A reader asks how departments choose which advisers or research groups will get new graduate students. The reader's observation is that factors other than the apparent qualifications of the applicants seem to be involved in some of these decisions.
That's correct, although the allocation system need not be as corrupt as the one described in the e-mail by this reader. In that case, it seems that members of the graduate admissions committee assign themselves students in a preferential way. I would think that other faculty would object to that quite strenuously.
In departments with which I have been associated, decisions about who can accept new students, and how many, involve the following factors:
- quality of the applicants, as evaluated from the applications and/or from interviews;
- how many students an adviser already has;
- how many more students an adviser wants to admit and/or can reasonably take on (explained more below).
- what distribution of students among the various potential advisers will result in a good balance of students in the major subdisciplines.
Regarding the last point, consider that this year a certain research group in my department was described as the primary interest by many applicants, including most of the top applicants in the entire pool. If admissions decisions were based only on merit of the applicants, >50% of those admitted would have been interested in working with <10% of professors in the department. That would not be a good situation for anyone.
I am most familiar with departments that guarantee support for their students. In financially good times, there have been enough TA positions so that even faculty without major grants could advise a student or two and be sure that those students would be supported, at least for their salary, tuition, and benefits. In economic good times, any professor who wants to advise a qualified student can do so.
In times of economic crisis, faculty must demonstrate that they have the financial resources to provide an RA for at least some, if not all, of a student's support. For international students, advisers in some departments have to guarantee 12 months of RA support in the first year. Grad students are therefore preferentially allocated to faculty with resources, and the admissions committee makes decisions, in consultation with these faculty, about which applicants have the best qualifications for admission.
This year, during the admissions process, I had to provide detailed information about my existing funding, pending proposals, and planned near-future proposals. Based on my own estimation of what I could cover in the way of RA support, I proposed a certain number of students to be admitted.
Of course the number admitted does not correspond to the number who accept their offers, so there is a bit of guessing involved in deciding how many to admit.
Admissions committees may also consider factors related to a potential adviser's career stage and/or previous history advising students. For example, some departments want tenure-track faculty to advise graduate students, but the number of students advised by a new professor might be monitored so that it neither zero nor a huge number.
My correspondent described a senior professor who claimed that a certain applicant would be his "last student", although a current student was also supposedly his last student. This made me laugh because I have a colleague who has done this as well. He is either on his 2nd or 3rd "last student". The "last student" argument is compelling for making a case to advise one more student, but eventually an admissions committee should affirm that "last means last" and stop using hypothetical lastness as a factor in admissions decisions.
Furthermore, an adviser with a history of what I will vaguely term "difficult" interactions with graduate students might not be given input into admissions decisions and might not be allocated students.
These allocation decisions are made to provide balance among the disciplines, maximize the amount of RA support that admitted students can be guaranteed, and optimize the chances that a student will have a productive and successful graduate program. For these and other reasons, the decisions have to involve more than academic merit of the applicants. That doesn't mean that unqualified applicants are admitted (although I might not always agree with the some admissions decisions), just that other factors are used to decide among a pool of qualified applicants whose number always exceeds the available admission slots.
6 months ago