Wednesday, November 25, 2009

You Choose

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.

55 comments:

mareserinitatis said...

Another thing to consider is that even if student 1 is enrolled in undergrad, they still may not have access to many publications. My undergrad university didn't have any AGU publications...or any other geophysics and very limited geology, which is what I would've needed to get in order to sound like student 2 to a potential PhD advisor. I suppose the one difference is that I would have mentioned that I could get them through inter-library loan, but if they were easily accessible, it would be nice if a prof would share some of their publications. This sort of thing tips in favor of those from well-funded or very large universities.

Hope said...

Why would a prospective student need to ask you for pubs, FSP? Aren’t the pdf’s available on your website? You (or your grad student) do keep an up-to-date website, don’t you?

Of course I would pick Student 2 – could you have stacked the deck any more in their favor? But I’d advise Student 2 not to be too surprised if it turns out that you are no longer working on X or Y.

agradstudent said...

I have written emails not so unlike Student 1's not so long ago. I met a professor in a different field and attempted to make science-y small talk with him. What I asked was more along the lines of "What is the best paper in your field, in your opinion?" The response was a link to a website for the general public about this topic --- obviously shot down. I found this disappointing. I am perfectly capable of looking up papers. I was trying to get this professor's opinion in an attempt to have a science-based social interaction with him. I'm sure I did similar things when applying to grad school. Why is this unacceptable?

Janka said...

I feel that expecting undergrads to know how to do things a lot is sort of unfair. Student 2 already knows how to do a literature search, which I admit speaks well of her. Student 1 does not know, but we have no way to know if it is that she does not know *yet*, or that she cannot be taught. Holding it against her that she has not been yet taught might lose you someone who with very little training could be better than Student 2, who actually might not be very clever, but just has had someone tell her what to read and how to phrase the mail. Or it could lose you someone who just can't be bothered. Main point is that at this stage, you just don't know.

Anonymous said...

Just out of (self) interest, how would you look at emails from postdoc applicants.

Hopefully the first type of email in this example wouldn't appear, but are there similar cluelessness identifiers that you have seen?

Anonymous said...

When I applied for grad school, I was student 1. Though in my opening message I included my undergrad background, what I could bring to a project and that I have been struggling somewhat to find relevant articles as sometimes potential supervisor have various interests. Depending on what they have provided me with I could often get an idea of what they are hoping that I would do. Additionally, the amount of information that they have given would also suggest how interested they were in taking me on.

When dealing with potential co-advisors by doing this it also gave me an idea of how well the two can work together too. Though these are only minor considerations in my case. My undergrad supervisors had trained me well to work almost independently so it didn't matter too much if the supervisors weren't that great!

Dr Spouse said...

Almost all our publications are available on our academic web pages, so student 1 would be incapable of using Google, let alone any literature search facilities.

Comrade PhysioProf said...

I would choose student #2, because student #1 has proven to be a lazy shit who can't be arsed to even go to Google Scholar and look up my lab's shit or my lab Web site that lists our latest motherfucking publications *if* they are going to go the route of asserting that they are interested in my lab. The bigger point is that I assign absolutely zero predictive value to a prospective grad student "expressing interest" in my laboratory either before applying to or even while interviewing for our program. The only time that "expressions of interest" mean jack fucking squat to me is when a new student approaches me to seek a rotation in my lab.

yusername said...

It could also be that student 1 just wants to know what you are working on to gauge your current (as opposed to past) interests, and just phrased the email awkwardly.

I'm applying to grad school and my undergrad advisor did tell me that journal articles are more indicative of closed projects, and that I should mail to find out about newer projects and grants that are often not listed on their webpage or CV.

Anonymous said...

Coming out of undergrad, I was a very motivated, top of the class student but my undergrad school did not have a big research focus, I didn't personally know anyone in academia, and I had yet to discover academic blogs. Therefore I was completely clueless as to how to go about approaching prospective advisors and probably came off more as student 1 despite my best intentions.

I think we have to cut undergrads some slack about what they should or should not know about this sort of thing (or else schools should make more of an effort to educate senior undergrads on how the grad school process works)

Anonymous said...

I agree with the statement of a previous poster, that not all undergrads would have access to many publications. I certainly didn't back in the day. Thinking back, I would like to believe that when I wrote to potential advisors, I would have indicated that I did not have access to their papers. But after all this time, I am not certain that as an undergrad I actually knew that other students at richer universities would have free access to large varieties of papers. At least I would have made some attempt to indicate I knew SOMETHING about what the professor did, giving some details of what I had heard and how.

