Thursday, November 10, 2011

Mad Libs Gone Mad

Letters sent to me as a prospective advisor of prospective graduate students who are prospective applicants to the graduate program in my department continue to arrive, with more appearing in my inbox every week. As usual, and as I have described before, these letters are quite mixed in their level of sophistication.

Here is an unscientific conclusion from my reading of these letters:

I have not seen any correlation between size, type, prestige, and/or location of the undergrad school and whether the letter is impressive or naive.

Excellent, focused, professional letters can come from anywhere. Clueless, naive and (inadvertently) obnoxious letters can come from anywhere.

The only somewhat predictable characteristic is that students from certain countries tend to send form letters, probably to many different professors, probably in the hopes that at least some will reply. I have wondered about this strategy and whether it is effective. The large number of possible recipients might increase the yield of replies, but the obvious form-letter nature of the letters (especially the "Dear Sir" ones sent to female faculty) discourages replies.

The strangest e-mail that I have received in recent months from a prospective applicant was sort of like a form letter, but it was also sort of like a Mad Libs template into which the student had inserted relevant information for each recipient, but not in a particularly smooth or knowledgeable way. The letter went something like this:
Dear Professor of Science,

My name is Student, and I will be graduating from University in spring 2012. I am looking into graduate programs for the fall, and am interested in your research program. Will you be taking on any new MS/PhD students next year? [<-- all that is fine so far]

In particular, I am fascinated by your work on "Title of old, obscure paper that is an outlier in my usual research topics" and how you applied [incorrect name for a technique] to [something I never did] in "Title of second paper that doesn't have anything to do with anything else listed so far." I would like to work on topics like this under your direction as advisor at [name of my university].

Attached is my CV.


OK, so he tried. He looked up some of my papers, picked a couple that may have looked interesting to him, maybe took some notes of some words in the abstracts or titles, and put this information in the letter.

B for Effort.

I think this can be a very good approach if you know what you are doing and if the things you are writing about are at least a little familiar to you, so you are not just stringing together Science Words and paper titles in a possibly-strange way. If this student had showed the email to a professor, chances are the professor would have seen some of the problems right away, without even knowing anything about me or my work.

We have debated cluelessness here in this blog before. When I have described clueless students, particularly undergraduates who are just starting to navigate the complexity of the graduate school universe, many readers can relate to the feeling that there are unwritten rules and things you are supposed to do and not do (but you have to figure these out by trial-and-failure first).

And so it is, and maybe that's how internet resources (including blogs) can help a bit. But beware..

For example, I have written posts in which I supplied templates for various types of academic letters, with blanks for personalized bits of information. These templates are mostly just to give a sense for the types of information, appropriate length, and scope of various types of letters. I hope they are overall helpful, but if you stick random words in the blanks, you end up with something that is likely more incoherent than what you'd come up with by writing the letter entirely on your own.


Anonymous said...

It's not a question of whether or not clueless students ever succeed. In the end, we make choices. Do I choose the student who is already mature in personality and sophisticated in science of the person who has not yet gotten to either place.

Not that tough a decision.

Mark P

Anonymous said...

Ooh, tomorrow is Friday! I suggest you put up a template of an applicant letter (perhaps the one you already did in this post) in Mad Lib form and let your readers have fun by trying to construct weird and/or silly letters out of it.

Anonymous said...

I routinely respond that I do not reply to preliminary applications, but they need to submit a full formal application.

I am amazed by how many universities in the nation of XXX are in the top 5 in their country.

I also hold a named professorship, lets say the Joe Professor of Studies. It is amazing how many address an email to me as "Dear Professor Joe"

Anonymous said...

I got two "Dear Sir" letters from students in India this week. I am female. I understand the issue of not being able to recognize the gender of names in another culture, but if these students were serious about wanting to work with me, they would either (1) have looked at my webpage, with a photo of me; or (2) have somehow learned that you do not write to professors and assume that they are men. Oh wait, I forgot: these are form letters; the student isn't really writing to anyone in particular.

If there are serious applicants who really do want to be considered to work with a female graduate advisor, then I hope there is a way to spread the word that "Sir" refers only to men and it is better to use a general title like Professor (and not send form letters). I am sure that some of these applicants are very smart and might be excellent graduate students; it is too bad that they are using such a dumb approach to contact potential advisors.

Anonymous said...

My favorite is when the random Mad Lib lines are in different font. Making it completely obvious that they cut and pasted from some other document/webpage into the form letter.

I have tried to make it a policy to at least reply 'no' to these letters. For two reasons: 1) I don't want to keep getting stuff from them and 2) I don't want them to waste what could be limited funds on applying to my university if I have no interest. This fall I have a student who KEEPS WRITING (even though he got a 'no' e-mail the first time). I suppose I should take it as a compliment, but I'm just getting annoyed and wondering if I'm wasting my time replying to form letters after all.

Anonymous said...

I speak as a former author of Dear Sir emails( many of you have balls to admit you were clueless at some point?)

That FSP despises other, lesser, nations is well known...but here is a hint for some ummmerican snobs: In INDIA, it is considered DISRESPECTFUL to address professors by name. Yes... to refer to someone as Prof. Lastname is almost unthinkably DISRESPECTFUL by Indian standards.

Those clueless kids werent clueless. They were just respectful.

I must add that the same clueless bunch of people...the Indians who come to America...whoop the a$$ of every other ethnicity in both education and income by a massive margin. They may not be as sophisticated as the students from the bankrupt nations of Europe (nations, which incidentally, happen to have thrived on stolen wealth from India) but no...Sir...they are not clueless.

As such, maybe they are not as clueless as you think. Maybe the reason you receive form letters is because your research is not special enough to deserve personalised ones. Ever considered that possibility?

Anonymous said...

Does this mean that the clever students of India are all making the strategic choice to offend female professors with Dear Sir instead of opting for a simple Dear Professor? That seems like a strange and unfortunate choice.

Anonymous said...

FSP's hatred of gerbils and other, lesser, rodents, also comes through very loud and clear in everything she writes. Only some of us can detect this hatred, but that doesn't mean it isn't there.

Anonymous said...

For students who somehow manage to email a professor and receive a reply, what is the most polite way to respond? If the professor says they're accepting grad students, how can one express enthusiasm about working with them without sounding presumptuous?
A somewhat-clueless grad school applicant :)

Female Science Professor said...

It won't sound presumptuous if you just write back a brief thank you for the information and say that you will likely apply because the research opportunities sound very interesting to you (if that is true); otherwise just a brief thank you.

jb said...

It seems it's that time of the year again for these emails. I got 3 in the last week.