education issues

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How joining a students association can help you get the most out of your bachelor’s degree (Part 1)

Posted January 12, 2017 — My last post was the first in a short series I have planned for the first few weeks of 2017. The aim is to motivate college and university students who worry about potential career paths to do something about it. To gather the resources and assistance necessary to garner the best information and insight available.

The first step, as always, is simple and not particularly original: Consult the career-counselling services available at your institution. You might find the answers you need, or at least get much closer. But you might not. This is somewhat understandable, as you cannot expect to get all the time, attention, and personalized advice you want from a career counsellor who also has a schedule of appointments with other clients. Not only that, but despite what many students mistakenly assume, career counsellors are typically not industry specialists. This means that while they may be very helpful in getting you started with the process of researching different career options, they often lack the special insights of a true “insider.” By insider, I mean someone who actually has a career in an area of interest to you.

Many insiders were once undergraduate college or university students themselves, who somehow progressed from that stage in their life to later having a fulfilling career. The more insiders you talk with about how they did it, the more you realize that there is no typical, standard route to career success from undergraduate school. Just as importantly, the more you learn about the diverse experiences of industry insiders, the easier it is to appreciate the full range of career options that are potentially accessible to you, and to plot a potential path for yourself.

The career counsellors may be able point you in the direction of career-related books and web resources, but those sources of information fall short in terms of actual usefulness compared to the special insights, tips, and strategies that you can get from someone who has had success in getting from where you are now to the kind of place you would like to be yourself someday.  Even after getting everything you can from your school’s career counselling services, you are likely to still have many questions and much uncertainty — and flashes of anxiety — over your future.

My advice to students who find themselves in the situation I just described is to take matters into their own hands. To fill those information gaps that are left unfilled by career counsellors or academic advisors, or even the best career-related books or websites. If you are a student who needs help with this process, the main points I hope to make for you today is that you don’t have to do it alone. There are many many other students in the same boat as you. You probably pass some of them in the hallways at school every day. If even a small group of you can get together and coordinate some efforts, you can get the insiders’ insights you need.

The following guest-commentary was written by someone who has experienced first-hand the benefits of working with other students. She is Samantha Briand, and she has been the president of the Concordia University Psychology Association for the past two years. She comments on some of the benefits she has personally experienced, but also to the widespread lack of initiative displayed by the vast majority of students. I hope her words will inspire and help compel you to action.

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If you’ve ever wondered how someone can be a full-time university student AND work 40 hours a week, ask any student rep. The young men and women who decide to join student associations do so for free and of their own volition. But how can anyone be crazy enough to sacrifice their time, sweat and money for a bunch of students they don’t know, you may ask? Spend days and nights planning and promoting events they’ll be too busy to enjoy? Well, the answer is simple…

Because someone has to.

I ran unopposed as President of the Concordia Undergraduate Psychology Association (CUPA) for two years in a row, as did many of the executives on our 2015 and 2016 teams. Although we all decided to run for different reasons, most of us agreed that we wanted to make a difference in the lives of students and CUPA was our best way to do that. With each event, our presence on campus grew and we were over the moon when our first ever winter getaway sold out in less than 8 hours. People came up to us and thanked us for all our hard work, and told us what a difference our events had made in their lives. Some people even made friends that they’ve kept to this very day. We made that possible. CUPA made that possible. And it’s those moments that make it all worth it. But I can never stop myself from thinking, what would happen if I chose not to be a part of my student association. If I decided that my time was better spent studying or making money. Then who would take my place? Considering that I ran unopposed…twice… I would say no one. And since that is the case for more than half of the people on my current executive team, there wouldn’t be enough people to even justify having a student association if we decided not to run. So, all of those students who benefitted from our events would just have to deal with it. They would lose all of the opportunities that CUPA can provide, all because I want more time to sit around and watch Netflix all day? It is a sacrifice we make willingly, because we know that our efforts can make a difference. That CUPA is bigger than us, as cheesy as I may risk sounding. But please don’t feel bad for us, because we would gladly make the same choice time and time again. As hard as it may be, we love what we do and we’re happy to do it. So, if you’re looking for a way to make your university experience more than just a quest for a decent GPA; or if you want to meet a bunch of strangers who will grow to become some of your best friends, then I urge you to join your student association. There is no better way to pay it forward than by giving your time to others. And if you’ve got it all figured out already, then this is your chance to share that knowledge and wisdom with younger students. And if you don’t, then hey, join the club! As a 2017 graduate, I can tell you how proud I am of what CUPA has accomplished over the past 2 years and I hope to leave it in good hands. So I challenge you.

I challenge you to take a leap of faith.

To spread yourself too thin.

To bite of more than you can chew.

Why? 

Because you might just surprise yourself.

Best of luck, 

Samantha Briand

President 2015 – 2017

Concordia Undergraduate Psychology Association
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I am grateful to Samantha for passing along these words of wisdom. Not everyone has her level of energy and enthusiasm, and many students have important extracurricular activities or other commitments that limit their ability to spend as much time as Samantha has organizing useful activities for the benefit of hundreds of student peers. But, you don’t need to have her level of enthusiasm or dedicate as much time and effort as she has. That’s the whole point of working with others toward a common goal — just like student associations are able to do. Still, you have to get off your ass and show some initiative.

There are additional benefits to getting involved with your student association beyond those pointed out by Samantha in her guest-commentary. I believe some of those benefits will likely play out for her over the coming years, in ways that enhance her early career development. I will explain in my next post.

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DIY Career Networking for University Students

Posted December 31, 2016 — Several days ago, I attended a very special event for undergraduate psychology students at Concordia University, in Montreal (where I am a professor). It was a career-networking workshop. Its aim was to introduce students to a few potential career paths.

The Psychology department at Concordia U is relatively large by most standards, with around 1400 or so students enrolled in undergraduate programs leading to a B.A. or B.Sc. About 150 of those students attended the networking event. This was beyond maximum seating capacity for the room, and some people had to stand. Two things were obvious from the size of the crowd: 1) there is great demand among psychology students for information and advice on potential career paths, and 2) the people who organized the event at Concordia did a fantastic job of getting the word out to the large community of students. I’ll say more about this effort, later.

The evening began with a series of presentations from former psychology students who earned a bachelor’s degree and went on to have successful careers in psychology-related occupations. There was a pyscho-educator, a social worker, a marketing consultant and manager, and an economics and political science researcher. There were also presentations about postgraduate studies in law, and in clinical psychology. The guest speakers talked about what they do in their occupations, or their postgraduate studies, and the paths they took from an undergraduate in psychology to where they are today. After the presentations, they graciously stayed for another couple hours to mingle with students and answer more questions, over wine and snacks.

The entire evening was enjoyable, interesting and informative, and from the conversations I had with students there, it was clear the main objective of the workshop was achieved. For many students, it was a huge eye-opener to the wide range of potential career paths to choose from within psychology and the allied fields of counseling, social work, and educational psychology. Although the guest speakers represented only a few of the many career possibilities for someone with a bachelor’s degree in psychology, their personal stories shared a common element of hope for current students. Contrary to popular misconception, there is something you can do with a bachelor’s degree in psychology! In fact, there are many options and possible careers one could have with a psychology degree. I hope to discuss this general topic much further, in future blog posts.