I can see your point, that if the two students had identical records and ALL you had to go on were these two brief emails, you would choose Student 2. So would I. But I think in most cases I would try to get a bit more information, at least by writing back. If a student continued to show cluelessness in subsequent emails (and especially if I were generous enough to send them a paper and they didn't demonstrate that they read, understood and were still interested) then I would not continue to waste time on them.

a physicist said...

It's a no-brainer, I'd pick student #2, if this was the choice I was given.

Although, my publications are all available on my website (yes I know that some journals don't like this) and they're easy to find, so this situation is unlikely to arise.

I have had a case where a student was already accepted to our graduate program and wanted to know *which* of my papers to read to get a good start... now, that was a very good question! He's getting his PhD right now with me and he's great to work with.

Anonymous said...

If I were applying to work with my current grad adviser, I might have sent an email similar to student 1- he publishes SO much with so many different kinds of people, it can be difficult to discern which are HIS interests- or more importantly, what he is currently interested in having a student undertake. Maybe I should suggest to him that he give some focus to the 'recently published' section of his faculty webpage...

And my larger state PUI subscribed to v. few journals as well.

Anonymous said...

I would definitely choose Student 2. But in our dept. professors do not do direct admits, so usually I am just presented with a student and told: "this is your student, take her or leave her". Usually I take her.

Anonymous said...

What I'm really uncomfortable with is people who do everything they can to hide holes in their knowledge, then it only becomes apparent when you probe pretty deeply. Once you find they've been covering up one hole, you really never know how much they are hiding!

I'd prefer if people were open with the fact that, hey, they really never read many academic papers in undergrad because that's not how their undergrad program was run, or because they chose to take a broader spectrum of courses so didn't end up taking any journal seminars. So, for that reason, they don't really know how to find papers. BUT that they are confident because of their strong academic record that they can pick up that skill as a graduate student.

Here's what I did in some of the first email conversations, since I came from this perspective.

me: I see you work on X from the descriptions on your website and publications. I am very interested in X, also as it combines my interests in Z and W. I'm particularly intrigued by subproject Y that you discuss on your webpage. Is there some reading materials on Y that you could send me? I don't have access to or much experience in reading academic papers so I'm not sure how to find it myself.

female Science Professor said...

Student 1 could look at my research webpages and either get the papers of interest or get the references and ask me for a reprint. I don't mind being asked for a reprint or being asked questions.

female Science Professor said...

BTW, these were real emails. I didn't 'stack the deck'.

jess said...

I’m pretty sure that I was Student #1 when I applied to graduate school. I think, though, that I might have asked something more along the lines of, “I saw on your website that you have done X and Y in the past. Can you tell me what you’re working on now?” With the length of the publication process, sometimes a professor’s recent papers don’t reflect the current lines of research going on in the lab.

scicurious said...

Sci is now in grad school, and would have come off entirely as student 1. I didn't know what Google Scholar WAS, and only had a VERY small understanding of Pubmed. And all of the places I applied had TERRIBLE websites where paper titles (if they were on the website at all) were at least 5 years out of date. Keep in mind that a lot of people going in to academia and trying to get in to grad school have NO one to show them the ropes or teach them what they should be doing. My undergrad advisor just told me to "apply to grad school" without any real advice on how to do so, and I was so naive I would not have known what questions to ask.

People like student 2 are, in sci's experience, more likely to have, say, a really good undergrad mentor, some excellent undergrad research experience in the field, or perhaps be a lab tech applying to grad school. While these people are great and tend to be extremely successful, not everyone has these opportunities if their undergrad is not connected to a big research U (which many students may not take into account when they apply to college, we are not born with excellent mentors and perfect ideas of how to attain a tenure-track professorship). In addition, many people do not KNOW that you can apply for lab tech positions straight out of college and expect to get anything (sci certainly didn't). So I'd be more likely to have a little sympathy.

Anonymous said...

To anonymous at 3:19,

I get emails from postdoc candidates (and graduate students) all the time that either (1) want to do experiments in my lab (I am a theorist, I don't have a lab), (2) describe in great deal their experimental skills, all of which are obviously useless for what I do, (3) make it clear that they are not particularly interested in my research (or qualified to do it) but have some other reason for wanting a job in my group (staying in the area, etc.). I would have thought that these were all obvious boo-boos.

