Thursday, July 22, 2010

Telling It Like It Is?

If you are an adviser of graduate students. and if prospective students contact you to ask you about your research and research program:

1. Do you encourage prospective students to contact your current or recent graduate students for a student-eye-view of you as an adviser, for information about the department climate etc.? (why/why not?)

If you encourage this type of contact:

2. For how long do you suggest recent graduate students as sources of useful information? Within a year or two of when they graduated, for longer than that, or for much longer (especially if they say nice things)? That is, what is the shelf life of graduated students as resources for new students?

3. Do you 'cherry pick' the current/former students whom you list as good sources of information, or do you tell prospective students to contact any of your students?

4. If you are selective in your recommendations, is it because you think it most useful to mention those students with interests that seem most similar to those of the prospective student, or do you specifically avoid your crankiest students?

My answers are:

1. I encourage contact, as long as it's OK with the student being contacted and asked for their time/opinions.

2. This was actually the question that started me thinking about this topic. I lose track of time so easily these days, I'm not sure of the answer. Maybe a few years? At least 2 but less than 5ish?

3-4. I encourage contact with anyone, but may point out a few particular ones with similar interests.

Some of my colleagues use different schemes, so I suspect there will be no consensus, but I'm curious as to whether there is a dominant philosophy with respect to these issues.


Estraven said...

1. Yes. I'm a difficult person in some ways and they should know which.
2. No limits.
3. "Remember XY always describes me as better than I am, he's just a sweet person".
4. My crankiest students are difficult to reach, since they left science.

GMP said...

I refer the prospective student to my group website, tell them to contact whomever they like. I mention who's senior and has more experience/insights to share, but I don't specify much beyond that.

I don't recommend that my prospective students contact my former students. I think once they become former, I have no more right to usurp their time with the workings of my group (at least not routinely).

Comrade PhysioProf said...

In the biomedical sciences, students almost always enter programs without a specific advisor lined up as a thesis supervisor. Rather, first-year students rotate through two or three labs to find a suitable home for their thesis. Accordingly, when students seeking admission to our program e-mail me, I reply solely with boilerplate about the admissions process. if they ask specific questions about my lab/research, I ignore those questions.

Anonymous said...

My advisor usually encourages prospective students to speak to all of his current grad students, but he usually doesn't direct them towards former students.

He often sends the undergrads just to me, since I joined the lab back when I was in undergrad. He actually tells me to discourage the undergrads as much as possible, that way he knows that the ones that still want to join after talking to me are ones that REALLY want to do it.

Anonymous said...

@ Comrade PhysioProf

I wonder how many potential students are turned off by your [lack of] response? Then again, the communication style says it all.

I did the whole rotate through 3 labs thing; two of which were collaborators in the research area I'm active in. While I work with both of them, I am happy with my choice of an advisor b/c our communication styles are compatible.

The application process is as much student choosing school/research group as the opposite. Personally, I find that in a strong program there are enough wise and dedicated faculty that no one should feel pressured to work with someone that they absolutely.cannot.stand. Not that there should be some friction/competitiveness, just that the relationship shouldn't be dominated by drama. It's supposed to be about the research and learning, after all.

Anonymous said...

As a postdoc two years out of grad school I have a different perspective now than I did while in grad school. As a grad student I almost universally told prospective students in the lab that my adviser was wonderful. As a postdoc I realize I had some major weaknesses when I graduated and I am having to work on those as a postdoc. A prospective grad student entering grad school with similar weaknesses might benefit from a different adviser. Furthermore, my grad school lab leaned heavily toward applied research. I didn't realize at the time how much that would limit my introduction to academics in basic science, and such connections make a big difference as you move on in your career. Consequently, I'd still recommend my grad school lab and adviser, but I now have a better perspective on whether that lab is a good fit for a prospective student.

Jones said...