Today, I want to focus on something else. I want to applaud the individuals who had the initiative to organize the workshop and did all the work to make it a tremendous success. Every student I spoke to that evening was excited and eager for the chance to learn more about potential careers. As much as anything, they all seemed grateful to the people responsible for putting on this event.

So, my congratulations and my thanks go to the people at Concordia University who organized the workshop. I hope it becomes a recurring event in our Psychology department. No doubt, students in any discipline would appreciate such a well-organized, relevant career-related, social event. After all, aren’t most people in university there to get an education they can leverage into some kind of employment or career advantage when it comes time to join the workforce?

Before I identify the fine folks who organized the career-networking event, let’s have a bit of fun and try to guess who they are. Dear reader, who you think are the most likely people in a typical university to get the idea for such a useful event, and then gather the resources to make it all happen?

Obviously, this was the work of some dedicated career counselors, right?

No, there were no career counselors involved in putting on this event.

Someone with an administrative position in the Psychology department, such as the department chairperson, or the undergraduate program director?

Surprisingly, no (or maybe, not surprisingly – depends on who you ask).

Any academic advisors responsible for this brilliant idea?

Nope! 

Perhaps the Dean, or a Vice-Dean in the Faculty of Arts and Sciences?

No.

Were there any university faculty members behind this event, at all?

None, at all.

You‘ve probably figured it out by now…

The career-networking event was organized entirely by a group of students in the Psychology department: The executive members of the Concordia University Psychology Association (CUPA).

So, congratulations CUPA! It was a very enjoyable and informative evening!

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Imagine that — a student association with leaders who commit a great deal of time, effort, and other resources to helping their peers! (Isn’t that what they are there for?) CUPA is certainly not the first psychology student association to organize some type of career-related event. A quick search of just a few universities will almost certainly turn up some type of career- or graduate-school related workshop or similar activity being planned or promoted.

A few years ago I had the good fortune to be invited to speak at a workshop on graduate school and career paths in psychology at Simon Fraser University, in beautiful British Columbia. It was an all-day affair, very much geared towards careers requiring a master’s or doctorate degree in psychology or a related field. The chief organizers of this event were the executive members of Simon Fraser’s Psychology Students Union. A few months earlier, they hosted a workshop on finding successful employment with a bachelor’s degree in psychology. At universities all across North America – serious and capable undergraduate student organizations are working to fill huge information gaps that students want and need very badly to have filled. The most pertinent gaps have to do with career planning.

You might be asking yourself, isn’t the university and its academic staff responsible for providing students with some type of career orientation, or preparation for finding work related to their degrees? Shouldn’t students at least be demanding this?

No, actually this is not the responsibility of the universities, at least not the public ones. [We can debate another time about whether students who pay sky-high tuition and fees to attend a private university should be entitled to receive this type of career-related assistance from their institution]. When students enroll in a bachelor’s program they are paying for an education, not training for a specific job or guaranteed placement into an occupation related to their studies. It is definitely a mistake for students to wait around for their professors to put any effort into providing this kind of valuable advisement and mentoring, because quite frankly, this is not something the university administration expects or requires its academic faculty members to do. It is simply not in a professor’s job description.

In fact, it’s rare to find a university professor who cares much about the non-academic concerns of the undergraduate student community. Most professors are middle-aged or older individuals with a relatively low-stress job, a very good salary, excellent benefits, and a degree of job security that is unparalleled among almost all other occupations. As cynical as it may seem, most are unable to relate to the needs of the 20-somethings who have no secure job, only uncertain prospects for the future, and without any idea of how they might use their university education as a springboard into the workforce.

A noticeable difference between the career workshop at Simon Fraser U. and the one at Concordia last week was that several faculty members from the Psychology department were present and noticeably involved in support and organization of the Simon Fraser event, including the department Chair, the undergraduate program director, and a few academic advisors. The department Chair was the one who invited me. In contrast, I did not see any Concordia faculty members at the CUPA event. While there might have been some kind of behind-the-scenes support of which I am unaware, it was not evident that night.

The point I want to make here is, while students may not be justified in demanding career-planning services from their academic departments, they are certainly justified in requesting it, and they are justified in complaining when their department makes no effort to provide them with it. It would be easy for almost any university Psychology department to provide this kind of thing for their students. Just a small effort and short time-commitment from a few experienced professors can help provide dozens of students with the most valuable career-related insight and advice they will ever receive in university. Problem is, this also requires professors who possess some measure of concern for the needs of their students, and who understand students’ need to translate their investment in a university education into a livelihood. Sadly, such an attitude is dearly lacking among the faculty members in many undergraduate university programs.

There are exceptions, of course. A good example of a psychology department where the Chair, UPD, and other professors actively strive to provide students with useful information, advice, and career guidance, is the Psychology department at MacEwan University. A few weeks after the workshop at Simon Fraser U, I was invited to MacEwan to give a talk on preparing for and applying to graduate school in psychology. Around 80-90 people attended my talk, mostly undergraduate psychology students, once again showing the great demand that exists for this type of information. This event was planned and organized almost entirely by the department Chair and a few other faculty members. They were wonderful hosts, and it was evident from my conversations with MacEwan psychology students that they were grateful to their department Chair for putting on the event, and for being generally attuned to the interests and needs of the students at other times, as well.

Psychology departments like those at Simon Fraser and MacEwan University — where the faculty are attuned to the needs of their students and willing to devote some time and effort to helping — are rare these days, yet students need this support now more than ever. More common are departments composed primarily (but never entirely) of professors who are mostly arrogant, self-centered researchers with delusions about their own importance or usefulness, and who could not care less about the students with whom they share the hallways. What type of Psychology department is yours?

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Most universities do have some kind of career-placement or career-planning service department where students can get access to career counseling and other resources. Those services tend to be funded through students’ academic fees. But, the extent and quality of the services vary quite a lot from one school to another. When career-counseling resources are lacking, local student groups can take matters into their own hands. Even when a university provides substantial and good quality career-planning and placement services, the counselors and other staff must allocate limited time and resources across numerous different areas, disciplines, and industries. With some effort, a more focused group of capable students can go far beyond the generic forms of advice and guidance that are commonly provided by university career counselors.

I will end my commentary for today with some advice for students in any field of study, not just psychology:

1. If you are not already a member of your department’s undergraduate student association, look them up and find out what kinds of events they organize. Don’t be surprised or too disappointed, however, if it turns out that your student association spends most of their time and resources on social events and parties, and puts little or no effort into useful education or career-related initiatives. Some student groups are just better organized than others. You won’t know about yours until you check them out. Keep in mind that there is frequent turnover in leadership in these organizations, so their activities may change quite a bit from one year to the next.

2. Get your student leaders onto organizing a career-networking workshop! If you’re not part of the team, you can still offer to help out. It might involve some valuable networking!

