Tuesday, April 08, 2008

Behind the Scenes at the Recruitment

Every year a colleague at another university and I find ourselves trying to recruit some of the same prospective graduate students. Some of the students come Here, some go There, some go elsewhere, and somehow it works out that we both get some new students. Recently I heard from this friend/colleague that a student we were both trying to recruit will be going There for grad school rather than Here.

This colleague and I have been joking with each other during our most recent mutual recruitment efforts. For example, although in reality we both said nice things about each other to prospective students, it's more fun to pretend that I told students about my colleague's sadistic philosophy of advising and that my colleague told students that I am highly unstable. (note: In real life, my colleague has none of these negative qualities, and I only have a few)

It is not uncommon that a visiting prospective student will say to me "I'm trying to decide between the graduate programs Here and There." So then I say nice things about my colleague and outline what I think the main differences are in the graduate programs at the University of Here vs. the University of There. My colleague does the same. We both think it is important that (1) students know that both places are great; and (2) students should weigh all the information and decide which place is a better fit for their interests and preference for work environment.

My colleague and I were recently discussing the fact that when we have these conversations with prospective students, we both have the same thought: If I say too many nice things about the other place/advisor, will the student think I don't want them to come Here and are trying to get them to go There? That is, are we being too nice?

I think that as long as the conversation is kept fairly general and I don't say something like "You know, now that I've met you, it is clear to me that the University of There would be the best place for you. Have a nice life. Goodbye.", it should be fairly clear that I am being sincere in my praise of a colleague I like and admire and not trying to send a coded message that I want the student to go somewhere else. To reduce ambiguity, I have started inserting the phrase "Of course, I hope you come here, but.." somewhere in these conversations about how great my colleague at the University of There is.


I realize that it can be hard for a student to tell a potential advisor about a decision not to work with her/him, but it really is best to tell us as soon as you have made a decision. For example, in the case discussed above, I know from my colleague that a certain prospective student has decided not to come to my university to work with me. Until this student tells my department formally of this decision, however, I cannot recommend admission for any of the applicants on the waiting list, and there are some excellent applicants on the waiting list. The drop-dead date of 15 April is fast approaching, at which time everyone at the top of the waiting list will have made decisions to go elsewhere.

If you wait until the last minute to inform a department of your decision not to attend that program, you are eliminating opportunities for students on the waiting list.
If you really didn't decide until the last minute, that's fine. If you know your decision but don't send the official declination of an offer until the last minute, that is selfish, however unintentional.


Anon said...

I just made the very difficult decision about where to go for grad school and I have to point out one thing about this process. For a few of the schools I visited, I knew very shortly after my visit I would not be attending that school, but I could not send in my reply form because they all ask you to specify where you will be going. I bet that more people would be admitted off the wait list if there was option to decline a school without specifying where you are going.

Female Science Professor said...

In the example I gave, the student has decided to go to another university but hasn't gotten around to telling my department yet. Even so, you're right about the reply form situation creating a problem, though isn't the where-are-you-going question optional?

Anonymous said...

In my department, as it is common in the US, we make graduate offers before meeting the students in person, so it does happen that, after meeting a student, I will paint a very positive portrait of There vs Here because I do so hope they will not come Here. This may not be nice to my colleagues from There, but they likely do the same thing and try to persuade them to come Here! Then we joke about this when we see each other at meetings..

Anonymous said...

I understand what you say about the importance of informing promptly of your decission, I would just add that this flow of information should go both ways.

When I was applying for Grad School (in the UK) most universities had an on-line "check the state of your application" possibility, however in most cases this was never updated during the process. A few universities did not even acknowledge receivement of applications.

This lack of information is also a problem for the applicant. When you receive an offer from University C, you would like to know whether Universities A and B are still considering you, you are the first choice of their waiting list or they have already made a decission not to offer you a place in any case; so that you can make a good informed decission.

Anonymous said...

This is very different from the situation that almost always obtains in the biomedical sciences. Students do not generally choose what lab they will do their dissertation research in until after being in the program for about a year. There is almost always a "lab rotation" system, where first-years spend a few months in each of about three different labs, before a mutual decision is made which lab to join.

This means that we don't really specifically "recruit" individual students. Yes, we do what we can to encourage our admitted students to join our program, but the likelihood of any single student joining my lab is too tenuous for me to devote specific effort "recruiting" that student. It is this way for all the faculty at all the schools.

My program is competing for students with the top five or so programs in the country, so all I really say about those other programs is, "Well, of course, you can't go wrong with any of those programs." I then lay out what I think are the advantages of our program over the others.

