Monday, August 15, 2011

CMU's Black Fridays: a graduating PhD student's perspective

I've always been amazed that the CMU department really knows what its PhD students are up to -- the big stuff as well as the little stuff.


Allow me to elaborate.  As a PhD student at CMU, you receive a sort of "report card" at the end of every semester during on what is known as "Black Friday." You first submit a short summary of your accomplishments and goals for next semester.  Then, on this special day, the professors talk to each other about their students (probably in some secret sound-proof discussion room).  While faculty are discussing our fates, we, the students do the opposite.  We relax, watch movies, play games, and *imagine* what our superiors are discussing.  Black Friday letters serve two roles, a role for the faculty, and a role for the students.

Image courtesy of diypapers


For the faculty, Black Friday is a way for the department to evaluate and monitor the progress of their PhD students.  Faculty members get a chance to discuss their students' hardships as well as their successes.  For the students, these letters are way to keep us in *check*.

"You better check yo self before you wreck yo self" - Ice Cube

The Black Friday letter lets us know explicitly what research qualifiers, writing qualifiers, etc they expect us to complete next semester.  They let us know if they are happy with our progress or unhappy.

Photo by Mattox

In practice, I found the letters to be a combination of "the good" and "the bad."  The good (a statement such as "we are happy that you got your paper accepted to ___") is like getting A's in grade school -- a yipee! moment.  The bad (a statement such as "we have noticed that you are struggling taking your experimental research to the next level, and feel that you are spending too much time on ___"), is what pushes us to experience those yipee! moments the following semester.  In the past, my Black Friday letters have included details regarding elements of my research and coursework that I didn't know any faculty member even knew about.  But the faculty care!  The students are the future, and there is nothing like critical feedback to help us achieve our goals.  There have been several times during my 6 years at CMU's Robotics Institute when my letter helped keep me in check.

I only wish there was a way for students to provide Black Friday letters to their faculty mentors...

Further reading:
Black Friday from Peter Lee
How do you evaluate your grad students? by Matt Welsh