3. Don’t wait for your department, faculty, or institution to provide you with this kind of thing. If you have supportive professors around you, that’s great – their involvement should bring considerable benefits. If you are in a program in which the professors could not care less about what happens to you after you graduate, this is unfortunate, but the situation is not hopeless. You will just need to be more self-reliant.

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Paying the Price for Higher Education: Don’t Do It!

Today’s post is aimed at helping anyone who is currently trying to decide which college or university to attend, starting next September. Many factors will likely be considered in making the final decisions of where to go, and no doubt, a lot of people will give much consideration to differences in the costs of attending different schools. Tuitions can vary a great deal, and there is a general positive relationship between the costs of attending a particular institution for an undergraduate degree and the ‘prestige’ of that institution, as perceived by the public. Of course, critical to justifying the higher costs of attending some colleges, there is also a widespread belief that the highly-prestigious institutions deliver a higher quality education than what is available at the ‘less-knowns’. This latter belief is an illusion. It is based on the mistaken expectation that you get what you pay for when it comes to higher education. In some ways you do, but not in the ways that are relevant to the majority of education consumers — the students and their parents.

This morning, I came across an illuminating report of a study that was done by researchers at Wabash College, which basically shows that there is almost no relationship between the amount of money a college spends on education and the quality of the education it provides. The study was reported at the recent annual meeting of the Association of American Colleges and Universities, and you can find the details, here.

Reading about this study inspired me to re-post something today that was originally published here several months, on June 25, 2012, Choosing a University for an Undergraduate Degree? Ignore the Rankings Lists. In this commentary, I explain why the prestige of a university is not significantly related the quality of undergraduate education it delivers, or to the quality of the student-experience. This is a total cut-and-paste, so if you read that post recently, you can move on to somewhere else from here, without missing anything new.

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Choosing a University for an Undergraduate Degree? Ignore the Rankings Lists

Most students have options when it comes to choosing which college or university to attend for their undergraduate education. Some of the important factors to consider when making choices include, the availability of the desired program of study, the location of the institution, and the costs of attending. Different people may weigh each of these factors differently, but nearly everyone considers one or more of them when deliberating over the options.

Many people will also consider another factor — one that is much less tangible than program availability, location, or cost. I am referring here to the general reputation that an institution has among the lay population. Such reputations are often unqualified and vague. Rather than being based on genuine comparisons of the value of education or training available at different schools, they tend to be based on “what one hears” about a particular school, or how often it is mentioned in the news, or in other contexts (TV shows, movies, magazine articles, etc.). The general repute of an institution will, nonetheless, sway the decisions of many students (and parents) about which university or college to attend for a postsecondary education.

While there is no doubt that unaccredited diploma mills are a poor choice for any serious student who wants a worthwhile education, general reputations vary greatly among the thousands of accredited colleges and universities in North America. Most of us have acquired implicit respect for certain institutions merely from hearing them referred to often and in mostly positive contexts. Many of us will also make unsubstantiated generalizations about an institution based on its overall reputation. In most instances, an unwarranted overgeneralization about a college or university does not lead to any significant problems. On the other hand, it may become a problem for people who are trying to decide where to invest in a postsecondary education, especially if it leads them to make compromises in terms of the more valid considerations of program availability, location, or cost. Unfounded beliefs about the relative quality of undergraduate teaching at different schools can lead to flawed choices. Excellent opportunities may exist at schools with less recognizable names.

Okay, so subjective impressions that are based on indirect evidence may be flawed and shortsighted. But, what about those college or university-rankings lists that various organizations publish from time to time? In general, such rankings tend to be based on objective criteria, so it seems reasonable to have some faith in their validity. But, does that make them useful?

Although they can be mildly interesting to some, university rankings are virtually useless to the average person. At least, they are not useful for those purposes for which many people will actually use them. As I will explain, such rankings should be ignored when deciding where to go to for an undergraduate degree in most disciplines within the sciences, social sciences, or applied sciences, the arts, or fine arts.

Importantly, I am referring here only to rankings that deal exclusively with universities, without including undergraduate colleges. When it comes to comprehensive rankings-lists for all U.S. colleges and universities that offer undergraduate programs, the best I have seen is published by Forbes. Unlike university-rankings lists, the undergraduate college rankings tend to be more useful for discriminating between the “good” places to go for a bachelor’s degree and the “not so good.”

I had the inspiration for today’s blog post while recently perusing the Times Higher Education World University Rankings for 2011-12. The Times Higher Education list is one of the better known and most comprehensive ranking of global universities. Some of the other well-known university rankings lists include US News National University Rankings, QS World University Rankings, and Academic Ranking of World Universities, to name just a few. Each list has a particular geographical scope, which is usually limited to a particular country or continent. A few are global, including the THE list. A respected and widely-consulted ranking of Canadian universities is published each year by McLean’s.

I rarely check out these types of ranking lists, even though one might expect I would be more than a bit interested in them, given that I am a university professor, I am active in research and teaching, and I spend a lot of time giving students advice about how to achieve their higher-education goals. I also have three children who are likely to be heading off to college or university over the next few years. Yes, I would seem to have a number of good reasons for wanting to know which schools are the best.

But, the truth is, I would never consider using a university-rankings list as an aid to student advising. They simply are not useful for that purpose. To understand why, one must appreciate the variety of important activities that are conducted at any global university, beyond the teaching of bachelor’s students. In my experience, most members of the public who have never been employed in a university setting grossly overestimate how much these institutions focus their resources on undergraduate teaching. Experienced academics, on the other hand, understand that it is the research mission that is most highly valued and nurtured by university administrators, and by the governments that provide public funding. Most university professors dedicate more blood, sweat, and tears to their research, and perhaps also to training of Ph.D. students, than they do to teaching undergraduate students. Universities tend to hire new faculty members on the basis of their research profiles, and give somewhat less consideration to teaching ability. In other words, professors are generally hired to do research, and expected to teach, whether they are good at teaching or not. Of course, this is also true at some of the “highest ranked” universities. Most university professors have never received any formal training on how to teach effectively. I often tell students that this explains why so many of us are lousy teachers!

Back to the rankings lists… Let’s be straight on what I’m saying, here. My position is that the relative ranking of universities on these lists should not be used to decide which schools are likely to provide a better undergraduate education. The simplest reason why university rankings should not be used to decide which school to attend is because those rankings are based on many dimensions or aspects of a university that have very little, or nothing at all, to do with content or delivery of undergraduate programs. Below, I’ll say more about the types of factors that go into the compilation of a university-ranking list, using the methodology behind the THE list, as a general example.

For now, let me make the point that only around 5% of a university’s score on the THE ranking is based on factors that are directly relevant to undergraduate education. The other 95% of a university’s score is based on factors that have little or no relevance to determining the quality or delivery of undergraduate education available to its students. Consider the central missions of any global university — research, teaching, knowledge transfer, and international activity.

The following is an overview of how THE ranking scores are determined.

