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Deadlines and Missed Opportunities

by on August 19, 2013 7:15 AM

The word of the week is deadline.What is a deadline?

A deadline is a time limit on submitting or completing a task or project.

The deadline for the application is October 5th. Next year's budget is due on June 15. All papers must be submitted by the deadline to receive credit.

A deadline usually implies that anything submitted or turned in after the deadline will not be accepted. Pretty simple right? Something is due by a certain time or date or it isn't accepted.

Professionals in a variety of fields face deadlines. Project due dates. Grant applications. Budget deadlines. Hiring schedules. Some are implicit like those deadlines that come with the end of a fiscal year. Others are imposed like a due date for a paper in a class. Some have real consequences. All are important.

Tell that to college students.

Qualifier: Most college students are responsible, young adults who not only pay attention to deadlines but understand the importance of following deadlines and that meeting deadlines in the university setting gives them practice for the real world. Unfortunately, I have had more than a few students react with outrage and anger when they are told "too late."

This past week I was faced with not one but two students (and one concerned parent) whose inability to meet deadlines had real and serious consequences.

Students in our major are required to complete a full-time, semester long internship to meet their degree requirements. This course, and the on-the-job learning that comes with it, is the capstone experience in earning the degree.

Because of the importance of this opportunity, we ask that students meet specific criteria and then submit several related documents so we can approve their internship.

We set the deadline for turning in these materials three weeks prior to the end of classes for students who are going out on internship the next semester. This gives us time to contact and prepare the internship agency, finalize the job description, check GPAs and make sure everything is ready to go.

It also gives us a buffer in the event that a student – still learning and practicing on-the-job skills – needs a little buffer.

The due dates or deadline for submission of internship materials are listed on our website. It's covered in the pre-internship class. I send out five email reminders each semester prior to the due date. The consequences for missing the deadline are clearly and redundantly spelled out.

I was reminded last week that some students who miss the deadline are unhappy when they are told "it's too late." Student A insisted that I didn't do enough to make sure that he knew the deadline was approaching. Student B is absolutely sure that he is juggling more in terms of personal and professional demands than any other student at Penn State so that makes him exempt from deadlines.

A missed deadline. An extension. A missed extended deadline. "It's too late." The call to my department head to complain that I was being unreasonable.

One theory on the history of the term "deadline" suggests it comes from the area outside of prisons in days past where an escapee could be shot if he crossed a certain line. Another theory comes from the days of printing and the "deadline" was the delineation on the press where printing or words could not be seen.

Ironically, I have a deadline to submit this article to my editor so he can look at it, make any necessary grammar corrections and get it up on the website in time for Monday mornings.

Deadlines in the real world are important. A missed deadline can mean a missed opportunity. If I miss the deadline to apply for a grant, I have lost out on the chance for funding for my project. If I miss the deadline to apply for a job, it likely means someone else will get the chance to interview. If my proposal is late, it may mean that my competitor gets the contract.

In the university setting, we apply deadlines not only to hold students accountable but also to manage workload and assignments, help teach time management and to provide students with practice for when they hit the big time.

In industry, it's rare for a boss or supervisor to say, "You can turn that project in late and I will just take 5% off of your pay." For the internship, we use deadlines to allow time to work with agencies and, on some level, to assess if students are ready for a very independent learning experience.

As I tell my students, I'm a mother and a faculty member. I have no problem saying no. The lessons learned in missing a deadline often provide the most important teachable moment.

Whether it be in industry or in the university setting, deadlines are a reality of life. Sometimes those deadlines have some wiggle room. Others are written in stone. In almost all situations, missing the deadline has consequences.

Patty Kleban is an instructor at Penn State, mother of three and a community volunteer. She is a Penn State Alumna. Readers of State College Magazine voted her Best Writer of 2010 and 2012. She and her family live in Patton Township. Her views and opinions do not necessarily reflect those of Penn State.
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