Grad students these days…

One of my newly appointed duties post-tenure, is to serve as an advisor to graduate students (other than those in my own lab) in one of the many programs that I am affiliated with. This is my first sort of ‘real’ year doing this particular teaching/service responsibility, and so far it has been quite an interesting one. Based on my (admittedly anecdotal) observations, I have come to the conclusion that grad students today, in general, are quite a bit different than they were back in the day. A few examples.

First, it I’ve heard that the incoming graduate students are doing poorly on one or another aspect of coursework, because “they don’t know how to study”. I’m not sure what to with this observation. I recognize that one’s ability to study effectively is a learned skill- and that graduate school is a special kind of curriculum where one has to be able to take facts and evidence, and be able to put the pieces together to figure out where to go next- and that that can be a challenge if one has not done it before. But- from what I’ve been hearing the ‘don’t know how to study’ comment refers to not being able to recall facts delivered in class. Maybe I’m a bit of a hard ass- but if the instructor gives you a list of 6 facts you should be able to recall for the exam- it seems pretty obvious to me that you should probably know those 6 facts and the information delivered in class surrounding them. Is this just lazy-assed-ness or what?

Second- students aren’t taking notes in class, and aren’t seeking out faculty input or help on subjects they aren’t totally comfortable with. WHAT??? Students are apparently given the powerpoint presentations of the faculty, and are given access to taped lectures so they can re-watch the lecture (or watch it for the first time if they didn’t attend class) as they see fit. I’m all about different learning styles and whatnot- but I don’t think one gets too much from just passive listening. I’m not sure the communications revolution – making sure everyone can see the taped lecture- has been helpful as far as developing good, disciplined study habits is concerned. Back in the day, we went to lecture, we paid attention in lecture, we took notes, we did the recommended reading, we did problem set after problem set to get a handle on the material and be familiar with what kinds of questions might show on an exam. We went to lecture and we took notes because we knew we had one chance to get the material in class- if you didn’t pay attention it was at your own peril. Am I just hopelessly old fashioned?

Finally- there is the issue of seminar, journal club attendance. Seminars and journal clubs  seem to be taken as an optional obligation by grad students this year. ??? What is up with that? Now I just lost my patience. Kids – get your ass to seminar. Period. You are wasting a chance to be learning some new, cool science. You are wasting the opportunity to learn what makes a superb or really shitty seminar. You are wasting the chance to broaden your horizons.

I almost can’t believe that I’m writing a blog post about this topic. It seems so obvious. You won’t be a successful graduate student if you expect to skate through with people handing you the answers, unmotivated and un-invested in your own education and projects.  Now …..get offa my lawn!


17 thoughts on “Grad students these days…

  1. That’s funny….I was in a group of faculty just yesterday having this conversation. However, one of them pointed out that this generation of “Millenials” has grown up in a very different environment, populated with cell phones, video games and Facebook. This may have affected their learning in a way that is harder for our generation to appreciate. It’s not an excuse, but perhaps an explanation for why this type of student behavior seems very pervasive.

  2. My undergrads have the same problem!

    Regarding seminar – when I was in grad school, which was really recently, one of the problems was that faculty advisors didn’t feel seminar was a good use of time, which made it difficult grad students to justify attendance.

  3. I’d like to go to the seminars, but my adviser talked me into doing too many courses, so I now have pretty much no time for anything else.

  4. The most important thing I learned from seminars was really about how to organize my own seminars to best communicate my science. My department has this wonderful thing where they invite students and postdocs to have lunch with seminar speakers after the talk. I picked up a lot of science that way and met some awesome people. One of them was working on a completely different model organism from my lab. Inspired by hir and all the cool things s/he did (I don’t even remember any of the content of hir talk!), I switched model organisms for my postdocs to do cool stuff that I didn’t consider doing in grad school. Some other people meet potential postdoc advisors that way (or decide not to postdoc with them after meeting them in person!). Would say that I learned even more science badgering the speaker at lunch than the seminars themselves…as a student, it also taught me how to talk to bigwigs without freaking out.

    All that to say I concur with DrDrA–go to seminar even if you don’t have a clue. Sometimes good surprises can happen.

  5. I always re-listen to lecture tapes. Its when I take notes, during lecture I mostly just listen and observe, write down Q’s etc. When re-listening, I see if my Q was answered, take notes on things I missed, & write down more Q’s to find answers to.

  6. I See similar things in both grad students and undergrads where I am – the undergrads I don’t find so surprising but the grads I simply cannot get. There’s a level of passivity in the millenials that boggles me. Grad school is fundamentally a self-directed effort if I have to tell you to do each step the whole exercise is pointless. There’s also a fair bit of preciousness about time. I nearly scream when a grad student tells me they’re “too busy” to manage some critical portion of their program. Word to the wise: DO NOT tell pre-tenure faculty you’re “too busy” unless you just had a baby or have a serious personal situation going on. If it’s work then it’s the norm and you need to learn to juggle it. You can explain when the task will get done or why in a given instance you couldn’t make seminar (stuff happens some weeks are worse than others) but if it’s a general problem then you aren’t managing your time effectively.

