The previous post mentioned the concept of a waiting list for admission to graduate school. A similar concept applies to summer internships and other application situations as well.
It would be incorrect to think that all or even most of the applicants on a waiting list aren't as 'good' as the ones who are accepted in the first round. Many programs get more excellent applications than there are available positions, and it can be somewhat random as to which applicants get the first round offers.
When first round applicants decline their offers of admission to work with my research group, in many cases I would like offers to be made to students on the wait-list. This becomes tricky, though, because (1) students on the waiting list might (reasonably) feel like they are 'second choice' candidates and might not feel comfortable with that; and (2) in many cases it is too late -- as I wrote yesterday, by the time I find out about some applicants' decisions to go elsewhere, many students on the waiting list have accepted offers elsewhere (as they should).
I have advised some very excellent students who were on the waiting list but who eventually got offers that they accepted. I don't know if these students carry the memory of their wait-list experience or if they don't think about it again once they start their graduate studies. I hope the latter -- I certainly don't think about it once a student is here and working with the group. It's not relevant.
Waiting lists may inflict emotional turmoil, or at least disappointment, but are a necessary evil, as it is seldom the case that the number of outstanding candidates exactly matches the number of available positions. In addition, of course, the number of available positions doesn't typically match the number of first round candidates who accept their offers.
Better communication on all sides would improve the situation for students, faculty, and administrators involved in the admissions process. Perhaps once application websites become more user-friendly, the flow of information will become more efficient, but direct communication is best in some circumstances, especially since admissions decisions can be so emotional and stressful.
There are always going to be communication glitches though. Just this week I got an email from a student applicant taking me to task for not replying to his email. He re-sent the email he says he sent to me a month or so ago. I have never received any email from this person before, have never heard of him, have not seen his file, and although I can understand his frustration if he thinks he sent me email that I ignored, the tone of his email was rude. I wrote back explaining simply that I had not received any email from him before, and he replied that he had been having trouble with his email in recent months. OK then..
But I digress.
Regarding other kinds of Waiting Lists in academia: Is a student wait-list similar in some ways to a short list for a faculty position? One similarity is that all or most of the faculty candidates on a short list may also be excellent, and the decision about which one to hire may come down to details that don't have anything to do with qualifications or excellence.
Even if you know that rankings have an element of randomness, there is something magical about being First Choice and something unmagical about being Second or Third or Seventh. I heard of a recent case in which the first candidate offered a faculty position turned it down owing to having a more attractive offer elsewhere, and the second and third candidates turned down their offers because they didn't want to work at a place where they were not the first choice. The fourth place candidate accepted the offer, knowing he was fourth choice, and as far as I've heard, everyone seems happy with this situation.
6 months ago