., though students are much more likely to attend these things than faculty. This atmosphere is great for collaboration, getting advice and ideas from others, and student morale.
But most of this is not skills focused. I would have appreciated a course or two in professional skills, as Brian described above. We had optional seminars on things like writing an NSF-GRFP proposal, but nothing required.
As a grad student, we had weekly “lab tours” as a required part of being a first year. It was completely open to what the professors did and whether a particular week was worthwhile varied a lot. Some literally showed their labs. Some talked at us ad infinitum. The “lab tours” were at 5pm, which was to avoid other conflicts, but I’d say many people weren’t thrilled to have to be there — both students and professors. The late hour also meant that a few professors went on and on and on — well past the 6pm scheduled end time.
I would have much preferred some sort of short talks, so I got a sense of what research was being done in the department. Something like four ten-minute (or shorter) presentations per week with five minutes each for questions. Then I would have known who was in the department and generally what they worked on more quickly (not all professors fit into two semesters of weekly lab tours). And the short timespan of the talks would have meant not too much burden on the professors and so perhaps a little bit of prep.
As a student in a Masters of Research program in Australia I had to complete a unit based around our department’s seminar series. Each week the department had a one hour seminar from a senior researcher from outside our department (and mostly outside our university and country). We were required to attend the seminar having prepared by reading the paper the speaker had assigned in advance.
Immediately following the seminar the speaker would have a half hour discussion with the MRes group (about 20 people) and everyone was to ask questions and participate in the discussion (marks allocated for participation). After the speaker left the class would continue the discussion for another half hour and then in their own time each student was required to write a public blog post about the seminar (with references and images). The post were uploaded to the student’s blog (which we set up earlier in the semester) and the convenor would grade them. In addition to this we had to write a grant proposal for a fictional project.
So it technically wasn’t the same kind of PoP course that you’re specifically talking about, but it achieved a lot of the same aims I think. It was good to meet senior researchers from other universities and overseas to see what work is being done. Having an opportunity to have structured discussions with them was valuable and we got to see that they’re all just humans like us. And blogging was a valuable skill to develop. But I’m one of ‘the rare students who are happy to take courses just because they’ll be interesting/fun/thought-provoking’ so lots of other student’s opinions of the course were different to mine.
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