Otage des coupures/Hostage of the cuts

otage-des-coupures

Ça me peine énormément qu’on en soit rendu là mais je me sens obligé de parler des diverses coupures budgétaires et de comment ça va affecter l’université que je fréquente. Supposons que des décisions difficiles attendent l’université. Plusieurs solutions sont mises de l’avant par les diverses facultés, mais la nouvelle ronde de coupures a forcé bien des départements à revoir leur offre de programmes, de cours ainsi que leurs cibles de recrutement.

J’ai également appris qu’il existe des départements récalcitrants qui vont devoir poser des gestes beaucoup plus drastiques que nous, en physique (pour nous ça pourrait vouloir dire pas d’auxiliaire d’enseignement en 3e année de bac sauf pour mécanique classique 2, et pas d’hydrodynamique pour nous, mais notre cible d’inscription pour 2015 est de 75 étudiants à l’automne et 20 à l’hiver, pour physique et physique-math, car physique-info va presque certainement passer au couperet). Et le rectorat a déclaré qu’il fallait faire attention aux réalités des programmes, à l’entrée, une fois inscrit ou encore à la sortie, s’il fallait toucher à des programmes (que l’on parle de contingentement, ou encore d’élimination) mais les étudiants ont rappelé à l’administration que les réalités à la sortie (incluant, mais pas uniquement les perspectives d’emploi) ne devaient pas être l’unique considération; après tout, au-delà de l’usage d’une formation universitaire en tant que pré-insertion professionnelle, il faut permettre aux étudiants de former leur pensée critique et de se cultiver.

Sur la table, on a évoqué la possibilité de remonter la cote R minimale pour être admis à un programme non-contingenté (c’est-à-dire que, du moment qu’on a un minimum de notes et qu’on réussit à terminer le DEC, préalables inclus, dans les délais, on est sûr de pouvoir s’inscrire au programme demandé) de 22 à 23 ou 24. Vous allez me dire, la cote R moyenne est de 25, mais c’est, dans la pratique, une moyenne de première session. La vérité est que les indicateurs de force, au départ pas loin de zéro (un peu plus élevés si le DEC requiert en préalable maths SN/536 ou TS/526, chimie et/ou physique) ne peuvent qu’aller en augmentant à mesure que les étudiants suivent des cours de plus en plus avancés. Ainsi, quelqu’un qui trouverait le moyen de passer ses cours sur la peau des fesses en sciences de la nature et qui serait en position de déposer une demande d’admission pour un programme scientifique aurait, bien souvent, un peu plus que 22.

Pour mettre un peu de contexte après cette rumeur: la dernière hausse du seuil d’admission a été décrétée en 2012 afin de mettre en oeuvre une coupure budgétaire. Et on partait d’un plancher très bas: 20. Même le plancher actuel de 22 est encore pas mal bas et la hausse du seuil a eu le désavantage d’affecter de manière disproportionnée certains départements de sciences humaines et d’humanités. Sciences politiques, psychologie, pour ne nommer que les plus touchés, car leurs seuils ont augmenté au-delà de 22; malgré cela, psychologie prend encore 900 étudiants de premier cycle à l’automne, répartis sur sept programmes (de deux, le nombre de programmes contingentés sous leur juridiction a augmenté à cinq). Par contre, la première hausse de seuil n’a pas affecté les programmes scientifiques parce que, pour descendre en bas de 22, en sciences de la nature, il faudrait, dans la pratique des sciences de la nature, accumuler un assez grand nombre d’échecs, et, pour accumuler la quantité d’échecs requise, souvent, il faut avoir échoué plusieurs cours plusieurs fois.

