Monday, March 11, 2013

Stage 2: Acceptance

Yes, I know that Acceptance is Stage 5 in the evolution of grief, but in the academic context of graduate admissions, it is Stage 2(ish), in the sense of Stage 1 = Application; Stage 2 = Acceptance (or not).

At this time of year in the US academic calendar at many institutions, students have been accepted, rejected, or put on hold by the graduate programs to which they applied. Some departments or programs bring in prospective students for an interview or recruiting visit; in the first case to make final decisions about admissions, and in the other case to try to convince students to accept their offers of admission.

Some departments bring in some of each, and some bring them all in at the same time. That is, a group of prospective grad students are brought to visit as a group: some have been offered admission, some have not (yet). The idea for this post is based on a conversation I had with an undergrad who recently participated in one of these 'hybrid' events.

According to this student, the not-yet-accepted students worked very hard to impress their potential advisors and other faculty and researchers. In the opinion of this student, those who had been accepted did not work so hard (or, at least, some didn't. I have no direct knowledge of the situation, but it was the opinion of this student that those accepted were significantly less concerned with making a good impression than those who had not yet been accepted.)

I suppose if I think back over my years of encounters with prospective students at conferences (before admissions decisions are made) and my subsequent meetings with them after they receive an offer of admission but before they make a decision, I could come up with some examples of students who were energetic pre-admission and lethargic post-admission. Without being any more specific than that, I can say that my experiences seem to back up this undergrad's impressions.

I asked this student: But don't those who have been accepted know that they still need to impress their potential advisors? If they accept the offer at that place, why would they want to start off working with someone who may now have a somewhat negative impression of them? Or perhaps they behaved that way during the visit because they are not serious about accepting the offer from that place, and they are just wasting everyone's time and money? Either way, this does not speak highly of the maturity of those students.

Yes, I know that someone can have an off day, be recovering from the flu, experiencing stress, be exhausted from midterms and travel etc. etc. etc., but exceptions aside, I hope that it is not the case that, once accepted, many students think that it is only their opinion that matters now. It is a two-way street: the students need to check out the departments and potential advisors to make good decisions about what is best for them, and the departments and potential advisors are still checking out the students, even those admitted.

Questions for those who advise grad students and for whom this mode of grad recruiting is relevant:
  • Have you ever met a potential student (particularly a potential advisee) before and after their acceptance to your grad program and seen a difference in their energy level or degree of interest in having an interesting conversation about research topics?
  • Have you ever met a student who was accepted to your grad program (based on their excellent application) but then, after meeting them, you wished that they had not been accepted? 
  • If you answered yes to the previous question, did you later find that your negative first impression was accurate, or did you develop a more positive opinion after more interaction with that student?
Question for current and former graduate students who have been on recruiting visits to programs to which they had been accepted:
  • What was your attitude during your visit? Did you try to impress, or was your attitude that it was entirely the responsibility of the program to impress you?

25 comments:

Anonymous said...

I'm currently a prospective grad student doing visits. (I've already been admitted to every place I plan to visit.) My primary goal on a visit is to gather information about the institution; impressing people (while something I'd like to do) is distinctly secondary.

My guess is that as long as I don't make an egregiously bad impression, there'll be time to repair people's opinions of me once I'm at the institution. If, on the other hand, I make a poor choice of grad school this month (program turns out to be a poor fit, can't find an advisor in my field with whom I click, etc.), I'm in for a miserable 5-7 years, and there's very little I can do about it (short of transferring).

So I'm faced with a tradeoff between a very pressing, very definite need (learn all I can about the program, so I can make an informed decision) with very serious, practically irreversible consequences. and a long-term, somewhat fuzzy goal (impress the people who might become my colleagues.) Naturally, then, in any actual conflict between the former and the latter---e.g. for my finite attention and energy during a visit---I choose the former.

(I should note, though, that my attitude about self-presentation has always been pretty relaxed. I try to be myself, and trust that the people around me will come to an accurate assessment. If everybody thinks I'm an idiot, well, maybe I am, and the solution is not better self-presentation but to quit being an idiot. Others with different attitudes may have a different calculus.)

Anonymous said...

For students who have multiple offers, then (like it or not) it really is somewhat incumbent on the program to woo them. This doesn't mean that the student should act like a douche -- it's definitely in the student's interest to seek out faculty they are interested in working with and to act pleasant with everyone they meet. However, as faculty it may not be realistic to expect as much sucking up. Students need to find out if the program is a good fit for them. Figuring out whether a program is right for you is a two way street whether faculty like it or not.

a physicist said...

