Friday, September 02, 2011

Check Us Out

Prologue. This post is motivated by the fact that I am already getting emails from prospective graduate students, so I started thinking about the graduate admissions process and remembered that there was a topic I have been intending to discuss well in advance of graduate application deadlines.

Every year when colleagues and I from other departments/institutions talk with each other about graduate applications, we are often collectively amazed that some PhD applicants mention their interest in being advised by professors who have not had a publication, grant, or a graduate advisee in many many years.

I am not talking about a gap of a year or two. I am not talking about distinguished near-retirement faculty who have a reputation for their scientific awesomeness and who might be quite interesting mentors, even if they are ramping down their research programs. I am talking about associate and full professors who no longer do active research. Of course, there are not many of these, but I think most of us can think of one or two.

Didn't these students do any investigating beyond what is listed on a department directory-type webpage? I could be wrong, but I imagine that these students saw the professor's field of interest listed, saw that it corresponded with their interests, and then went no further.

It is not difficult to figure out whether a faculty member is active in research. I understand that web pages may be out of date and contain selective information, that some undergraduates may not be too aware of different citation databases, such as Web of Science, and that most undergraduates probably don't know that they can search for list of active awards to individuals in the databases of the major funding agencies.

It would be great if more undergrad advisors told students about these resources, but even without knowing about these, you can find out a lot about someone by using Google or its moral equivalents.

I think it is particularly important for prospective PhD students to do a bit of background checking before applying. It is not so critical for MS students, who may do quite well with an advisor who doesn't have a lot of funding or research activity, although it depends a lot on the specific field, the nature of the thesis project, the funding structure of the department, and the student's likely post-graduate career plans.

In the sciences, the 3 things that potential doctoral students may want to know and that can be found with some fairly easy searching are:

- What has the potential advisor published in the last 5 years? Search for both peer-reviewed journal articles and presentations at major conferences. You can try Google Scholar, Web of Science, or some other relevant database. It's important to know how to use such databases, so it's good to start learning now if you don't already have experience with them.

- Has the potential advisor had a grant in the last 3-5 years? For NSF, you can go to their main website, select Search Awards, input the name of the relevant professor in the field labeled "Principal Investigator (PI)", and check the box for "active awards". You can also select expired awards to get information about longer-term funding history. To understand these data and what someone's funding record indicates about their level of research activity, it is important to have some context; some fields don't require a lot of funding, others do. The undergraduate advisors could provide some help here.

- Has the potential advisor advised (and graduated) other doctoral students in the last 5 years? This one is a more ambiguous indicator than the others. Some professors do not advise a lot of students, and the reasons for this are quite varied. The reasons might have nothing to do with whether this person would be a good advisor. It is worth looking into, though, just so you have a more complete picture of what you are getting into. If there have been recent PhD students graduating with this professor as advisor, it can be very useful to know what they are doing now in terms of careers. You may be able to figure this out with some creative searching, or you could ask around.

I think most prospective graduate students do some research into potential advisors and/or programs, and that's a good thing. We all want to increase the chances of a good fit between advisor and advisee, and just as the potential advisor is looking at student records, so too should prospective students be looking at the professor's record.

[note: I apologize in advance for sporadic comment moderation for a day or two during an intense time of travel.]


Sosi said...


You make a great point in this post. I'm just starting my PhD and I confess that I too did not look into the points you made above. Yet, I did something a bit different, which could possibly be done by other undergrads as well.

While taking my degree in Biology I started searching for potential fields of research, based only on my interest in them. Because this degree allows for you to pursuit so many different fields (from ecology to molecular biology) I started by choosing subjects I could be interested in. I spoke with 3 or 4 professors, and started doing extracurricular work with them: human anthropology, cell biology, bioinformatics, systems biology.

I ended up getting very interested in the bioinformatics/systems biology part and kept up with that group since. I got to know how the group was running: what people were doing, what the PhD students (current and former) were working on and where, and what type of advisor was the PI.
I then showed my interest in doing my MS internship with the PI. Eventually I got a PhD scholarship and kept with the same PI.

Although I have not looked into none of what you said in your post while being an undergrad, I believe this was a much more effective way of "picking" a group to stay. Allows you to actually see how the lab works, allows you to know if the PI is likely to be a good mentor, and so on.

Anonymous said...

Of course, for very new professors the second two points may not be particularly valid. My advisor didn't get his first grant until I was in my second year (his third year as a prof), and only had limited advising experience, naturally. But I think things are turning out well... but I had some strong recommendations that he would be a good advisor from my recommendation writers.

studyzone said...

I think the dept. in which I'm a postdoc would be a poster-child for what not to do on dept. websites. The dept. faculty page lists over 50 faculty. Every single faculty member is linked to a page that describes research and lists 5 representative publications. From personal knowledge, and what I've heard from others, 10 of these faculty have not done research in years. Yet, because the writing uses present-tense, and every faculty member can list any 5 of their publications, prospective grad students would easily get the impression that the lab is still active. I totally agree with you that they need to do more research - if they click on the link to the PI's CV (if available), for example, the truth will come out. It is a good reminder that faculty who work with undergrads should help students develop the tools they need to investigate labs - learn how to use literature databases effectively, learn how to locate grants (I certainly didn't know you could search NIH and NSF grants online until I was well into grad school), etc.

