This is another example in the continuing saga of Choosing Excellent Grad Students. Of course, prospective grad students go through a similar guessing game when trying to choose an excellent adviser. On both sides of the experience there are people who are wondering:
Is there a foolproof way to tell in advance who will be a good [student/adviser]?
The answer, at least for me, has always been no, but choose we must, using the few clues with which we are provided. For some advisers and students, these clues start with an e-mail.
This leads to the perpetual questions: How much should potential advisers read into these e-mails, some/many of which display a level of cluelessness that is both understandable and alarming? How much should applicants read into the response/lack of response of a potential adviser?
EXAMPLE: Let's assume that e-mail content may be a significant indicator of the work habits of a student. Which of these students would you accept if you had to choose only one of them?
Student 1's e-mail to a potential adviser contains the following:
If you have papers that you could send to me, I would like to read them to get a sense for what you have been working on.
Student 2's e-mail to a potential adviser contains the following:
I recently read your papers on X and Y and think that I would be very interested in pursuing research related to these topics because [succinct explanation].
If I were in a nice, generous mood, as happens from time to time, I would assume that Student 1 is trying to show me that he/she is interested in my work and is trying to display initiative by expressing a willingness to read my papers. I would factor in the possibility of inadequate advising or inexperience in online search techniques and journal article acquisition. I might also assume that Student 1 doesn't have online access to the relevant journals (perhaps he/she has already graduated) and didn't think that was relevant information to provide. Some of these correspondents use their gmail or whatever addresses even if they are students, so the lack of an edu email address is not particularly meaningful. I may know that their gmail name is angelkissyboo or lemurhead, but I may not know their current academic/employment status (but that's another topic).
Yes, I know that some readers identify with the clueless and are cynical and suspicious of the clued-in. What if Student 2 is merely an obsequious politically-astute operator who is trying to impress me by writing what he/she knows I want to hear and Student 1 is a sincere-but-naive person who, with the right nurturing, will blossom into a creative and productive graduate student?
That may well be, but Student 2 took the initiative to read some journal articles and Student 1 is asking me to do things for him/her. If you had to choose only one of these two students (a not entirely realistic scenario) and had no information other than these email messages and what is typically in an application file (a somewhat realistic scenario), would you choose Student 1 or Student 2?
If both have excellent academic records, they will both have opportunities for graduate research, so I am not talking about giving one a chance and destroying the other's hopes and dreams. I am, however, using this real-life example to highlight the fact that we as advisers have to make choices based on limited and/or flawed information. So what do we do?
If I really had no other information on which to base my decision, even knowing (from experience) that either of these students could be an excellent or dismal student for all I know and can predict, I would choose Student 2.
6 months ago