Wednesday, April 09, 2008

Waiting Lists

The previous post mentioned the concept of a waiting list for admission to graduate school. A similar concept applies to summer internships and other application situations as well.

It would be incorrect to think that all or even most of the applicants on a waiting list aren't as 'good' as the ones who are accepted in the first round. Many programs get more excellent applications than there are available positions, and it can be somewhat random as to which applicants get the first round offers.

When first round applicants decline their offers of admission to work with my research group, in many cases I would like offers to be made to students on the wait-list. This becomes tricky, though, because (1) students on the waiting list might (reasonably) feel like they are 'second choice' candidates and might not feel comfortable with that; and (2) in many cases it is too late -- as I wrote yesterday, by the time I find out about some applicants' decisions to go elsewhere, many students on the waiting list have accepted offers elsewhere (as they should).

I have advised some very excellent students who were on the waiting list but who eventually got offers that they accepted. I don't know if these students carry the memory of their wait-list experience or if they don't think about it again once they start their graduate studies. I hope the latter -- I certainly don't think about it once a student is here and working with the group. It's not relevant.

Waiting lists may inflict emotional turmoil, or at least disappointment, but are a necessary evil, as it is seldom the case that the number of outstanding candidates exactly matches the number of available positions. In addition, of course, the number of available positions doesn't typically match the number of first round candidates who accept their offers.

Better communication on all sides would improve the situation for students, faculty, and administrators involved in the admissions process. Perhaps once application websites become more user-friendly, the flow of information will become more efficient, but direct communication is best in some circumstances, especially since admissions decisions can be so emotional and stressful.

There are always going to be communication glitches though. Just this week I got an email from a student applicant taking me to task for not replying to his email. He re-sent the email he says he sent to me a month or so ago. I have never received any email from this person before, have never heard of him, have not seen his file, and although I can understand his frustration if he thinks he sent me email that I ignored, the tone of his email was rude. I wrote back explaining simply that I had not received any email from him before, and he replied that he had been having trouble with his email in recent months. OK then..

But I digress.

Regarding other kinds of Waiting Lists in academia: Is a student wait-list similar in some ways to a short list for a faculty position? One similarity is that all or most of the faculty candidates on a short list may also be excellent, and the decision about which one to hire may come down to details that don't have anything to do with qualifications or excellence.

Even if you know that rankings have an element of randomness, there is something magical about being First Choice and something unmagical about being Second or Third or Seventh. I heard of a recent case in which the first candidate offered a faculty position turned it down owing to having a more attractive offer elsewhere, and the second and third candidates turned down their offers because they didn't want to work at a place where they were not the first choice. The fourth place candidate accepted the offer, knowing he was fourth choice, and as far as I've heard, everyone seems happy with this situation.


Anonymous said...

I was on a waiting list at the school that I really wanted to attend. Once I got there, I worked really hard because I felt "lucky" to finally be chosen. Some of the CHOSEN dropped out after a year or two. They were highly capable but not motivated. Motivation is the key issue. How motivated will top students be once they go to graduate school. It is difficult to gauge. It is not enough to be smart! You still have to work hard and get a little lucky. Professors complain that this new generation of students are not willing to work hard. They do research from 10 am to 4 pm. Never will they show up on weekends. Why?

Anonymous said...

I have always thought about it this way (and sorry for the male douchewheel sports analogy): You never hear about a minor-league baseball player who gets called up to the majors because a major leaguer got injured complaining that he doesn't want to come up to the majors unless it's because he's simply totally fucking teh awesome. These players always talk about the opportunity to make it to the majors for this reason as if it's a great thing, and so do sports analysts.

The only question is whether they will "make the most of the opportunity" and "prove they are worthy". As annoying as the analogy may be, the point is exactly correct.

Any applicant for an sort of position whatseoever who gives even a moment's thought to whether they were the "first choice" is a stupid fucking idiot. Take whatever position is going to provide the best opportunity for excellence, and then prove yourself by succeeding.

Anonymous said...

I think that it's better to know if you've been wait-listed or flat out rejected. I applied to several graduate programs that paid travel expenses for an interview. After my interview, I never heard from them again. It would have been nice to know something.

Anonymous said...

Processes can often be challenging but communication is the foundational key to any successful completion. At the end of the day, things usually end up working out as they should.

Jay said...

Admissions at every level are a crapshoot. I was admitted to a hoity-toity college early decision but got into one med school, and that off the wait list. My degrees from both schools are valid. I'm still a doctor, and a good doctor at that.

Anonymous said...

On the other end of the email reply spectrum, I'm a graduate student, and I maintain my lab's web page, which includes links to the lab's of people who used to be in the lab.

A while ago I received a snarky email from a former post-doc (and now FSP), complaining that her lab hadn't been linked to from our web page. She then went on a tirade, explaining that she definitely deserved to be in the company of other people listed (implying that I had excluded her on purpose).

I responded, pointing out that I had emailed her (and all lab alumni I had working email addresses for) asking her to check that our web page information was correct (we also list contact information for alumni), and asking her if she wanted a link to her lab's web page included (and also asking her to provide a link - our lab is BIG, and I am a busy graduate student - I have neither the time nor the inclination to search the web for alumni web pages). I included a copy of the email I had sent, and was polite in my response (I did not mention that her email was unnecessarily snarky, for example).

She was much more reasonable in her response, but she didn't really apologize. It left me with a decidedly bad taste in my mouth.

Anonymous said...

