In addition to teaching students content material, we want to teach them how to acquire and use information. One of the best ways for anyone to learn is by doing. Thus, each department offers a 475 "Special Problems" course. This is not for students with problems (who came up with that title anyway?), but it is designed to allow one to four hours of credit to students who do some sort of independent project. In departments with graduate programs, there is an analogous 575 course.
A student who is interested in doing some sort of independent project should contact a faculty member with whom they believe it would be beneficial to work -- prior to registration! The faculty member and the student should discuss whether or not it is appropriate for them to work together. For example, the student's interests may be better matched with a different faculty member, or a faculty member simply may not have the time or resources to work with that student that semester. Sometimes students may help a faculty member on an ongoing project rather than having their own independent project. Also, in some cases, a very small number of students may work on a project together.
In any case, if upon discussion, the student and the faculty member agree to work together, they should fill out the Special Problems form, which explicitly asks for the amount of credit that a student will receive for that semester. Both individuals sign the form, which then must be approved by the chair of the department. We would also recommend that the faculty member explicitly write down the expected requirements that were agreed upon with the student. There is no syllabus required for the course, so this way both you and the student will know ahead of time, and in writing, what is expected of the student that semester.
One additional thing to keep in mind is that you will not be paid for doing independent research projects with students (i.e., it will not be counted as part of your workload). Some departments give a faculty member a reduced course load for a semester after a certain number of projects, but that is not university policy. (The same applies to directing graduate theses.) Thus, although working with students can be very beneficial to both you and the student, be careful not to overload yourself.
Theses and Dissertations
The pinnacle of “learning by doing” is the master’s thesis or the doctoral dissertation. Just as vast differences exist between disciplines, the details of the thesis procedures likely differ between departments. That being said, speak with your department’s graduate program director and/or chairman sooner than later to learn the specific procedural details BEFORE a prospective student enters your office. Nothing is more disconcerting for entering graduate students than an advisor who does not have a clue about the proper forms and procedures they will require during their training. Failure to be knowledgeable about the procedures will lead students to seek the information elsewhere. Typically in that case, students will glean information from more senior graduate students and, as we all know, the stories shared between students are not always entirely accurate.
Rather than reiterate the “Procedure for Thesis Preparation”, which can be found in the latest Graduate Bulletin, we wanted to draw your attention to a few of what we consider to be the most often overlooked or misunderstood procedures which occur during a graduate student’s time with you. During the first semester of graduate work the student should focus on two goals: completing the proposal; and assembling the thesis advisory committee. The “proposal” will be the written guide for the graduate student as they begin the legwork of their project and should be completed as soon as possible (end of first semester/beginning of second semester of graduate work). The thesis / dissertation advisory committee, consisting of the chair (or director or advisor, depending on what term is used in your department), two additional graduate faculty from within that department and one from outside the department, will review the proposal and either approve the project or redirect the student. The committee is a valuable resource for both the student and the thesis / dissertation chair, and its membership should be thoughtfully considered. If your department requires passing an oral comprehensive examination for advancement to candidacy, this committee will likely serve as that examining committee as well.
As a new faculty member, we can easily remember being confused somewhat by all of the different course numbers, their grading scheme and credits; however, none baffled us more than the thesis courses. Some departments use a single course which is repeated, and others divide thesis into two courses, 589 (thesis research) and 590 (thesis writing). First of all, you will not actually give a grade for any of the thesis courses until AFTER the student has passed his or her thesis defense/final exam. Until that date, you will give each student a WH for their thesis courses. After all the paperwork has been completed for the thesis, the advisor must do a “change of grade” form for the first thesis course grade of WH (or separately for 589 and 590) that is on the transcript. Now, while that seems simple enough, here is another thesis course “curveball”. Once students are enrolled in a thesis course, they must continue to register for thesis courses until they have completed their graduate work (with semester credit ranging between 1 and 9 hours each semester). However, only 6 total credit hours of thesis courses will actually count toward their Master’s degree requirements (3 each for 589 and 590 or 6 for a single course number if they are combined into one course). The only additional requirement that often gets lost in the thesis course fog is that, the semester the students defend their thesis, they must be registered for a thesis course (specifically 590, if that course is used by your department).
In sum , we encourage you to: 1) read the “procedures for thesis preparation” in the latest graduate Thesis Guide and Forms that are available online; 2) get specific details from your department’s graduate director; 3) review the additional information about the thesis / dissertation procedures available on the Current Students web page for the Graduate School.
Working with Students: Liability and Integrity
While this may be intuitive to some, others may not give this a second thought, because we are working with young “adults"; however, being careless or thoughtless even on one occasion could be devastating to your career and/or your reputation. Below we have listed a few possible scenarios which merit consideration BEFORE a situation arises. More information on related issues can be found in the policy, Discrimination Complaints/Sexual Harassment (E-46).
After a strenuous semester, you decide to have a congratulations party for your small class of senior students in your home. Although you are not providing alcoholic beverages, some of the students (who are 21 or older) did “bring their own” and have been consuming this throughout the evening. Early the next morning, you receive a call from the police department asking about a few of your students who were arrested for DUI the previous evening and your name was mentioned in the interview.
Are you responsible for the actions of your students? Was the party a school sponsored event? Are you liable for allowing the students to leave your home under the influence? While most of the answers to these questions may be NO, in today’s litigious society you must take all measures to protect yourself and your family from any possible irresponsible accusations. Although not serving or allowing alcohol to be consumed at your home may not be a popular choice, it may be the “safest” decision based on what may happen afterward.
A distraught student enters your office to speak with you. This student says it is rather personal and he/she wishes to keep the conversation confidential. Because there are students lingering in the hallway, the student closes the door for privacy. You counsel with the student, offer your advice and direct the student to individuals who may more adequately be able to assist in the particular matter. Thanking you, the student leaves and you think nothing more of the matter. A few weeks later, the chairman calls you into the office and begins to ask you about circumstances regarding your relationship with the student to whom you had offered counseling. You learn in the meeting that the student has filled a sexual harassment claim against you for improper advances during your closed door meeting.
Although our legal system is based on the foundation of “innocent until proven guilty” our society is geared toward believing “the worst” about most individuals. While your word and reputation may be strong enough to overcome these allegations, the light speed rumor mill may have already destroyed the reputation you have worked your entire life to attain. Setting guidelines for how you interact with students in certain situations BEFORE the occasion arises is essential to the protection of your personal and professional integrity.
A students wishes to have a private conversation with you; how do you resolve this? A closed door session with a student or an after hours meeting alone may not be wise choices. While the student may be reluctant to speak with you while a door is open or when you are not perfectly alone, they must understand when you explain your “rules” on meeting with students that you cannot compromise the appearance of professional behavior.
Two related examples: You see one of your students walking and you offer him or her a ride. While an innocent and kind gesture, this will place you in a situation of “your word versus theirs” and may appear as compromising (or more) than a closed door meeting in your office. The following final example may be more likely due to Nacogdoches being a small town. No matter where you go, whether it be shopping, out to eat, or out to have a drink and listen to music, there is a good chance you will come across students you know. While it is certainly acceptable to be friendly and chat for a few minutes, anything more than that may be observed by other students or university personnel, and be interpreted as you having a special relationship with the student with whom you are conversing. This could be especially problematic in the more social settings such as restaurants or bars. Even if the exchange was totally “above board”, the rumor-mill is hard to overcome, so it’s best to not let anything get started if at all possible.
These words of “advice” are not here to alarm or frighten you as a new faculty member, but are here for you to consider in advance and empower yourself with protective measures such that any attacks on your career and integrity will be diffused or prevented.