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Careers Café

Practical ways to shorten graduate program lengths

BY NICOLA KOPER | MAY 27 2013

In my last blog, I talked about the lengths of graduate students’ programs. I noted that often, longer times to completion are in the best interests of the graduate students, and we shouldn’t try to shorten all completion times regardless of individual circumstances. In general, I still think this way. However, I also appreciate the benefits of finishing up and getting on with one’s life; I also had an interesting discussion with a reader, who noted that long completion times can raise red flags with hiring committees. So, assuming that sometimes it really is in the best interests of students to just get on with it, already, this week I’m going to talk about some of the practical steps that we can take to encourage students to complete their graduate programs in a timely fashion.

  1. Respond quickly to questions and draft documents. While a two-week turn-around is a pretty reasonable goal, if there are a number of drafts, this length of time can add on the months pretty quickly. In addition, responding quickly to students helps to set the expectation that they, too, will complete their responsibilities in a reasonable amount of time.
  2. Be flexible to student needs. Some students work great in group offices, and learn a lot from their peers. Some students just get too distracted. Don’t set rules or expectations about office attendance for grad students as a group… their needs are just too diverse.
  3.  Expect them to set their own timeline, with some supervision and discussion, starting at least six months before the end of their two-year or four-year program. The writing and draft review process is likely to take them a lot longer than they expect, and they need to realize this well in advance of their program completion.
  4. Don’t let them write any extra papers or start a job before they graduate – those activities always slow them down. Ok, ok, maybe sarcasm doesn’t show through clearly on a blog. Of course, experience and publications will benefit them in the long run, too… probably more than would a shorter time to completion.
  5. You can try bribing … although this didn’t work for me. About a year ago, I offered up to $1,000 to all students who completed their manuscripts by a perfectly reasonable deadline I set individually for each student. To my amazement, not a single student ended up receiving this payment. There is a long history of psychology research that has demonstrated the ineffectiveness of bribes compared with positive reinforcement and other motivations … I guess I just had to see it myself to believe it.

So that brings us right back to why university policies are unlikely to have a large effect on time to completion. I’m not a behaviourist, but I’m pretty sure that a “carrot” of $1,000 is more likely to motivate a student to complete their work than a “stick” of having to write a letter to a university administrator begging for an extension of six months. If the big bucks aren’t going to change student’s behaviour, I suspect policies won’t either. Instead, completion times are probably being set by internal motivators that just can’t be manipulated on a broad scale. Only by working with students individually can we help them develop the best strategy for completing their thesis in a timeframe that is appropriate to their own particular needs.

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