Thursday, March 27, 2008

OMG You Don't Suck

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.


Jonah said...

i only wished more undergrads were explained that science is science no matter where it is performed. if, theoretically, a prospective student would be unhappy at the non-HRPU, there is no reason an HRPU should keep them in science. it is the same science, with prettier offices.

PhysioProf said...

I find the combination of naivete and unbridled arrogance of many undergraduates, particularly those who are students at the most prestigious of the private HPRUs, quite amusing, and even endearing.

I had a freshman in my office yesterday who was looking for a summer research opportunity. He made it extremely clear that the only thing on his mind was whether he would be interested in the possibility of working in my lab, and not at all whether I would offer the opportunity.

These kids have been highly pampered, and made to feel extremely valuable and unique since a very young age--probably as long as they can remember. The idea that any opportunity is not simply there for them to casually pluck off the shelf like a box of Yodels in the supermarket simply does not even enter their consciousness.

None of that bothers me at all, and if this kid decides he would like to work in my lab this summer, I will have him. One of the nice things about experimental science as a venue for students growing the fuck up is that reality will not really concern itself very much, if at all, with the unique specialness of this student.

He told me that he will let me know soon if my lab is "still in the running". Funny shit. But I'll take smart, delusionally entitled, and arrogant over dull, self-aware, and humble every single fucking time.

a physicist said...

I was a postdoctoral fellow at a HRPU. I worked with an undergraduate (not from HRPU) during his REU, and then later wrote him recommendation letters for graduate school. I convinced him to apply to the school where I got a faculty job, MRPU, and then he came down for a visit.

During his visit he was patronizing and annoyed all the faculty, much along the lines of FSP's post. One twist was that he wore a loud Hawaiian shirt, whereas the other visiting students that day dressed the usual "business casual." I had the feeling that he was condescending to be nice to me and visit, and also wanted a free trip to our location. Not surprisingly, he went elsewhere for grad school (HRPubU).

A year later, he emailed me to say he was unhappy at HRPubU and wanted to transfer and would I write him recommendation letters again? I said yes, but went through and revised his letter somewhat. Someone who burns bridges is not going to be as successful, in my opinion.

bsci said...

Did that student's professional career live of to those lofty goals of that letter? It would be great to see how a faculty job application from that person to your university would look.

Anyway, it's not always wasting time. I had already gotten into some very good places, and almost cancelled an interview from a place where I was very unlikely to attend, but eventually decided to go to at least visit some family in that region of the country. Needless to say, the program surprised me and I ended up going to grad school there.

Anonymous said...

Our grad program is in a desirable to visit area, and there is nothing we hate more than the people who come with no plan of attending our school if they have no plan of making the effort to learn about the school.

We don't care if they come when they *know* they're not going to attend, because we think we have a chance of convincing them. But, when they come, and then blow off interviews, social events, . . . . Well, that drives us nuts.

Sarah said...

None of that bothers me at all, and if this kid decides he would like to work in my lab this summer, I will have him. ... He told me that he will let me know soon if my lab is "still in the running". Funny shit. But I'll take smart, delusionally entitled, and arrogant over dull, self-aware, and humble every single fucking time.

Physioprof -- do you take your current students' opinions into account before offering someone a position in your lab? Because someone's gotta train this kid, and it doesn't sound like this prospective student would be an ideal coworker. Although you may not have to deal with him on a daily basis, delusional self-entitlement can make for a horrid working environment.

Vodalus said...

hrm... ever get one of those letters but with a comment at the end along the lines of "I hope that I can have the opportunity to work with you in the future"?

I sent out emails to notify various professors/programs that I had visited when I picked out my current situation. I tried to be very respectful, but it's hard to strike that right note of professional and courteous when you're just some pipsqueak cog. I'm pretty sure that I upset one guy (admissions chair who really wanted me for his lab) when I cited financial concerns for my choice. Now I'm suddenly concerned about other reasons he might have been peeved.

I caution you to remember, Physioprof, that some "smart...arrogant" students are better at marketing than at science. They might can play along in the coursework, but have issues in the lab. (Not that it really matters for an REU.)

Anonymous said...

Heh. I'm in a graduate program in HAWAII. For years we've gotten inundated with prospective undergrads who doze through research discussions, pick random faculty members to go visit for the heck of it, and wait for their subsidized trip to the beach to start. When you start talking to them in earnest about how great the program is they blink in surprise - it's some combination of "What, you actually thought I wanted to COME here?" and "Wait, you didn't just come to grad school here so you could go surfing all day?" Nice.

