Sunday, March 21, 2010

The Red Sea of Tape

(NOTE: This is a long post. If you'd like to save some time you can skip the middle section)

Everyone who is going to post on this blog has their own wonderful stories about how they had to pull teeth to get something done at this University. Something I hope you realize after you read some of the postings here is that, in general, we don't hate Case. That's why we're doing this, in fact, because we think there is a lot of good about this place and we don't want to see it buried beneath the less appealing aspects.

Some information about myself, as this is my first post: I am a BS/MS student at Case. For those unaware, Case provides a BS/MS combined degree program that lets you finish it up in 5 years (or in my case, four years, since Case was nice about providing credit for all my AP courses in high school; this is a merit of Case not to be overlooked). In my specific case, my BS will be in Applied Mathematics and my MS will be in Computer Science. At least, I think so. I honestly have no idea. And I am graduating this semester. I hope.

You see, the main problem with Case right now is that while it offers some pretty cool opportunities, the institution provides exactly no help or guidance in actually taking advantage of them, instead implementing a Red Sea of Tape that you must fight through any time you want to do anything. One of the side-effects of this Red Sea of Tape is that no single employee knows everything about how to handle a given situation; once the process leaves his department (and eventually it does), he doesn't know what happens, and in many cases, doesn't care either. I don't think that anyone in particular was fighting me or conspiring against me; rather, the system itself has rendered it impossible for any single person to have known how to tell me exactly what I needed to do.

For this post, as you no doubt have gathered by now, I'm going to describe how I got into the BS/MS program for the benefit of those who, like me, came to Case in part because of the existence of this program. I mean, if this was true for me, it's got to be true for some of you prospective students. It's an awesome program, mostly because it lets you get a Master's faster, without having to take a GRE.

The first bit of advice I can give to anyone trying to apply to this program, or really, anyone trying to do anything here at Case, is to start early. You think it's going to be really simple, but then you realize you need a signature from person X only available on these days at these times which may or may not actually agree with your schedule. Or maybe you need to fill out form Y which needs to pass through approval processes at three different departments, with the chance that something gets screwed up at each one.

This is probably a good point to mention that in general I slightly disagree with Steve's overall assessment of the Case experience. Personally, I'd say, overall, that I enjoyed my time here. I've made some wonderful friends whom I wouldn't trade for the world, and I've had the chance to do some work that really interests me. On the other hand, I also disagree that the employees are competent and pleasant to work with without exception. I'm not going to name names here or anything as that's a little classless, but in my time here I have definitely met some front desk employees that are quite rude and others that just seem clueless and incompetent. Some of them still have their jobs. But, again, this isn't where I'd like to focus the story, since I don't think it was because of these employees that I had so much trouble.

* * *

Please keep in mind this all happened about two years ago. I'm piecing together the story from old e-mails, and the process may have changed since then. If some details I say are inaccurate, that is the explanation.

The story begins when I first talk to my second-year Math adviser about the BS/MS program. I guess at that point I quickly learned I was in for a bumpy ride as I found out his knowledge of the BS/MS program extended about as far as, "There is a BS/MS program." I guess that's not his fault, but it didn't change the fact that I needed advice from my adviser and did not get it. In general, advising was pretty useless to me as an undergrad (as a graduate though the experience has been much better). The only time I ever spoke with my adviser was to get holds removed every semester. In general I would just ask him to remove the hold, sometimes even without telling him what classes I was going to take. He would remove the hold anyway, which left me wondering what the whole point of the hold was in the first place.

My adviser tells me that though he doesn't know what I am supposed to do to apply, or what requirements I have to fulfill, he would figure it out for me. However, he doesn't tell me what he's found until I e-mail him about it a couple weeks later. This gets into another key point. It is, apparently, your responsibility to figure out what is going on if other people are doing things for you. So, for you prospective students, when you need administrative work done here, keep matters in your own hands at all times to the best of your ability. Don't let Administrative Employee X deliver Form Y to Important Person Z Who Is Not There At The Time to sign it. Keep the form, ask when that person will be back, and come back and insist on getting the form signed yourself. This is the only way that you will know for sure that things you need to get done are, in fact, getting done. If for whatever reason there's something you can't just do yourself, then constantly e-mail all parties involved to make sure that nothing went wrong until you're absolutely sure that things went smoothly.

