05 November 2018

Assigning dissertation topics

Assigning dissertation topics is a doddle! Just ask the students to give their four preferences, see how many students there are, see how many students per staff member that results in, and then distribute the students over the staff, giving as many as possible their first choice. When a topic is popular, judge on the basis of their grade for the Science Communication module of the previous year. Why that module? Tradition. But if you think about it, it's not any worse than any other criterion.

That was the theory. Reality is different, of course. I figured it would be difficult but you never know exactly how until you start doing it. Hilary, my predecessor, had made it sound easy, and by the time it was clear it wasn't, had long left. Of course!

To start with: it's a big exercise. There were 127 students, all giving 4 choices, so more than 500 preferences in total. There are 27 members of staff involved. They offer between 4 and 12 titles. People on research contracts who don't have to have dissertation students, or part-timers, tend to not offer so many. People who expect lots of students offer 10, but students are free to come up with a title themselves. That's encouraged. And that's how one staff member ended up with 12 titles. In total there were 240 titles.

Most of our students are marine biologists, so the marine biology staff get listed most. And some topics are a lot more popular than others. That gives complications! For instance, the most popular person was listed as the 1st choice by 22 students, and by 64 students in total. There was also a member of staff of which only one topic was listed as anybody’s first choice, but, of course, that one topic attracted much more people than it could accommodate. And the problem is that a lot of students have the same sort of preferences; they often list the same four members of staff, which means they not only are not so likely to get their first choice, but also not their second or third. But what to do if their fourth wasn’t happening either?
I knew sometimes people would supervise titles they hadn’t offered themselves. So when I couldn’t make everything fit as it was I started phoning people. Would they be willing to supervise this and that title, even though it was not their own? Luckily, everyone said yes. But the week was coming to an end, I knew the students were getting impatient, and I needed to do my normal teaching again. I couldn’t keep tweaking! So when I had something that was, as far as I could see, a nice balance between taking the students’ preferences into account but also spreading the load of the staff. I mailed my draft list to the man that had been appointed as some sort of sidekick. He thought it was fine. It was time to summon all thick skin I had and plonk the thing online. And then wait for the complaints from both staff and students.

It didn’t take long. It started with the staff. One of the biologists thought the load most certainly wasn’t equally distributed. He was awfully polite about it, which I appreciate, but he did make unequivocally clear he wasn’t happy. I’ll try to milk him for good ideas for next year. I’m sure it can be done better! In a way, I’m inventing the wheel here. Always happens to a certain extent when you take over someone’s module. Let’s make that wheel rounder.
Then the mails from students started to come in. It tended to be the ones who had got their third choice. I understand their disappointment! But they just can’t all get their first or second choice. And there was one student who had made an error on her preferences form, but we could fairly easily sort that. And then there were some students who showed initiative and tried to tweak their situation with their supervisors. That is fine with me! If a student can convince their 2nd choice supervisor to let them do their 1st choice topic with them then that is great. I’ve given everyone a topic; my job is done. If people then manage to improve on that I’m glad!

There were three students who hadn’t submitted preferences at all. Would they still come out of the woodwork? During the weekend, one did. In addition to a student who wanted to make a swap and complained his supervisor of choice hadn't replied to his email. This student seemed to have failed to notice it was Sunday when he wrote that. Sigh! But we’ll see how things work out in the new week. And I hope there won't be any additional fall-out…

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