There are 13 performance indicators, grouped into 5 areas:

Teaching — the learning environment (worth 30 per cent of the overall ranking score)

Research — volume, income and reputation (worth 30 per cent)

Citations — research influence (worth 30 per cent)

Industry income — innovation (worth 2.5 per cent)

International outlook — staff, students and research (worth 7.5 per cent).

Factors related to teaching account for less than one-third of a university’s overall score. THE also provides alternative rankings based on the specific performance areas. So, what if we just look at the rankings based only on the Teaching indicators? Well, let’s look at how they determine this particular 30% of the overall score — you will see that only a tiny fraction of it comes from undergraduate teaching considerations.

Half of the Teaching score is based on the results of a survey. Quoting from the methodological description on the THE website:

            ” Thomson Reuters carried out its Academic Reputation Survey – a worldwide poll of experienced scholars – in spring 2011. It examined the perceived prestige of institutions in both research and teaching… The results of the survey with regard to teaching make up 15% of the overall rankings score.”

There are two points I want to make about this measurement: First, notice that it’s based on the “perceived prestige” of a university in teaching and research. I would venture to say that it’s not too difficult for an experienced scholar to judge the prestige of a university based on quality and quantity of research conducted, because there are many visible indicators of research funding, activity, and output. Unless someone was once a student at a particular university, however, it is unlikely that he or she will have a clear view of the quality of undergraduate teaching that goes on at most universities, other than the ones with which they are currently associated. Admittedly, there are some scholars who happen to do research or administrative work, which, in one way or another, gives them a close enough vantage point to a few universities that they may be able to provide valid assessments in terms of the general quality of undergraduate teaching. But, individuals with real insight into the quality of undergraduate teaching at different universities are exceedingly rare.

The second limitation I want to point out about the “perceived prestige” measurement is that when pondering their views on the quality of teaching that exists in universities at which they have never been a student or instructor themselves, most experienced academics will consider what they know about the “products” of doctoral-level training, or even the postdoctoral training environment. These products, of course, are the people receiving a Ph.D., many of whom go on to have significant impact in various areas of research, engineering, or some other type of creative production. In other words, perceptions about teaching quality are based on perceptions of postgraduate training, not undergraduate teaching.

Other factors that contribute to the Teaching category include: 1) Ratio of PhD to bachelor’s degrees awarded by each university, which is worth 2.25% of the overall ranking scores. 2) Number of Ph.Ds awarded relative to the number of faculty members (i.e., academic staff) at the university, worth 6% of the overall score. 3) institutional income scaled against academic staff numbers, … adjusted for purchasing-power parity so that all nations compete on a level playing field, …” This is worth 2.25% of a university’s overall score.

Factors 1 and 2 are more relevant to training of graduate students. Most students join the workforce after college, so only a small proportion of undergraduates would have anything at stake in the quality of graduate training available where they choose to earn their bachelor’s degree. Although some undergraduates may appreciate being in an environment that includes graduate students, most do not care. Factor 3 is about money; having more of it may contribute in some ways to having superior undergraduate teaching resources, but those are seldom the spending priorities for a university, these days. In other words, none of the factors that have been considered so far are valid indicators of the quality of undergraduate teaching.

If you’re keeping track, you may have noticed that we still need to account approximately 5% of the overall THE ranking score. Finally, we’re getting to something that’s actually relevant to predicting the quality of undergraduate teaching — or at least, the quality of the undergraduate learning experience:

            “Our teaching and learning category also employs a staff-to-student ratio as a simple proxy for teaching quality – suggesting that where there is a low ratio of students to staff, the former will get the personal attention they require from the institution’s faculty,…”

As the folks at THE are quick to point out, “… this measure serves as only a crude proxy – after all, you cannot judge the quality of the food in a restaurant by the number of waiters employed to serve it…” Accordingly, it accounts for just 4.5 per cent of the overall ranking scores.

Despite it’s crudeness, the staff-to-student ratio is, in my opinion, the only factor contributing to the overall ranking score that is clearly relevant to determining the quality of undergraduate education for the majority of university students.

I hope my analysis of the methods behind the Times Higher Education global university rankings makes the point that universities exist for the sake of much more than just teaching undergraduate students. University professors are hired to do research, and expected to teach — not the other way around. Things are somewhat different at most liberal arts colleges, however, so it’s important to keep in mind that I’m talking about universities, here. Of course, different organizations use different formulae to compile their university-rankings lists, so there is some variation in terms of how relevant the rankings are to the concerns of undergraduate students. But, its important to remember, if the rankings are comparing universities and not just undergraduate colleges, much more weight will be given to various aspects of the research mission, including doctoral-level training.

The problem I’m getting at is the way these rankings lists end up being used by many regular people to make important decisions that should not be made on the basis of such rankings. Don’t get me wrong — it’s not that I don’t think the rankings lists are useful, nor am I about to criticize the methods that are used to compile them. They are relevant for regular folks, for certain reasons. But, none of those reasons have much of anything to do with the undergraduate training mission of the typical global university. These rankings lists can contribute to the impressions that typical consumers have about the “quality” of particular universities. This is fair enough. After all, there is a lot of good research and objective analysis behind some of rankings lists. The Times Higher Education World University ranking is a fine example of that.

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Letters of Recommendation for Graduate School: Who Are the Best Sources?

It is now November, and if you are facing graduate-school applications deadlines anytime between mid-December and early February, it’s time to get serious about arranging for your letters of recommendation. As with the other components of a grad-school application, there are many pitfalls that must be avoided, and my goal with today’s post is to help you avoid some of them. The focus here will be on one key question: Who should be asked to provide a letter of recommendation?

College or university professors who know the student well are nearly always the most appropriate sources for letters of recommendation to support a graduate-school application. If an application requires three letters of recommendation, then it is usually best if all three letters are from professors. There are exceptions in some fields, however, and all applicants should make sure they know what is normal in their field of study. For example, someone applying to a master’s program in counseling psychology or social work should have a letter from someone who has supervised his or her volunteer work in some type of support or helping capacity. Also, some programs have special expectations when it comes to the sources for letters of recommendation, so it’s important to carefully read all instructions. For example, some clinical psychology programs ask for at least one letter from a source like that which I just described, but many do not; if they don’t specify, then all of the letters should come from professors.

The source of a letter (i.e., the “referee”) can influence it’s effectiveness in at least two ways: First, referees are expected to indicate in their letters the capacity in which they have known the student, and they should be able to demonstrate that they know the student well enough, and in an appropriate capacity, that would enable them to evaluate him or her on several relevant dimensions. A professor who taught a student in a junior-level course would be expected to have little insight into his or her true potential, whereas a professor for a senior-level course, who gave the student a very good grade for substantial written work, or for oral presentations, might be a better judge. If the student is in an Honors program with a thesis requirement, the thesis supervisor or the director of the Honors program should be in the best position to provide a comprehensive evaluation

A mistake many people make is to assume they need letters from someone who can testify that they are very smart and capable of very good academic performance. Transcripts and standardized test scores already serve that purpose, and letters of recommendation need to evaluate the applicant on dimensions that are actually more relevant to success in graduate school than a person’s scholarly abilities.

