Tuesday, September 15, 2009

What to Expect When You're Clueless

Consider the situations of two undergraduate students who will be applying to graduate programs in Science during this academic year, in the hopes of starting grad school the following year. These two students are both smart -- neither is brilliant, but both are hard-working and motivated, have had research experiences as undergraduates, and have done well in their classes. On paper, they will have similar records that look very promising for graduate studies.

Student 1 has been talking to graduate students about their research and their general experiences as grad students and has been reading papers in the major journals. Student 1 seeks out professors for scientific and other academic discussions and has been proactive about doing research experiences (for credit) and science-related jobs (for pay). By talking to people and being generally aware, Student 1 knows what steps to take in applying to grad programs. Student 1 probably needs some advice, but overall is pretty savvy about the process.

Student 2 has had a similar number of research experiences and science jobs, but tends to focus on the immediate task at hand. Student 2 does best when told very specifically what to do and doesn't seem to be able to handle a lot of information at once. If general advice is given to Student 2 in advance of a specific task, it needs to be given again when directly relevant. Imagine that Student 2 (S2) has the following conversation with a Science Professor (SP) who advised one of Student 2's research projects.

S2: I've decided to apply to 6 graduate programs and was wondering if you would write me a letter of reference for my applications.

SP: Yes, of course. What are the 6 places?

S2: Do I have to tell you?

SP: Umm.. Yes, you do because each program is different and most programs require me to send or upload my letter to them directly. Aside from that, it makes a better letter if I can personalize it to address your strengths relative to a specific program or adviser. Is there some reason you don't want to tell me?

S2: No, that's fine. I'll come back later and tell you what they are.

SP: Have you already written to some potential advisers at each place so you know they are taking on new graduate students next year and are interested in seeing your application?

S2: No, am I supposed to do that?

SP: Yes, remember we talked about this a couple of months ago. It's a good idea to make some contact and briefly introduce yourself.

S2. Oh, OK. So should I just send my CV? Do I have to write anything with it or just send it?

SP: I was thinking more of an email in which you briefly introduce yourself; for example, tell them you are doing a senior thesis with Professor X on Project A and that last summer you were a research assistant for Professor Y on Project B and that based on these experiences you have developed a strong interest in Z Science and therefore you are thinking of applying to the graduate program at University K because Professors L and M do interesting work in Z Science. Or something like that. You can be brief but informative. Don't send a form letter to all 6 and don't send your CV without explanation.

S2: Oh. This is going to be more work than I thought. Maybe I will talk to you more about this later.

Faculty colleagues who are aware of this conversation with Student 2 have two different reactions:

Type A reaction: Student 2 needs a lot of help figuring out how to apply to graduate schools, so let's give that help.

Type B reaction: If Student 2 is that clueless, there is no way that student will do well in grad school. Let Student 2 flounder and nature take its course.

Professors are always searching for a foolproof way to figure out in advance whether a potential grad student will succeed or not. We all know that an excellent academic record and even glowing letters of recommendation may have no relevance to whether a student has the ability to do well in a research environment.

Can (should) the difference between Students 1 and 2 described above be used as an indicator of potential success in graduate school? Is Student 1 likely to take initiative, be observant and thoughtful, and get things done? Is Student 2 likely to bumble along not really knowing what to do unless told very specifically?

Or is that too harsh an evaluation of Student 2? Sometimes university professors expect that undergraduates will absorb information about how the university, department, and research groups work, but even students involved in research projects may not really be aware of how things work beyond their immediate experience.

Applicants to graduate school are given detailed information about the application materials, but applying to graduate school also involves a system of unwritten procedures that vary from discipline to discipline, e.g. the details of the admissions process and the expected amount of pre-application communication between students and potential advisers (none? some?). This is the type of information that we as advisers can help our students learn as they navigate the grad school application system.

My own conclusion is that Student 1 is more likely to succeed by being proactive and savvy (and smart) but, although it very likely does have some significance that Student 2 is so clueless, I'd rather not judge too harshly. If Student 2's cluelessness extends to research experiences, then it is relevant.


zed said...

I don't think the specific conversation about grad school says anything terrible about S2. More problematic is the statement that S2
"tends to focus on the immediate task at hand". Grad students really need to be able to think on their own, and to think broadly. While S2 could well do fine in grad school, this student will need to first learn these important skills.

Curt F. said...

The problem is that most of the Student 2's that I know are more adept at hiding their ignorance. They won't say Do I have to tell you?, they'll skip straight to, Let me send you an email.

If Student 2's hide their ignorance, then it is hard to tell them apart from Student 3s.

Student 3s are smart but lazy. They know that if they ask you, you will keep helping them. You'll tell them exactly what to do, so they don't have to think about it. Then with the time they saved, they go off and have a few beers. Meanwhile, you write blog posts ruminating over whether you should be supportive of Student 2s.

bob said...

I would say that S1 is more likely to be a successful experimentalist because that kind of advance preparation and general competence is important for making experiments work.

If we're talking theorists, I know plenty of S2s that are doing just fine. They screw up flight booking, conference registration, administrative tasks etc. but somehow they manage get things together just enough to produce decent work and keep going.

Kitty said...

Great post. I have had similar experiences and tend more toward the school of thought that this is relevant to grad school success. After all, in just a few months, these would be first year grad students. I would much rather advise the student who pays attention and files away information for later use that the one who has to be told information anew each time it becomes relevant for the task at hand. After all, you are going to want these students to start figuring things out for themselves as grad students, and just as there are unwritten things about the application process that a motivated and savvy undergrad can start to figure out on their own, the same goes for grad school.

Janka said...

Absorbing information about academic customs and procedures is a lot of hard work. People who have friends and/or family in the field are clearly in advantage compared to those without.

