JOIN MICELLA PHOENIX DeWHYSE--GRAD STUDENT EXTRAORDINAIRE--AS SHE MAKES HER WAY THROUGH GRAD SCHOOL IN MATERIALS SCIENCE AND ENGINEERING

Now that I?ve come to the end of my final semester of classes (hallelujah!) and have obtained my master?s degree (woo hoo!), I feel the need to comment on the last two semesters. To catch you up, the year has been quite a whirlwind. Five classes first semester and four second semester--I might as well have been an undergraduate! And to think I thought graduate school was going to offer more individualized learning. Many hours were spent in classes trying to stay awake, paying attention to dull lectures, and struggling on my own and with others to understand what should have been, in the words of our professors, "intuitively obvious." (This is one of the most infuriating phrases I have ever heard. If it?s intuitive, it?s not obvious, and if it?s obvious it shouldn?t have to be intuitive. Sometimes, I think this is just some people?s way of saying that if you don?t get it, you?re stupid. I think not, I think you?re silly because you can?t explain it better than you have! Breathe ...)

I digress. Good teaching, be it art or science, seems to be an elusive idea for most of the professors I?ve encountered in graduate school. Before I begin my diatribe, let me say that I believe teachers (and parents) are some of the most important people in the world. They offer us their knowledge and push us to strive for excellence; they often tip the balance between loving and loathing a subject. Sadly, they don't get nearly enough credit when they?re magnificent, and we are far too quick to criticize when they?re less than perfect.

So my question is: When I?ve progressed to this point in my academic life, why do professors treat me as if I were 5 years old? Some hand out sloppily handwritten notes or 60-100 pages of typed notes (no double siding, tree killers!) with little organization and then proceed to read from them as if I cannot. A few of my professors are excellent at conveying their message; some try hard but are, in my opinion, desperately in need of help. Others seem to lecture only to hear themselves talk. I call it lecturing, because to me "teaching" engages me and helps me learn something new. Wasting my time by forcing me to listen to rambling lectures just doesn?t cut it.

Late last semester, the department head, who himself rambles on from time to time as he lectures, delivered a diatribe telling us we should be grateful that our professors took time to impart their wisdom to us. "They don?t have to teach you," he said. "When I was in graduate school," he went on, "we studied for an exam and took it. Once we passed, we did research. You should appreciate that these people are giving their time for you."

It seemed to me that some of the faculty felt that the first-year class was ungrateful and irresponsible; turning in assignments late, not attending all their classes, not doing well on tests. This was true for some of my fellow classmates but not nearly all of us. Besides, that guilt trip doesn't work in circumstances where former students and the professors themselves tell us that class "grades don't matter."

Part of me said, wow, they care. Another part of me said I?m a big girl now; I can take care of my responsibilities without you looking over my shoulder every minute. And yet, another part of me thinks that some of my professors stand in front of us telling random stories in search of the occasional snicker to stroke their egos. Well guess what, I don?t care about your trips to Europe (unless, of course, it pertains to class).

Many of my profs are genuinely nice people. Some of them are not. Some tell us their own graduate students are boring (can you say TACKY?). Most of the profs have no problem with us asking questions before, during, or after class, and they encourage it. Some of them belittle us for not doing as well on assignments as they thought we should have. Hello? I still have other classes and research and I?m not in high school, so go away!

So when did it come to pass that professors were ONLY concerned with research and became too busy to be bothered with quality instruction for their students? Don't they set the rules requiring us to take classes in hopes that we will "learn" something?

I do wonder if their time (and mine) would be better spent in discussion sessions. Sure, give me your lecture notes, reference texts, and relevant practice problems and I, in my own time, will work them and come back. Why must I fight my narcolepsy through lecture after boring lecture? They tire of talking, and I tire of listening. Aren?t we all adults here? Besides, I find that most professors are better one on one or in small groups anyway. I can ask questions and get more direct answers, and it helps me form relationships. How about a recitation section?

