An open letter to graduate students seeking “information” and help

If you haven’t read Carl Zimmer’s “Open letter to science students and science teachers” on the National Geographic blog, drop everything and go read it right now. It is as fascinating as it is infuriating.

In it, Zimmer describes a phenomenon in which he receives multiple requests a week from science students asking him to do their homework for them.

As I read Zimmer’s post, I thought to myself, “I get the exact same kinds of e-mails!” Only mine are related to my field of study, principally education and language learning. The requests often come from people who have read an article or a book I have written.

Unlike Zimmer, the people who write to me are not junior high school or high school students, but rather they are Master’s or Ph.D. students essentially asking me to do their research for them.

It is one thing to write to a scholar to request a copy of an article that he or she has written, or to ask where you can get your hands on such an article. It is quite another to write to someone and say, “This is my research topic. Could you tell me what theoretical framework I should use and maybe write a few lines of my first chapter to get me started?”

I answered the first few dozen e-mails that I received asking for “information”. Then I thought to myself, “What the heck am I doing?” Learning to do research is part of being a graduate student. A big part.

From then on I developed a standard reply that goes something like this:

Dear ___________:

Thank you for your e-mail requesting information on __________________. Your research topic sounds interesting and engaging. I would be happy to help you delve further into your research topic and guide you as you learn more about the finer points of your topic. To get the process rolling, what you need to do is have your research supervisor contact me in writing with a formal invitation to become a member of your thesis committee as an external advisor. That way, I will be able to engage more fully with you, your supervisor and the other scholars who have committed to help you throughout your journey as a graduate student. This is an exciting time for you and I look forward to receiving the formal invitation from your university.

I never hear from them again.

What is happening with our education system (at all levels) where students entitled to ask others to do their work for them?

Zimmer hits the nail on the head… The practice is being touted by other adults (e.g. teachers and parents) as being a “communicative” activity.

Learning how to research and do homework is just as important as learning what the information is– if not more so.

I learned to research for myself. It’s hard work to learn those skills. And it’s something you can only learn by doing. It’s kind of like driving a car… If you only ever learn how to ask others to do it for you, you’ll never really learn the basics, the finer points and the tricks along the way.

It’s your bus. Learn to drive it.

_____________________

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