I won't speak for anyone else but I would say that if you are familiar with my work and write a reasonably professional email (like a letter), you will stand out.

female Science Professor said...

I do have some sympathy for Student 1, but you don't need to know how to use Web of Science or Google Scholar to look at my webpages and find information about publications and ongoing research.

Anonymous said...

I would vote for Student 2. You decide on the basis of what you know, not on the basis of what you don't. The worst that could happen is that Student 2 is trying to show off. So what? Showing off is a good skill; that last line is a bit cynical...but I have found it works well.

As for "is there a foolproof strategy to decide who will be a good student", I'd say: Define "good".

PUI prof said...

IMHO, all good undergrad science programs should have their students retrieving and reading at least a FEW scholarly science articles before they graduate. If they can't do that their program has done them a great disservice.

Moreover, good science programs should have a research requirement where the students are doing original research. Whether that be with the faculty at thier intitution, through an external internship or summer project, or even a research class, they should have learned this stuff. Most good grad programs (at least in my field) don't take people with zero research experience. There's no real reason for this cluelessness.

Unless of course, the student graduates with an unrelated degree and changes his or her mind to go into science.

a physicist said...

All of you folks who are "Former student #1" -- don't worry, we DO have sympathy for you. As everybody has said, very few of us only act on the basis of one email from a student. Yes, all else being equal, a student who has been carefully mentored in the process of applying to graduate school will stand out. (My particular mentoring advice: do research as an undergraduate.) But usually all else is not equal. And we're happy to mentor clueless student #1's and help you become full of clues and happy productive scientists.

Really, the revealing factor is almost always a recommendation letter that says "This student had difficulty gaining clues" vs. a recommendation letter that says "This student started with no clues, but is a fast learner and full of enthusiasm." Sometimes students who are full of enthusiasm will manifest that enthusiasm in clueless ways... that's OK!

bob said...

I would write back to student 1 with a friendly one line response and my favourite recent paper attached. That would take about 20 seconds and you would have a much better idea about the student from any subsequent interaction.

I find students like number 2 a bit suspicious. How many departments are they applying to? Are they really reading that many papers and wanting to pursue all these professors' research? More likely, student 2 is just a bit more savy than student 1, reads part of an abstract or two to get enough to write a few words in the e-mail and goes with it.

When I was applying to grad school, I wrote some e-mails a bit more like student 1 and some a bit more like student 2 depending on how much I knew about the field/professor. The response rate didn't vary much with e-mail style. A significant majority of people never responded, some responded briefly, one or two responded quickly and in detail. I ended up doing my PhD with one of those that responded quickly. Once you've sent one e-mail like that, surely another doesn't take that much longer. You can do a convincing copy-paste job.

As an aside, if anything there was an inverse correlation between response likelihood and apparent busyness of the professor (things like number of papers/year, group size, etc.).

Anonymous said...

As a grad student I worked for a PI who sort of specialized in giving ugly ducklings the benefit of the doubt. (I fear that this may have been why I was hired as well.) While I appreciate any opportunity this practice may have given me, the lab dynamic was not good. Probably a professor needs a critical mass of competitive, hard-working students in order for a bunch of hoos-foos charity cases to be able to find their way around. I would say that, if you have access to student #2, take student #2. If you need a student and the only email you have is from student #1, well then, hopefully last year's student #2 is patient and doesn't mind ordering new glassware...every week...and repeating experiments that--oops!--poor inexperienced student #1 has boiled, contaminated, or knocked over.

female Science Professor said...

Of course I wrote to them both, sending Student 1 some reprints.

I see no reason to be suspicious of Student 2.

Kim said...

In my experience, undergrads don't realize that it's a good idea to contact potential advisors unless they've received some mentoring. (My students tend to think that the process should be like undergrad admissions, and think mostly about the institution rather than the program and potential advisor.) So I would worry about student 1 - if a student responds to a suggestion to e-mail potential advisors by tossing off e-mails and expecting the potential advisor to do the work of selling themselves to the student, that's a bad sign.

So I wouldn't immediately see student 1 as being at a disadvantage in terms of not having access to articles or mentoring.

Quill2006 said...

I realize this isn't the focus of your post, but you may want to suggest to your gmail-using grad students that they add their school email account as a "send from" address in their gmail account. I hate my university's email system, so I have all my .edu email forwarded to my gmail account (and have it filtered to pre-label it as such) and also set up my school email as a send from address, so that I can send and receive email that appears to come from my school account without ever having to log into the frustrating crud that is the university email system.

