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James Nemes has been serving as interim dean of graduate and postdoctoral studies since June. Previously, the mechanical engineering professor had been working closely with former dean Martha Crago on a number of initiatives, such as tracking degree completion rates and exploring increased funding for graduate students. Today he leads these projects, while preparing new initiatives.
Your office has been tracking the time it takes graduate students to finish their programs, as well as the completion rates for graduate students. What does this involve and how can you help improve completion time and rates?
Yes, we've been doing this for a couple of years. Our plan has been to track students as they go through the graduate program to see if we can improve completion rates and also cut down on how much time it takes students to complete their degrees. Some programs inevitably take longer than others, so we are asking the departments to track students, compile completion times and tell us what they think constitutes a reasonable amount of time for their program. Many departments already have a procedure for keeping track of their students, but even the ones who don't are saying it's a good idea. As for completion rates - it's very frustrating to spend seven years in a program and not get your doctorate, so we are trying to find ways to ensure students complete their programs.
We need to refine the practice of supervision to ensure that students get the support they need. Supervisors should know how to offer proper guidance and to encourage students when necessary. So, with this in mind, over the last few years we've been conducting workshops for both students and supervisors. Students need to be aware that they can talk to their supervisors, and they should be able to articulate their expectations. Sometimes when they feel trapped or stuck on a research project, they don't know how to tell the supervisor. Instead, they struggle by themselves, which leads to situations that can last for years. Both students and supervisors should know how to work together so that things don't get to that stage.
The challenge, of course, is that a PhD is not a professional program with clear expectations. No one tells you what you have to do. Some people can flourish in that context, and others need more guidance. In some cases it is just a matter of differing expectations: some students want to see the supervisor weekly, whereas others like to work independently. In those cases where the relationship between a supervisor and a student is really not going to work, we should find out as soon as possible.
Obviously, funding is important for getting students through their programs. Is McGill planning to emulate the University of Toronto, which has guaranteed funding to all graduate students?
The University of Toronto got a lot of mileage from their announcement a few years ago that they would guarantee funding to every graduate student. Some of our programs also guarantee funding for all grad students, but we haven't been as good about making people aware of it. And although McGill does not guarantee funding across the university, we would like to be able to. Finding the resources to support graduate students is a priority, and we are investigating ways of raising money to establish the sort of endowment needed to make this commitment.
McGill has over 2,300 doctoral students and close to 5,000 master's students. Is this the optimal number for the university?
We cannot really grow much more at the undergraduate level, because we just don't have the space, but there is certainly room for growth at the graduate level. Undergraduate research programs, such as the Office of Undergraduate Research being set up in the Faculty of Science, are meant to whet the appetite of students for further research at the graduate level - they're trying to get people hooked. Of course, we are competing with other universities, not just locally but around the world, when we try to attract graduate students - international students make up a quarter of our graduate population. McGill cannot match the privately funded universities in terms of money, but we have other things to offer, such as a high-level research environment with a collegial atmosphere. In addition, both Montreal and Canada have a lot of drawing power. And, of course, students come to work on particular types of research.
In addition, the Principal has said she wants to make McGill one of the world's top publicly-funded, research-intensive universities, and this research depends in large part on graduate students - especially in faculties like engineering and science. In addition, McGill has been hiring about one hundred new faculty members a year over the past few years, which means new research projects across the university. The first job for many new professors is to establish a lab, with a research team. So the fact that we have hired so many top-notch new faculty members is going to attract more students.
The end of the graduate program comes when the student submits a dissertation. Are there any plans to streamline this process?
We are looking at introducing electronic thesis submission, so graduating students can upload their theses as PDF files. Currently there is a notable lag between the time students complete and submit their dissertations and when the world can see them. It is in everyone's best interests to have this work disseminated as quickly as possible. Electronic submission would also allow students to be a bit more creative with their presentations, in a manner similar to the changes we can see with electronic journals. We have run a pilot program and are now analyzing the results. We hope to have recommendations by the end of the academic year.