Anonymous said...

I get the point here, and I suppose its tiring when you're the Prof. reading all of these naive statements. These are likely students who have had poor mentoring with respect to grad school and their grad school application ...I'm sure they are all excellent students otherwise;). Ten years ago I was in the same boat... didn't realize how funding worked, how research ideas were developed between student/advisor, what the shelf life of research is... AND webpages aren't updated!! But seriously, poll the undergrads in your own department. I bet some of them think they could join your group and continue research you did 10 years ago (that train has left the station!).

Anonymous said...

I served on the graduate admissions committee this past year. I literally saw dozens of applications where students indicated they wanted to work with someone who was not only retired, but hadn't done anything in the 20 years before he retired. These applicants were consigned to the "not too bright" pile. So prospective graduate students, pay attention to FSP. What she says is important.

I would also comment that I found the verbage praising the intelligence of the various faculty members I would read in the application essays to be off-putting. Maybe it is because there are only so many ways to say how great someone is - and to hedge their bets, most of them would praise 3-5 faculty members. Or perhaps it was just irritating to see that 40% of the applicants to our graduate program wanted to work with only 4-5 faculty members (we are 30 faculty total). It makes you realize how little imagination these students have - or they feel like they have to say they want to work in some narrow field so someone will offer them a RA. What they don't (seem to) realize is that faculty in said narrow field don't necessarily have any funding. I usually tell these students to go right ahead and get their PhD in the narrow field they love - but don't expect a job to be waiting for them when they get out.

queenrandom said...

That's a pretty good list and I think is well-advised. The only caveat I'd add is to #2: does this PI rely on a grant that will expire sometime during your graduate career; if so, does the PI have a record for being able to win renewal? Not that I and student colleagues got screwed over by that or anything >.>

Anonymous said...

Where I went to graduate school, you could rotate with anyone. As an undergraduate, I had no clue about Reporter or funding or anything of the sort. I was *barely* functional at PubMed searches, considering I learned it as a terminal/line function type of thing.

What would be useful is if the school actually put some effort into the recruiting process. Make a page that tells the prospect who they will have a chance at rotating with or who is taking students or who has funding. With some PIs, it's actually difficult to tell who has funding, even if they just had 4 papers published.

Charles Sutton said...

When I was a prospective grad student, I am pretty sure that I had no idea that this species of faculty existed and that I should watch out for them. If I looked at a faculty Web page and saw some old papers that looked interesting, I would have thought, "Cool, maybe I should work with this person."

In fact, after I was accepted to grad school, I blithely emailed a person who had completely stopped doing research to see if I could work in her lab. Fortunately for me, she never replied, so I went to work with someone more suitable.

Hopefully future students like me will take the excellent advice in this post.

bsci said...

I suspect several things might be behind this even if a prospective grad student does their homework. Many senior faculty have publications well past the point when their active research lab closes. For example, many advise current & former collaborators & get their name on papers. A lab might even have active papers several years after slowing down. In addition, review papers might make a person seem more active than they are.

Checking grants is a good idea, but I'm not sure it would have occurred to me. It would also be bad to see they have little or no NIH/NSF grants & not realize someone has oodles of funding from foundation X.

As for # of students, this is still incredibly hard to figure out because faculty webpages are notoriously out of date - particularly for very senior faculty, whether or not they have an active lab.

The best idea would be to ask people in the field, but that assumes you already have connections.

Anonymous said...

I think you are under-estimating how hard it really is for a prospective graduate student to learn about prospective advisors.

Your make the assumption that students have some sort of advising from their undergraduate institution and that they're applying directly out of undergrad. Many people don't have undergrad advisors and/or are applying to graduate school in a somewhat or completely different area from their undergraduate advisor. Many people also go work outside academia for a while after undergrad and before grad school. (I highly recommend doing so, in fact.) So many prospective grad students either don't have an undergrad advisor to turn to, or else are spatially and temporally separated from the advisor; they're flying solo on this. I was one such prospective.

Next, you assume prospective students know that journal articles are the currency of research. I didn't know this until I became a grad student.

Finally, funding info doesn't appear to be very useful for my current field (ecology). One could get funding from NSF, but also from state agencies, USDA, NIH perhaps, EPA... I looked up my (senior, prestigious, famous, very active) advisor in the NSF database like you suggested and nothing is listed there for five years. But that's completely misleading as he has lots of research money coming in from different sources -- and the most recent NSF grant was a long-term one (though you can't tell that from the database).

The most efficient way for a prospective to learn about a potential advisor is to talk to that person. Unfortunately that's not very efficient for professors. But if professors kept their webpages up-to-date with the information you mention, it would be much easier for the prospectives.