Une analyse préliminaire coûts-bénéfices révèle que, si ces trois facteurs sont maintenus constants, alors les étudiants rapportent les mêmes revenus à l’université (ne serait-ce que parce que l’aide financière est gérée par un organisme extérieur, l’AFÉ): le statut de résidence de l’étudiant, le nombre de crédits auxquels il est inscrit et le programme auquel il est inscrit. Toutefois, les dépenses encourues par l’université ne seront pas égales d’un étudiant à l’autre (bien sûr, les étudiants plus avancés coûtent généralement plus cher, mais supposons ici que l’on compare des étudiants au même stade de leurs études), même si les trois déterminants du revenu institutionnel prennent les mêmes valeurs; les coûts sont corrélés à l’usage des ressources institutionnelles. Je crois qu’il y a moyen de toucher au bois mort, les étudiants susceptibles d’abandonner des cours, voire un programme entier sans frais (souvent, si on est en position d’abandonner un cours, on a déjà assisté à une séance ou deux ou on a autrement consommé des ressources institutionnelles) en relevant le plancher de notes des programmes non-contingentés, et même ceux qui vont un peu plus loin dans leurs démarches académiques qui se cassent les dents et reprennent des cours, occasionnant ainsi des coûts supplémentaires.

Par contre, cette interprétation est loin de faire l’unanimité. La Faculté de musique a proposé une alternative à cette démarche, qui consiste essentiellement à réduire la dépendance aux chargés de cours, augmenter la taille des sections (par exemple faire passer deux sections à 120 étudiants chacun à une seule section à 240) et à remplacer certains départs à la retraite par des maîtres de cours, encore éligibles à la permanence mais qui n’ont aucune activité de recherche (ou, dans certaines disciplines, en auront au plus seulement l’été) et qui enseigneront trois, voire quatre cours par session. Les deux plans se résument essentiellement à: soit on maintient le nombre actuel d’étudiants entrants, ainsi que l’offre de cours, mais on diminue la qualité de l’enseignement, soit on maintient la qualité de l’enseignement mais on diminue le nombre le nombre d’étudiants entrants et l’offre de cours.

Malgré les divers plans mis sur la table par les différentes unités, les plans académiques sont loin d’être la seule solution; il faudrait, en sus, toucher à la bureaucratie. Et on parle aussi d’augmenter les frais de demande d’admission de 92$ à 110$…


It pains me quite a lot that it had to come to this but I feel obliged to talk about the various budget cuts and how it will affect the university I currently attend. Suppose that difficult decisions will have to be made by the university. Several solutions are put forward by the various faculties, but the new round of cuts forced many departments to review their program and course offerings as well as their enrollment targets.

One week later, I learned that there were recalcitrant departments that will be asked to take more drastic actions than us, in physics (for us that could mean no teaching assistants in third-year undergraduate courses except for classical mechanics 2, and no hydrodynamics for us, but our enrollment target for 2015 is 75 students in fall and 20 in winter, for physics and physics-mathematics, since physics-computer science will almost certainly be axed). And the rectorate has declared that attention must be paid to the programs’ realities, at entry, once enrolled or at the exit, if programs had to be modified (regardless of whether one is talking about impaction or elimination) but the students reminded the administration that the realities at the exit (including, but not limited to, job outlook) should not be the sole consideration; after all, beyond the use of an university education as pre-professional training, students should be allowed to develop their critical thinking and their general culture.

On the table, on the Faculty of arts and sciences’ side, the possibility of raising the grade floor to admit students in a non-impacted program has been evoked (e.g. from the moment one achieves the required grades, and one graduates on time, prerequisites included, one is certain to be able to enroll in the desired program) from 22 to 23 or 24. You will tell me that the average R-score is 25, but, in practice, this is a first-session average. The truth is that the strength indicators, close to zero at the onset (a little higher if the DEC requires maths SN/536 or TS/526, chemistry and/or physics as prerequisites) can only increase by the students take increasingly advanced courses. Thus someone that would barely pass the courses in natural sciences and that would find him/herself in position to apply to a program in the sciences would, oftentimes, earn a little more than a 22.

To put this rumor in context: the last grade floor raise has been decreed in 2012 in order to implement a budget cut. And the floor was very low back then: 20. Even the current floor of 22 is still quite low and the raising of the floor has had the disadvantage to disproportionately affect certain social science and humanities departments. Political science, psychology, to name the hardest hit departments, because their thresholds were raised above 22; despite this, psychology still has an undergraduate fall intake of 900 students, spread over seven programs (from two impacted programs, the number of impacted programs under their jurisdiction has increased to five). However, the first floor raise did not affect scientific programs because, to go lower than 22, in natural sciences, one had to accumulate a rather large amount of failures and, to accumulate the requisite amount of failures, it was often required to fail multiple courses multiple times.