The conversation with S2 simply says he does not have the experience. Like zed, I'd not worry about that in isolation, but I would worry about his need to be given information when it is directly relevant, and to focus only on the task at hand. The inability to plan one's work and see the bigger picture *can* be overcome by some, but if you have to select between a person who already knows how to and someone who might learn, all other things being equal I'd pick the former. Naturally there is no guarantee that the former is up to it either, but given the information it is the best bet.

Being (or having been) one of Curt F's S3s I strongly advocate admitting them and then forcing them to do their own goddamn homework. ;)

Anonymous said...

Student 1 sounds focused on what she wants, whereas I would worry that student 2 is drifting into grad school without knowing why. I think student 2 might benefit from a chat about 'why do you want to go to grad school, what do you think you will get out of it, what are your 10 year career plans?'. If she can answer those questions thoughtfully and sensibly, then she deserves the support.

Anonymous said...

I think it's important to not discount the student's background. Students who come from academic families, for example, come across as very savvy about these things, while students who are the first in their family to even go to college may feel like rabbits in headlights.

But I'd definitely have reservations about a student like this: "If general advice is given . . . it needs to be given again when directly relevant." Big danger signal that this student is not able to generalize or grasp underlying concepts.

John Vidale said...

"Can (should) the difference between Students 1 and 2 described above be used as an indicator of potential success in graduate school?"

Definitely. And I'd expect 1's application to look much better from the applications. Both by (1) making a good impression by communicating with the potential advisors and (2) from having ample specific details of effective work on research projects in the recommendation letters.

Good scores and grades only go partway towards getting a good offer from a graduate school. From the incurious and ineffective description, perhaps 2 should get the advice that grad school is not the only choice for a next step.

Dr. Rural said...

I was Student 2.

It is great that there are the self-directed Student 1s who can figure it all out for themselves, but I think that all a lot of Student 2s need is some mentoring.

Anonymous said...

i agree with zed. also, i really don't like to receive emails from prospective students that serve no purpose but to introduce themselves...

Nicholas Condon said...

Perhaps I'm revealing myself to have been Student 2 as an undergrad, but are query letters to potential grad school advisors really de rigeur? I certainly didn't send anything of the sort when I applied to grad school in chemistry, and I was accepted to just about everywhere. (The rejection I received was deserved; I applied to a school based on its name when it didn't really have the kind of program I wanted.) In fact, at a couple of the schools, the professors called me!

Have times changed in the 14 years since I applied to grad school, or is this a field-specific thing? Or was I just clueless and lucky?

amy said...

I don't see cluelessness as a problem in itself. It's really just ignorance, right? It's fixable and universal - we're all ignorant about something. The major problem with student 2 seems to be the laziness and lack of ambition. But I think of these as self-correcting problems for undergrads. I just tell them all they need to do to prepare for grad school, and they either step up to the plate or the light in their eyes fades and they pull themselves out of the competition. My university is a party school, where most students do minimal work ("D is for Diploma" is a favorite saying), so the really sad cases are the seniors who come in saying they've just realized they want to go to grad school, but their GPA is in the toilet and they haven't done any reading outside of what they had to do for their classes. I tell them what they need to do to turn things around, and more often than not they give up. It's sad, and I try not to be too harsh about it. We do work hard as a dept., though, to talk to freshmen and sophomore majors about what it takes to get into grad school, so there's less chance something like this will happen.

Interdisciplinary Introspective said...

I wouldn't be too harsh on S2. As you note, applying to grad school "involves a system of unwritten procedures," of which this student is clearly ignorant. Yes, you may hope that S2 would have taken the initiative to talk with grad students with whom S2 must be in contact with in the lab, but I wouldn't say that S2's failure to do so indicates that S2 will not make it through a PhD program. In my own experience, coming from an exclusively undergraduate college, I was completely unaware of these "unwritten procedures," and headed to (a top 25) grad school without even an idea of what subfield to join, let alone with a particular lab in mind. Yet, here I am, a year away from completing my doctorate.

I agree with zed, that S2's tendency to "focus on the immediate task at hand" is more problematic. Still, perhaps this merely indicates the need for S2 to have a more conservative list of schools (i.e. not assuming to be successful at the top programs in the field).

I think there is a real need to be careful not to equate success only with admittance to the best programs, or with students following a path leading to a research career (a common PI bias), instead of the path that is right for them.

Unknown said...

I believe that Student 2's prospects as a successful person hinge on eliminating the clueless factor. That part of growing up happens later for some than others and I would have hope. It IS september and the student is searching out answers so I actually think S2 is doing fine (in my field applications are due late nov/early dec...and I KNOW I wrote mine around halloween oh those years ago). If anything S1 is ahead of the game if she/he knows the score about graduate school.

The hard part is figuring out how all this pans out over a graduate career. Some people are late bloomers (with confidence especially). Grad school is weird because most people's personalities really crystallize in their early 20's and that's the typical age for a graduate student. Serious self-evaluation combined with the often stressful environment of graduate school makes for some strange outcomes.

Anonymous said...

I beg to differ, FSP. I was very much like S1 as an undergrad assistant - involved, lots of initiative, talked to lots of faculty and grad students. But when it came time to apply to grad schools, I was S2 all the way. I applied to one crap school, spun my wheels there a couple of years before bailing and heading for an ivy (where I was welcomed with open arms, and was very successful). I think it was a combination of low self esteem and a lack of entitlement on my part, and low expectations on the part of my undergrad advisors. I'm still annoyed that no one pulled me aside and said "What on earth are you doing going to that crap school!!!!!!"

I'm amazed now, as a faculty member, how often I come across really bright students who are following the same path I did. Believe me, I always pull them aside and tell them they should aim higher.

scatterplot said...

