20 November 2021

All students given a dissertation topic

Since 2018, it has been my task to give every third year student a dissertation topic. This quite a job. It started out badly, with me having to do it three times. The first time a colleague complained he had too many students, so the Head of School told me to redistribute with a given maximum. And just when I had managed that, with a lot of effort, he changed his mind about the maximum and I had to do it for a third time. I wasn't enjoying that.

The second year was a lot easier. I had streamlined the process in which the students indicate their preferences with a Microsoft form, but it was not uncommon for students to accidentally click the number of the topic next to the topic they actually wanted. That provided some faff after I have published it! But it was solvable.

The third year was difficult again. The pandemic had started, and we didn't know how long it would last. We hoped it wouldn't last very long. And with that in mind, we moved all the practical modules to the second semester. Surely it would be over by then! But if some modules moved to the second semester, some other modules have to move the other direction. And it was decided that my dissertation module would have to make that move. The thing is, you want the students to be hitting the ground running when term starts. That is not a problem if they start in the second semester; you just do the topic allocation in the first semester, and in January they properly start with it. But if they have to be ready by the start of the first semester, you have to do all the preparation in summer. And that isn't very pleasant; it would be nice to get a summer break. And you have to communicate with the students, who might not be paying an awful lot of attention to the University accounts given that it is summer. And staff might be away. It was difficult; at some point I was texting students to tell them I needed their topic preferences. It is easier if you can do it all via email! And another thing was that the module didn't have a website yet; these are not released in summer. And we really depend on these websites. But I managed to get it sorted. I also introduced a period of time in which the students could check their submissions. That helped.

This year we were back to the usual semester, so that was good news. But there was bad news as well; every year I have to do this allocation with more students and fewer staff. Evidently, that makes it harder and harder. I wasn't sure if I would manage to give all the staff the same maximum number of students as the previous year. In 2018 I had 133 students, in 2020 147, and now 178. I already had to raise the maximum number of students per member of staff once. The number of staff has only gone down! This year I had two staff fewer than the year before. It was going to be tight. But my first attempt was to stick with the same maximum. The previous year, not all staff had had their full number! And mathematically, it was possible. But there is the situation, of course, that you can only assign topic to a student they have expressed interest in. And some staff are just a bit niche, and very few people choose their topics. So it was going to be difficult! And I had a deadline.

With some hard work, I managed to allocate all but five students a topic. Two of these had not submitted their preferences, so that was out of my hands. For the other three I would have to just kindly ask the few staff with space if they would take them on with a topic that was a bit outside their expertise. That got sorted in minutes! I just gave the leftover student to the staff member with the fewest students already allocated. Then I could make a tidy list and publish it to the staff. They didn't see any problems! And that meant I could publish it to the students.

With 178 students, there will always be a handful that are not so happy with what I have given to them. So I indeed got a trickle of emails they from students who were asking me why they hadn't received their first choice. And quite a lot of them check how many students do have their first choice, and the answer can be: none. If, by the time I get to allocate a topic to them, the member of staff whose topic it is already has the maximum number of students, then they can't get their first choice. I can understand why that is not intuitive, but that is how it works. The limiting factor is how many students one member of staff can have; not how many students can do one particular topic. And they all understood that. So it looks like I pulled it off! I am glad. And because almost everyone now has the maximum number of students, it shouldn't be too difficult to decide who has to 2nd mark how many dissertations. (If you have less than the maximum number of dissertation students, you get a lot more dissertations to 2nd mark. That's how I tried to balance it out!) Almost everyone gets the same number this year! But that's for the second semester…

The fashionable topic of the year: seaweed! Pic by Ansgar Gruber

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