Another factor that can influence the effectiveness of a letter of recommendation is the credibility of the referee, which is related to several different factors. As already mentioned, your referees will probably be asked to indicate how long they have known you. If they have only known you for a few months, some people will assume that they probably don’t know you very well. The referee’s credibility is also related to how much academic experience he or she has; that is, how long this person has been around, and therefore, how much experience he or she has at assessing the potential of students for success in grad school. All else being equal, professors with several years of experience are generally viewed as being more highly referees. Compared to a junior faculty member who has been a professor for only a year or two, senior faculty members will have more experience writing letters of recommendation, and therefore, they may do a better job of it (although there is no guarantee of this).

Be careful not to assume too much about someone’s relevant experience from the amount of gray hair they possess. Age alone is not a reliable a predictor of how much relevant experience a potential referee has at evaluating potential graduate students and writing letters of recommendation.

It’s possible to make reasonable inferences, however, from considering a professor’s academic rank, because this is influenced, at least in part, by how long someone has been employed at a particular institution. Some colleges and universities hire part-time faculty to teach undergraduate courses on a temporary contractual basis; they may, or may not, be given the rank of adjunct professor. Regardless of how experienced (or old) a teacher for one of your introductory-level courses appears, it’s important to keep in mind that your letters for grad school should be written by people who have experience at supervising their own graduate students, and who are, therefore, more likely to know what should be in it. Full-time professors who teach and conduct research are the most likely to have the right types of experience.

Newly-hired, full-time faculty members usually have the rank of assistant professor. After a few years, most are promoted to associate professor; this promotion may be accompanied by granting of tenure. Promotion to (full) professor usually comes after several more years of strong research, teaching, and service. One can assume that an associate professor or full professor has a significant amount of experience at writing letters of recommendation for grad-school applicants.

The academic rank of a referee, while important, is still secondary to what that person has to say about you. Accordingly, the professor who knows you best will usually be your most important referee, even if that person is a junior faculty member or even a part-time instructor. One exception to this is if you are applying to a research-oriented graduate program — university and college teachers who are not active researchers are not be the best referees for evaluating your research potential.

There are obviously many important things to consider when deciding whom to ask for a letter of recommendation, beyond just a potential referee’s credibility. You have to ask people who know the right things about you! Here are some of the dimensions on which you should expect to be evaluated:

ability to work with others
ability to work alone
communication skills (both oral and written)
creativity
dedication and persistence
independence
industriousness
initiative
intellectual ability
integrity
judgment
leadership
maturity
organizational skills
originality
teaching potential
social skills

Now that you know what kinds of things are discussed in a letter of recommendation for graduate school, do you feel confident that you can get the letters of recommendation you need? Anyone out there have a question about selecting potential referees?

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Getting Into Grad School Without Top Grades: One Student’s Amazing Story

My last post was aimed at explaining how grades come in to play in the selection process, and the main message was: You don’t need to have the top grades to get into grad school, because that’s not what the decision-makers care most about. To help prove my point, I have reproduced, below, an email message I received a few years ago from someone who had been an undergraduate in Psychology at Concordia University, which is where I am a faculty member. I did not know the student while he was at Concordia, and I still have not met him in person, although we have had some email correspondence in recent months.

You will no doubt notice that he makes a few kind remarks about a book I wrote, but I want to assure you that the reason I am showing his entire unexpurgated message is for the sake of authenticity, and because he says a few other things that are more important, and which I want to say a few more words about, afterward.

———–

Dear Dr Mumby,

As of May I have not been a student at Concordia but I keep getting e-mails about your grad info-sessions. Although I never attended your grad info-sessions I DID read your book and the e-mails have egged me on to contact you. I did not have particularly fantastic marks. Keeping this in mind, I followed all of your instruction and managed to get accepted into a Marital and Family Therapy (MFT) degree at Alliant (previously California School of Professional Psychology; birthplace of MFT and has had Carl Rogers among its faculty). I was packed and ready to go to California when I got a notice that I had been accepted into a masters in Criminology program at Cambridge UK. So here I am, a student who did not even make the academic cut-off for application, sitting in Cambridge (ranked second in the world, surpassed only by Harvard, third is Oxford); I am on the faculty/student liaison board for my course and am also the captain of my rowing crew (very big competitive sport here). My supervisor is very happy with my hard work and the faculty is amazing. Our library supposedly has the largest criminological collection in the world. I am confident that following the procedures in your book helped me get where I am today and I encourage you to read this letter, or part of it, at your lecture (although I would appreciate remaining anonymous). This just goes to show that marks are not everything to everyone and I caused myself large amounts of undue stress over them. Thank you,

P.S. I did get some lab experience in my undergrad and finished with my PSYC400.

D.

———–

This happy story is only a single anecdote, but it is highly useful because it refutes a couple of misconceptions I notice being frequently expressed by undergraduate Psychology students (and even by many academic advisors who don’t know better):

1. Many students place tremendous stress on themselves because they believe that they must attain top grades in almost every class in order to get into a good graduate school. Near the end of his message, this student admits that, in retrospect, he experienced much unnecessary stress over his grades. It is pretty obvious that this fellow was accepted at Cambridge, and at the professional psychology program in California, for reasons other than his undergraduate grades. It’s not in his email, but I can tell you that his GPA at graduation was slightly below the level required to be in our Honors program (3.30). As he indicates, it was also below the “academic cut-off” for application to Cambridge. That did not stop him from applying, and it did not stop him from getting in. Do you think he got in because of his GPA? Obviously, he got in because of other factors, which made up for the relative shortcoming in his GPA. I have emphasized this point many times during the past 2 years of writing this blog: There is so much more to preparing for graduate school and putting together a successful application than just getting good grades in your undergraduate program.

2. Students often tell me they need to be in the Honors program because they plan to go to graduate school after the baccalaureate. Although the Honors Psychology program in my department is intended to facilitate students’ preparation for graduate school, it is by no means necessary that a student be in that program in order to get into grad school. The student in this story was not in the Honors program.

3. Finally, he mentions in the postscript that he got some lab experience while an undergraduate. He refers to PSYC 400, which is a 6-credit course in which students do a research project under the supervision of a faculty member and write a thesis to report the findings. It is equivalent to the 6-credit project and thesis undertaken by students in our Honors program (ie., the Honors thesis). Importantly, however, the PSYC 400 thesis is an option for students who aren’t in the Honors program. The student in this story obtained ample undergraduate research experience, mostly by virtue of completing an undergraduate research thesis. It did not matter that it was not the Honors thesis, per se.

So, how did things work out for this person? Things have worked out very well for him, indeed. He is now a practicing marital and family therapist  in Montreal,Quebec.

If grad school is in your plans, be sure to check out my other articles. I realize that students face a huge information gap that makes it difficult to know what’s really involved, and that’s why I strive to provide the best information and advice about preparing for, and applying successfully to, graduate school.