I agree about the overall probability of success. However, Student 1s sometimes believe that the path to academia is one long ladder, whereas it's more like a series of ladders. Instead of climbing a little higher, they go from the top of one ladder to the very bottom rung of the next upon entering grad school. Actually experiencing that seems to be especially hard for the ones who are better-informed.

LMH said...

This is perhaps a harsher, senior graduate student post, but the student 2s I have worked with do not succeed unless they are also good at manipulating people. Perhaps this is the student 3 type? Student 1 has the initiative and drive to find out what graduate school entails, which I think bodes well for finishing graduate school.

If writing a separate letter to 6-12 professors is "more work" than they thought, how's an independent research project going to go? (Especially since research projects rarely go according to the plan?)

Perhaps a "what do you hope to achieve in graduate school" conversation is in order? Are there other options for the student that could get them to the desired goal?

We had a student 2 with a very pessimistic attitude and propensity for complaining. That negativity in addition to the "why on earth are you in graduate school if you need someone to tell you what to do every day?" questions we were asking ourselves has a very bad effect on our group. That student left over a year ago, and there are still lingering problems associated with that student.

I think honest conversations about if graduate school is a good choice for the student are better done early rather than late. It's not about grades or intelligence. I think it has a lot to do about propensity for research, ability to ask questions and not get discouraged, and work ethic.

mixlamalice said...

As my former advisor put it:
A good undergrad doesn't necessary make a good grad student. A good grad student doesn't necessary make a good post-doc. And a good post-doc doesn't necessary make a good PI.

I could ad that some of my friends were really average undergrads and become really really good grad students. When you are a bad grad student though, I have hard times imagining that you are going to become a successful professor.

But if you only give chances to students with wonderful academic grades, you will probably be sometimes disappointed and some other times miss really good young scientist that just happened not to be really interested by the formal aspect of learning.

scicurious said...

Sci was Student 2. Except that Sci really had NO idea how to apply for grad school or what they were looking for and how to get in. I just knew I wanted to do research and wanted to continue doing that. It therefore might be nice to get some idea of what the grad school admission process is like, as Sci had NO idea when she started, and thought it would be similar to applying for college. Without some excellent help, Sci would be clueless and not here. But I wouldn't say I'm an unsuccessful grad student, I was merely uninformed, and didn't know how to get the information (grad school websites would lead you to believe that it IS just like applying for college, while real world experience is very much otherwise). So some of us make be uninformed and clueless, rather than simply not listening.

Anonymous said...

Though I wouldn't label myself s 100% S2, I was definitely ignorant about the process. I rarely saw graduate students in my department (I can recall maybe 3 TA's; they usually graded but didn't teach/tutor) and didn't have reason to believe that I should ask them "How is applying to grad different than undergrad?"

I did ask professors for advice, and followed it accordingly, though. The most important "clue" they gave me was that picking a good advisor is more important than just the school itself.

Despite my initial ignorance, things have worked out exceedingly well!

Also, I'm the first from my family to be in engineering/science, get a B.S., or go to grad school. Someone else mentioned that this might lend itself to ignorance. I'd agree, as I've helped my younger siblings navigate the process.

Rachel P said...

I guess I'm just seconding what a lot of other people have already said, and what you yourself seem to have concluded... but I definitely don't think it's fair to write S2s off completely just because they haven't magically figured out how academia works. Advanced degrees are not a big thing in my family, so I had never really talked to anyone who had been through the process until my really fabulous undergrad advisors, without whom I would have been totally screwed... not because I'm lazy or anything, but just because sometimes you don't even know the right questions to ask.

And like others have said, my bigger concern with S2 would definitely be that they need to be told things repeatedly and/or right before they are to be put into action... the necessity of taking notes in meetings is something even I figured out after the first couple embarrassing times of having to ask for information you know you've already been given.

Also, with the problem Curt F. mentions of S2s hiding their ignorance... totally real, and now in my first month of grad school I'm still trying to get over being scared to ask questions I feel like I should somehow magically know the answer to, and it's kind of problematic... so if anyone has any advice re. this kind of fear/feeling, let me know :)

Anonymous said...

It is very possible that S1 comes from a family of academics, or at least of graduates, and that S2 comes from a group which she knows is discriminated against.

S2 knows that she is likely to be the subject of strict or even overtly unfair criticism, and concentrates hard on abiding by the rules of the job in hand.

S1 knows that the world is her oyster -- she is likely to succeed at whatever she tries. So she surveys a wide field. She has the time, because she doesn't expect to be judged harshly, and it won't affect her future happiness much if she did fail to get top marks here.

S1 has always known more about the world of postgrads than S2, who has fewer contacts to ask.

Some "elite" institutions help to maintain S1's advantage by reserving the highest undergraduate marks for those submitting "adventurous" work. If you know some of the staff think you should not have been admitted for having the wrong race/gender/background, do you go out on a limb?

EliRabett said...

Students mostly are clueless about how universities work. Part of the faculty's job is to educated them, and this means being very explicit in the freshman introductory classes. In the junior and senior year courses, career counseling has to be part of the curriculum of every course. It does not have to take a long time during the lectures, but it does have to be explicit.

Unknown said...

I think I was an S2, way back when. Fortunately I only signed up for a Masters and had the good sense to leave at the end. It took a few years in industry for my career goals to crystallize. Eventually I figured out that a PhD was the best route to the kind of job and work I was interested in, and the process of doing that figuring out had made me much more like S1.

Looking back to when I was an undergrad thinking about grad school, I was totally blind to large parts of the nature of work in the academic setting. I was honest with myself about my reasons for wanting to go to grad school, but I didn't really understand what it meant to be a success as a grad student. I treated my thesis project like a really big class project rather than a starting point for inquiry. That's okay with a Masters, but I am very glad I left when I did. That let me come back and do it right.

