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Annual Review of Graduate Studies

Graduate students, and in particular doctoral students who are in the dissertation phase, have reached a point where grades are virtually irrelevant. How then, do they receive meaningful and useful feedback on their progress in their graduate program? Last fall, 19 out of 23 respondents to a brief Graduate Studies survey reported that they conduct an annual evaluation of their graduate students. The annual evaluation offers an opportunity for the program to provide feedback to the student and to set expectations for the coming year.

Today I want to share some of what I have learned about strategies for making annual reviews productive and useful, based on my conversations with administrators and faculty in humanities, social sciences, and STEM disciplines. Next time, I will share the graduate-student perspective, from conversations with students from different departments about what they find useful in the annual review process. My focus is primarily on doctoral students, especially those who are ABD. Students may stall and even become lost during this less structured and more autonomous period – making annual review particularly important.

Most graduate programs at KU and elsewhere conduct annual evaluations. My goal has been to look at a variety of different ways that these reviews are conducted and see what kinds of tips people have for doing successful annual reviews. As I have spoken with people from different departments and offices on campus, my questions have been:

  1. What are the benefits of doing an annual review?
  2. What components make a review successful?
  3. What elements can make a review less effective?

At the end of this blog, you will find several links to examples of annual-review procedures departments are using both at KU and nationally. Departments conduct annual evaluations in diverse ways, but there are also certain commonalities for successful reviews. First, successful annual evaluations involve the student throughout the process. In one form or another, students are first asked to conduct a self-evaluation – to prepare a document and/or CV that highlights their accomplishments and milestones over the previous year and sets out their goals for the coming year. There is a pedagogical purpose to this, since this is exactly the sort of evaluation that students will likely be doing once they start their career and is an important professional development tool. For example, Ben Chappell (DGS, American studies) explained that because they require their PhD students to produce a one-page research statement each year, by the time students enter the job market and have to provide potential employers with this document, they have had years to work on and refine it.

The second successful strategy is to require broader departmental involvement in the evaluation process. Beyond the pedagogical purposes of the review, there are other practical considerations, including creating a paper trail and providing additional support to both students and advisors. As Florence DiGennaro Reed and Derek Reed (co-DGS, applied behavioral science) explained, the annual review process concretely documents student progress and helps to identify any problems or deficiencies. It also creates an opportunity to recognize and acknowledge exemplary student performance. Requiring feedback from the larger faculty (program or committee, depending on the department) carries more weight for the student than only receiving feedback from the student’s advisor. To ensure that the annual-evaluation forms are being completed by students, the Department of Applied Behavioral Science will not file any petitions on behalf of a student who has not completed the document and gone through the evaluation process.

The final strategy for a successful annual review is to ensure a complete feedback loop. Kristine Latta (Director, College Office of Graduate Affairs) emphasized the importance of follow-up and feedback from the review, as well as clear expectations for the coming year. Specificity here prevents confusion and aggravation. The annual review is also the time to address any problems with either students or advisors. Committee and departmental involvement, while it should not be invasive, should function in a way that provides support for both advisors and students when there are problems with the mentorship relationship. Keeping matters isolated between advisor and advisee without outside involvement can lead to serious problems. Finally, if a student is struggling in his or her program, the annual review should be the time when tough questions are asked and the department can make decisions about whether or not the student should continue in the program. Endlessly prolonging a student who is not a good fit for the program or who cannot seem to make adequate progress is neither beneficial to the student nor to the department. In all of this, transparency and direct communication with graduate students is extremely important.

Are there any drawbacks to the annual-review process? One potential drawback identified by Florence DiGennaro Reed and Derek Reed is this: if this is the only time each year that a student is receiving feedback from faculty, this is not sufficient. Regular feedback is crucial – especially once students have moved beyond coursework. As we grapple with issues such as helping our students complete their degrees in a reasonable amount of time and providing guidance to better prepare our students to face an extremely challenging job market, I hope that we can all reflect on how we might modify our annual review process and how we can use it to improve our graduate programs.

Examples of forms and procedures at KU:

Department of American Studies:
Department of Applied Behavioral Science:
Department of Electrical Engineering and Computer Science:
Department of Ecology & Evolutionary Biology (the form is found in the student handbook):

National examples:

Department of Anthropology, Texas A&M:
Department of English, The Ohio State University:
Department of Chemical Engineering, University of West Virginia:

(Please note that some of these progress reports are password protected so that the student can continually update his or her progress on-line.)

Graduate students: If you would like to share your experience with the annual review process, please email me. I will make sure that anything I share in the blog will be anonymous and will not be done without your permission. For this blog, I am particularly grateful to Kristine Latta (Director, College Office of Graduate Affairs), Roberta Pokphanh (Assistant Dean, Office of Graduate Studies), Ben Chappell (DGS, Department of American Studies), and Florence DiGennaro Reed and Derek Reed (co-DGS, Department of Applied Behavioral Science) for taking the time to meet with me.

Bruce Hayes

Associate Professor, Department of French & Italian
Faculty Fellow, Office of Graduate Studies

If you have questions or comments, but prefer not to leave a public comment on my blog, please feel free to e-mail me at: bhayes@ku.edu

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