A preliminary cost-benefit analysis reveals that, if these three factors are held constant, then students bring in the same revenue to the university (if only because financial aid is handled by an outside government body, AFÉ): the student’s residency status, the number of enrolled credits and the program enrolled. However, the expenditures incurred by the university will vary greatly from a student to another (of course, more advanced students will cost more, but suppose here that we’re comparing students at the same stage of their studies) even if the determinants of institutional revenue take the same values; costs are correlated to the usage of institutional resources. I believe that there is some way to touch the dead wood, the students that are likely to withdraw from courses, or even an entire program, before the tuition bills arrive (often, if one is in position to withdraw from a course, one has already attended a lecture or two or otherwise consumed institutional resources) by raising the grade floor of non-impacted programs, and even those that break their teeth while going a little further down the academic road and who retake courses, then incur additional costs.

Needless to say, but this interpretation is far from unanimously accepted. The Faculty of music has proposed an alternative to this plan, which essentially means reducing the dependence on adjunct professors, increasing the size of the sections (for instance, replacing two 120-student sections by one 240-student section) and to replace some retirees by still tenure-track but without research duties (or, in some disciplines, research duties are restricted to the summer at most) and that will teach three or perhaps even four courses a session. This is essentially a choice between the following: either the current intake and course offerings are maintained but the quality of teaching is lowered, or teaching quality is maintained but the intake and the course offerings are reduced.

Despite the plans put on the table by different units, academic plans are far from the only solution; on top of that, bureaucracy must be affected. And there is also talk of raising application fees from $92 to $110…

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Carnegie Mellon’s tardiness

Of the 11 universities on my list, Carnegie Mellon is by far the university that had its application portal open last. I could even complete all the other ten forms (and Vinet could even write these ten LORs) before I got to even open my application at Carnegie Mellon. I even sent the supporting materials before the portal opened.

Because it takes time for recommenders to write the letters, and that CMU sends out prompts for the LORs only after the actual application is submitted, I find it regrettable that they had to wait until today for the portal to open. Even UPenn, with its portal being accessible by october 1, was not overly late.

Now, for more news concerning the paperwork. UChicago and Tufts have both verified my GRE and TOEFL scores, so at least I know they have received the scores. However, WUSTL, Columbia are a little slower to process the scores.

Confessions of an ego-boost student, continued

Now that I have sent all the supporting documents (transcripts, GRE/TOEFL score reports), my list is frozen. As I said earlier, prestige was one of my motivations, but I should say that it is far from the only one. Even my relative success in advanced coursework would account for only part of why I would seemingly seek to go to brand-name schools (more school-wide prestige than field-specific), and knowing that, even if one should even desire to teach at a department without a graduate program, academia is still a cutthroat world. Getting a PhD from a school that is prestigious in general is an advantage when looking for jobs outside your field (provided your field provides some skills that makes you employable outside of R&D or academia) over getting a PhD from a school whose name brand is limited to a field, because of transferability issues.

I also mentioned that I wouldn’t rule out teaching at a department without a graduate program, citing the reduced pressure to get research grants and to publish. There actually seems to be a few problems with using undergraduates to assist in research in theoretical particle physics or cosmology: even if you could award work-study under the form of a summer research internship, or allow well-motivated undergraduates to declare they want to do their capstone thesis on a subject that falls under either subfield, many, if not most projects undergraduates actually do in these subfields, in fact, would touch the background required to do experimental research at best.

And even in experimental physics, doing research as an undergraduate is very different [from doing it as a graduate student] when you don’t have the background to be much more than a “hand in the lab”. This was the justification of the old administration of the physics department at the University of Chicago for not emphasizing research experience much, if at all. I have to admit, UChicago has often been the odd man out in more than a few aspects: the amount of effort required to earn an A there, the essay prompts for undergrad, which are often characterized as “outlandish”. Maybe the new administration in place will emphasize research experience in PhD admissions processes more than the old one.