This may sound sort of complicated, but it's really very simple to set up if you know it's an option.

Kevin said...

"or else schools should make more of an effort to educate senior undergrads on how the grad school process works"

Bingo! we make sure that all our undergrads in our program read journal papers (and get explicit instruction in how to find them---one lecture from a good science librarian is well worth the time). We also coach our students on how to choose grad programs (looking for both individual research projects of interest and breadth of programs). We also strongly advise doing research projects.

For our grad admissions, we pretty much ignore any e-mail that is not part of the application file, as we do not pair students with advisers until after a year of rotations. We do look for a good fit between the interests expressed in the personal statement and the strengths of the department (but statements of the form "I want to work with famous professor H--" are taken as negatives).

The only exception to ignoring information not in the application file is that students who spam the whole department (including non-research staff) are given big negatives. We have a strong enough applicant pool that we don't need to accept the irritatingly clueless.

Prior research experience with good letters from the research supervisors is by the far our best indicator of students who will be successful PhD students.

What happens with most of the requests to join a lab is that they get forwarded to the grad director, who sends out a long form response that describes admissions policies, acceptance rates, and other relevant information (all also available on the web). If there is a meaningful question about the program that isn't in the form, then a few sentences get added to the beginning of the response.

Genuine queries about research (not I-want-to-join-your-lab queries) do get answered by the faculty.

mixlamalice said...

I know things are different here because students are in general more independant than in France, but in France too PI's react like that and it seems a little hypocrit: they pretend (and it might be true) they like emails like student 2, self-motivated, with already a career plan and maybe some research ideas. However, once the guy is hired, he is considered as a lab tech (hands, no brain). This works also for post-docs, and even for assistant professors...

As a candidate, it is quite complicated to show that you're smart, independant and have good ideas, and at the same time, show that you will clearly do what you're asked to without complaining too much.

Genomic Repairman said...

CPP is right this is why the rotation system exists, to see which turd floats and which one sinks to the bottom.

Anonymous said...

I know that people who supervises/advises will get annoyed with me when I say this, but my experience of being a 'lab tech' in industry advised me to play dumb when meeting potential advisors. As when I started my placement in industry they told me that it was my responsibility to find out the cause behind a problem that they were having but no-one really cared about. All they've given me was an experimental set-up and I should figure out the rest. Four months into the program and I was beginning to get results on both the theoretical side and the experimental side then all of a sudden I've violated every rule in the book and my researching rights were taken, I was not allowed to do new experiments and was gradually degraded to the work of part-time lab assistants. I was only an undergrad student at the time! From then on, even though I wanted to 'sell' myself, I never let to potential supervisors/advisors know what I know already. I don't want to end up being a lab tech and always working on someone else's idea!

Anonymous said...

@Kevin...

making undergrads read journal papers? We can't get them to read 5 pages for the final exam.

@Quill2006

I understand your liking for gmail. I even write papers with my gmail address displayed on them.

Yayaver said...

I am not a student or teacher. But I will prefer student with the simple logic of criteria of taking intiative. While both of you know litle about field of work, 2nd one has curiosity to look in this matter.

Anonymous said...

@PUI prof:

I went to a small liberal arts school where undergrad research was a huge focus. I did three semi-independent research projects, one of which led to a year-long tech job after graduation.

However, because it was an undergrad only institution, I was still completely clueless about how to apply to graduate school. I didn't have any graduate students around that I could ask frankly about how to apply to grad school. And I didn't know the right questions to ask my undergrad research mentors about what the process really entailed.

Also, the field I was interested in going into was different enough from the one where I had done research that the little advice I did get was totally off base. I applied to a bunch of broad multi-departmental programs where you typically don't contact professors until you are accepted (see comrade physioprof's post), whereas most of the faculty working in my current field take students directly, or at least expect direct email contact prior to application/admission.

So anyway I think my undergrad prepared me to DO WELL in graduate school, but provided me no skills whatsoever for actually getting into grad school.

John V said...

I'd find student 2's questions better, but I'm suspicious when applicants act more narrowly focused in their interests than appropriate for entering graduate school.

Rather than focussing on a paper or two, applicants would best mention one or two areas of strength in a department as the motivation to choose that graduate program.

So neither question is ideal - better would be to flatter FSP and one or two others in the dept, and ask what nascent general projects are on the horizon among the group, perhaps citing the group's recent advances (not just naming the papers and their topics).