As a shiny new grad student, during my application process I made sure I contacted prospective graduate adviser's current and former students. Some suggested I contact their students, others I asked permission. Ideally I liked to speak to one former grad student and two current, but you take what you can get. From current grad students, I can ask about the atmosphere of the town, what housing costs, what the lab is like and also get to know people I could potentially be working with. Honestly, I would be extremely reluctant to join a lab where I had not spoken to a few of the members beforehand.

naticil said...

1. Yes. Only a student can comment on what it's like to be a student. I also tell the prospective student that it's good to talk to the group members because these are the people that they're going to be working with for the next n years.

2. I only suggest current students, for the second reason stated above. They're not going to be working with any former students. (But I don't purposefully steer them away from former students either.)

3/4. I tell them to contact anyone. There is one especially cranky student in my group right right now, I wish that I could tell prospectives to avoid him like the plague, but I don't think that would be right. I cross my fingers and hope they realize that Mr. Cranky is a statistical outlier.

Anonymous said...

CPP said

"if they ask specific questions about my lab/research, I ignore those questions."

I'm in a biomedical program as well (now later in my grad studies) but I definitely asked the profs I was interested in about their research and whether they would be accepting students into their labs in the next year. And the profs I've asked have said they appreciate early contact - it shows interest and initiative.

I've seen too many students get burned by the idea that in a big rotating program "someone" will take them, so the profs don't need to make any effort. It's best as a student to make sure that there will be several labs doing work you're interested in that have space for you.

In our program it seems that most of the contact with grad students occurs during recruitment, which is I think I good thing. It can be hard, though, to seek out and find the grad students from labs you are interested in when there are so many labs/students involved. As grad student, I've asked my adviser when students who are likely interested will be visiting so I can meet them and give my perspective (a positive one). But not all students will be likely to go to those lengths.

Anonymous said...

Somewhat unexpectedly, I find myself in agreement with Comrade PhysioProf.
Our department does rotations, so we don't try to pair up prospective students with labs. We do encourage prospects to visit and talk with grad students, but we don't give out the names and e-mail addresses of the grad students (though they are pretty easy to find on the web).

I do have a fairly long boilerplate message that I send to prospective applicants that includes
We do not accept applications for the grad program outside the normal application process for Fall admission. Sending us e-mail asking to be taken into our labs will not increase your chances of getting in at all. Those receiving Fall admission can delay arrival by a quarter or two (though we lose funding if students don't register for Fall quarter), but we can't handle applications outside the normal process.

Thinkerbell said...

I think such time consuming interactions should come up during the interview process, once it's clear that everyone is committed. Also, in that case it should be current people in the lab and from a variety of seniority levels, because everyone will have different insights and experiences. More senior grad students are sometimes more bitter. There's a reason they only use the first and second years during recruitment!

Ms.PhD said...

#4 what Estraven said is most common in my field. Hard to track people down who really know the worst stuff or had the biggest bones to pick.

What CPP said kept me away from several grad programs. If I'm emailing you to inquire about your research, it's because I've looked you up, read your papers, and thought your research sounded interesting.

Ignoring my questions just because I'm a student is a fucking stuck-up bullshit academic hierarchical you don't even fucking know me stupid thing for you to do.

And it just shows that you're a stuck-up stupid hierarchical jerk who doesn't have good communication skills, passive-aggressively avoids questions, and clearly doesn't deserve a student like me, because you wouldn't be a good advisor and wouldn't be interested in helping me with my career.

So that kind of behavior does not send a good message about you or your graduate program. I

(I wanted to make sure I put that in terms that CPP could understand)

Anonymous said...

If I'm emailing you to inquire about your research, it's because I've looked you up, read your papers, and thought your research sounded interesting.

If only that were common! When students show that they have looked at my web page and know what field I'm in, I generally respond, whether or not they are prospective applicants. We get a LOT of spam from students looking for a position anywhere. When everyone in the department gets an identically worded request to join their group, it does not look like genuine interest to us. After the 50th such message, you start filtering pretty aggresively.

AnonEngineeringProf said...