I have been a professor for the past 20 years. I have been an undergraduate academic advisor, I have served on graduate admissions committees, supervised several graduate students and dozens of undergraduate students, and over the years I have had countless discussions about graduate admissions with Graduate Program Directors and other faculty members, in a wide range of disciplines and domains (sciences, social sciences, fine arts, humanities), and at universities in the U.S. and Canada. I have the perspective of a real insider into what students need to do to stand apart from the crowd, and how to avoid the mistakes that prevent most grad-school applicants from getting in.

You can spend a lot of time collecting bits of advice from all over Internet about dealing with different components of an application, or various steps in the process, but most of it is very basic information that everyone can get (thus, no one gets an advantage from knowing about it), and most of it is just recycled on different websites so that someone can sell advertising space.

My main objective with the blog is to provide the most accurate and actionable information and advice, all in one location. For more information on my consulting services, visit this link or fill out the pre-consulting form using the following password: consult2017#mgs

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The Sham Ph.D.

The experiences I share in this post will be an eye-opener for many readers. Anyone who has been a university professor for more than a few years, on the other hand, probably won’t be too surprised. In fact, I’ll bet some experienced academics will remember having witnessed similar shenanigans from time to time during their own careers.

My main goal here, as it has been in my last few posts, is to bring to light certain realities of higher education, which might in some way help the reader become a better-informed consumer. My secondary goal is admittedly personal, and a bit cathartic. Some of the events I recount here still trouble me. The events all took place within the same academic department, within a very highly regarded university, somewhere in North America. These events make certain individuals look bad, so I will be vague about details that could easily trace a route to identifying the university, department, or any of the involved persons. I have no doubt that similar events occur from time to time at most universities, so this is not really intended as a commentary about a particular institution or group of people. All I will say is that the university in the story is not Concordia University (my employer), but that is not to say that similar events could never happen at Concordia.

The good and the bad

Over the past 20 years, I have attended dozens of Ph.D. defenses, either as a member of the doctoral candidate’s examination committee, or as a member of the audience. I have seen a great range of quality, which is not surprising. Of course, some people are really great and truly impressive, whereas others are not quite as good, but still deserving of the doctoral degree. These two categories of deserving individuals make up a vast majority of doctoral candidates.

It may seem incredible, but the truth is, if you want a Ph.D. from an accredited university, you might not have to earn it the ‘old-fashioned’ way… you know, the way people used to earn doctorate degrees from any respectable university — by doing original research, making a contribution to knowledge, and demonstrating that one is somewhat expert, or at least highly knowledgeable, within some particular domain. Today, that hard work and established competence is no longer absolutely necessary in all circumstances. Of course, most Ph.D.s are still obtained in the traditional and honorable way. But, if you automatically assume that someone with a Ph.D. from a high-profile university must have earned it on the basis of merit, you are mistaken. A person can get a Ph.D. from even the most highly regarded universities despite being only mediocre, even if they are utterly incompetent and worse than mediocre. It does not happen often, but it does happen.

Fast-track to a Ph.D.

Believe it or not, some people have actually managed to obtain a Ph.D. simply by annoying or aggravating their graduate supervisors so much that the latter wants to get rid of the student as quickly as possible. Luckily, it’s difficult to kick someone out of graduate school just because that person has some disagreeable aspects to the their character or behavior. Understandably, some faculty members will take a prudent approach to such an uncomfortable situation and do what they can to facilitate the student’s completion of the Ph.D. program.

In most Ph.D. programs, the final critical step toward completion occurs when the student’s examination committee approves the quality and quantity of the candidate’s research, and the quality of the written dissertation. If it all passes muster, the candidate will get the doctoral degree.

Most of the time, when a faculty member wants to hasten the graduation of one of his or her Ph.D. students, this is at least partly accomplished by accepting some minor compromises in terms of the standard expectations. For example, maybe that one last experiment or chapter that was planned is not really needed for an acceptable dissertation. I don’t think it’s a problem, in most cases, when a doctoral student’s supervisor orchestrates these types of omissions, as long as there is input from the other faculty members on the student’s Ph.D. committee. It might not seem fair to all the other doctoral students who will be held up to the normal standard expectations, but what usually happens is that the unfairness or inequity, if we want to call it that, is somewhat corrected when the person becomes an ex-student and finally joins the workforce. By that, I mean that most employers who have to hire people with Ph.D.s look far beyond whether or not a job applicant has the academic credentials. They know that just because someone has the necessary degree for the job that does not mean the person can do the job. When applying for jobs in one’s field, recent recipients of a doctorate will still have to furnish references and letters of recommendations, a CV, and there may be interviews. As part of the vetting process, the mediocre and the posers are quickly discovered and eliminated from consideration.

And, now… the ugly

Now it’s time to tell the story about the events that compelled me to write on the present topic. They took place at a university that turns out a large number of excellent scholars, researchers, and professionals, each year. But, I know that they also recently awarded a Ph.D. to someone did not deserve one. I know this because I was an external member of that person’s examination committee, and I was, therefore, a first-hand witness to several demonstrations of ineptness. (‘external’ denotes from a different university)

In preparation for the oral defense, I read this person’s doctoral dissertation. It was very short, which was the only good thing about it. It was also terrible in many ways. The literature review was cursory and shallow. The chapters that described the candidates’ experiments were poorly organized, and the whole thing fit together like a 100-piece jigsaw puzzle that’s missing 80 pieces. The conclusions the candidate drew from the meager empirical results were not consistent with the existing literature, and they weren’t even very consistent with the student’s own data. I could go on and on about how bad this Ph.D. dissertation was, but let’s just say that when I arrived for the oral defense, the first thing I did was approach the student’s Ph.D. supervisor and asked, “What’s going on?” He knew immediately what I was talking about.

It took him only about a minute to explain, quietly but loud enough for the other committee members to hear, that he had no respect for the student, that the student was a liar, the student refused to follow any of the supervisor’s advice, and the student really didn’t know what he/she was talking about most of the time when it came to his/her research topic. Early on, the supervisor had tried to work closely with the student, but they had some sort of falling-out. He succinctly explained that he just want to get rid of this student.

I looked at the other faculty members from the student’s department who were on the committee, looking for any sign that they were concerned about the quality of the student’s work, like I was. Both of them are people I have known and respected for many years, and who have been at this business of training graduate students for longer than me. They both looked down, slightly slouching in a posture that resembled one of guilt or shame. Their subtle body language signaled to me that they knew what I was talking about, but they were not going to make it a big issue, and they seemed to be hoping that I would not do so, either. Maybe I was reading a lot into their subdued responses, but this was how I read them. There were also two other faculty members from the candidate’s university who were from different departments. They were a bit fidgety, but otherwise they just gazed around the room, generally avoiding eye contact with other people on the committee. After a few minutes, the Chair of the committee began the proceedings.

The candidate’s oral presentation of his/her work was awful, as confused and confusing as the dissertation. Could not answer any of the moderately challenging questions asked by the committee, and often responded as though he/she didn’t understand the question. When the candidate’s supervisor asked questions, he spoke tersely and used language that clearly displayed his overall dissatisfaction with the student, the student’s judgment, the research, and the dissertation. When all the painful public discourse was finally over, the candidate left the room so the committee could convene in private to discuss the dissertation and oral defense. The major task for the committee, at this point, is to come to some decision regarding whether it was all passable; that is to say, basically deciding whether the candidate should get the Ph.D., or not.