I invoked, at the very beginning, my uncompetitive profile for government-funded research grants; it turns out that there is another reason for this. More than simply a move driven by lack of access to outside funding, there is another reason why I started the whole ordeal: to protest against funding cuts by the federal government to NSERC and the structure change that ensued, which favors applied research and industrial research over fundamental research. You could say that I have never been a Conservative supporter, but Canada is risking a brain drain (of locally-trained talent) over the actions of the Conservative government with respect to science. But only time will tell whether there really has been a surge in applications to foreign graduate schools from Canadians.

Paperwork, ’tis of thee, part 2

After sending the first four GRE and TOEFL score reports, I knew I spent a little over $200 to have my score reports sent to four schools, all of which I knew about their policies about supporting documents’ shelf lives. From the moment sending the supporting documents began, I knew I wouldn’t apply to more schools than those I listed here. But, since my credit card was a secondary one, I was left wondering how high was my credit card limit so I could formulate plans in order not to go over the limit. I learned, fortunately, that the credit card limit was $3,000 shared between the primary card and the secondary card, and I would later go on my merry way sending all the score reports I needed to send to schools.

And Luc Vinet, who taught me general relativity, which at some schools would be either cross-listed or graduate, was the first of my three recommenders to actually get around to writing the dreaded letters of recommendation. I knew this at first when I got emails from schools saying that a LOR was processed there. Since he was mostly a coursework-based recommender, I had no objection over him writing me LORs now, as opposed to the research-based recommenders, especially Manu Paranjape, who preferred to wait until mid-November. He seemed eager to use me as a showcase student for “advertising” purposes, given that six (and possibly up to nine; not sure about Chicago, Columbia or Minnesota) schools on my list are schools that have never been applied to by a student from my undergrad before.

Luc Marleau, as a visiting professor (he normally teaches at Laval University) once told me that most strong applicants to US PhD programs had at least two research-based letters; applicants in a masters program who only have one either had no experience in undergrad or let a summer project (or capstone project) evolve into a masters thesis, which is rather common in Canada or in Europe.

As for Luc Vinet: he is well-known in the mathematical physics community, and once was the rector at my undergrad. His general relativity course (and quantum mech 3, too, although I never took it) was very dry mathematically. Perhaps I could blame it on the subject matter, perhaps not. In chronological order, he began with Michigan, and then proceeded with the other schools using CollegeNET, in chronological order of me starting the applications. And then came Tufts, Dartmouth, WUSTL and Notre Dame, in that order. He asked me to send a reminder for Chicago and Columbia the next morning, after getting into trouble for Minnesota. So, supposing that it could take a couple of hours to get it done for Chicago and Columbia, I was a little worried when I went to his office in late afternoon and wondered whether the recs were processed, or even sent out. If worse came to worst, I was even prepared to have Mr. Vinet send a rec in the mail at Columbia.

And so I made my withdrawal final at Vanderbilt by excluding all three recs from consideration. Upon hearing from my mother that the credit card limit was, in fact, high enough to carry out my plan of sending out the score reports, for a total of $US506. Then came the last round of score reports, which meant sending the remaining 7 score reports. After looking at the program catalog on the UChicago website, when looking for the application fees, I realized that there was a department code I omitted from my score report order at UChicago. I even dropped a call at ETS, stating what the problem was, and they asked me to check with the university affected by the mistake before requesting another score report.

In the end, all worked out fine, when I learned from the graduate school’s admissions office at the University of Chicago what the procedure was there for processing GRE and TOEFL reports. Per Lindsey Weglarz:

Because all GRE scores submitted to the University of Chicago are sent electronically to a central database, a department code is not required. Your test scores will automatically attach to your application upon their receipt, provided your biographical information submitted by ETS (name and date of birth) matches your application information. If you do not see your test scores appear on your application within 24 hours of receiving the email confirming we have received your test scores, please let us know and we will manually transfer your scores to your application.