  7. My first response to this, as a current grad student was “NO! I don’t do those things!”…but then I re-read each point, and could think of at least half a dozen students either in my program or in my class that fit. I can also think of a few that don’t do any of those things. I truly don’t understand it, and it surprised me a lot during my first year.

    My school does not record lectures, but a lot of individual students would bring audio recorders to class. I can understand the use for non-native English speakers, but not as much for others. Especially those that would have a group of students take turns coming to lecture with a recorder, and then share the recordings and notes with each other.

    I guess I’ve gotten used to seeing only a small group of students at our department seminar (and any other seminar I may occasionally attend), but it did surprise me initially that so few people could take an hour of time to show up. Not that I’ve attended every single one, because sometimes other things get in the way, but I’ve been to about 90%, and there are definitely students who never, ever show up.

    I wish I had an explanation for it, other than that my classmates are lazy…but I don’t. Some of us are working hard, others…not so much.

  8. I am sorry, I hate to break this to you but graduate students do not go to seminars because their own major professors do not go, and tell their own students not to waste their time going. If you do not believe me, make a note of who is there and who is not, and I bet you will find a correlation between presence of graduate students and their major professors.
    The funny thing is, when the department discusses these issues everyone nods and agrees, but then you have the next seminar and the lecture room is embarrassingly empty.

  9. Bingo Massimo… I go to the seminars my PI goes to. Apathy at the professor level bleeds down to their trainees.

  10. What Massimo said.
    No grad student with an ounce of self preservation would dare go to seminar if his advisor said, “Seminar? My time is better spent in lab.”

  11. I really benefit from the taped lectures, but I take my own notes the first time round. I think the fact memorization is challenging, so I study my ass off. (Occasionally, I study the wrong fact set, which I think can be a communication issue: no, people are not going to be able to recall every word from lecture or the book.)

    But then, I’m a returning wanna-be grad student, so it could be that. Or maybe I just really, really, really want it.

  12. Really? Because in my grad group we were required to attend two seminars per week in addition to a journal club. Attendance was taken very seriously and you could fail the class by missing more than one seminar. Free lunch and discussion with the speaker were an added incentive. Most often grad students continued to go after provisional 2 year period because it was a nice break from lab. Seminars were always packed and often standing room only. I feel like most of my learning in grad school came from attending presentations and seminars. As for classes, I thought they were kind of a waste of time. We had a core course meant to touch on all aspects of plant biology from systems biology to cell wall mechanics. While I got very proficient at ready papers (required to do weekly group paper presentations), the topics were too diverse and not covered sufficiently. I found myself sleeping through topics that weren’t as interesting to me and came away feeling like I didn’t miss much and had little impact on my intellectual development (sorry!). For me grad school was more about learning independent thinking and less about memorizing facts for a test. You can always look up the facts later, but it is hard to determine from a google search what is the best way to plan a three year experiment.

  13. I never found the powerpoint handouts particularly useful. I mean, granted my aptitude came mostly from lab sessions from a forensic toxicologist that made it look pretty cool. I do however have files upon files of student notes in my old laptop that I haven’t gotten rid of, for no idea why. Thanks.

  14. I just came across your blog, and having read this post, just had to comment.

    As an undergraduate I quickly found that taking notes directly led to a poorer understanding of the material.

    This was in physics, where for anything non trivial I found it impossible to comprehend what was being said or written, and also take notes on it at the same time.

    Only by focusing all my attention upon trying to understand and follow the lectures, was I able to do just that. More in depth knowledge could then easily be obtained from textbooks.

    As my phd program is based in the UK, I have no experience of graduate level classes( they dont exist in the UK PhD system, it’s all research), but I can only imagine that this inability to take notes and also concentrate enough to be able to follow the lecturer would be amplified.

    As for seminars, even for topics close to my research, I have found them and conference presentations to be a 95% incomprehensible utter waste of time.

    Attending a seminar and recieving yet another lesson in how to not give a seminar is not really usefull.

    I no longer think that presentations(and lectures) are anything other than a bad joke. If you cannot learn the material from a textbook, or figure it out yourself without external guidance, then you are simply not intelligent or motivates enough.
    For seminars or conference talks, this is extended to; if you can’t figure out what they did from their paper abstract then either you or them do not belong in research ( I should note here that I will be leaving reasearch partly becauee of this).

    Lectures and talks are public speaking masterbation, nothing more.

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