Encouraging Student Progress Toward Completion of the Ph.D. Degree
Department of Demography and Graduate Group in Sociology and Demography
July 22, 2010
The Department of Demography and the Graduate Group in Sociology and Demography have adopted various practices and procedures for the purpose of encouraging the timely completion of the Ph.D. degree. As a small instructional unit, we enjoy the flexibility of addressing student needs on an individual basis and have found that one-on-one faculty-student engagement is the best means of assuring a timely completion. However, there are also several activities and incentive systems operating at the Departmental or Group level that are designed to encourage and accelerate student progress. These include:
1) Dissertation seminar. At least once per year (usually in the Spring semester), the Department of Demography offers a dissertation research and writing seminar (Demography 296, a 4-unit course), which is taught or co-taught by 1-2 senior faculty members. Students who have advanced to candidacy in either program (Demography or Sociology and Demography) are required to take this course whenever it is offered, as it provides both incentives and opportunities for presentation and discussion of ongoing research activities.
Student reports and faculty observation over the years suggest that the seminar has a positive impact on student progress through various mechanisms. In addition to promoting an active exchange of research ideas amongst students, it also forms the basis for an ongoing network of peer support throughout the dissertation phase of the degree. For the faculty member(s) who teach(es) the seminar in a given year, it provides a venue for learning about the research interests of a broad range of students in two academic programs and for making a positive contribution to their work even when not a formal member of the dissertation committee.
The dissertation seminar serves other important functions in helping student researchers to advance their work. It includes specific training in the ethical conduct of research, including the involvement of human subjects. It also includes sessions on career strategies, publication strategies, and grant writing, which are led by a faculty member from the Department or an invited speaker.
2) Dissertation brainstorming session. Following advancement to candidacy, chairs of dissertation committees organize a dissertation brainstorming session, which brings together a student and his/her full committee (including the outside member) for an early discussion of the content, goals, and general approach that are intended for the dissertation project. The student’s prospectus (or other written material) serves as background reading for the brainstorming session, but no other preparation is expected on the part of any of the participants. In these sessions, which are typically 1-2 hours in duration, the student and committee are able to work through many key issues surrouding the general concept, data, methods, and possible results. By imparting the full experience of the committee onto the student in this early phase of the project, the brainstorming session helps to steer students in productive research directions and away from unproductive or erroneous approaches that may be more obvious to faculty than to students.
3) Group meetings with faculty advisors. In various ways depending on the person involved, faculty members organize regular group meetings of advisees, bringing together all or most of the students for whom they have some primary responsibility (usually as chair of the dissertation committee). Some graduate students refer to these meetings as “accountability sessions,” as they must demonstrate – both to the advisor and to fellow advisees – that they have been making tangible progress in their research and writing, or at least completing the tasks they had outlined for themselves in the previous session. These meetings are in some ways a more intensive and focused version of the dissertation seminar. Since the students typically share a dissertation advisor, research interests are often more similar within these smaller groups (compared to the larger dissertation seminar), and opportunities for peer interaction are thus enhanced.
4) Brown bag seminar presentations. Student presentations at the weekly brown bag seminar in the Department of Demography are strongly encouraged, and each PhD candidate is required to make at least one presentation in this series before completion of the degree. This practice encourages the development of presentation skills and promotes the student’s intellectual interaction with a broader community of scholars around Berkeley. Because of its visibility within our local research community, it provides an important incentive for students to push their research forward in preparation for the presentation. It is also extremely valuable as a means of gathering feedback and advice from a broader audience than the faculty and other students.
5) Attendance/participation in professional meetings. For similar reasons, the Department and Group actively support student attendance and/or participation in professional meetings and conferences, in particular the Annual Meeting of the Population Association of America, which is the leading professional organization of demographers in the United States. Students receive a modest level of funding merely to attend such meetings (once per year), and a more generous level of support if they present a paper or poster (more than once per year pending availability of funds). The faculty allocate funds for this purpose from various Departmental or Group sources, including: block grant monies not needed in a given year for core student support; extramural funding from the NIH or certain foundations intended for student support; and monies from special research funds or other sources donated by individual faculty members for this purpose.