09 February 2012

Pitfalls to grad school

At a recent info session on graduate programs, prospective grad students asked me about the degree plan for our master’s program. Some of the other program directors were also advising students to look at degree plans. Later, I thought, “Degree plans are not what you should be worried about.”

In our program, I have yet to see a grad student who experienced significant problems because they didn’t take the right classes. I admit our particular degree plan is very unstructured: a couple of core courses and a lot of electives. But registering for classes and taking them is trivial. Barely even counts as an obstacle.

I wondered what were the real obstacles I’ve seen students face in our graduate program. I thought back to students who had not finished their master’s degree in our program. Most fell into one of three categories.

  • Didn’t want it bad enough. The biggest group of students can complete a grad degree, but drift away without finishing. There are lots of reasons this happens, but they mostly tie to motivation.
    • Students got in to grad school for the wrong reasons (i.e., not knowing what else to do) or never clearly articulated to themselves why they were doing this. With no clearly defined goals for themselves, they wander.
    • Students have conflicting priorities, and grad school isn’t the top one. They’re employed and working on degrees part-time. They have small children. A job offer comes up. 
    • Sometimes, it’s just pure fatigue of studying. Or, if you’re not feeling charitable, laziness.
  • Couldn’t perform academically. A smaller number of students take themselves out of the program because they can’t maintain their grade point average. It’s hard to tell how many of these are actually in the category above: the root problem is they don’t want it, and it manifests as Cs in grad classes.
  • Conflict with supervisor. Thankfully, this is the rarest. Meltdown of the mentoring relationship doesn’t happen often, but it it the hardest to cope with for all concerned. Strictly speaking, we haven’t lost any students because of this, because we’ve had reasonable success in transitioning students to new supervisors so they could finish. But it’s been close.

A student thinking about starting a master’s program should worry much more about those pitfalls, not worrying about how many credit hours and class sequences they need. But through inexperience, they probably won’t, meaning it’s going to my job as program director to make them worry about the right things.

Picture by docpop on Flickr; used under a Creative Commons license.

1 comment:

Psi Wavefunction said...

Wonder where "difficulty in focusing on a single specific project(s)" comes in; intellectual laziness, perhaps, but one can work hard and be motivated but the mind still wanders.

Although perhaps that's more of a problem at the PhD level whilst MSc students are just given projects. Finding the right question to follow is not necessarily the easiest thing ever, turns out (at least for me, anyway).