Now I can say that I am done with supporting documents, other than the research-based recommendations, but CVs are usually attached to the apps themselves, rather than as supporting documents to be sent separately.

Paperwork, ’tis of thee

Especially when one is going to apply to a large number of schools (11 is large but not atypical when it comes to theoretical physics in general, and particle cosmology in particular) it is a good idea to get the vitals out of the way (e.g. address, country of citizenship, name) early so that it becomes a lot less stressful. In addition, even one application can be a time sink. It took me ~2 hours to fill out the actual applications for WUSTL and Notre Dame in one sitting; you don’t want to be in a rush when deadlines draw near. All that’s actually left for me to do before I hit “Submit” is to modify my CV in the odd chance I actually submit anything by submission time. It’s one thing to say, “Oh, I’m applying to study at X. Y, and Z” in the abstract; it’s quite another thing altogether to actually do it!

Some applications have time-consuming elements; for instance, Dartmouth and WUSTL (the former on the application proper, the latter on a supplement one has to fill out on a hard copy and then to send on a PDF) asks, in physics, at least, to list all coursework related to your PhD’s discipline, Maryland’s English department also acts like this.

Whenever you know about a department’s policy about supporting documents, you may as well send supporting documents, like a transcript or GRE scores. Tip: if you need to have a document attached to a transcript (I’m looking at you, Michigan, but this also holds true of anyone who needs translations attached to hard copies) you’d better ask for the transcript in person. Some policies regarding how long documents are kept:

  • Tufts: Credentials received without an application form and fee are retained for only three months from date of receipt. In addition, if a decision is rendered (acceptance or rejection), your materials will be kept for one year.
  • Columbia: Supporting materials that cannot be submitted online are held until the application is submitted (and, from there, until decisions are rendered)

So today, I sent two of the four hard copies I needed to have sent to schools: Michigan and WUSTL. I think it was best not to send all four at once, so as to minimize the risks of mixups at the registrar’s office. So I think I will send the hardcopy transcripts to Carnegie Mellon and to Dartmouth only when the application at CMU will be submitted. Because of these first two hard copies, I will have spent $22.

To boldly apply where no one has applied before

I seemingly had to let go of Ohio State because it appeared unlikely that they would be taking students any time soon. And Vanderbilt, too, because, while it was the first application I actually started (and even allowed it to expire due to some miscalculation) I only had one professor why I even wanted to go to Vanderbilt for in the first place, even if it was the one professor at Vanderbilt my primary research-based recommender could consider to be a connection.

It turns out that exchanging Vanderbilt for Washington University in St. Louis simply meant exchanging a connection for another one (although I would place WUSTL somewhere between Ohio State and Carnegie Mellon as far as difficulty is concerned) and, in Ohio State’s stead, I have Notre Dame, which I assume to be in the same range as Vanderbilt. So, to the untrained eye, my current list could give the impression that I am a prestige-obsessed, strong ego-boost applicant. But, in fact, I am applying to a range of programs, since some schools on my list enjoy a vast discrepancy between their undergraduate reputations and their graduate physics reputations, one that favors undergrad by a fairly large margin.

Plus, at home, where people that are actually in position to get into a PhD program, let alone earn a PhD, are not generally status-obsessed, WUSTL, Carnegie Mellon, Notre Dame, even Vanderbilt (some people I knew in that applied abstract algebra class even thought Vanderbilt was some Dutch university, perhaps even the PhD-level alma mater of a certain Sjoerd Roorda, which the majority of them had as a first-semester student in undergrad) or UPenn are, in fact, no more known than, say, University of Utah.