Unknown said...

I was very much like Student 2 when applying to grad school. It wasn't because I failed to seek out info. It was because in our small department, all advice for students looking to continue on after their bachelor's was geared toward "How to get into Med School". So when I asked for help, I was either pointed to the pre-med advisor, or handed the "How to Apply to Med school" package by whomever I was talking to. The attitude was very much that grad schools want students so you won't have any trouble getting in, plus you're smart enough to figure it out as you go along. I'm sure glad that no one blew off my chances of success in grad school just because of general ignorance about the system and irrelevant advice. I think I'm doing rather well now that I'm here.

John Vidale said...

I think a lot of posters are selling themselves short, and doubt many resemble person 2. An effective and inquisitive person reveals themselves to faculty, even if they feel clueless, as many people do when faced with difficult decisions like life after undergraduate school. Posters tend to be articulate and not so shy (at least in email, if not in person) in my experience.

Ms.PhD said...

Interesting post, but perhaps even more interesting comments.

I have been working with a Student2 lately, and he wants to drop out. And I think he probably should. He's very smart, but not very interested, tends to work only in fits and spurts, and does not communicate well at all, or take notes.

It's infuriating. What's perhaps most amazing to me is that his adviser is going to the extreme of writing his papers for him so he can get a PhD he doesn't deserve (and may never use).

Me, I was somewhere between a Student 1 and 2. I was not terribly savvy, and while I did ask, I did not get such concrete advice as you list here - no one told me to contact potential advisers ahead of applying, but if I had, I might have chosen to apply to different schools.

I didn't know what I was doing, but when I got advice I wrote it all down so I wouldn't have to ask again. I don't know how clueless I seemed when I was asking.

I try not to hold it against students for not knowing. If they are asking, they're doing their job.

However, if they don't take notes, don't follow directions, and then come back later asking again having IGNORED MY ADVICE because they didn't like what I said, and are hoping I will say something different the second time or feel sorry and offer to do more of their work for them, this is a major pet peeve with me. I guess this goes in the "lazy" category.

I don't want this kind of person in grad school. I wouldn't want them in my lab, and I don't want more of this kind of person in science.

I would just say, "I don't think grad school is right for you."

You'd be doing us all a favor. These people make horrendous colleagues and collaborators. They never grow out of their irresponsible attitude, and they never grow a work ethic.

peachie said...

I agree with several of the commenters (especially Anonymous at 9:38) who point out that S1 may come from a more educated, science-savvy family or community (and that it is more concerning if S2's cluelessness extends into S2's work in lab).

As a high school student and undergraduate, I didn't receive any professional guidance or academic input from my parents. They were wonderful and loving parents, but didn't have the same educational/cultural background as many of my peers. My mother expected me to meet a husband in college, was appalled when I wanted to study abroad, and surprised when I announced I wanted to go to graduate school ("Do you really want a *career*? What about children?"). Neither she or anyone in her family had been to college, and my father was the first in his family to go. An exceptional professor saw my interest in one of her seminar classes and invited me to work in her lab for a summer. (I was looking into childcare, food service, etc. jobs to supplement my part-time income while I wasn't taking classes.) That turned into an independent study and then a full-time job as a research assistant. When I finished school, she encouraged me to accept a prestigious fellowship; the fellowship required me to move hundreds of miles away, and my parents were trying to discourage me from accepting. I have since completed my Ph.D. at a top-tier school and am now an assistant professor. I love my work and am so glad I ended up on the path I am taking. I'm sure I was pretty clueless and often more like S2 than S1, at least when it came to applying for things, seeking out fellowships, and networking (although I was a hard worker and, I like to think, capable of seeing the bigger picture in my science). That one person made such a huge difference in my life because she didn't dismiss me based on my cluelessness.

Amanda said...

S2 sounds a lot like me, actually, and struggling with my own forgetfullness and general cluelessness has been a problem.

What S2 needs is someone to sit down with her, and give her a firm but gentle wakeup call-- make her realize that doing what is told is not enough, and that she NEEEEEDS to be proactive. If she can't recall things, she should start carrying a small notebook to record key points of important conversations. If she has trouble planning, she needs to make herself a detailed calender, and to-do lists.

I'm in my third year of law school, and doing fairly well now-- I realized my inherent cluelessness during my junior year of college, and it has been a constant struggle since to remedy my ways. But it IS possible for the clueless to become unclueless, and having a good advisor who is willing to be honest but not mean helps a lot.

Unknown said...

Two quick points.
1. i think the telling issue isn't what S2 knows/doesn't know - it's the fact that S2 was already given this information and appears not to have used it or acted on it.

2. one way to think about this is developmentally. S2 doesn't sound ready for graduate school *yet*. but S2 might be counseled not to give up graduate school, but to take a bit longer to become better informed - to figure out whether he/she is really motivated enough to work through the information acquisition required.

Katie said...

Nick - I still think your application experience is pretty standard for chemistry. I applied 6 years ago, and I've never heard of anyone sending introduction emails. I got into all the programs I applied to and got into the top lab in my department without sending any emails before my application.

Kevin said...

As a grad director who has to read over a hundred applications a year, I can say quite frankly that we'd much rather admit self-directed students than ones who needed hand-holding.

But undergrads can't magically find out about the grad school application process by osmosis. They need some mentoring. In our fall senior capstone class, I talk about fellowship applications and grad school applications. This is a bit late, but it does reinforce the message that we've been trying to get to them all through their undergrad careers.

Direct contact with faculty before applying is very much a discipline-specific thing. I get rather irritated by the piles of rather generic letters expressing desire to work with me from people who clearly have no idea what I do. If everyone on the admissions committee gets one, it is counted as a clear negative for the applicant. Genuine contact about research questions is a plus---bogus networking is a minus. We want researchers, not politicians.