(and yeah, it sounds great, but people don't often come here. The novelty of "ooh, Hawaii!" is quickly beaten out by "wait, plane tickets and cost of living are HOW much?!?")

jasonbourne said...

FSP, I have to mention here that I never had the opportunity to visit any of the grad schools I got accepted in USA (I got accepted by 12 schools overall) since I was overseas. I had to make a decision based on my conversatons who went to grad school in USA and the universities' web pages. I did not meet one faculty in any of these schools during my decision process. None of the overseas students is given a chance like this. In retrospect, I do not regret my decision at all. Now, since overseas students are not given this chance, why do you people feel the need to entertain spoiled students from top 10 american schools? During grad school I had classmates from schools like Stanford and they performed worse than most of us. This whole visit process seems like nothing more than an effort by lower ranking schools to look appealing to spoiled kids at Harvard or Yale in my opinion.

ScienceGirl said...

I am one of those crazy students that turned down an HRPU to go to a lab I wanted to work in. And, as a bonus, to avoid the "delusionally entitled and arrogant" students I met at the HRPU (turns out there are some of those at my current school as well, but at least they are not the majority!)

Ms.PhD said...


I disagree. It matters where you go. You're right about the offices, yes, but the science can also be wildly different. The problem is that people assume that Fame (or Ranking) correlates with Quality, and it often doesn't.

I can't tell if physioprof is being sarcastic. In my experience "smart" and "delusionally entitled" are mutually exclusive. In contrast, "smart" and "self-aware" seem to be linked. Unfortunately I think "self-aware" is pretty rare.

FSP, the story about the letter really makes me laugh. Our lab got a really funny email recently from an undergrad begging for a summer research position, and our PI forwarded it verbatim to all the postdocs. It made me wonder what my inquiry emails looked like when I was that age. Then again, I got turned down a lot so I would never have just assumed I would be the Decider.

What really baffles me is that the younger generations are ever more concerned with pedigree, when I thought that as time went on, it would matter less and less. Not sure where I got that idea. Watched too much Sesame Street or something.

usagibrian said...


Much of what's being discussed in this thread is an inevitable outcome of the "treat the student as your customer" bullshit that's been foisted on academia for the past few decades. The work doesn't matter, the name on the degree does. The work doesn't matter, I came to class most of the time and paid my tuition, so I'm entitled to my degree. That was the deal, right?

It is utterly maddening, and I'm at a graduate only institution. I hear stories I can scarcely believe from colleagues at undergraduate programs (doubly so about the so-called "helicopter parents").

a physicist said...

Jasonbourne -- I disagree with you, I think grad school visits are very good things for the students. Mostly this is my own experience: I got accepted to three programs, and ahead of time I had them ranked A, B, and safety school C. After visiting A I realized I didn't want to go there; after visiting B and C, I realized that safety school C was really the best fit for me. It would have been hard for me to figure that out before visiting, and I think would have ended up at A (a mistake) if I just went on reputation & brochures alone. (This was before webpages, back in the early 90's.)

I also agree with anonymous 10:04 am, if we can get students to come visit us, they often decide our program is a good fit.

Dana Watson said...

Hah! This phenomenon is in no way restricted to the sciences. I work as a staff person now at a HRPU, and this year was my first time organizing all the applicant files for the committee. Ours is an area studies program, with the relevant area of the world in the degree title, and we had three (3!) applicants who stated clearly in their statements of purpose that they wanted to focus on the study of a completely different geographic region.

On a different note, I have to disagree with jasonbourne. I also had to pick my graduate program from overseas, and boy, did I ever live to regret the lack of campus visit. The program that worked the hardest to recruit me turned out to have an outdated website that more or less flat out lied about the program, and certainly no one ever revealed in email how claustrophobic the department was and how they were actually at war with the related department one floor down over classes and facilities.

PhysioProf said...

I am not being sarcastic. The post-docs and senior grad students in my lab are fully able to mentor smart callow youths with their arrogant entitled ways. The way that experimental science bangs you right the fuck up against reality every single day has a way of humbling.

My overall strategy for choosing personnel is based more on maximizing potential upside, and less on minimizing potential downside. I'll take a chance on someone who appears brilliant, but maybe is going to be a fucking pain in the ass personally and/or socially, before I will on someone who appears dull, but nice and reliable and likely to be a good team player.

This has worked well for me, and I have a lot more fun mentoring eccentric geniuses than nice dullards. You never know when you might hit the jackpot on an eccentric genius, while focusing on dull reliable trainees is more predictable.

Of course, you need to diversify risk, so I do have a range of people in my lab along this spectrum.

Ψ*Ψ said...