Before:

  • UPenn
  • Columbia
  • Princeton
  • UChicago
  • Michigan-Ann Arbor
  • Carnegie Mellon
  • Minnesota-Twin Cities
  • Ohio State
  • Tufts
  • Vanderbilt
  • Dartmouth

After:

 

  • UPenn
  • Columbia
  • Princeton
  • UChicago
  • Michigan-Ann Arbor
  • Carnegie Mellon
  • Minnesota-Twin Cities
  • Washington University in St. Louis
  • Tufts
  • Notre Dame
  • Dartmouth

On my new list, I know for sure that no one applied there in physics at the PhD level from my undergrad before: UPenn, Carnegie Mellon, WUSTL, Tufts, Notre Dame, Dartmouth (I am not sure about Minnesota or Columbia, no more than for Ohio State, now that there is a confirmed case of someone from my undergrad that applied to, and matriculated at UChicago) and, if I kept Vanderbilt, Vanderbilt. However, I know for sure there are two schools on my list that already had applicants from my undergrad in the past: Michigan and Princeton. I am still applying to 11 schools.

EDIT: After looking for how common were PhD holders among community college physics teachers in the US, I stumbled upon Jean Lecuyer, who graduated from the same undergrad as I, and graduated from UChicago astrophysics department for his PhD, hence him having applied for a PhD at UChicago.

Last-ditch adjustment indecision

Even two weeks ago, I thought that my application list was final. But cue these two emails from Notre Dame; first from the Graduate School, and then from the physics department. At first I was a little skeptical (one of my research-based recommenders disliked Notre Dame, claiming that the quality of the education I would receive there would not be as good as I would at Ohio State or WUSTL) but, after skimming its website, and sending emails to the appropriate people, Notre Dame seemed to have two people that do stuff that interest me to some degree (Grant Mathews and Adam Martin), and they appeared enthusiastic towards my application. But I should add that ND would never heard about me in the first place if not of the GRE Search Service. Usually the GRE-SS is a hit-or-miss kind of thing, but Notre Dame wasn’t one.

Now comes Washington University in St. Louis that was suggested to me through that research-based recommender. People that seemed interesting are Mark Alford and Francesc Ferrer (although the latter never came up in discussions with that recommender) to me, although I dismissed Alford at first before I thought he was doing QCD at the moment (and, more specifically, color superconductivity), but, after looking at the professor’s publication list, he was doing… quite a bit of things, really, and some of it pertaining to particle cosmology.

So I am a little stuck: I cannot afford to apply to more than 11, but, at the same time, I think Ohio State would be a poorer fit than I initially thought. At the same time, my recommenders have connections at WashU and Ohio State, but not at Notre Dame. What should I do, replace Ohio State by WUSTL or Notre Dame, or stay put?

The joys and challenges of advising undergraduates

Now that I am the go-to guy at my undergrad for all questions pertaining to graduate study in the US, I came to realize that, in fact, top students are not necessarily easy to advise. Sure, for me, it allows me to keep in touch with the undergraduates, beyond my duty as an applied abstract algebra grader, but the only ones that actually came to me to this end were strong enough to be at risk of becoming ego-boost students. Most students were turned off by direct PhD passage, claiming that it’s too big a commitment for a student, without any long-term research experience.

They’re just different from their less-accomplished peers; sometimes top students are more aloof, regardless of whether or not they are ego-boost students. Sometimes I have to remind them that they can’t bank on their achievements (and hard work) alone, and that a B plan is necessary. For entering undergraduates, however, advising is directed not at getting them in grad school, but in getting them internships. This is a little more straightforward than for grad school advising, as it usually means finding an area of research and then contact the professor to this end, since it’s usually OK to do a summer internship internally. This is perhaps a little limited but this is what I got to say:

  • Don’t hesitate to take an appointment with a professor for a summer internship, but ask an appointment to this end only late in the fall semester or at the beginning of the winter semester
  • At some point you will be asked for your credentials, if you demonstrated your motivation in front of the professor; don’t mention your grades before then
  • You may well be well-motivated to do a subject, but check whether the professor have any preferences with respect to the background required
  • Theorists (in STEM disciplines) usually don’t like rising sophomores very much because a summer internship doing theoretical research as a rising sophomore usually doesn’t yield much more than a summer doing readings. However, if you’re well-motivated, and have the background, they can be happy to support you through external funding applications for summer undergraduate research experiences (REU in the US, USRA in Canada, and so on, so forth).