For grad school I think the biggest issue is less the wait lists and more the assignment to specific labs at acceptance. I know this varies by field and school, but it was a factor in my decision of where to go. Did I want to commit myself to working for someone who I met for 30-60 minutes for the next 5+ years of my life or do I want to choose a good program with some likely advisors and get to know them a bit better before giving them significant control over half a decade of my life? I'm not sure I still think the same way, but that is definitely how I thought as a grad school applicant.

Although there were exceptions, this definitely breaks in favor of the richest programs since they often had more people a student might want to work for (as opposed to one or two for each specific research area) and were able to commit a flexible amount of finances if someone took a bit longer to find a lab.

This adds more uncertainly to future lab sizes for faculty, but it probably helps assure that the matches that are made are better.

Anonymous said...

I would prefer to know I was last choice and not spend my graduate school career with the delluded perception that I was top choice.

As some of you have mentioned, the application process for all levels is a crapshoot, and I agree. However, I believe it has less to do with random luck, and more to do with "perceived" credibility.

The perceived prestige of the school one goes/went to or the professor one works/worked with carries a lot of clout.

As a perspective grad student going through the application process, I would be interested in hearing from someone who is on the "other side" of the process.

I feel that there is just so much GRE, GPA and statement of purpose can do to boost an application. The bulk of the weight lies in your undergraduate institution and the professors that you had worked with.

Irie said...

I was fourth choice for my current position. It turned out to be a great situation since I met my husband on my first day.

Anonymous said...

I just accepted a postdoc offer for which I was initially waitlisted. I think I will do a good job, and the institution in question must also think I will do a good job, or they would not have offered me the position. I very much appreciate their candor throughout the process, including telling me earlier that I was on the waiting list, how many first-round offers they'd made, and when they expected to know whether they'd be able to make me an offer.

Anonymous said...

For the grad students out there, you shouldn't think that being on the wait list means a program doesn't want you to attend! It means that they don't have the funding to admit all of the students they would like to - at least, that's how it works in my department. Once you do get in, nobody cares whether you were ranked first of the applicants or on a wait list. It would be a shame for students to read too much into the wait list situation, I think. (Same with candidates for a faculty job, but I guess that's a whole other topic... but I can't imagine being so arrogant that if I was a department's second choice, and the first one turned them down, that I would be offended and not take the job if I liked the department!)

Lou said...

Reading the last paragraph of your post, it makes me think why it is so important to be "first" or "third", when you actually made the list of "choice" in the first place. And they even had a chance to say "yes"???
These people (and I mean people applying for faculty, not students) need a reality check....

Ψ*Ψ said...

I agree with squeaky wipers--it would be really nice to know what admissions committees look for in an applicant. How far will research experience go toward outweighing lousy grades?

Anonymous said...

lou --

it's not necessarily that the faculty candidates who were not first choice need a reality check, it may be that they have had experienced too much reality on the other side of the hiring process, when departments hold arrogant opinions and gossip about the not-one-or-two candidate who is extended an offer. As a student, I saw two consecutive failed searches eventually result in the hire of a scientist who was unacceptable during the first failed search, but after choice #1 and #2 went elsewhere, and another search failed.. well, the position needed to be filled with someone. And this was how all the grad students spoke about it, several faculty members were shaking their heads about it... Imagine how it was for this scientist to come into a department that thought so little of him, that he was just the best of the last resorts.

Gossip spreads about applicants that don't get interviews as well. Loose lips on the search committee, a chatty grad student rep... when a famous scientist or the current wunderknid is not even granted an interview and the reason becomes known, it's irresistable gossip, it spreads, it alters how people in that department view the applicant.

Transparency about the search committee's rankings will allow the not-quite-top candidates to feel comfortable and let the begrudging 6th choice candidate know what they would be signing up for if they went to the department. And allowing people to know their rank can initiate conversations on how to improve one's interviewing tactics, and have other positive effects. For instance, I came in a close runner-up for a job at one of the top programs in my field. Once I got over my frustration with the randomness of the process, I gained a huge amount of confidence from the validation I received from that almost-not-a-rejection. The school could have been mean, or coldly neutral, or could have never sent any word... but by taking the time to tell me "thanks, but no thanks and it's not you and we'll back that up with data," they have left me with a very positive feeling towards their program and about my chances for career success.

So yea, there's a lot of stochasticity in whom is #1 and whom is #2 in a job search. But there can be good reasons to be cautious when you were not the 'unanimous' top choice for a job... and those concerns can be easily assuaged by a committee that is open to the candidate and prevents gossip from brewing within their department. The second part is much easier said than done...

Anonymous said...

I got into several grad schools and was waitlisted for the one I ended up going to (and am still a grad student at). This one was considerably more prestigious than the others, and I'd been told to go to the best school I got into (because that's where the best other grad students would be); it was also close to home, which appealed to me.

I worried about having been waitlisted a lot my first year. Like the first commenter, I think I worked extra hard--though in my case I'd describe it more as being because I felt like I needed to "prove" I deserved to be here. Which was really stressful. I was really struggling here after having sailed through high school and college--it was a big adjustment. My confidence took a really big hit, and it took me quite awhile to be comfortable here. But I stuck it out, because I was stubborn, and because there were a few profs who really believed in me, and because I had plenty of older friends here who could tell me they had felt similarly but had come through.

When I read this post I was pleasantly surprised to realize that I haven't thought for ages about the fact that I was waitlisted. A few years in, I've seen a class that was all "first round" and that completely crashed and burned; I have an even better idea of how random the process can be, and I know that I wouldn't have been even waitlisted if they didn't think I'd be a good fit here.