At this point, I looked on the web site and found a page that told me to see a certain professor regarding BS/MS dealings. I was redirected to no fewer than four different professors to gather information about what to do. They were varying degrees of helpful, but each one provided different and sometimes conflicting information on what I did or did not need to do. Eventually, the process narrowed down to getting a Planned Program of Study filled out, and a Graduate School Application submitted.

A Planned Program of Study is something they want all the graduate students to have on file stating what courses you plan to take to fulfill your degree requirements, and when you plan to take them. For a reason I still cannot remember, I had to have this in as part of the application process. This doesn't make sense to me. Why? Because you, the student, have no idea at all what courses are actually going to be offered in any given semester beyond the next one; this is more true for 400+ courses but it happens with some undergrad courses as well. Some courses are only offered every other year, and others just seem to be offered just on a whim; I originally had EECS 405 (data structures and files) in my PPOS, and took it out when I found it wasn't offered in any of the semesters I was doing course work. Of course, this semester, it is being offered; a semester too late for me, as I no longer needed it by then. How am I supposed to plan out my future courses when there is no public indication of what courses are actually going to be offered? And if I was supposed to work with my adviser on that, why didn't anyone in the approval process (which included getting a signature from said adviser) stop and tell me, "Hey Neil, this isn't gonna work, here's a list of what course-semester combinations we plan to offer over the next two years." Of course, you can amend your program of study whenever you want as long as you get it approved again, even right before you graduate (as I have done). So, again, what was the point? Why was I forced to make a plan that I literally cannot follow and thus must amend later?

At least filling out an application to the Grad School seemed more reasonable. I decided to do this online since I figured that would more directly get where it needed to be, and in general I liked the idea of being able to e-mail people to bug them about Rec letters instead of having to personally get them. Bad idea. The online application, it turns out, would be some generic thing that Case purchased from some company that, I guess, sells usage rights of this web application for applying to grad schools. Or something. Point is, it was this horribly dated ("Web 1.0") application that you go through and fill out. What bothers me here is that I'm almost positive that Case could find someone to whip up with a much better app that they don't have to overpay for (overpay in the sense that charging anything for this garbage would be too much); maybe make it someone's senior project or something. Anyways, I can deal with that, but the rage-inducing thing here is that they give you a drop-down box for selecting your degree program, and nowhere in there is an option for "Applied Mathematics B.S./M.S. in Area of Application", or even anything close to what I was trying to apply for. I ended up selecting "B.S./M.S. Mathematics." I figured if that wasn't right, it'd be close enough. Of a lesser concern to me was that the application charged me a small but not insignificant application fee, when all instructions I could find stated that I didn't have to pay such a fee. This surprised me considering they told me I could use the online app...I didn't even bother trying to get that fee reimbursed.

So a couple weeks later, I get a letter from a Math department employee that essentially said "????" Of course I knew this was coming and won't hold this against the organization; there were some odd things about the application, like the fact that I didn't enter a GRE score (again, for this program, it isn't required). I explain myself, and she tells me I was supposed to mark it "B.S./M.S. EECS." My bad, I guess, but that's a completely separate program from what I was applying for. Regardless, I suppose looking back it makes sense, since my graduate career was going to be in that department, not Math. She's nice enough to forward the materials of the application to the EECS department, and informs me that I'm to submit my Statement of Objectives and some other things I couldn't submit in the online app (now why couldn't I just upload the Statement of Objectives with the application? Oh yeah, because Case didn't write it) to a certain employee there. So I do this.

This is at the start of April, in 2008. Fast forward to late June, and I still haven't heard anything about the status of my application. Not even a "we received your application, we'll take it from here" sort of thing, which considering the bizarre circumstances in which they were receiving said materials, I think would have been courteous. I e-mail this person, and she tells me that in fact, my application was received, and decisions were sent over to Grad Studies, who in turn, would relay that information to the applicants. Oh that's good. Except I wait another month and I still haven't received anything from them. I e-mail her again, and she asks whether I submitted a PPOS, and also mentions that I was accepted into the program. Yes, this is how I found out I was accepted into the program. Good news, but I was curious why they didn't have my PPOS, so I told her I'd submitted it, which gets me referred to some contact in Grad Studies who claimed she never received it. Umm...what? Fortunately, I had saved a copy of the PPOS, so I e-mailed this person asking if I should scan the copy and send it to her. Note that this is summer and I was working in my hometown; I couldn't reasonably go hand it to her. She doesn't respond, but it doesn't matter because now a different person from Grad Studies e-mails me and asks me to send her my PPOS. Months go by without e-mails, and I'm told I was accepted, so I think all is well. By the way, I never did get a decision letter from Grad Studies, despite being told that the hold-up was due to the PPOS not being on file.