What we do look for is evidence of research ability: research projects, letters of recommendation from research supervisors, publications, ... (Yes, many of our grad students come with several pubs already, particularly the re-entry students who are changing fields, but even ones coming directly from undergrad programs. In fact, we have had grad students come in looking better on paper than many faculty applicants.)

The advice we give undergrads is to do research projects, to look for grad programs that do the sort of research they are interested in, and to confirm that the faculty who did that research are still at the school.

Anonymous said...

Someone explicitly told me not to send email inquiries to potential advisors. I'm not sure why, exactly, though I can say that as a faculty member, I seldom reply to the ones I receive. I don't want to give any appearance of making a commitment that I can't or won't keep, so when I do reply, it's usually pretty vague. I certainly won't reply to anyone that doesn't use my name and express knowledge or interest about my broad research area.

Female Science Professor said...

These are good points about possible disparities in the backgrounds of S1 and S2, but not relevant in this particular case -- both are from similar backgrounds. If anything, S2 has a bit of an advantage in this way (S1 is working a full-time job to pay for school).

I think that if a prospective student writes to a potential adviser to find out whether the adviser is taking on new students in the near future, this is important information that affects whether there is any point in applying or not. If any one of a number of advisers is possible, then it is less important.

However, in some departments, one or more faculty members must commit in advance to provide some support for a student before that student is even admitted -- the commitment may be particularly large for international students who might not be able to TA for the first year or two. If an adviser is going to make such a commitment, pre-application communication with a student helps.

Random said...

I was student 2, but not because I wasn't goal oriented or organized. I went to a liberal arts school- the career counseling people (who I was pro-active and went to talk to) knew NOTHING about applying to science grad school or anything other than business school, and they also weren't even aware that there were differences. They practically demanded we get professors to put letters of rec on file with them so they could be shipped out without bothering the professor whenever needed in the future. Then I got a job as an RA at a hospital, where everyone was an MD- and medical school is also a completely different process. I got information, but it was all the wrong information (and, how would I ever have known?). It possible someone had mentioned something about how to apply to grad school once or twice years before, but until I started applying I would have had no framework to fit it into anyways.

Thank goodness when I contacted my undergrad thesis advisor, likely sounding very much like student 2, his response was (verbatim) "hmm, it sounds like I need to step up the advising here", and he explained the whole unwritten process. I did very well in a program thats top ranked for my field, and am continuing to move on. I'm still grateful to him for taking me under his wing instead of letting me do the whole process the wrong way.

Maybe the bigger question is why this application process has to be so much like a secret club and can't be a little more transparent...

Anne said...

Nick - applying to chemistry programs hasn't changed that much. I applied to chemistry programs 3 years ago, and it isn't particularly common to contact specific advisors ahead of time unless you are interested in something specific. I didn't contact any profs ahead of time, and was accepted everywhere I applied. In fact, during recruiting weekends most schools encouraged us to consider going to the school that had at least a handful of faculty whose research interested us.

I've been asked to sit on this year's admissions committee...it will be interesting to see how easily students 1 and 2 can be distinguished on paper...If they can't be recognized on paper, it will be easy enough to tell come recruiting weekend.

Anonymous said...

As someone who is not at one of the top institutions in my field I resent the idea that student 2 should be sent to us as part of a more conservative list of schools to apply to- so on top of teaching more than colleagues at R1s but with the same research expectation I end up with the pick of a group of students who need more mentoring...I think what S2 needs is a year off to do research and think about what he/she really wants, get a clue and a discussion of the roles of technicians vs. PIs and what programs might be appropriate for his/her interests

Anonymous said...

Student 1 seeks out professors for scientific and other academic discussions...

Woah! Hang on a minute ... my whole problem is that I don't get to talk to anyone that often (I'm a postdoc now). And it sure as hell isn't because I don't care about the research, and I sure as hell don't want to be told what to do.

You need a 'student 3' for truly independent people who just 'aren't like' the professors (the gender is different for a start).

Change said...

I was sort of like S2 when I finished undergrad and applied to grad school and also I was unaware of the "unwritten procedures" and was also somewhat shy. I had no idea that I was expected to write to potential advisers. If I'd have to go back and do it all over, I'd do it very differently.

Also the background of the student definitely matters, as one commenter mentioned.

Hope said...

Completely agree with FSP’s conclusion re: S2.

The advice to contact potential advisors is field-specific. In my opinion, it’s a bit silly to expect a student who’s not even in grad school yet to have a good idea of what they want to work on. Some programs have rotations in various labs for the purpose of exposing students to different areas/advisors. It’s also not uncommon for students to change their minds once they become more knowledgeable about their field. So this contact up front with a PI to “introduce yourself” seems like needless/useless politics to me.

Anonymous said...

Student 2 has no idea about things. Student 2 could get the information but isn't interested. Student 2 wants things done for them. Student 2 will probably go to grad school and then complain they have a bad adviser because adviser doesn't hand hold them and they have to think for themselves.

Some one who takes initiative even if they don't know what they are doing will usually fair better than someone who doesn't take initiative and doesn't know what they are doing.

No undergrad I've ever heard of just knows how to apply for/get into grad school. It's something you learn. I didn't have a clue once I figured out I wanted to continue in science how to get into grad school but, with some research and help from my peers and professors I figured it out and got into grad school.

It is really interesting how many of theses posts are written through personal experience and a lot of the traits inferred about student 2, didn't come from FSP.

Comrade Physioprof said...

