This past year, the Department of Immunology took steps towards updating their committee meeting forms. The new forms (available at http://bit.ly/1kvnWXi), have a revamped evaluation system, more stringent requirements, and must be approved by the graduate coordinator. The updates are long overdue and are in line with the procedures and forms of other Faculty of Medicine departments, but I fear that we are moving in the wrong direction and that emphasizing evaluation will hinder a committee’s ability to engage and aid students.
Speaking to graduate students from across the Faculty of Medicine, it is clear that committee meeting expectations and requirements are vastly different across programs. This is because the responsibility to administer and regulate these meetings falls on the individual departments. The only real requirement mandated by the School of Graduate Studies is that PhD candidates must have at least one meeting yearly with a supervisory committee of faculty members. There are no requirements for Master’s students.More evaluation places the student, instead of the project, in the hot seat.In the Department of Immunology, committee meetings are a necessary but often avoided part of graduate training for both Master’s and PhD candidates. Almost as despised as the mandatory third half credit, the meetings are often a source of anxiety or, in later years, ambivalence. I know of few students that truly look forward to their committee meetings. Most students view these meetings as an administrative hurdle rather than a useful exercise.
The SGS policy guidelines state that the purpose of committee meetings is to:
“ensure academic standards in the discipline through their evaluative role… but can and should provide considerable additional value. Committee members should… act as a valuable sounding board for discussion of ideas emerging in the research. And in cases where relationships with the supervisor are less than ideal, they can provide advice, mentoring, and, if necessary, mediation in problem solving.”
Therein lies the problem. A graduate committee is tasked with simultaneously evaluating the student’s abilities and ensuring that the student is well-supported. All students want a productive discussion that helps keep them on track and allows them to graduate in a timely manner. But, if too much emphasis is placed on evaluating project progress and other skills, students will undoubtedly feel pressured and anxious. Many students already fear that a lack of positive data or tangible progress will reflect poorly on their chances for graduation. This attitude prevents a spirit of openness that is critical to having an honest discussion of data. More evaluation places the student, instead of the project, in the hot seat.
The other unspoken problem with graduate committees is the actual selection of sitting members. Ideally, we would all like to work with pseudo-collaborators: faculty members who have deep knowledge in our field of study but offer entirely new perspectives. In reality, the selection process is imperfect and can be a major burden to success.
At one extreme, graduate committees are chosen primarily by the supervisor. This happens often and does make sense as incoming students have little knowledge of faculty members and their expertise; however, when committees are filled with the friends and collaborators of a supervisor it becomes difficult to receive unbiased advice on a project and its direction. At the other extreme, if a student is left to their own devices in choosing a committee, the result is often an ensemble of the few approachable or generally kind faculty members, who may or may not have expertise in the graduate student’s field of study. In the end, most graduate students will agree that they rely on their direct supervisor to make all crucial decisions, including time to graduation and research path. The new forms do nothing to remedy this major problem.
From my own experience, I know that I would prefer the removal of all formal evaluation. Instead, I would support quarterly one-on-one meetings with committee members, as opposed to round table discussions. Honest and direct feedback, without input from the supervisor, without the fear of being expelled or poorly graded, will allow for true mentorship and critical analysis of both the student and the project. Committee meetings should not be an avoided or stressful experience but rather an opportunity to discuss and learn.