Fast-forward about four months to November, and I get an e-mail from a dean complaining that I didn't follow my PPOS. She also tells me I'm not able to double-count (the way BS/MS works is you can pick 3 courses to count as hours for both your undergraduate and graduate degrees; this is what makes the program what it is) the courses as I had written down because I was not admitted into the program yet.

Wait. What?

So many things wrong with this: (1) I was already accepted into the program, I had been told; (2) She e-mails me about this in November when this e-mail could have been sent at the start of the semester, just after drop/add ended and thus could not have added that course; and (3) of course I am not taking EECS 405 this semester. Because your university is not offering it!

So I reply claiming that I'd been informed that I had been accepted. So, as you surely expect by now, I get referred to someone else; it happens to be the same person I e-mailed the PPOS from. The dean tells me she has my PPOS, but not my application. So we have here people that have my application but not my PPOS, and people that had my PPOS but not my application. You'd think they could figure out how to bring everyone onto the same page here, but instead I had to e-mail that person again and inquire as to my true application status. She responds a week later saying that SIS was updated with the fact that I am a BS/MS student. Victory. Finally.

* * *

Of course this would be only the beginning of BS/MS-related troubles for me, but I'll save those for another post. This one's getting long enough as it is, even though I skipped past some of the more minor annoyances, like having to pay to have a transcript sent from the Registrar to Grad Studies; about a one-minute walk at the most. The point here is, of course, why did I have to go through any of that? Why couldn't someone have just given me clear, concise instructions as to what I was supposed to do? Why did I have to constantly be bounced around from contact to contact? With how clueless and confused everyone seemed to be, you would have thought I was the only student to ever try to apply to the program! There were stages in the process where I literally thought it was a "carrot on a stick" deal.

To recap all of the organizational shortcomings that occurred (or to quickly state them for those who skipped the middle section):

  • Failure of advising to provide a proper procedure for applying to the program
  • Forcing students to plan ahead without providing an easily accessible list of planned course offerings more than a year in advance, knowledge necessary to plan ahead
  • Failure of organization to propagate information between its own departments (multiple times)
  • Loss of a critical form (Would have been much worse for me had I not made a copy)
  • Failure to keep the applicant "in the loop" with respect to the processing of his application, including the failure to provide a formal notification of decision
  • Outsourcing of work to other companies when talent to do said work clearly exists within the institution
  • Failure to respond to e-mails in a timely manner (ranges from weeks to months depending on person), if at all. Most of these people, when I actually met them, were quite nice and helpful when I made an appointment to speak with them, so maybe this is just because their in-boxes are constantly overflowing.
See, as you increase the number of people involved in performing any individual task, you are increasing the number of possible points of failure. For example, let's take the loss of my original PPOS. I have no idea who screwed up, but somewhere in the process of handling my PPOS, someone misplaced it. Now someone could have told me back then who that person was and, honestly, I wouldn't have cared. We're human after all. We screw up. It happens. But that doesn't justify a system that multiplies the failure rate more than necessary.

I'm not trying to absolve myself from blame here. If anything, I blame myself the most (although mainly because I cannot really pin it on any other single individual). What I took away from the ordeal is what I tell anyone I know who plans on applying to the BS/MS program (or really anything out of the ordinary) and what I told you, the reader, at the start of this post. Start early. Also, if you find early on that your adviser is not very useful, don't be afraid, as I was, to talk to some of your professors that you like and see if they have any helpful knowledge for you. That's another thing I regret looking back, is that I didn't network myself with professors well. When it came time to go through this process and found I really couldn't think of any professors to get a rec letter from, that failing of mine really was starting to leave some deep teeth marks.