Direct pre-application contact with possible thesis advisors is highly field specific. In the biomedical sciences, the vast majority of PhD programs require two or three laboratory rotations before choosing a dissertation lab, the entire purpose of which is for students and mentors to "find one another". In light of this, when I receive e-mails from undergraduates expressing interest in my lab and our graduate program, I respond with boilerplate thanking them for their interest and directing them to the Web site that contains the application information for our program. Attempts to initiate any sort of colloquy about their interests and/or the research programs in my lab are ignored.

ThirdYearGrad said...

Rachel P. wrote:

now in my first month of grad school I'm still trying to get over being scared to ask questions I feel like I should somehow magically know the answer to, and it's kind of problematic... so if anyone has any advice re. this kind of fear/feeling, let me know :)

I felt that way a lot at the beginning of my time in grad school (and sometime still do). My anxiety about appearing stupid/naive/ignorant was compounded by the fact that upon arrival I happened to be significantly younger than anyone else in my group, and one of only two women at the time in a group of >20. Often, everyone else seemed to be speaking a secret language and conversations would assume some canon of shared knowledge that I didn't have yet.

What I have learned is that most people react very well if you can just get over your hesitations and ask questions. If you have a specific question and the answer can't be easily found by a few minutes of googling, ask. Nobody knows everything, and asking appropriate questions shows that you are inquisitive, that you recognize your own limitations, and that you respect others' expertise. As an undergrad, you were usually confronted with problems that you could solve on your own fairly quickly using techniques you already knew or had been taught. As a grad student, you have to figure out when it is worth slogging through something on your own, and when it is better to ask someone who is knowledgeable / experienced (the former approach can sometimes result in you learning more; the latter helps you make progress more quickly). If the problem is getting to know the unwritten rules of your department, try to find someone who has been around for a while, is politically savvy/effective, and might be willing to take you under their wing (if your adviser can serve this role, great; if not, try to find someone else to help you with this).

Also, talk about it with other new graduate students. Probably many of them are having trouble figuring out the same things, and have similar fears about asking. Knowing that you are not alone in being confused or clueless at times can help you develop the courage to ask questions.

Remember that not knowing something doesn't mean you are incapable, it just means you still have a lot to learn, and that this is normal when you take on a new role in a new environment, working on new topics. Everyone else has been through this, too, so they will not think poorly of you for asking questions (and if they do, it reflects on them more than it does on you).

Once you have started asking, you will figure out who gives you especially good advice or help on various topics, and you can go back to those people later with any new, related questions that come up.

hkukbilingualidiot said...

I was student 2 though more closer to S3 than S2. I still got into grad school but I just never know what to write in those e-mails which everyone keeps hounding us to do. To be honest I'd rather spend my time reading on the subject or focusing on my research instead. As for getting information only when needed, my supervisor/advisor does that too. I know it is annoying at times but in my situation if I had gotten it when I had been doing a different type of analysis it would just distract me as I tend to evaluate the newer, hense less well known problem first and everything will just go really wrong.

So that's my take from the other side of the spectrum. It kind of annoyed both my undergrad tutors/advisors at first but once they understood the way my brain worked I don't really need that much help anyway. So I guess, for some of the S2s it's not that they haven't got a clue what to do but rather it's just not considered important enough to spend the effort knowing full well that it can affect the result of the task at hand.

ThirdYearGrad said...

Also for Rachel P:

Here are a couple of links that give advice that may be obvious, or might help you organize your thoughts and reflect on how to go about asking questions:



And on finding mentors:




Anonymous said...

An interesting line:

Student...has been proactive about doing research experiences (for credit) and science-related jobs (for pay)

Why the clarification in brackets?

This sounds like a reproach.

Anonymous said...

At my large midwestern public university we have a, shall we say, "healthy" pre-med population, many of whom need letters. If student 2 happened to be a chemistry major, chances are many of his/her friends applied to med school. At my school it is the procedure to write one letter that is put on file at career services. If a chem major talks to pre-meds (who normally apply a year earlier) the chem major would get potentially incorrect information.

When I applied to chemistry grad school, all the schools that accepted me called. These days, of course, we invite all our admitted students to visit for a weekend.

I think it is wonderful when I get emails from students interested in graduate research in my lab. When I applied about 15 years ago, I sent emails to lots of professors. On the other hand, I got virtually no advice about how to apply to grad school, even though I had a great research mentor. Maybe I didn't ask enough questions. Hard to recall.

I wish I knew the formula for success in grad school. In my own group, the students who ask me questions and are active about getting my attention seem to do better, but I also have a superb student who I bug. Whatever, I only have 5 students so that is not really stastically meaningful.

Anonymous said...

I was an S2 when I first started college. I then had the blessing to leave the college I was at (which was filled with S1s) and go to a college where I got into the McNair scholars program. The program takes kids who come from disadvantaged backgrounds (either ethnic minorities or low-income/parents only finished high school) and gets them into doing research, prepping them for applying to grad school, helping them get ready for the grad school experience, etc. Coming from a rural area where virtually no one had parents that were academics, this program was a life-saver for a lot of smart kids who were generally clueless but were capable of becoming academics. A lot of bright people I know ended up shooting a lot higher than if they'd just gone to school for a BS, and ended up going to some really excellent schools and succeeding.

I think individual mentoring by faculty can be helpful, but there is a lot to learn, and programs like this can better prepare undergrads...if they're lucky enough to get into them (which is to say, if they were unlucky enough before going to college).

Ursula said...

I would have been Student 2. While I was very good at research, once I was in a place, I was terrified of contacting people, especially authority figures, that I didn't know personally. I'd fret over every single letter of an email to be sent, and just couldn't deal with this. Too stressful.

So, I would say: You just can't extrapolate.

Unknown said...

Such an interesting post, and interesting comments, as well. It seems the underlying question behind the post and comments is this: can a good researcher be made, or are good researchers just born that way?