I worked with an undergrad during a summer REU program, and wrote him a nice recommendation letter. He was accepted into our graduate program as well as several others, including some more prestigious programs. He then came and visited my school and completely annoyed all of us with an arrogant attitude. It was clear he was going to pick one of the more prestigious schools. It's fine with me when students choose a better-ranked school over us, but he acted like a snob. It would have been better if he had declined to visit us.

A couple years later he asked me for another recommendation letter as he was considering changing from his first prestigious school to another prestigious school. I gave him the letter, but I took out the phrases about "polite" and "gets along well with everybody" because they no longer seemed true. It was still a positive letter, I didn't add any negative phrases, just not as strong as it had previously been.

Bottom line: students, please don't burn any bridges!

Oh, and @anon 12:49 pm: focusing on learning all you can about the program to help you make an informed decision = will make a very good impression on the faculty. We love to see students asking questions that show they are giving our program serious thought. You are exactly the kind of student I will want in my group, should you accept our offer.

Female Science Professor said...

Gathering information and impressing faculty are not mutually exclusive (as a physicist just said) and impressing faculty does not equal sucking up. By all means ask questions and appear interested in the program to help your decision-making; that would impress me, no matter what a student ends up deciding.

Anonymous said...

The discussion seems to stem from a single data point: a student who may well have been (over-)sensitive to a distinction between the "ins" and the "maybes".

I can't imagine designing an event that explicitly included both accepted and not-accepted students. Why would you make it clear to some significant portion of the students that you do eventually accept that they were second choice?


Anonymous said...

Of my three interviews, I was accepted beforehand by one school. It was such a relief to be able to go to the interview and focus on being excited about the science - rather than selling myself - and to identify who I would want to work with. My other two interviews were much more nerve-wracking (but successful). No surprise, perhaps, I chose the school that had accepted me before interviewing. I think as long as the pre-accepted student comes to an interview and is excited about being at that school, there's no problem with accepting prior to interviews.

Anonymous said...

In my program we have definitely regretted admitting students before meeting them and generally those impressions have proved true after the fact when they show up. A particularly glaring example was the student who came with his mother in tow, showed up late for most meetings (due to such important things as buying T-shirts), and generally acted like a jerk. He then came here, continued this attitude and barely scraped through with a masters, once we managed to coerce someone into advising him.

We now try to at least talk on the phone before admitting, even if a visit might take place later.

Anonymous said...

As a potential advisor I want to see that a visiting accepted student is interested in the program. If a student is late for our appointment, yawns, glances at their phone or a clock repeatedly and has no questions, I am very definitely not impressed. Why would I want to work with them no matter how stellar their undergrad GPA and recs? They may have lots of options of grad programs but I have lots of options in how I spend my grant money as well.

Anonymous said...

We wish that we could bring in students for a visit before admitting them but realistically we are in competition with other top programs and need to admit the apparently best applicants based on their applications. There are definitely some regrets later and this is not good for the student, the adviser, or the program.

I recently encountered a yawner-phoneglancer student. Waste of my time.

GMP said...

In my department, there are not many TA-ships, so most admitted students should basically find someone to fund them if they want to come here. After the open house, we tell whom we want to give an RA offer to, so it's important that the students be genuinely interested in the program.

There have been plenty of people who I think should not have been admitted but were, but then again there are a number of students that my colleagues graduate but whom I would never consider taking on as an advisee (e.g. very poor performance in my graduate class). But I suppose people look for different skills...

I hate prospective students who perceive they are superstars whom everyone is courting. They appear here pro forma, not really interested in the program at all. It's a waste of everyone's time, they should have spared us and themselves the trouble and saved us the money. We could have invited someone who would consider coming here seriously instead.

Anonymous said...

Sad that some students think impressing faculty means sucking up to faculty. Also sad that some think they can either focus on themself or on impressing faculty and therefore have no idea whatsoever what it takes to impress faculty. I suppose some will say BUT YOU DIDN'T TELL US WHAT WOULD IMPRESS PROFESSORS. WE HAVE NOT BEEN MENTORED!!! I am getting more cynical than I want to be but I am hoping they figure it out sooner rather than later either with some good advice or by looking around and being perceptive.

Anonymous said...

Our university has visitation weekends with accepted students only and it's pretty clear which students are still trying to impress and which ones aren't. What the students don't know during the visit is that our department does offer fellowships to students that impress and we believe would be a good fit, both scientifically and socially. So it literally pays to be on top of your game during the recruiting weekend!

When I went through recruiting, I definitely still felt like I was still being interviewed and I needed to be on my A-game, as much as I was trying to get an impression of the school. Even though I was admitted, I still needed to show potential advisors my best. I think students who come to visit weekends with an entitled attitude are starting out grad school in a non-professional way and aren't going to make it far if they go through the next ~5 years like that.

Anonymous said...

