Friday, January 19, 2007

Best of Luck With Your Research

'tis the season for grad admissions and recruiting. I am feeling very positive about this year's pool of applicants for my particular research group. Of course, I don't know if any of my top choices will actually come to work with me, but that will all get sorted out in the next few months. At least it's good to have some excellent possibilities.

The top prospects are heavily recruited by many schools, and these students are in a very good position. The best applicants have lots of offers, get expenses paid to visit all the schools, and then have lots of choices. I think it is great that students who have worked hard and are motivated for graduate study have many opportunities so they can choose the best place for them.

One of my colleagues is feeling dejected about his grad recruiting opportunities this year. For his particular research specialty, there are some very strong groups at private universities, including a couple that have "Institute of Technology" somewhere in their names (including one where this colleague was formerly a postdoc). In a number of recent years, he has had some excellent prospective grad students; they visit, they are impressed, and then they accept another offer and send him an email that says something like "I wasn't expecting to be impressed, but I was. Even so, I'm going to go to one of these other schools. Best of luck with your research." He hates those emails.

This year, my colleague was contacted by a hot prospect student, knew that the competition included the I of T's, and was dreading going through the whole pointless recruiting thing again. The student saved him the trouble, though, by telling him that because our university was a backup school, it really wasn't worth it to spend the money on the application fee, so could the fee be waived? And if not, oh well, best of luck with your research. My colleague wrote back to say thanks anyway, but best of luck with .. everything.
[on the bright side, one of this colleague's recent Ph.D. students just got an excellent job at a research university]

19 comments:

Anonymous said...

why does your colleague is irritated that some students select a better institution? Would your colleague take a poorly paying, less prestigious job at a community college, rather than at your university? Would he not accept an offer from a top place in your field, other things being equal?

some grad student said...

Hey, that prospective student was me last year, and I definitely chose not to go to the "Institute of Technology." Mostly because it was clear that the research was just as good (maybe even better? jury's still out on that) where I ended up, and the quality of life (in and outside of the department) seemed to be better too. But it doesn't have the same name recognition. I haven't decided for sure just how I feel about that decision yet... But I did make it. So... you have hope. And I have hope because I'm not settled here just yet and things can still improve...

Female Science Professor said...

Anonymous, my colleague isn't irritated that students choose to go elsewhere. He respects their decisions (and did the same himself when he was a student). He is irritated by the condescending notes.

Anonymous said...

Why is he irritated by the condescending note, "best of luck with your research". Even the most talented and passionate grad students, for example Einstein, heard it all the time when they were not appreciated and were rejected. Editors also said this quite often to authors of some best manuscripts. Why can't students reject professors? Empowering both sides eventually makes a better world.

Anonymous said...

Forgive my ignorance, put in your branch of physical science, graduate students apply not to just a program but also a lab from the get go?

Curious because in the many of the biomedical sciences (biochemistry, genetics, immunlogogy, cell biology, immunlogy, etc.)you apply to a program. Your first year you rotate in labs while taking classes and then join one of those labs. A number of people in program came to work with one person and once they rotated in the lab they realized it wasn't the lab for them but it wasn't a big deal because they hadn't joined the lab and were rotating in others. I assume the fact that people are covered by training grants enables this system.

Female Science Professor said...

In my field/university/department, students apply to work with a particular advisor, and the advisor must agree to accept this student, although the admission decision is ultimately made by a department committee.

I can handle rejection by prospective grad students, as can my colleagues - it happens all the time as part of the job - but it's still annoying to get a note in which the student says that he/she didn't expect to be impressed by you or your department, and was surprised to find that you are actually doing interesting work. The 'best of luck' just puts a little ribbon on the whole package. The students must think it is a compliment to say that they expected you to be a loser, but -- good news! -- your research is actually interesting. It's really not a big deal though; it's a minor irritant in the scheme of things, and the minor irritation quickly passes. I should say, too, that for those students who 'reject' me and stay in the academic game, I certainly don't hold it against them. Just in the past few months, I've written positive reviews of several manuscripts and proposals of students who went to other graduate programs. It's up to each individual to figure out what's the best place for them.

