The PH.D. Completion Project at MSU
Phase II, Year Two (2008)
Early attrition: improving mentoring and support
Genetics has taken several measures to try to improve students’ success in a core course, BMB 801 (Molecular Biology), which currently has a success rate of 75% , measured by the number of students who achieve a 3.0 or higher. These measures include: (1) “At risk” students in the entering class are identified early, based on the quality of their undergraduate institution and their prior course work; (2) “At risk” students have been advised to enroll in BMB 462 prior to BMB 801, to be assured that they have a solid background. An alternative option for “at risk” students has been to advise them to take ONLY BMB 801 and no other lecture course in their first semester; (3) A graduate tutor from among the high-performing students of the previous year has been hired for the course. This was implemented for the first time in the fall of 2007, but too late in the semester to rectify a bad start. For 2008, a graduate tutor was assigned at the start of the semester and supported on a fellowship (with partial support from the CGS grant).
Plant Biology is tracking the outcomes of students who enter the program in a specific lab and the outcomes of those who choose an advisor after several lab rotations. Nearly half of entering Plant Biology students do optional rotations in up to three laboratories during their first two semesters in the program; the other half enter directly into the lab of a faculty member whom they have identified as their advisor. The department wants to look at the effects these modes of entering the program have on completion outcomes, specifically around questions of integration into the department, time spent in choosing a research topic, and time-to-degree.
Mid-program attrition: qualifying and comprehensive exams
Electrical Engineering (in conjunction with the CGS grant, AGEP, and an MSU Provost’s initiative grant) has instituted a mentoring program for students preparing for the qualifying exams. The objective of the four-year Incentive Fellowship project is to increase the number of talented U.S. students (especially women and minorities) with financial need who pass the program's qualifying examination each year during the term of the project. One-semester S-STEM Incentive fellowships will be provided each year to 14 academically talented, financially needy engineering graduate students, enabling them to focus on preparing for the exam rather than working "half" time as teaching or research assistants. Their preparation will be facilitated by participating in structured preparation activities provided by each department.
English, Neuroscience and Sociology are participating in a pilot program to train current ABD’s to facilitate writing groups focused on the comprehensive exams. This program is being coordinated by the Graduate School and the Writing Center, which runs both a successful university-wide workshop called “Navigating the Ph.D” (focused in part on comprehensive examination preparation), and small, facilitated dissertation writing groups. The comprehensive exam preparation groups will be a hybrid of these two ongoing projects. Doctoral students will be trained as facilitators in summer 2009; the first department groups will run in fall 2009.
Late Attrition: addressing the development of writing skills specific to doctoral students
Neuroscience initiated a writing clinic in fall 2008 geared toward predoctoral students at any level who are working on a manuscript for publication in a peer reviewed journal. The workshop participants looked at articles and books on scientific writing, and engaged in discussions of elements of good writing style, the purpose of a paragraph, and tips for achieving clarity in writing. As a group, students edited one or two paragraphs of each student’s current writing; they also submitted their writing to other clinic participants. The aims of the writing clinic were to: 1) improve writing skills of the participants; 2) remove psychological barriers that often impede writing; 3) teach students to give and take constructive feedback on their writing; and 4) result in manuscripts submitted for publication. Neuroscience will track how many manuscripts were submitted and accepted.
English implemented a Dissertation Writing Practicum for Ph.D. students in 2008-9. After the pilot year, they plan to require all post-exam Ph.D. candidates to enroll in the practicum at least once while they are in the program. Students who wish to take the practicum for three credit hours or more would be required to use their participation in the workshops to produce a substantial piece of writing (e.g. a dissertation proposal; a chapter of the dissertation, an article for publication); students taking it for less than three hours would be required to attend and participate in all of the sessions. The format of the practicum is a series of monthly workshops on dissertation writing and publishing.
History continued in spring 2008 the department dissertation workshop tied to small summer research grants. All students who received money to travel to archives in 2007 were required to attend the workshop. As part of the workshop, students wrote and submitted an external grant proposal, and they presented work in progress to the group. History will track the success of the students’ grant proposals, as well as their time to degree.