Saturday, March 05, 2016

Manage My Supervisions at Cambridge University

Undoubtedly, the University of Cambridge is famous for its college and supervision systems. Both are quite unique and you probably cannot find other similar correspondences easily in other places. The longer you stay in Cambridge, the more attractive you will find about this amazing system. In some sense, this system leaves a strong Cambridge label on its students and makes them so unique comparing to other students. Sometimes, I must admit that I am more impressed by the undergraduates I supervised than by the PhD students (especially if he/she didn't do his/her undergraduate here).

The supervision usually takes place within a small group of two or three students with a supervisor. The form of supervision can be flexible and versatile, but there are usually a lot of discussions between the supervisor and supervisees.  Even though I had a long experience of doing TA (Teaching Assistant) in the University of Helsinki, I must say the teaching in Cambridge is much more challenging also much more fun. Of course, it has more financial benefits since the colleges pay you extra money for your teaching.

I was lucky enough to get affiliated with Queens' College (one of the oldest colleges) just after a couple of months' arrival in Cambridge, which gave me an invaluable chance to look into this system. Moreover, I also started doing supervisions soon after the Michaelmas term started. Herein, I will share some experience in doing supervision at the University of Cambridge, which might be useful for other newly joined Postdocs, especially those who did not have undergraduate experience here.

The university does provide a decent system (CamCORS) for writing final reports for students. However, there is no useful systems in practice to help in scheduling supervisions, a supervisor and his students need to handle the scheduling all by themselves. I was quickly overwhelmed by email exchanges for discussing a suitable time in Michaelmas term while I was taking care of 20 students (7 groups). In this Lent term, I need to supervise 27 students (10 groups) on two topics (Information Retrieval & Operating Systems), so I definitely need to come up something smarter.

Therefore, I wrote down the following email and send it to my students. Haha, now it is their job to do the scheduling and compete for the "CPU resources" themselves. So far, this works pretty well and has saved me from a lot of hassles.

Hello all,

I made a Doodle poll which provided a list of all my available time slots in this Lent term. These time slots can be the candidates of our supervisions in the following weeks. To reduce hassles and email exchanges, let's schedule together using the following rules (essentially a distributed algorithm with relaxed contention avoidance ;-)

1. Each supervision group makes one poll. Do not make another separate poll if your group already made one. So for all the supervisions of a given course, each group should only take one row in the poll.

2. When making the poll, the group name should follow the following convention: COURSE_NAME(crsid_1; crsid2; crsid_3) so that I can know which course and which group it is. We have two courses: please use OS for Operating System and IR for Information Retrieval. Here is an example: OS(lw525; mbt11; szuh233)  another example: IR(tzx234; xrt233; bgh512)

3. For OS, we have three supervisions so you need to mark three time slots in all the available ones (try to distribute them evenly in three weeks). You need to discuss with your group members first to agree on a time before filling the poll. Do not mark multiple time slots for one supervision. For IR, we have two supervisions, the same rule applies.

4. If you notice that a time slot is already taken by another group, do NOT mark it anymore. Essentially, each column in the poll should NOT have more than one reservation. if contention does occur (less likely), run your randomisation or back-off protocol to resolve the contention ;-)

Here is the link to the poll —> [link]

I hope you can finish the poll as soon as possible to make all of our life much easier. If you have any questions, please do ask me. Thank you very much.

Best regards,

Liang Wang

Computer Laboratory