Sometimes there is a cosmic convergence of real life, email messages, and the blogosphere about a particular topic. This is one of those times.
Last week an anxious colleague worried that he would lose his top choice from this year's grad applicant pool if the department did not also admit another student from the same department/university. What if they were a couple but only one got an offer of admission?
He did not know whether these two students were or were not a couple, and he asked me what to do. He showed me a draft of an email message he wanted to send to one of them (his top choice applicant), and I was horrified by what he had written. I told him that he could not ask her directly about her personal life. He did not like that advice, but he did not send the email.
Just then, a post by Zuska on a related topic appeared, and I showed it to my colleague. He and our very savvy grad program staff person then devised a way to ask the applicant, who already knew she had been accepted to the program, what factors might influence her decision about whether to come here or not. She did not divulge anything about her personal life and replied with additional information about her research interests.
She had written very passionately and impressively in her research statement about her experiences as one of very few female students in Science in her university/country. I can imagine that she has not had an easy time being respected as a scientist thus far, and would therefore not easily discuss her personal life with a potential advisor.
Meanwhile, my colleague found out via an indirect route -- by asking someone who knows someone who knows someone at that university -- that this woman is in fact engaged to the other applicant in question. Although qualified, the male applicant wasn't a top priority for admission, but now he is going to get an offer of admission in the first round.
It is possible things would have worked out eventually anyway. Perhaps if the female applicant received an offer and her partner did not, a Zuskaesque exchange of information would have occurred and the partner would then have received an offer. He is certainly qualified and might have received an offer after the first round; he's just not a superstar like his fiance. My colleague feared, however, that by waiting he risked losing the superstar applicant.
I respect the young woman's reluctance to say anything about her personal life. I didn't deal with the 2-body problem until later, as an applicant for faculty positions, but I think I would have done the same at an earlier stage. I would have hoped that something would work out in one place that was good for both of us.
That's what I would do (and it seems that at least one other person in the world agrees), but now the question is, if an applicant to a graduate program wants to volunteer information of a personal nature, is this a good idea, and if so, how best to do it?
The 'best' answer may depend on the place. In my department, we've had grad applications from both members of self-confessed couples before, and in most cases one or both are accepted or not depending on the usual admissions criteria. The example described above is an extraordinary situation.
What if one person is applying to one unit of the university and another to a different unit? Different units typically have absolutely no influence over each other regarding graduate admissions (or anything else), so mentioning that a partner is attending or hopes to attend a graduate or professional program elsewhere in the university is likely to be treated as random information of no particular relevance.
Even so, I know some faculty who would consider a statement such as "I am applying to your program because my girlfriend wants to go to the vet school there" or even "I am applying to your program because I am interested in pursuing research with Professor X on Cool Science Topic, and also my significant other has applied to the Nanoneuroengineering Department" would be considered evidence that the applicant was not motivated by the Right Thing -- that is, a pure, intense, and unwavering laser-like focus on doing graduate Research in that particular department because of -- and only because of -- the awesomeness of the faculty. My advice is not to mention your coupleness in your application.
I hope that we faculty can look at applicants as real people with research interests and other interests and then make decisions based on who looks like they will be a motivated, smart, and creative student, even if they do take an evening off once in a while to go to a movie with their beloved. I hope that, but at the same time, what I want to see in an application is someone who is seriously focused on graduate research. That doesn't mean you can't have a life outside grad school, but there are only a few circumstances in which it is relevant to describe your personal life in your application.
Once you are accepted to a graduate program, however, you can volunteer information about your significant other's pending application to the same or different unit of the university if you wish to do so. In the case of applicants to different units of a university, it is likely to have no effect on whether your partner if admitted to the other program. I don't think it would hurt to ask, though -- but correct me if anyone has information to the contrary -- so maybe it would be worth bringing it up with the graduate advisor or your potential faculty advisor in an exploratory way.
In some ways, because there is less (money) at stake for a university and because students can apply to many universities to increase the chances of being together, it may be easier to solve the 2-body grad issue. Even so, some of the 2-body issues are the same and just as difficult whether the situation involves grad students or faculty -- Is there a best place for both of you? How do you decide that? And even if you agree on that, how do you both get to that place? Are you willing to be apart? If so, how far apart and for how long?
6 months ago