Information compiled by the GradSchools.com team - last updated December 2010
You've made it to graduate school. You're ready for any challenge. And then you get one professor who just hits you with assignment after assignment, drowning you in a sea or articles and research. It's not that you aren't capable of doing the work, it's that you have so much else going on that you cringe at the very thought of all the work.
It happens even in the best of institutions, and chances are that in your grad school career, you will get a difficult professor, one who may have you worried whether you will pass the class. As a student, however, you are not as vulnerable as you might think. You have avenues for recourse.
A definition of "difficult"
It's not that the class is harder than others, or that the professor is less understanding. It's just that he or she is more demanding, and it is this professor that may keep you up at night, adding fuel to your no-longer-dormant ulcer and inspiring premature gray hair. For one reason or another, you are finding this professor's class unusually difficult, more so than any of the other classes you've been taking. And because of it, you are finding it a challenge to live your life, perhaps work part-time or full-time and succeed in this course.
Fear not, for you are not alone, and you do have ways to defend yourself.
What's going on?
Ask yourself a few key questions.
- Is it just me?
Typically, you will feel your stress levels rising as you push to complete the assignments. You might think it's just you, that you are inadequate and that you need to spend more time with the books to meet the professor's expectations. In many cases this will be the only strategy you need to use.
- How does this professor compare to the others?
Sometimes, however, the professor's assignments are heftier and more time-consuming than those of your other classes. While this may offer little solace, as you will still have to complete these troubling assignments, at least you know that it isn't you, and that you shouldn't question whether you belong in grad school. If you are truly interested in your research topic, and you were accepted to grad school in the first place, then be certain that you absolutely do belong here.
- What do my classmates think?
Ask your classmates what they think of this professor. If they are experiencing similar difficulties, you might begin to build a good defense against the person. By the third week of classes, students may be grumbling, and this will be a great time to compare notes. If you find your classmates have a consensus that this professor is excessively difficult, you may have more fuel for your case. If, however, the rest of your classmates believe the instructor is fair, your strategy might necessitate more time with the books.
Talk to the professor
Try to meet with him or her privately outside of the classroom. A private conversation might help you better manage your coursework and give you an insight into what the professor expects of you. You are not the first person to find time management difficult during your grad years, and it is almost guaranteed that this professor has experienced similar issues before.
Another option is to try to organize your classmates to meet with the professor en masse. If this is his or her first time teaching this particular class, the person may be inclined to listen to a group of students at the doorstep complaining about the workload. This technique could backfire, however, causing the professor to become angry and defensive, so it must be handled carefully.
Drop the class
If the professor is tenured and for years has taught this class the same way with no changes, your next recourse might be to drop the class. If you have the time to retake this class with another teacher during the next semester or quarter, this could be a viable option. If it is still early enough, you could also receive a substantial refund. This strategy is nothing to be ashamed of; it is built into the school's structure in recognition of the fact that not all students succeed with every instructor.
Talk to the department chair
If you must take this class at this time to proceed, your next option is to talk to the department chair or your university supervisor. Explain your situation and your thoughts on the professor or the class. You may learn that you must continue with this class and complete all the assignments, but you may also be advised that you could talk to the dean to complain in the hopes that this professor could make some changes for the next group of students.
Talk to the dean
Most students do not take their case to the dean, so when it happens, the dean takes notice. Be prepared for this conversation. Make an appointment, and come in armed with your case and your complaints. Although the dean may not noticeably react to your complaint, do know that your presence in the dean's office is a strong statement. Additionally, if you are one of several students visiting this office, the dean will most likely have a conversation with the professor.
Fill out the evaluation form
At the end of every course, you are asked to fill out an evaluation form about the professor and the class. Answer the questions truthfully, and elaborate in the spaces provided. This form goes to the department chair and the dean, as well as the professor. No matter how tenured he or she is, a critical evaluation will give pause to the most experienced professor.
In the classroom, professors have the position of power, however, they are held accountable by many standards. If you have a difficult teacher, make it your priority to pass the class, but you will also be doing the institution a great service by bringing your complaints to the proper authorities. Even the professor in question may someday recognize that your comments helped him or her make a positive change in technique.