Or maybe if they aren't born that way, are people beyond hope of change by the time they are seniors in college? Or, as some commenters suggest, will they just need more than one year to grow into potentially good researchers?

It reminds me of an article in Scientific American Mind ("The Secret to Raising Smart Kids", Dec 2007). One of the major points of the article is the importance of maintaning a "growth mindset," believing that success can be accomplished by effort, that a person can become good at something. The growth mindset is the opposite of the mindset that innate talent and intelligence are the only keys to success.

As a former Student2, and someone who hopes to grow and learn my whole life-long, I have to say, give people a chance to learn and change! If they really want to achieve a certain goal, give them the chance to learn what will be necessary, and let them make an informed choice.

That said, I don't mean that ill-prepared or apparently ill-suited students should be written amazing letters of rec and admitted to top-tier graduate programs just to give them a chance. But if those students ask silly-sounding questions, try to answer them or direct them towards an answer. If they express goals they seem ill-suited to achieve, give them clues about what you see as strengths they need to develop to be successful. Don't dismiss them just because they aren't the perfect researcher *yet*.

John Vidale said...

Lots of comments about how one shouldn't write off the S2s, although there seems to be a transmutation of FSPs incurious student into the simply shy, inhibited, and uninformed people posters remember themselves as being.

Perhaps a different question would be the one faced yearly in our admissions. If we are looking for 3 students, and need to admit 6-8 to get them (against the top competition), and 30 apply, should we opt for S1s or S2s?

newgradstudent said...

I'm not in a science field, but people in my field are expected to write to potential advisors before applying to a program.

At least, that was what I was told! But I got awfully discouraged when the first few emails I sent were either ignored or got boilerplate replies along the lines that Physioprof describes.

Being shy, and extremely sensitive to things like sending people emails they don't want to receive, I gave up. Because the only positive response I got was one in which I wrote to Professor A saying that his friend Professor B had suggested I write about XYZ, I concluded that what was REALLY expected was not the email version of cold-calls, but that special people's special advisors would introduce them to the people they needed to know in order to get into good schools. It was clear that I wasn't a special enough person to get more than one such introduction. Or else I just wasn't well-connected enough.

However, it worked out for me in the end because I made some of my own connections. After giving up on the emails, I decided instead to do some networking at my field's Big Conference. I didn't have much more success with introducing myself to random people from the programs I applied to -- they were all polite, but I didn't feel like I had sparked any real interest in any of them.

But, I did take the opportunity while at the conference to get involved with a work group that was working on a project -- not to further my chances of admission to grad school, but because I was interested in the project. It was serendipity that one of the other group members, it turned out, was on the admissions committee of my first choice school, which I was admitted to with funding. (Some other schools invited me to pay them a lot of money to enroll in their MA programs, but... no.)

I was happy with the results but the whole process left a bad taste in my mouth. I guess it's a lot easier for people who aren't as shy as I am. But it's frustrating to me that I was advised to send out all these emails which, in the end, seem to be pointless and an annoyance to the recipients. And I can't imagine that the professors in my field at various Fancypants Ivies are at all interested in hearing what everyone's senior thesis was about and how it relates to their research. So I am forced to conclude that it's a lot like the old days, and students get into those schools because they know someone who knows someone. If that's true, people giving out advice should cut everyone a break and not tell applicants to send those stupid emails, in my opinion.

Anonymous said...

I wanted to raise a slightly different point. How does the S1 student feel about all the 'nuturing' of the S2 studnet. I am very much along the S1 lines, the only other student my advisor has is a S2, only more so. It frustrates me to see my advisor bending over backwards to help this guy with even the most basic things when I worked it all out for myself. I'm not talking about actual science, more admin kind of things. Its almost like because I am capable of working it out by myself I am chucked in the deep end while his hand is constantly being held.

For the record we both come from families with a few university graduates but no other academics, I've learnt most of what I need to know by reading university handbooks and attending information sessions. If anything given the 'maleness' of my field I should be the one at a disadvantage.

Anonymous said...

I am surprised that so many people say that they were Student 2.

FSP points out that FSP is "clueless". There is no doubt more to the story than she's sharing here besides that one awkward social exchange.

Student 2 may be lucky to stumble into graduate school, and maybe once she/he is there some maturing will take place and the student will stop being so clueless.

But I will freely admit that I am biased against Student 2. I make it very clear that I will offer guidance on getting into graduate school and am happy to do so. If a student chooses to still be clueless and to not show much initiative, how is the student going to handle a dissertation or being an independent scholar?

butterflywings said...

I feel some commenters are being overly harsh to student 2.

I definitely believe that people can develop and change. Especially when they're so young - how old is s2, 21, 22?

Some people just develop faster than others, and some need more time and more mentoring, that's all.

As for e-mails to possible tutors in grad school, I can imagine it is just annoying. I also got into a good Masters course without doing so.

The thing is, school does its best to crush initiative and curiosity out of kids. I think I remember FSP, you posting about how your daughter did extra schoolwork and her teacher didn't react well? Precisely. Kids who ask questions are seen as disruptive (by other kids, as much as teachers).

It just takes time to grow out of that conditioning.

You have to know the questions to ask, have a framework of experience to fit things into, and that can take time. I know I struggled when I started work (in a proper graduate job) with needing more direction/ mentoring, and felt stupid and as if I *should* know things - but why? How should I?

There are 'unknown unknowns', if you like.

I think FSP was expecting a bit much of s2.

Student 1 is a bit more savvy and mature, that's all - it doesn't mean student 2 won't cope with graduate school.

Anonymous said...

