grad director report, year 1

It is the month of August, when a sociologist’s thoughts turn to ASA and to the rapidly approaching semester. And in my case, to the (successful?) conclusion of my first year of grad-directoring.

I got great suggestions last summer on the blog, when I asked for advice about what a DGS should do, and useful feedback on reorganizing the proseminar. More recently, Jessica (DGS at Notre Dame) started a discussion at Scatterplot on how to support grad student students on the job market.

Now that I’m an old hand, I know which requirements you can get an exception for and which ones you can’t; the difference between the five kinds of independent studies and how many of each you can do; and how to get around the New York State ban on buying food for grad students. (Unfortunately, it involves my wallet.) I still can’t figure out how grad student folders are filed, though. Anyway, it seems like a good time to reflect on what went well, what didn’t (at least the bloggable parts), and what I’d like to accomplish in the year ahead.

What worked

  1. We had an amazing recruiting season, made more impressive by the fact that our stipends (like those of many public universities) aren’t competitive with well-off privates. I think the biggest factor here was our first organized visit day, which was a ton of work to put together but really seemed to pay off. Of the eight people who visited, seven are entering this fall. (The incoming cohort—which is larger than our average—is twelve.)
  1. Reorganizing the proseminar to focus more on professional socialization was definitely a good move. I’ll make some tweaks this year, but in general the feedback on what we did was really positive. The exercise where everyone looks at the CV of a recent grad in a position they’d like to have someday was anxiety-provoking, but useful. The panels of grad students talking about managing various aspects of student life (I absented myself from most of those) were also warmly received.
  1. I think I was able to open some new lines of communication between students and faculty. I’m sure there’s complaints that still don’t reach me. But we did get organized student input into, for example, how GA assignments are made (which resulted in policy changes), and we had an end-of-year town hall meeting that will lead to other tweaks in, for example, how office space is assigned.

What didn’t

  1. Last year I set three goals for the first year—1) improve professional socialization, starting with the proseminar; 2) solve a specific problem with our assistantship line allocation; and 3) start systematic data collection on grad student progress and outcomes. We made big strides on the first two. The third one, not so much. It has been a year of office staff turnover. Our infrastructure is not so great. And as much as I want data, I don’t really want to take charge of the actual project of data collection and entry. So I still can’t tell you how many people have finished their comps at the end of year three, or give you comprehensive placement information. At least not without a lot of work.
  1. Although I knew it wasn’t the priority, I had a fantasy that I’d clean up all the stupid little bureaucratic things about the program. Get the classes we don’t offer off the books. Add the ones that are offered as special topics all the time. Update the demography certificate requirements. None of that happened.
  1. The grad student section of the website is my great shame. (I won’t link to it.) The entire university seems to be involved in a game of kick the can with the website. No one is quite in charge. I think I’m now, at least at the moment, supposed to be updating the grad program section. I took a class. I know it’s important, and our public face. But somehow I just can’t bring myself to tackle it.

Looking ahead

The vision for the program isn’t so different from what it was a year ago, but the priorities need to be updated. So here’s the agenda for the year ahead.

Work to improve early-cohort departmental culture.

This is a follow-up step to “reorganize the proseminar.” The larger goal is to help students become professional sociologists, wherever that takes them. I’d sort of like to tackle the job market process next. But our later-year students are geographically far-flung, and there’s only so much I can do to reach them right now.

The reasoning here is that to improve outcomes—completion time and job placement—in the long run, the best thing to do in the short run is to strengthen attachment to the department in years 1-4. Sure, students are always going to peel away as they reach dissertation stage. And they’re never going to stick around Albany like they might stick around NYC. That said, if we can push that peeling away process back a couple of years, so that students are more engaged with the program when they’re writing and looking for jobs, I think it will pay off.

Of course there’s only so much I can do as DGS to affect student culture. But small changes in this area—improving assignment of office space, so people want to hang around; moving up our welcome events, so we’re not “welcoming” new students after three weeks of classes; making sure the new advising system functions the way we hope—are a priority for this year.

I still want that data.

How can I make it happen without further overburdening the stretched-thin office staff or spending my weekends doing data entry? Is it an impossible dream?

Ugh, I just can’t commit to the website.

Open to suggestions for what else I should be doing.

For the most part, I like this job. It requires new time management skills. And a lot of emails. And a new level of cynicism about universities. And on the bad days, I question whether we (or any university outside the top 20, or—on the really bad ones—any sociology department at all) should even have a graduate program. But the nice thing about being DGS is that you feel like you can actually do things about the stuff you don’t like. At least little things. And that’s kind of satisfying.

I don’t know, ask me in another year.

Written by epopp

August 14, 2015 at 8:30 am

Posted in academia, sociology

5 Responses

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  1. Beth, you learned more in your first year on the job than many directors of grad studies learn in their entire tenure! Thanks for the excellent post — will be very helpful.

    Liked by 2 people

    Howard Aldrich

    August 14, 2015 at 3:33 pm

  2. Re: website, our dept has a new, nice website because we just made a web committee and put a real super person in charge (not me).



    August 14, 2015 at 4:49 pm

  3. Two small ideas that might help.

    1. On the data — maybe it makes sense to just start with the cohort you admitted last year. Rather than spending seven years worrying about collecting data on the past seven cohorts of students, get one now to start and then, in seven years, you will have a full cohort’s worth of data. I would guess that most of the items you would want to track are things that you do in the day-to-day job of being grad director.

    2. On the website — don’t worry about the design, worry about the content. Then get a WordPress site and put all of the information there, with a link to it on the main site. Sure, the University will howl, but then you have leverage to get them to do what they are supposed to be doing in the first place (or they really are so out to lunch that they never realize that the separate website exists and they just let you go along with what you are doing). If they ever do get their act together, you have all of the content to put into the new site.



    August 14, 2015 at 6:53 pm

  4. Very impressive website, Fabio. I’m guessing whoever put it together doesn’t need a new project. You know who else has a really good website? Arizona. I send students to look at their comp exam lists all the time, and it is really well put together.

    Thanks, Mike, those are great suggestions. Especially on the data — collecting a bunch of info for one or two cohorts that haven’t been around forever sounds much more manageable than gathering All the Data.



    August 14, 2015 at 8:53 pm

  5. I have no idea if this would actually work, but I wonder if it would be possible to get the students to collect data on themselves–like, some kind of Google form they are supposed to submit once a year or once a semester saying what they have done and what their plans are for the next year/semester. It could even be useful for them, though I assume there is some possibility of embellishment in the reporting.



    August 15, 2015 at 12:02 am

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