Yes. I encourage prospective grad students to talk to my current advisees for a more honest view. (I'm probably being selfish, though; I think my current advisees are probably fairly happy.) I also try to give a reasonably frank discussion of my view of my strengths and weaknesses. (But I'm sure I'm biased in favor of myself.)

However, at recruiting events and on panels for the prospective students who come to visit on visit day, I do cherry-pick from among my students those who I think are likely to present our best face forward -- because they are well-socialized, optimistic, happy with their life as a student, doing interesting work, whatever.

queenrandom said...

I'm in a biomedical science program, but we're expected to line up our first rotation before we start. In this situation, if a potential advisor/rotation prospect didn't encourage me to contact their current students and other trainees, I'd view that as a red flag.

As far as ignoring prospective student requests, there was a guy who ignored my inquiries before I started (I had already been accepted into the program), and I decided against rotating with him in favor of three of the half dozen or so agreed to meet with me in person. It turns out this was a good thing - he has a long history of sexual harassment.

Anonymous said...

As a side note, when I was a grad student I was amazed at the things potential students would tell us but not our advisor. And, since we would potentially have to work with the student we would tell our advisor what they said.

Things like, "I'm only going to grad school until I get into med school" or "I'm only interested in this school because my girlfriend goes here."

We all know how much effort grad school is and we didn't want to work with someone who wasn't going to be committed to the lab group.

Madscientistgirl said...

As someone not that far out of grad school, I'm going to concur with what appears to be mostly young'uns. I would never have worked for someone who did not reply when I expressed interest in their lab. No matter how cool their research is. Even if you write a short reply or even if you keep something around as a stock reply, replying matters. You never know whom you're blowing off - maybe he or she could be a star student.

Assuming prospective students actually know what professors are looking for is naive. In my role as a post doc, I was asked to talk to prospective grad students. The faculty had decided that two very promising prospective students had almost completely made up their minds to join other groups because they had not joined our group yet. In one case, they were certain the student knew he was hot stuff and was just holding out to get as much as possible. I met with the students. One joined our group as soon as I explained that if she wanted to join the group over the summer she should speak up soon so we could start planning. The other simply had not joined because he was worried about passing his qual and will likely join our group soon. Students are not all savvy. Many of them get no advice or bad advice. Assume good intentions.

I am quite certain I did things as a student that bugged the crap out of professors. I often tell "my" students that they should be harder on me.

Ultimately students asking about whether or not there are openings in the labs they're interested in are doing so because they don't want to end up at a school with no professors in subjects they're interested in who will take them on. They're asking because this problem does exist. They might not be dealing with it in the best possible way but they undoubtedly mean well and deserve some respect and courtesy.

Anonymous said...

Do you know what is most important about graduate school... finishing. Do you know who has the knowledge about how a particular advisor handles thesis committee meetings, thesis writing, papers and graduation... someone who has graduated already. So yeah, I would say talking to someone who has graduated or moved on from the lab is crucial. It is the biggest piece of advice I give to incoming students. Also you are going to get a lot more honest opinion from someone who is not in the lab anymore and doesn't need to stay on the good side of the advisor.

robhoy said...

Did anyone consider that perhaps ComradePhysioProf doesn't want new students? Perhaps he's not short of them. Or perhaps he prefers running a small group.

Anonymous said...

1. Yes. In fact, our department invites prospective PhD students to visit the campus and meet with current graduate students. Travel expenses are covered. The invitation is an important part of our recruiting effort.

2. The clock does not time out on former students. However, an interesting wrinkle is that sometimes we may be competing for the same new students.

3-4. I encourage contact with everyone, but I highlight the students with similar interests and/or backgrounds.

Anonymous said...

current students can't be honest....only former students can be honest....


Anonymous said...

1. Nope. The predocs don't have time to answer every inquiring applicant. Nor do I. AFTER application the committee identifies short listed applicants who then ask questions of faculty, predocs, postdocs, neighbors, landlords and kitty cats. And these parties interview the applicants.

@Anonymous 7/22/2010 04:25:00 PM -- agreed.