Kevin said...

"making undergrads read journal papers? We can't get them to read 5 pages for the final exam."

Well, this is a senior/first-year grad class, and the seniors have at least one more advanced grad class to take. It's a pretty high-powered program, so getting them to read a few journal articles (as long as they aren't too hard) is not difficult. The ones who can't do that bailed out for biology or psychology (selected as they are the 2 biggest majors on campus) years earlier.

amy said...

I was a first generation college student, and completely clueless about college, much less graduate school. I do worry about practices that tend to preserve privilege -- those who have more resources and better training get more opportunities, and the gap between the rich and poor grows over time. I think some affirmative action for first generation college students might be called for. On the other hand, it's completely rational to prefer working with students who are better prepared and who demonstrate more skills. And student 1 is unusually passive in this case. Would I have been student 1 as an undergrad? We didn't have the internet then, so I can't really say, but I'd like to think that if I'd had the internet I would have looked up the web pages of schools where I was applying, for heaven's sake!

female Science Professor said...

Exactly. You can be as sympathetic to Student 1 as you want -- I was clueless about grad applications, went to a small school, was the first in my family to go to grad school etc. etc. but I can't imagine writing to a professor and asking them to do something for me that I could make a first effort to do myself.

The Geek In Question said...

I sent letters out to three possible advisors this spring. I wrote to the profs only after I had done a thorough search of available on-line material(I did not have access to a university account at the time to do lit searches), read recent articles to get a good grasp of their work, and communicated with current grad students listed on their webpage. I also did google searches to get tips on how to construct a good intro letter, what information profs liked to see included in them, etc. Then I AGONIZED over the text in the letters for a few weeks, personalizing each and re-writing several times.

No one told me to do this, I did my homework and figured it out on my own.

It paid off - I had two pretty much immediate offers of lab space (pending an offer of admission from the university, of course).

I don't think it's there's really a valid excuse for a potential student to say, "I don't know/didn't know how to look stuff up". If you can google and even a teeny bit of initiative you can figure it out.

Ms.PhD said...

I agree with the person who thinks Student 1 could be asking about current work, as opposed to potentially out-of-date published work. Student 1 may have already read all the published work, but didn't write a very good email.

Student 2 reminds me of a student I had recently; and a postdoc we have in my lab right now. This type occurs frequently in science, and I don't understand the fascination with this type: reads papers and recites facts from them; technically good (but not outstanding); works hard, but not smart. And after being in the lab for over a year, still does not have an idea for a project; starts things but does not finish them unless someone else is driving.

My point is, learning how to write an email is an important skill, but it can be learned by anyone, and later in the career.

Learning how to ask questions is much more important, but it's also much harder, and it is almost impossible to teach. You'll note that Student 1 asked a question; Student 2 made a statement.

You might also look at it this way: Student 1 is open-minded and looking to the future.

Student 2 is narrow-minded and assuming that what has been done so far is 100% correct.

I'm only giving an n=2 in my example, but I have met many students like this. Sadly, in the current state of science, they tend to do well because they are obedient (trainable) and thus very predictable. Most PIs seem to love that. I find them boring and more suited to technician jobs - not likely to make creative contributions.

female Science Professor said...

Student 2 read some papers and was interested in the topics; questions were included later in the email. Student 1 asked me to select some reprints and send them. To interpret the former as narrow and the latter as open-minded is bizarre.

Anonymous said...

What about how to choose advisor???

Advisors who don't reply, who replied once, who replies in detail but turns out bad???

Can you make a post on how to choose advisors if there is no access to former/current grad. students or postdocs. Or if current employees give meaningless polite short info that doesn't tell you anything.

HOW DO YOU judge a good or bad advisor from Emails??

Gingerale said...

Female Science Professor said...

Exactly. You can be as sympathetic to Student 1 as you want -- I was clueless about grad applications, went to a small school, was the first in my family to go to grad school etc. etc. but I can't imagine writing to a professor and asking them to do something for me that I could make a first effort to do myself.


Bingo! Thanks FSP.

I also agree with Comrade PhysioProf's post, back on 11/25/2009 at 6:57 am.

You know what irks me? Applicants who want to pester my current grad students even before deciding whether to submit the application. I find those requests unreasonable. If grad students have time to respond to such requests before applications even get to the interview cut, then, grad students have too much time on their hands.

Once somebody's application makes the interview cut, that's another story. But before they even apply? Heck no.

Anonymous said...