Remarkably, all the committee members from the candidate’s university basically said something like, “It was not good, but it was good enough.” But, I suspected that none of them really believed it; I sure didn’t. I expressed my misgivings, but I decided to leave it to the committee members from he candidate’s university to decide what judgment should be rendered. Remember, I was the external examiner. So, I was feeling somewhat like a guest, and it didn’t feel my place to be calling out these respected peers of mine for what I perceived was an unfolding lapse of integrity. I was not going to cause any fuss that would make it even harder for them to live with the decision.

I headed off homeward, feeling bad about the way things turned out. I kept thinking about the injustice of it all, considering that several other students in the same department will also get a Ph.D. this year, but they all will have earned it. I was upset with the faculty member who had been this student’s graduate supervisor. I felt he took an easy way out of an important commitment. I thought that he should have done what most faculty members would do and just put up with the annoying student until he or she completed the program in an acceptable manner. I believe he put the others members of the committee up to the idea of just passing this student through. I think the other committee members went along with a bit of reluctance, but they did go along, so I was disappointed that they were such an easy sell.  But, most of all, I felt guilty for going along with it, too. After a few hours of ruminating, I decided to put it behind me, and promised myself that I would never again agree to be a committee member for a doctoral student being supervised by this particular faculty member.

A few months later…

It didn’t take long before I was again asked if I would be an external committee for one of this faculty member’s doctoral students. The administrative staff member who contacted me is so nice and pleasant, that I didn’t think to reply, “No thanks,” to the request. When a copy of the student’s dissertation arrived in my mailbox a few days later, I remembered my previous vow never to do this again, but it was too late. Fortunately, this one turned out to be a very good Ph.D. dissertation! Well written and scholarly. The research behind it was ample, and it was solid work. I could tell right away that this person was not an imposter like the last one. In fact, he seemed like a really good researcher and a good analytical and critical thinker.

The day of the oral defense arrived and the whole process went the way things are expected to go — he gave an excellent presentation and handled all the questions very well. It felt good to know that this guy was getting a Ph.D., because he deserved it. And his impressive performance served up a little bit of redemption for the faculty member who supervised his graduate work. Not much, but still a bit, at least in my opinion.

Real Ph.D. versus Sham Ph.D.

Although it was a relief that the second Ph.D. in this story was all very good, it did not correct any of the inappropriateness about the first one. The only thing it changed for me was that I now had some reassurance that this faculty member/graduate supervisor could properly supervise and mentor a doctoral student. It could be argued, on the other hand, that this student made his supervisor look good.

One general message to be taken from this story is that many aspects of higher education are not as standardized as one might expect. I think most people who do not know the two new Ph.D.s in this story personally would view them both with the same high regard, just from knowing that each of them recently earned a Ph.D. from the same prestigious university, and in the same field of study. Without knowing anything more about them than the academic credentials they possess, it would be natural to assume that both of them have exceptional abilities and aptitudes, skills and knowledge, and that they are both now qualified for certain occupations that require a Ph.D. But, these things are really only true about one of them, and none of them seem to be true about the other.

You can’t tell who has a sham Ph.D. until you talk to that person a bit, and even then, anyone who is not an expert in the same field of study will be unlikely to detect the fakery. Someone who has a sham Ph.D. might impress friends, relatives, and neighbors by virtue of having been awarded something as distinguished as a doctoral degree. Importantly, however, it all gets evened out in the job market and over the years as a career develops, … or fails to develop. A sham Ph.D. might come easy, but it doesn’t take anyone far.

ignoring-the-rankings-lists

Choosing a University for an Undergraduate Degree? Ignore the Rankings Lists

Most students have options when it comes to choosing which college or university to attend for their undergraduate education. Some of the important factors to consider when making choices include, the availability of the desired program of study, the location of the institution, and the costs of attending. Different people may weigh each of these factors differently, but nearly everyone considers one or more of them when deliberating over the options.

Many people will also consider another factor — one that is much less tangible than program availability, location, or cost. I am referring here to the general reputation that an institution has among the lay population. Such reputations are often unqualified and vague. Rather than being based on genuine comparisons of the value of education or training available at different schools, they tend to be based on “what one hears” about a particular school, or how often it is mentioned in the news, or in other contexts (TV shows, movies, magazine articles, etc.). The general repute of an institution will, nonetheless, sway the decisions of many students (and parents) about which university or college to attend for a postsecondary education.

While there is no doubt that unaccredited diploma mills are a poor choice for any serious student who wants a worthwhile education, general reputations vary greatly among the thousands of accredited colleges and universities in North America. Most of us have acquired implicit respect for certain institutions merely from hearing them referred to often and in mostly positive contexts. Many of us will also make unsubstantiated generalizations about an institution based on its overall reputation. In most instances, an unwarranted overgeneralization about a college or university does not lead to any significant problems. On the other hand, it may become a problem for people who are trying to decide where to invest in a postsecondary education, especially if it leads them to make compromises in terms of the more valid considerations of program availability, location, or cost. Unfounded beliefs about the relative quality of undergraduate teaching at different schools can lead to flawed choices. Excellent opportunities may exist at schools with less recognizable names.

Okay, so subjective impressions that are based on indirect evidence may be flawed and shortsighted. But, what about those college or university-rankings lists that various organizations publish from time to time? In general, such rankings tend to be based on objective criteria, so it seems reasonable to have some faith in their validity. But, does that make them useful?

Although they can be mildly interesting to some, university rankings are virtually useless to the average person. At least, they are not useful for those purposes for which many people will actually use them. As I will explain, such rankings should be ignored when deciding where to go to for an undergraduate degree in most disciplines within the sciences, social sciences, or applied sciences, the arts, or fine arts.

Importantly, I am referring here only to rankings that deal exclusively with universities, without including undergraduate colleges. When it comes to comprehensive rankings-lists for all U.S. colleges and universities that offer undergraduate programs, the best I have seen is published by Forbes. Unlike university-rankings lists, the undergraduate college rankings tend to be more useful for discriminating between the “good” places to go for a bachelor’s degree and the “not so good.”

I had the inspiration for today’s blog post while recently perusing the Times Higher Education World University Rankings for 2011-12. The Times Higher Education list is one of the better known and most comprehensive ranking of global universities. Some of the other well-known university rankings lists include US News National University Rankings, QS World University Rankings, and Academic Ranking of World Universities, to name just a few. Each list has a particular geographical scope, which is usually limited to a particular country or continent. A few are global, including the THE list. A respected and widely-consulted ranking of Canadian universities is published each year by McLean’s.

I rarely check out these types of ranking lists, even though one might expect I would be more than a bit interested in them, given that I am a university professor, I am active in research and teaching, and I spend a lot of time giving students advice about how to achieve their higher-education goals. I also have three children who are likely to be heading off to college or university over the next few years. Yes, I would seem to have a number of good reasons for wanting to know which schools are the best.