My ideal rejection by a student would go something like this: "Dear Professor X, Thank you for spending x days with me during my recent visit to your department. I enjoyed meeting you and your research group, but I've decided that University Z is a better fit for my interests."

Ingo said...

I have a nagging feeling that what the "top places" are really quite a bit better at is marketing. Cool project names, great descriptions, images and videos on the web (they have to do something with all that grant money) and so on. Its annoying, but there you go.

btw, I study in a place where about 20 years ago, there was a thread on usenet claiming it doesn't exist (let alone harbor credible research). It was a joke, of course, but I'm actually quite grateful. At least people have /heard/ of where I come from.

Anonymous said...

Again, it is me ... All of these are understandable ... As students, we should expect professors. However, as professor, we should be comfortable taking loser positions. In front of science, are most of us losers? Who can claim he/she is a winner in science? At most, some people are winner of academia games, but not of science itself.

sylow said...

FSP, I am surprised to learn that students in your department apply to work with a particular faculty.(if it exists in the world we live in, of course) That is news to me.
I thought you were a "full professor at a large state university". Typically, at state universities, grad students are TA in their first year of residence and they are not affiliated with any professor at all. After they take the PhD qualifying exam, they hook up with a professor. It happens usually during the second year. This is the case at UT Austin, Berkeley etc.
Hence, I have difficulty in understanding the story in your post. It looks like this institution of yours is following european model (e.g german)
I wonder why...

some grad student said...

sylow,

my field sounds a lot like FSPs. you typically are accepted to a particular professor's group on a research assistantship. most students TA at some point in their career for one or a few semesters, so basically no one is accepted on one. if you end up with a fellowship, you can avoid commitment for a while... and it is possible to change advisors sometimes. it's a little different at every school, but i definitely know of both private and public (multiple big state schools!) that work like this!

Aaron Clauset said...

In my experience (and in my friends experience - those who also went through graduate school), there seem to be three main models. The first, which is what FSP describes and is what my own graduate department did, is that the department makes the decision, but, possibly because of the way funding is handled inside the department, a student must be affiliated almost immediately with a particular faculty or research group. The second, which seems to be quite common, is the TA-for-a-few-semesters approach and after the student passes the qualifying exam, they join a particular research group. There were a few students in my old department that had this experience, perhaps because there was no faculty who specifically wanted them when they were admitted. The third, which I'm most fond of, is the rotations scheme, where students spend their first two years working on a small (4-8 month long) research project in each of 2-4 groups; after this period, they have to choose (and be chosen by) a research group.

But, back to the topic at hand - I wonder if part of these students' behavior can be attributed to the fact that they're still learning how to correspond professionally via email. For many of them, the grad school search process may be the first time they've really interacted with faculty outside a classroom (excepting, perhaps, their undergrad thesis advisor), and they may not realize their attempt at being polite is actually going over badly. I think it takes some practice to learn good ways to communicate potentially disappointing news.

anon said...

aaron clauset,

the latter two models sound horrible to me because of the time wasted. TA for a few semesters before you join a group means you waste one and a half years. Doing rotations that last 4-6 months means you waste a couple of years, and if your project starts working well, then it's too bad, off to join another research group!

At my department, you TA for the first year, but you choose your group after the first semester. Some students do 3-4 rotations in the first year in a sub-field while they are TAs and take classes. At most, only a year is wasted (which is full of classes anyways). I wanted to join a particular research group and came and worked for them in the summer before I started officially to get a head start; all the choosing was a mere formality.

In my old department though, you had to say whose group you were interested in when you applied and be taken by that professor, before your application was approved. There used to be an option where you could apply under a 'general' option, and then choose after a few months, but that option has been killed now.

Ancarett said...