I really hope that for most students, impressing faculty during a interviewing or recruiting visit doesn't require some huge effort that has to be switched on. If your natural mode is being curious, professional, motivated, then you will be fine during your visit and likely during your grad studies as well.

Anonymous said...

I think it's hard to judge without knowing what specific behavior that the undergrad in FSP's post was referring to. If the already-admitted students are acting bored or arrogant, that's bad. But if they're asking sincere questions that not-yet-admitted students might be afraid to ask ("I'm not actually familiar with that term -- what does it mean?" "How does your advising style differ for students who wish to go into industry vs. academia?"), that could be good.

Female Science Professor said...

I hope that not-yet-admitted students wouldn't be afraid to ask those questions (see comment by Anon 1:16). In my opinion at least, questions that show a thoughtful approach to choosing a graduate program and an interest in participating in a conversation are both good things.

Anonymous said...

I was admitted before visiting the place I did my PhD and I definitely tried to continue to impress/show my interest. I did, however, have one interaction that probably wasn't the best idea but I can't say I regret. He was very arrogant and rude when meeting with me (I really wasn't being over-sensitive unless you think telling an admitted prospective "you aren't good enough to be here" is not rude). I basically told him I was and I had other options so I was still determining whether the program was good enough for me. A litttle tactless but I wasn't about to be a doormat. I went there, he was my labmate - we did ok together actually. Other than that though? Absolutely you want them to want you to be there and even if you don't end up there you'll run across those folks in the future.

Anonymous said...

Whether this matters depends completely on whether it's a buyers market or a sellers market for research positions once they are in the program.

Anonymous said...

I don't know what the previous comment means by 'once they are in the program'. For future career options? Unless I am misunderstanding (likely) it seems like it would matter a lot either way because you want your advisor to respect you.

Anonymous said...

I have a nightmare story (at least to me) related to this. Years ago, I went on a group interview visit. At the start of the morning, they announced to everyone "Congratulation on your acceptance to our program". This was news to me and I was very happy. I was my normal personable self anyway.

A week later, I get a letter that was rejected. I called my host and she said "Oh, everyone else was accepted but we were evaluating you". Needless to say, I was infuriated. Not that I would have done anything different, but over the deception.

Anonymous said...

We had a student visit (accepted and w/ an offer for 1 year of funding) who was SO bad on their visit that I called their undergrad advisor and 'highly encouraged' them to consider going to another school since it didn't seem like this was a good fit after all. Problem solved (except for the poor advisor who felt like their positive recommendation now looked really bad)

and by 'really bad' I mean 1) not talking with faculty, 2) not talking with grad students, and 3) spending much of the time discussing how much they hated their ex's new significant other.

on a related note, as a grad student I observed a prospective student who spent most of the weekend high. needless to say, the faculty also found a way to discourage that student selecting our institution.

standrewslynx said...

I was recently on a visitation weekend, having already been accepted. I wasn't actively trying to impress anyone - I was asking a lot of questions about the program to ensure it would be a good fit. If that impressed people, then great.

For me it was most important that I felt relaxed around the faculty I was considering working for and could chat to them easily, rather than trying to show off.

Anonymous said...

I was interviewed at a couple of places last year. I believed the purpose of the interviews was both to learn more about my potential advisers and to convince them that I would be a good fit for their lab. However, I didn't really know what I was doing and was intensely anxious. I didn't get in. I wonder if my tension came across as awkwardness or some other undesirable quality and if I would have done better if I'd been able to relax and "be myself" more. The other prospective students I met who got in didn't seem as anxious about what their interviewers thought of them or as eager to impress. Sour grapes or something real?

Anonymous said...

I attended a recruitment weekend that invited everyone that applied to come (they have since changed this policy). It made for a very awkward situation as prospectives were unsure how to interact with one another (were we competing? were we being introduced to future labmates?). Admission folks, either call it an interview or call it an accepted student weekend. The mixed event is rough...whether you're feeling good bc your travel was paid for or it wasn't and you know it was for others.

The Iron Chemist said...

You can definitely burn bridges as a prospective. I've only seen one case where a student got his offer rescinded. He did so by getting extremely drunk and urinating all over his hotel room. And I mean ALL over his hotel room.

Anonymous said...

I might sound like the most egregious of brown-nosers, but I can't imagine not trying hard to impress those around me! Not in a bad way, simply...I consider myself a hard worker. And any program I plan on working with, I would already have a healthy respect for the accomplishments and years of seniority that my colleagues and advisors had on me. I cannot imagine, then, coming into a situation and not giving due respect and credit, i.e. not showing passion for my area of study or interest in learning more about my colleagues and advisors. Even (especially??) if I was accepted! It's always, ALWAYS about hard work and personal work ethics, putting your best forward, even when all is "in the bag."