Graduation criteria

7 minute read


In general, I’ve come to believe that writing down standards and expectations is an absolute necessary first step to making any improvements. It’s a basic tenet of conflict management: “what would it look like for you to succeed?” In my last year or so as a BE Ref, I really ramped down the amount of effort and labor I put in to improving the BE student experience. It became so apparent to me that our department’s lack of consensus of what it means to be a successful BE graduate student meant that anything we tried to do could just so easily lead to us running around in circles: how on earth do you expect a student group to improve the graduation process for students, if no one knows or is willing to describe what is even required for graduation?

I found the department’s hesitation to write these criteria incredibly frustrating and totally unconvincing. The two main lines of arguments I got were: “but every graduate student and experience is different, so we couldn’t possibly find a set of criteria that applies to everyone” – to which I say, “try harder.” I’ve talked before about the conflict management concept of positions and interests. Seems to me that, yes, the specific things that students do to graduate (the positions, things like number of papers or conferences or time or whatever) are incredibly variable, but there should be some underlying commonalities. Otherwise what’s the point of a PhD?

The other counter-argument I got is actually more ridiculous, and is along the lines of “but if we have these criteria that means we have to hold everyone accountable to them.” I spoke to a professor who told me that sometimes, they allow students to graduate who really did not do PhD-level work, with the implicit agreement that that student will not pursue academia. To which I say, “wtf! That’s the whole point of having criteria! To make sure that everyone graduating with your name on their degree has met a standard.” So I just dismiss that criticism as cowardly.

Potential impact

I’ll acknowledge that just writing down graduation criteria probably won’t help many of the students who are struggling the most. By the simple fact that these need to be interests-based criteria, they are very vague. And so pulling out some vague department-approved criteria wouldn’t go very far in helping a student get out from an abusive or manipulative PI. But maybe if that student is especially strategic and has a sympathetic committee, it can strengthen the argument that they make by giving them a way to clearly demonstrate how they have met each of the criteria. (Again, of course, there’s nothing stopping a PI from saying “but it’s not enough”.) Also, students who are crippled by self-doubt and impostor syndrome probably won’t see themselves in these criteria. But maybe with some coaching they can take the first steps toward seeing themselves as successful and accomplished, regardless of how few papers or other traditional metrics of success they’ve achieved.

That said, I do think on the student side, just having these criteria exist is an incredibly comforting thing. I actually presented these criteria at our department retreat, and was really pleasantly suprised to have multiple students come up to me during the happy hour saying they wish they’d had those going into their last committee meeting. Not for their committee, but for themselves. Grad school after third year is basically a long existential crisis of “am I doing enough?” and “what even is grad school?”, and maybe having something written down can provide some sort of guidance that you’re on the right track. It’s something to hold on to - even if it’s not particularly useful or actionable, it’s at least better than the nothing we have now.

Interestingly, I think that transparency in expectations for all things, not just graduation (and including tenure!), would actually be most helpful to fail students or not allow people to succeed. Because if there are clear criteria that you can demonstrate someone has not met, you can deny them a PhD or tenure without any issues. When you don’t, you get accused of racism or you’re forced to graduate sub-par students, as in the story above.

I also thought that having these graduation criteria would have been attractive to our department, which often complains about having trouble describing to potential employers what it even means to be a biological engineer. This is your chance to tell the entire world what they can expect from your graduates! But I will acknowledge that here again, the vagueness of the language is maybe not that helpful. shrug

The criteria

Anyway, the combination of faculty complacency (at best) and pushback (at worst) and lack of student energy (why on earth is this our job to write) or expertise (omg we know nothing) means that these criteria went nowhere. The upshot is that I was frustrated by these conversations for about a year, and then spent one Saturday morning writing up the graduation criteria that I think could and should exist. I’ll write these below because I want them to exist somewhere on the internet, but I’ll include two HUGE caveats:

  1. These criteria are not official and are NOT approved by my department. They are just my interpretation of what a successful BE graduate student is, based on many conversations with department leaders, faculty, and other successful students.

  2. These criteria are almost certainly missing really important perspectives. Just like when we wrote the original draft of the values statement, I’m sure we are missing important perspectives on what it means to be a successful student. That’s why I wish the faculty had engaged with these (or written their own!)

I wrote a little bit more about the process for writing these in another blog post.

Here they are:

To satisfy the criteria required for completing a PhD in Biological Engineering at MIT, a student must:

  • Have contributed original research to the field of biological engineering, including but not limited to research which:
    • increases understanding of biological system(s),
    • creates novel technologies based on biological system(s), and/or
    • generates new biology-based paradigms for solving problems
  • Demonstrate that they are prepared to become a leader in advancing biosciences and biotechnology, meaning that the student:
    • has solved problems at the interface of biology and engineering, and
    • is ready and able to independently bring research projects to fruition, whether in academia or industry, or otherwise impact science and/or society at the intersection of biology and engineering.
  • Have fulfilled the stated Institute and Departmental requirements for the PhD, based on their:
    • departmental requirements, meaning that the student has passed their written and oral qualification exams, served as a teaching assistant for at least one semester, and taken the classes required by the BE department;
    • dissertation, meaning that the student has written and submitted a dissertation based on research they have performed at MIT; and
    • time, meaning that the student has been enrolled as a PhD student for a minimum of two academic semesters and one summer session.