But, the truth is, I would never consider using a university-rankings list as an aid to student advising. They simply are not useful for that purpose. To understand why, one must appreciate the variety of important activities that are conducted at any global university, beyond the teaching of bachelor’s students. In my experience, most members of the public who have never been employed in a university setting grossly overestimate how much these institutions focus their resources on undergraduate teaching. Experienced academics, on the other hand, understand that it is the research mission that is most highly valued and nurtured by university administrators, and by the governments that provide public funding. Most university professors dedicate more blood, sweat, and tears to their research, and perhaps also to training of Ph.D. students, than they do to teaching undergraduate students. Universities tend to hire new faculty members on the basis of their research profiles, and give somewhat less consideration to teaching ability. In other words, professors are generally hired to do research, and expected to teach, whether they are good at teaching or not. Of course, this is also true at some of the “highest ranked” universities. Most university professors have never received any formal training on how to teach effectively. I often tell students that this explains why so many of us are lousy teachers!

Back to the rankings lists… Let’s be straight on what I’m saying, here. My position is that the relative ranking of universities on these lists should not be used to decide which schools are likely to provide a better undergraduate education. The simplest reason why university rankings should not be used to decide which school to attend is because those rankings are based on many dimensions or aspects of a university that have very little, or nothing at all, to do with content or delivery of undergraduate programs. Below, I’ll say more about the types of factors that go into the compilation of a university-ranking list, using the methodology behind the THE list, as a general example.

For now, let me make the point that only around 5% of a university’s score on the THE ranking is based on factors that are directly relevant to undergraduate education. The other 95% of a university’s score is based on factors that have little or no relevance to determining the quality or delivery of undergraduate education available to its students. Consider the central missions of any global university — research, teaching, knowledge transfer, and international activity.

The following is an overview of how THE ranking scores are determined.

There are 13 performance indicators, grouped into 5 areas:

Teaching — the learning environment (worth 30 per cent of the overall ranking score)

Research — volume, income and reputation (worth 30 per cent)

Citations — research influence (worth 30 per cent)

Industry income — innovation (worth 2.5 per cent)

International outlook — staff, students and research (worth 7.5 per cent).

Factors related to teaching account for less than one-third of a university’s overall score. THE also provides alternative rankings based on the specific performance areas. So, what if we just look at the rankings based only on the Teaching indicators? Well, let’s look at how they determine this particular 30% of the overall score — you will see that only a tiny fraction of it comes from undergraduate teaching considerations.

Half of the Teaching score is based on the results of a survey. Quoting from the methodological description on the THE website:

            ” Thomson Reuters carried out its Academic Reputation Survey – a worldwide poll of experienced scholars – in spring 2011. It examined the perceived prestige of institutions in both research and teaching… The results of the survey with regard to teaching make up 15% of the overall rankings score.”

There are two points I want to make about this measurement: First, notice that it’s based on the “perceived prestige” of a university in teaching and research. I would venture to say that it’s not too difficult for an experienced scholar to judge the prestige of a university based on quality and quantity of research conducted, because there are many visible indicators of research funding, activity, and output. Unless someone was once a student at a particular university, however, it is unlikely that he or she will have a clear view of the quality of undergraduate teaching that goes on at most universities, other than the ones with which they are currently associated. Admittedly, there are some scholars who happen to do research or administrative work, which, in one way or another, gives them a close enough vantage point to a few universities that they may be able to provide valid assessments in terms of the general quality of undergraduate teaching. But, individuals with real insight into the quality of undergraduate teaching at different universities are exceedingly rare.

The second limitation I want to point out about the “perceived prestige” measurement is that when pondering their views on the quality of teaching that exists in universities at which they have never been a student or instructor themselves, most experienced academics will consider what they know about the “products” of doctoral-level training, or even the postdoctoral training environment. These products, of course, are the people receiving a Ph.D., many of whom go on to have significant impact in various areas of research, engineering, or some other type of creative production. In other words, perceptions about teaching quality are based on perceptions of postgraduate training, not undergraduate teaching.

Other factors that contribute to the Teaching category include: 1) Ratio of PhD to bachelor’s degrees awarded by each university, which is worth 2.25% of the overall ranking scores. 2) Number of Ph.Ds awarded relative to the number of faculty members (i.e., academic staff) at the university, worth 6% of the overall score. 3) institutional income scaled against academic staff numbers, … adjusted for purchasing-power parity so that all nations compete on a level playing field, …” This is worth 2.25% of a university’s overall score.

Factors 1 and 2 are more relevant to training of graduate students. Most students join the workforce after college, so only a small proportion of undergraduates would have anything at stake in the quality of graduate training available where they choose to earn their bachelor’s degree. Although some undergraduates may appreciate being in an environment that includes graduate students, most do not care. Factor 3 is about money; having more of it may contribute in some ways to having superior undergraduate teaching resources, but those are seldom the spending priorities for a university, these days. In other words, none of the factors that have been considered so far are valid indicators of the quality of undergraduate teaching.

If you’re keeping track, you may have noticed that we still need to account approximately 5% of the overall THE ranking score. Finally, we’re getting to something that’s actually relevant to predicting the quality of undergraduate teaching — or at least, the quality of the undergraduate learning experience:

            “Our teaching and learning category also employs a staff-to-student ratio as a simple proxy for teaching quality – suggesting that where there is a low ratio of students to staff, the former will get the personal attention they require from the institution’s faculty,…”

As the folks at THE are quick to point out, “… this measure serves as only a crude proxy – after all, you cannot judge the quality of the food in a restaurant by the number of waiters employed to serve it…” Accordingly, it accounts for just 4.5 per cent of the overall ranking scores.

Despite it’s crudeness, the staff-to-student ratio is, in my opinion, the only factor contributing to the overall ranking score that is clearly relevant to determining the quality of undergraduate education for the majority of university students.

I hope my analysis of the methods behind the Times Higher Education global university rankings makes the point that universities exist for the sake of much more than just teaching undergraduate students. University professors are hired to do research, and expected to teach — not the other way around. Things are somewhat different at most liberal arts colleges, however, so it’s important to keep in mind that I’m talking about universities, here. Of course, different organizations use different formulae to compile their university-rankings lists, so there is some variation in terms of how relevant the rankings are to the concerns of undergraduate students. But, its important to remember, if the rankings are comparing universities and not just undergraduate colleges, much more weight will be given to various aspects of the research mission, including doctoral-level training.

The problem I’m getting at is the way these rankings lists end up being used by many regular people to make important decisions that should not be made on the basis of such rankings. Don’t get me wrong — it’s not that I don’t think the rankings lists are useful, nor am I about to criticize the methods that are used to compile them. They are relevant for regular folks, for certain reasons. But, none of those reasons have much of anything to do with the undergraduate training mission of the typical global university. These rankings lists can contribute to the impressions that typical consumers have about the “quality” of particular universities. This is fair enough. After all, there is a lot of good research and objective analysis behind some of rankings lists. The Times Higher Education World University ranking is a fine example of that.