This post is sort of inspired by yesterday's post by Dr. Shellie.
It occasionally happens that students will apply to a graduate program without really knowing much about it other than that there is some match with their research interests and/or the school has a good enough reputation that they might want to go there. It is difficult to have a good feel for working environment, research opportunities, and advisor-advisee interactions before actually visiting a place, and impressions of a department or potential advisor can change (for better or worse) as a result of a visit. Lacking the information and impressions gained in the course of a visit, it makes sense that a student might be initially inclined towards the more prestigious university, typically a Highly Ranked Private University (HRPU).
On a number of occasions over the years, prospective students have visited my research group, spent a day or two talking to people and checking out the facilities, and have been pleasantly surprised that they had such a positive experience.
That's nice, but it surprises me how direct some students are about expressing their surprise. Expressions of pleasant surprise range in tone and directness, but are typically along the lines of "I didn't think I'd be impressed at all [because you are not at a HRPU], but I was".
One such undergraduate who applied to the graduate program at my previous university, and who ultimately went to grad school at another university, became a legend among some of my colleagues because this student wrote such an intensely patronizing letter to the director of graduate admissions after visiting our department -- along the lines of "You may be interested to know that although your department is not in the Top 3, it's actually surprisingly good. I didn't think it would be, but after my visit, I realized that some fairly high quality research is being done in your department. I visited even though I wasn't seriously considering attending your school, but I was so impressed by my visit that I actually thought about it for 5 minutes before deciding to go to one of the Most Highly Ranked Private Universities in the world."
Aside from the unfortunate wording of her letter, which she might not have meant to be as patronizing as it sounded, the fact that she set up the visit thinking there was no way she would consider accepting the admissions offer, and thereby wasting everyone's time for 2 days, indicated a higher level of selfishness and immaturity than one would typically want to see in a student, however smart.
Oh well, it's all part of the fun of academia. My former colleagues and I still joke about that student and the famous letter.
I do not take the comments from naive students personally except in extreme cases, and will continue to attempt some fairly high quality research and to recruit energetic and creative graduate students. It gets easier once you've had an established research program for a while, but fortunately there are some students who are attracted to the possibilities and energy of being part of a new assistant professor's research group, and who are willing to forgo alluring offers from more established labs. I hope that will be the case for Dr. Shellie and others.
2 years ago