I guess the bottom line is that in the biomedical sciences, the students are much more fungible, and so much less specific effort is expended on wooing any one student. The effort is much more dispersed and collective.

Anonymous said...

I'm not sure potential applicants know that there are students on the wait list. (Even if this was specified in the offer letter.)

Additionally, there's the game of negotiating funding (I think you've made it clear that's not *this* situation, and I agree with you here, except as in my previous paragraph.)

On a somewhat related topic, it's interesting that you're looking forward to the wait-list students. If I were giving advice to potential applicants, I would tell them to not go to a school which wait-listed them. (The same advice I would give for the accept-without-funding scenario.) But then what good are wait-lists? (My thinking on this topic is not wholly clear; I am not advocating any position or making any arguments--I am merely stating my thoughts.)

Kristin said...

When I was applying to graduate school I had no idea that telling a potential advisor was something you did. Everything up until that point appears so anonymous. It wasn't until I was years into my phd program that applying to graduate school is like applying for a job -- even if you don't want the job you should say no as soon as you can if you're taking another one.

I don't know how to address this mentality, just offering the idea that I didn't know I was supposed to turn someone down as you're saying.

Janus Professor said...

I agree with the etiquette, and would like to add to your comment.

Some departments (or shall we say, immature students) will be guilty of scalping. A student will accept second tier university B, but then be wait-listed for first tier university A. When they are finally accepted to university A, they retract their acceptance at university B. I find this to be unethical and downright rude. I understand it is probably best for the student's career, but it reeks havoc at university B, as they scramble to fill the now-open slot. I don't think that recruits really understand all the trouble it causes.

Anonymous said...

Ahhh, just thinking about the recruiting process gives me warm fuzzies....

I was going to write a long comment about it all but then I clicked on chemfan's link in her comment (first comment on this page) and she pretty much said it all...almost....

When picking a grad school, don't get too caught up in the song and dance that is recruitment weekends. ..they aren't a very good predictor of what grad school will really be like. Also, if a prof is recruiting you hard and pumping you full of all kinds of praise, don't let it go to your head. Instead, go talk to the students in the profs group. They will give it to you straight and paint a more realistic picture of things too come.

While most of my interactions with profs at recruitment weekends were of the "What do I need to say to get you to come here" variety, I did have a few profs flat out tell me that I should go to a better school. They were all from the same top 10 school in the subdivision of my field....the other schools I was considering were top 10 in my field and just about every other field.

Cath@VWXYNot? said...

In response to the first anonymous commenter, I went through the UK system before the era of online status updates (that sounds like a nightmare). I interviewed in two places in the same week. When I received an offer from my second choice department, complete with decision deadline, I promptly got in touch with my first choice and let them know the situation. I asked them to please give me a decision before the deadline. When they responded with an offer, I took it and let the second choice place know ASAP. (If I hadn't got a response I would probably have taken my second choice, which was also excellent). I've always found that honesty and open communication are the best way to go!

Anonymous said...

I am currently in the final stages of deciding between 2 grad schools. My top choice is join a certain professor at school A, but my second choice would be to join another professor at school B. If the professor at school A do not/cannot take me for whatever reason, my top choice would then be to go to school B. Hence, the only thing holding up my final plans is to hear back from the professor at school A.

Female Science Professor said...

That's totally fine/legit/reasonable.

Anonymous said...

I understand and agree with the point of this post, something that I didn't understand when I was applying to graduate schools. Of course, I was confused because some schools do not explicitly tell the applicant if they are accepted or not, even during a paid visit.

For one school, I never received a letter stating that I was accepted, I visited the school on their dime and got the feeling that they weren't overly excited about convincing me I wanted to go there, and finally a few weeks later (no communication until then) I received a rejection letter from them. Is this an anomalous event, or one that is common for popular departments? Was I supposed to contact them immediately after my visit to ask if I was accepted?

Another thing that made me uncomfortable and exhibits my ignorance is that after accepting to one school and deciding to work for a certain professor, years afterward I learned that another professor thought that I was going to work with him. But I just didn't know!!

Unknown said...

I had a student who was visiting me criticize a colleague at another university as "not doing cutting-edge research." This did not make me think highly of the student, at all. It just made me wonder what they were going to say about me at the next place they visited.

Anonymous said...

A lot of students don't know about 'wait lists'. Saying that they exist and how it would be helpful for them to let the institution know ASAP if you're not going there would be really helpful. I wouldn't blame the students on this one, despite the fact, that when you commit a crime, ignorance is not a valid defense.

It should be spelled out in a small box on the application with a very good explanation.