It is very very very difficult as an undergrad to get this kind of inside information. I was essentially a student 2. I had no idea what I was doing in applying to grad school, so I basically applied to a bunch of general programs and gave a vague idea in my letter of the broad field I was interested in working in.

It seems like student 1's I know are sometimes lacking in the bigger picture. They get great advice on how to apply to grad school from their current adviser, so they will seem savvy about the process to anyone they talk to. They apply to labs in the same field as their undergrad adviser, often not really taking the time to really THINK if these are the types of scientific questions they want to work on. But they will get lots of help from their current adviser, often involving word of mouth recommendations to labs they are applying to.

In this light, "clueless" student 2's (who don't have good information from their advisers and don't know "the game") may really be more independent, in that they have to muddle through themselves, on their own merits (rather than their adviser's).

Petroc said...

The S1s have very narrowly defined career paths, whereas the S2s' careers develop in more exciting and less predictable ways. While the S1s will (predictably) make their names in their respective fields, obtain jobs at increasingly more prestigious institutions, and perhaps wind up department heads, they won't depart the fields in which they initially began plotting their career and 'networking' (a euphemism, let's not forget, for asskissing), skills they learned on account of their upbringing, steeped in the good ol' boy culture of their parents' academia. The S2s, on the other hand, after receiving their initial degrees, will branch out into different fields, in which--learning from their immediate post-undergrad, S2-era cluelessness--they will comport themselves in an S1-like manner; however, being in fact S2s and not S1s, they will not engage in department pageantry, working outside of their advisors' proper expertise, but doing so effectively: that is, they will give the department talks that everyone makes sure to attend, because they're interesting and not like the S1s' ponderous and career-safe bromides on microspecialized minutiae. Eventually moving into newly emerging, crossdisciplinary fields of study, the S2s will teach those courses that everyone recommends their friends take because, let's face it, the class is "fockin' fascinatin' fixins" (if I might speculate as to the slang of twenty years from now) while the S1s will, in their capacities as instructors, accumulate enough scathing reviews on their ratemyprofessors.com pages to force the web site to create a whole new category of (to continue the speculatory phrasing) "flunkin' flairin' floptard." Actually, they'll probably just name the category after some particularly notorious S1.

So, to answer your question: yes, I think that the difference is a strong indicator of graduate school--and future academic--success; however, I believe I differ with you and most commenters on how best to define success.

Female Science Professor said...

I think some commenters have been too harsh with Student 1 and too kind to Student 2, though of course my opinion is influenced by having more information. Student 2 has worked closely with 3 professors and several grad students, attends weekly group meetings, and has received a lot of advice about grad school/careers but is still floundering. Student 2 may do well with more help and I'm willing to give some of that help. Student 1 is not a narrow political operator but someone who loves Science and who is successfully working full time and finishing a Science degree -- this is an impressive person.

Female Science Professor said...

My email indicates that this anecdote freaked out some people who worried that the Student 2's of the world might not get into grad school. It is important to realize that Student 1 and Student 2 will have extremely similar applications to grad school in terms of their academic records and research experience. I am quite confident that both will be accepted by graduate programs. My anecdote involved my musing about what would happen when they were in grad school. Would one or both succeed based on the characteristics I described?

Petroc said...

Okay, I definitely distorted S1 and S2 ...just a bit... but it was fun to write about my exaggerated versions of them! I think it's a fair point that S2 might one-day become an S1, perhaps in a different field, once finding a true passion.

Anonymous said...

the best predictor of future behavior is past behavior... my prediction is that Student 2 will end up in a corporate job with little to no independent thinking required.

charles said...

I was -- and still am, to some extent -- a Student 2 who blundered my way into a top grad program. It provided a very rough learning experience when I was booted out of the program for not making significant progress after a year.

That was something that I really did need to go through in order to be forced to take a hard look at myself. Now I've found a career in a field related to my former course of study and couldn't be happier.

Ask student 2 what they expect to get out of grad school, and if it is a vague "I want to teach or do research""-type answer, he or she needs to have it spelled out for them how hard this can be and what return on their effort can be expected if they do succeed.

Get Into Grad School in Psychology said...

Great post! I can really relate to it because I WAS S2. I finally found some mentorship to help me get into graduate school, but it's not simply an intuitive process.

I didn't know how to conduct an effective search for graduate schools. At first, I was clueless about the importance of student-faculty fit.

I applied more than once and I finally got in (and recently finished with a Ph.D.), so I've been working hard with students with promise to help them navigate some of these non-intuitive "how-tos" when applying to graduate programs.

Anonymous said...

I think it's just too soon to predict future success of either Student 1 or 2. I've known grad students who spent years being clueless like S2 to the point of inducing migraines in me everytime I had to repeat advice and instructions fot the tenth time as if none of it was ever taken note of. but somehow at some point those S2's became less and less clueless as if they finally reached enlightenment when everything clicked. then once that happened they were incredibly productive and ahead of the curve.

Some people just take longer to get clued in because they may be overly focused or concerned about other issues at present. Part of it may also be maturity.

So to make judgments on two individuals so early in the game is, I believe, a mistake.

Doctor Pion said...

Can (should) the difference between Students 1 and 2 described above be used as an indicator of potential success in graduate school?

Collect data for these two over the next five years and find out!

Anonymous said...

I'm basically a student 2 mostly because I have ADD so it IS hard to take in too much info at once and I prefer to focus on the task at hand. Although this doesn't keep me from doing quality research, it presents a specific adviser/student interaction that I must have. Typically the advisor (or at least someone in the lab) would be patient and the student hardworking. For me I do need the extra push and support to help link together concepts however, I would never ask anyone to spoon feed me anything. Just be patient if I ask a question twice to get things straight or in the right order, or to make sure I understand something right. Some advisers don't mind doing this, others very much dislike it, which is too bad.