Wow, Sylow. Your experience of academe is amazingly narrow! As a longtime graduate program coordinator, I can tell you that different disciplines (even in the sciences) follow different models and that students being recruited, even at the M.A. level, to work with one particular professor is about as common as recruiting to a general program.

FSP, I find that many of these prospective graduate students don't always have a keen awareness of social skills. We get many students who simply don't respond at all to offers (we follow up with phone messages and have a bit more success that way). Something that's good to inculcate with our own seniors is that every person they meet or correspond with in their grad school applications is a potential colleague and that they should act accordingly.

Female Science Professor said...

Ancarett, that's a good point. I have discussions about that sort of thing with undergrads who do research with me and who are interested in applying to grad school (how/when to approach a prospective advisor, what to put in the research statement, what to do when you get an offer).

Doug Natelson said...

Sylow - this kind of admissions happens in physics, too. When I was looking at grad schools back in the dim mists of time, MIT basically wanted you to have already picked out and talked to a potential advisor by the time you showed up. That may have changed in the interim, but it's not as unusual as you think.

Anonymous said...

At my department, you TA for the first year, but you choose your group after the first semester. Some students do 3-4 rotations in the first year in a sub-field while they are TAs and take classes. At most, only a year is wasted (which is full of classes anyways).
******************************
I am in biochemistry, at my university we do three rotations our first year (about 10 weeks long) while we also take classes. It is not a waste. We have to do one rotation in a very different aspect of biochemistry/molecular genetics/biophysics. TAing is not a waste or it shouldn't be. It should be learning how to teach and communicate scientific knowledge. We usually TA our 2nd year for one semester. We also qualify during our 2nd year. We TA once more our 3rd year. It really doesn't take away from research if you have good organizational skills. Which I do find lacking amongst many in grad school including the faculty so there is something to be said for encouraging such skills. From then on it is research, research, research. The reason the department changed to a rotation system was because too many students were changing labs because the fit was not right. It had the added advantage of forcing students out of their comfort zone and try new approaches. Given classes take up much of the 1st year, not much can be accomplished in the lab anyway.

anon said...

I never said TAing is a waste, and I think rotations are a great idea.

Nevertheless, it's necessary to choose an advisor by the end of the first year and to know what the hell your project is actually about. At most after the end of second semester. If not, as I'm sure you know if you are in biochemistry, you will spend an extra year in grad school.

I really like being a TA, and we have the option to do it even when we don't have to. But I'm here to get a degree first of all, and waiting for two years before starting out on my research is not an option. Sure, other stuff is fine during research time (classes, teaching, etc...), but doing three rotations that last 4 months each at least means you lose one year.

Rotations are great since you get to see what a group is like. They should not last longer than two months though.

anon said...

Sorry, it's me again. Forgot to mention, but even if you are busy with teaching and taking classes in your second year or the end of your first year, it helps to know who your advisor is by that time, and to know what the hell you're supposed to be working on when you actually do finish classes and teaching. Then you can read up reviews on the topic and keep up with current literature in your spare time. Plus you might come into the lab when you have an extra hour or two and actually do an experiment which may get you somewhere. As opposed to coming into your house and watching 'West Wing' or professional sports, which will actually get you nowhere.

Of course, when you're doing research full out, you need to try to do the latter activities in a spare hour or two to stay sane.

Physics Grad Student said...

Hi, I just discovered this blog and have already learned a lot from it (now I wonder how I came across when I "broke it" to the grad schools I ultimately did not choose). I just wanted to mention that my adviser has had the most luck with those grad students he recruited. That is, I was an undergraduate working in the lab of his collaborator, and when we met he encouraged me to apply to graduate school. Perhaps this could work for your colleague?

Looking back now, it also seems to me that I got into the grad schools where there was a personal connection of some sort between my undergraduate department and the prospective one. That is, there was someone a professor could call up at my undergraduate department whose opinion they trusted. This is just something I suspect, do you know if this is the case?