Anonymous at 4:27:

"HOW DO YOU judge a good or bad advisor from Emails??"

You can't. And you can't judge them from visiting. There are two ways: talk to former students (not current) who have nothing to lose by being honest or be their grad student. The latter is the only sure way, and it can often be the most brutal.

Ψ*Ψ said...

I find students like number 2 a bit suspicious. How many departments are they applying to? Are they really reading that many papers and wanting to pursue all these professors' research? More likely, student 2 is just a bit more savy than student 1, reads part of an abstract or two to get enough to write a few words in the e-mail and goes with it.

@Bob: Speak for yourself! For the groups I was focused on, I read the past two years' publications that were relevant to the sort of projects I'd like to do. THEN I emailed asking about current projects/status of the stuff I read about and thought was cool. I know not all prospectives have time for this (I was out of school and working), but...isn't it a good idea to read up on what you're likely to be doing for the next five years of your life?!

Anonymous said...

Student 1 seems to be asking about current research. Student 2 is trying to catch the professor's interest. I would not read much more than that into these two emails.

I'd wait to see the rest of the file. Before then, there's really no way to know.

Anonymous said...

I was doing my dissertation when I was applying to grad school and didn't quite have time to look through past research in the relevant fields until the summer hols. By then I wouldn't have had any access to journals so I asked my potential supervisors to send me the most up to date articles related to the projects that they were offering as if you didn't know where to start it is EXTREMELY time-consuming. Though I was shifting into another but related area. I actually did the literature review by hand before and it took me 3 months to get just enough information for a 5 page background information. So, when you say that student 1 is lazy, it is more like the e-mail wasn't constructed properly. Also, once a recommended literature was given it really saves a lot of time if you have to do the literature reviews by hand, especially when you are still working on a project that will determine whether you will graduate or not!

Grad3 said...

I think the reason people felt strong sympathy for student 1 is because, many people experienced disadvantages from being clueless. Grad school is called "school" because we are students, meaning it is OK to be clueless but we are here to learn the process etc. There are a lot of faculty members who are nice enough to respond to emails, but there are many more who are not, including my PI. I strongly agree with Kevin and his grad program- I wish mine had similar process for incoming students.

Anonymous said...

I simply will not make my decision based on one email. I will send student 1 some of my publications and have at least some further communication with both of them before decide.

Lab Rat said...

Maybe I've just had very good teaching and mentoring throughout college but I wouldn't dream of emailing a supervisor until I'd gone to their website and at least skimmed through the abstracts. Final application emails usually go along the lines of "I see you are working on X and I have read through some of your papers, are there any particular ones you would recommend for a potential project?"

Dr. G said...

I would have concerns about student 2, though. They may not select the correct papers and then presume that I am working on something that is not, in fact, a primary focus. I have indeed had this happen. Then I end up explaining to the (often overzealous) student 2s that I'm not really working on that and end up with "well then I'd be really interested in working on anything else you're working on, too!" I much prefer a student to ask what would be the best thing to read.

Anonymous said...

I don't think either student 1 or 2's behavior in this one situation is an indicator of how good they will be. Whether they ask you to send them your papers, or have already looked them up (or at least claimed they did), is trivial. You don't know what's inside their heads - why student1 didn't look up the papers himself or why student2 did. Let's not try to read too much into non-events.

Anonymous said...

@Comrade PhysioProf: really ... is such colorful language necessary to make your points? Granted this is the internet some of us still respect our mothers enough not to juxtapose them with four-letter words.

From FSP's subsequent postings to the thread I get the distinct impression we are supposed to favor student #2 over #1. I will try my best to judge only by the original information and ignore these not-so-subtle hints and cues to bias my vote. ;)

Having said that, if someone had put a gun to my head and told me to pick one or the other, I suppose I would have to go with #2, on the basis that #2 seems to show more initiative than #1. While it's true that #2 could have said what he/she said out of political astuteness rather than truthful interest, I think of that as a good thing. In my opinion, being politically astute is a more essential quality to getting through grad school than pure smarts. What with all the big egos that academicians tend to have, a lowly grad student without political skills, all other things being equal, is less likely to secure support and win favors to ensure successful completion of the degree. Don't get me wrong, one still has to be brainy to get through a program, but a student who knows how to put on an act when needed will have an edge over one who doesn't know how to play the game. Don't make me count the number of very bright grad students who fell by the side because they had offended some big fish in the department with their lack of political skills and refusal to play by the rules.