WTF?! What is WRONG with these kids?
I'm only applying to a few schools and am kinda torn (since visits are maybe a year away). If I don't get in, I don't get in. No safeties.

Anonymous said...

Interesting blog post and discussion. I graduate with a BS in chem 2 years ago, and have been working in the drug industry in the Bay Area. I didn't go to a brand name school (well, it is well known in Canada [I am Canadian] but we don't have the Ivy system).

I wouldn't say I was in any way arrogant or pampered as an undergrad, but I was idealistic and naive. I mean, in the sense that I expected people to act ethically and professionally (which seldom occurs in the corporate world, aka real world). Well, two years ofsurviving in the corporate world knocked some sense into me. I now appreciate people who act ethically and professionally. Meeting and getting to know people who graduated from top grad schools, famous professors, and end up in jobs they grow to hate was a real eye opener. I met scientists from Caltech, Standard, etc. They work and compete alongside people from lesser prestige schools, in reality, the clout/prestige of your supervisor/school really does follow you the rest of your life. I mean, even at the entry level, a guy from Cornell gets a lot more respect than little ol'canadian me.

I am currently on a campus visit (just arrived from the airport and I'm using a library computer to pass the time, the visit starts tomorrow), and I am having such an "out of this world" experience. I forgot such a world exists where people just learn and not have to answer to a boss everyday.

But, I digress. I'm afraid my jet-lag and culture shock had left me with an incoherant and irrelant contribution to this blog topic. I guess the point I was trying to make was that top undergrad students from prestiges schools who aren't honest about their true interests and end up going to HRPU schools (just for the heck of it) are doing themselves a disservice. One must be passionate about their work.

Anonymous said...


You should always have "safeties". A good selection of schools means you get rejected by a few and accepted by a few that aren't your first choice (at the moment!).

There are small number fluctuations with entrants and who knows what about funding that can mess you up. There are many random factors that are well beyond your control that can keep you out of schools you are well suited and qualified for.


Anonymous said...

And I'd take the nice and reliable team player any day over the arrogant prick.

As an assistant professor in psychology, I don't have a herd of graduate students yet. So I have to do most of the lab management. I have rarely met an arrogant prick who had the goods to back it up, and they've been a pain in the neck to deal with because they are poor at self monitoring and I don't have many graduate students to bully them into shape.

In contrast, those nice students who might not have seemed particularly sharp in the interview setting have been much more successful.

Guess it depends a lot on the culture.

Jonah said...

hey ms. phd,

thanks for the response. however, that's precisely what I was trying to get at. there has been bad science done at the HRPUs, just as good science has been done at non-HRPUs. that's more or less the story. and one would think fancy nanotech labs and the like would be correlated, for example, but these days even, for instance, Albany has a nanotech center. it really is about the pretty offices... but unfortunately, those non-HRPU schools have a hell of a time attracting students.

Ms.PhD said...

re: attracting students, it's funny because after reading this post I talked to a friend who is trying to recruit students, for the first time, for his own lab.

He was frustrated because this student who looked great on paper showed up at the interview and seemed like... kind of a dud. He couldn't get a read on her at all. Whether she wanted to come, or whether he was sure he wanted her to come. He wondered whether the interview was as useless for her as it was for him.

He's at a place that's very highly ranked for his field, but not so well-known to the general public. And he doesn't get that many students to choose from, thanks to departmental politics about what kinds of students even get invited to visit.

I can totally see what physioprof means about taking a risk on a genius type, but I tend to agree with the anonymous person who said it rarely correlates with performance.

There is the eccentric type of arrogance, which is usually a good thing, and then there's the bleeping-bleep type who is just so disruptive that everyone in the lab wastes time complaining about them when they should all be working.

Most labs I know seem to have one of these bleeping-bleep types at all times, but I have to wonder if the PIs realize what they're doing when they bring in someone like this? Some seem to just expect everyone to deal with it, while others seem completely oblivious.

I'd think the collective loss of productivity isn't worth what that one person may or may not bring.

And in most cases I'm aware of, that person doesn't bring anything.

I personally think academic science should make more of a point to select against that sort of thing. We have plenty of jerks already. The culture needs to change, and while we're waiting for the old ones to die off, we don't need to recruit more of them every day.

CC said...

In my experience "smart" and "delusionally entitled" are mutually exclusive.

After a certain age, maybe. In undergrads and recent grads, they're certainly compatible.

Anonymous said...

Any idea where/what this person is up to these days, did she live up to her lofty dreams?

female Science Professor said...

This person has done well and got a job at the same small liberal arts college they had attended as an undergraduate.