And before you readers out there ask, "Well, have you ever taught?" Yes, as a matter of fact I have--sort of. I TA-ed a chemistry recitation in my senior year of college. I prepared original handouts for my students and saw them twice a week for a total of 2 hours (not counting office hours and other appointments). So, I know that teaching and doing it well can be challenging. I recall being exhausted after 2-hour review sessions where I would try to ensure that all of my students were involved. I encouraged them to visit me during office hours, I graded problem sets and tests, and happily I only had one C in my section. The larger class was also well taught, so that made my job a little easier.

Granted, it wasn?t a full-blown course for which I had to create a coherent syllabus, and I was not responsible for content. But I was responsible for a large portion of delivery and, in all honesty, even when you have great content, delivery counts. You don?t want your pizza delivered cold and you don?t want your lectures to be mind-numbing experiences. So, yes, I?ve "taught," and I enjoyed it.

I think that?s another part of the problem. I?m not sure that a lot of my professors enjoy teaching. I?m not sure any of them were taught to teach. For some, it seems to be an absolute pain. They generally aren?t talking about their research, though some of them have babbled on about their thesis or postdoctoral work when they should have been teaching something else.

Thankfully, this was the last semester I?ll ever have to take classes. Can you imagine my relief?

Can?t we find a happy medium? Or maybe it?s just the profs in my department?

Playing the Game--SHOW NO FEAR!

When you are the new kid in the department, or if you?re taking a class outside your department, there are certain interactions that need to take place. It is in your best interest that your profs know who you are and like you. They will be the ones writing and grading your qualifying exams, conducting research that might be of interest to you, or serving on your graduate committee. Having positive interactions with your profs (even the ones you despise) can help you along the way.

Whether you like it or not, the graduate school experience is a political one. The department has the power to keep you or to let you go on your merry way without a degree. When signatures are needed, recommendations required, or research equipment sought out, your departmental professors are the people you need, whether you like them or not. So, this month, here are a few hints on making these encounters less of a burden and more of a joy.

  • Don?t be a snot. It?s really that simple. Believe it or not, you don?t know everything (and neither do your profs), and brainier-than-thou behavior or, worse yet, public loathing of their teaching, isn?t cute, especially when they are in earshot. Now before you say, "Well, aren?t you loathing publicly?" Not exactly. I?d like to call it constructive criticism. And yes, I know that I don?t know everything.

  • Study! Try! Your profs will notice and appreciate that you?re taking things seriously.

  • Don?t cheat. We?ve had some issues with this in our first-year class. Aside from academic honesty and integrity, how embarrassing is it to get caught and have your professors know?

  • Ask Questions. There is nothing wrong with not knowing the answer or not fully understanding something. Often people are better at explaining one on one because you can learn exactly what the other person does or does not understand instead of teaching to the top/middle/bottom of the class. Besides, inquisitiveness is part of the nature of graduate school, so ask away.

  • Use Open Office Hours. If teachers are offering their time to answer your questions, take them up on the offer. Use the opportunity to get to know the profs outside of the classroom and get some face time in for yourself. There is nothing I hated more than having office hours for my section and no one showing up.

  • Go to Class and Labs. You might hate it, you might believe it?s a waste of your precious time, you might be able to learn it on your own, and it might be a tranquilizer for you. But the more you?re exposed to a topic, the more likely it is to stick. Besides, the faculty, as oblivious as some of the members may be, notices who?s there and who?s not.

  • Share Yourself. Your profs know you better than you think they do. They discuss you in faculty meeting, they observe your behavior in class, and these things add up in their minds. I know plenty of my classmates who were surprised that certain professors knew their names when they were called on in class.

  • Smile and Say Hello. Yeah, I know people can be weird and delinquent and in their own little worlds from time to time. But, what?s wrong with starting a conversation? Simply asking how a particular project is going, how are the kids, something--anything to let profs know that you?re alive and they are too.

  • Show and Expect Respect. When you show respect for others, you are much more likely to receive respect when you deserve it.

You can send e-mail to Micella at Micella_Phoenix_deWhyse@hotmail.com

Former science graduate student and postdoc Micella Phoenix DeWhyse wrote a column for Science Careers from 2002 through 2008. Micella Phoenix DeWhyse is still a pseudonym. Discussions on the forum, Facebook, Twitter, or e-mails to the editor at snweditor@aaas.org or to micella.phoenix.dewhyse@gmail.com are welcome, as she is considering turning her columns into a book.