Before I begin, though, I have to admit that I personally have had bad experiences with these kinds of reviews back when I was a grad student, though I didn't cry during my actual review. And I have not heard good things from other students. Those of us who don't fit the traditional mold in our discipline, or who had a conflict with an instructor/supervisor, can find these kinds of reviews incredibly undermining and painful.
I do understand the rationale behind the review: check in with students, make sure there is a focus or direction for their research, and head off any problems or concerns with academic and professional advising/mentoring, coursework, and professional development. The leader of the review, usually a doctoral committee or doctoral chair, can provide some feedback to let students know where they stand. Yet, I would suggest that some basic groundrules should be in place before a good annual progress review can proceed.
Doctoral programs need to agree about the purpose of the review. I would argue that the purpose should NOT be any of the following:
- To reinforce for the student the rules, values, and interests of the program. ("We do X research here, and you cannot deviate from that, no matter where your interests lie.") This approach is really about reifying the biases of faculty and imprinting them on the students. I have heard of meetings where students were told not to take classes with professor C, because "he doesn't do the kind of research" the doctoral program leaders liked. I believe that other than some basic tenets (ie., we believe in ethical research), students should be allowed to pursue diverse research methods, research topics, and approaches to teaching.
- To provide a student with feedback from instructors or research supervisors. This kind of approach is inappropriate and unproductive, encourages student crying, and usually results from faculty who are afraid of conflict. Rather than confront a student directly at the time of the incident(s), these faculty save up their criticisms for an annual meeting that becomes a pile-on. Better for faculty to give feedback continuously and individually, which allows the student to change and grow. And the student will get it if they are getting the same feedback from a variety of sources.
- To evaluate the student's progress on some standard time plan in the program and reprove the student for any failures. While programs should have a suggested plan for completion, these plans should be amended to address personal circumstances: illnesses, pregnancy, mental health issues, family struggles, etc. Further, student goals should be recognized, along with the rules of the graduate school (such as the time limit on degree completion), and individualized plans that reflect both of these realities should be the norm.
Instead, the meeting should:
- Review and update a student's progress on his/her courses and academic plans, identifying any areas where s/he is falling behind and helping problem-solve any failures. Help the student clarify what s/he wants out of doctoral education, how that relates to the goals and objectives of the doctoral program, and how his or her plan can support both.
- Give the student a voice in his/her own assessment. Relying only on the reflections of faculty who have taught or supervised the student can be misleading, because all of these people have their own agendas (e.g., the success of their research projects, less time spent mentoring, not being challenged by students, etc.). None of these agendas are necessarily bad, but they do not focus on the needs of the student. A good review should have a form or process that allows students to comment on where they have been, where they want to go, and how their work is helping them get there. One could argue that this helps socialize students for their eventual roles as professors. Just like in an annual review for faculty, students should be offered a chance to take responsibility for setting their goals, outlining their successes and failures, and identifying means to progress.
- Give the student a chance to ask questions about the doctoral program and raise concerns about their experiences. Is the student getting the support he or she needs? Like I noted above, this is not the time for a student to raise concerns that should be raised directly with an instructor or supervisor. And yet, students are much more vulnerable than faculty members, and they may need a safe space to think through problems with advisors, supervisors, and instructors.
I don't think that these reviews should include more than 2 faculty members, because the student should not be overwhelmingly outnumbered.
The process of graduate education is challenging, but it can also be rewarding. While some students will cry no matter what faculty do, we can take some steps to make these reviews positive, effective, and a good learning experience.