Anonymous said...

"Has the potential advisor had a grant in the last 3-5 years? For NSF, you can go to their main website, select Search Awards, input the name of the relevant professor in the field labeled "Principal Investigator (PI)", and check the box for "active awards"."

Wow thank you FSP for this! Can't believe I didn't know about it.... as an nth year grad student currently looking for a postdoctoral position this is very helpful!

Barb said...

I doubt most student advisors would be savvy enough to counsel undergraduates to look at a prospective mentor's publication list or recent grant awards. This is something that is totally beyond a typical undergraduate's experience. Advisors talk about coursework, requirements for major, and graduating on time. I think talk about careers is left up to a career center. Who, then, should be teaching prospective graduate students about how to search for a mentor who is currently producing interesting work in a field? Do YOU bring this up in lectures? Do you have undergraduate seminar sessions to discuss this? Advisors, in my experience, have too many students to 'advise' as it is. You're expecting them to add to their burden of work by helping their undergraduates get the kind of grad school placement they need? I think this information should be taught to undergrads by their current professors -- starting in their junior year -- in regular classes. It's not something you can look up under 'how to apply to graduate school', is it?

Anonymous said...

My graduate school search has taken a similar path to what you mention. Specifically, I'm putting together a database of recent research in my field (felid biology and ecology), and ranking each study by my level of interest. Once completed, I'll sum each university's scores together, which will give me a decent indication of which universities are actively publishing in the areas that interest me the most.

It's an admittedly overboard way of doing things, but I think that it will leave a bit less to chance.

Funny Researcher said...

Could you elaborate what constitutes a "good fit" when you are going through prospective faculty applications ?

William said...

Well, I would guess that there are two things in applicants' minds that prevent them from omitting inactive profs. The first is the fear that they might insult the professor if said prof is actually still active. The second is the fear that they might look foolish or ignorant if they omit the name of a famous figure in the field.

Also, it's pretty hard to determine with certainty whether or not someone is inactive without insider information.

Alex said...

This is of course good advice. Still, it's funny that you suggest that prospective students check Fastlane to see if the professor is funded. This is something that physical science students need to learn about.

On the other hand, from reading the biomedical side of the science blogosphere, it would appear that biomed grad students already come in knowing about R2D2 grants and all that, and the more ambitious ones will probably have already decided that they won't work for an assistant professor unless he/she is a superstar who came in with K9 funding (or whatever it is that they call their stuff for new professors).

Anonymous said...

I was definitely one of those undergrads who just applied to labs because they "sounded cool". I was completely unaware that I should be looking at publication records, funding, etc. Luckily, through pure serendipity, my graduate experience was great and I learned about all the things that I should have asked and applied that to my postdoc search.

Great post for those on the hunt for a grad school advisor!

outoftune said...

The student society of my undergraduate program put on a yearly information night for grad school applications. They got a panel of profs, grad students, and nearly-finished undergrads who'd been accepted for grad studies to offer advice, answer questions, and discuss their experiences. Maybe other places can do the same - I found it very helpful.

CSgrad said...

This is great advice, but I think it's unrealistic to be surprised that students don't already know it (and for the record, I am usually not on the "show some love for the clueless" side in these debates).

I know to check this sort of thing out (though I didn't know all the tips that FSP gave). But I'm already an MS student, I'm a little older than the average grad applicant, I've had more experience in the field, and I'm in a social group where many people go to grad school (so I've seen people burned by lack of advisor funding).

When I was an actual undergrad, I knew that peer-reviewed papers were academic currency, and that money for research (and grad student RAships) came from grants...but it never would have occurred to me that there were tenure-track or tenured faculty, listed on their department/program website, who didn't have grants and actively do research (my undergrad was a top-tier R1). I remember being shocked when I finally did realize this.

So anyway, this is great advice for prospective grads.

John Vidale said...

FSP, all good advice. However, as several have said, the application process is a first test of whether applicants need a recipe for finding their desired programs or if they can think for themselves.

When I applied, I polled 4 or 5 faculty in my undergrad school, extracting a list from each and comments why they excluded some choices of others. I then narrowed their nominations to 5 schools with one safe choice, and then visited them all before deciding. The visits provided at least half the information - never decide before visiting. The discussions and visits gave me a view of the potential advisors.

If prospective students can not design a good way to make a sensible decision on a school and an advisor, maybe they are not cut out for research, which requires even more relentless investigation, and often with less reward.

Finally, I usually advise students NOT to tie themselves into one project for their graduate careers, and rather find a program allowing a variety of projects. Winding up with just one strong research project is risky, diversification is better.

Anonymous said...

This is all great advice, but I agree with the many commenters above who said that it's totally beyond the experience of most grad school applicants. It requires a very sophisticated knowledge of the academic ecosystem to think about the sorts of things you're suggesting. Very few undergraduates have this kind of cultural knowledge about academia. I didn't, despite having done substantial undergraduate research and having excellent mentors. Virtually none of my peers or the students I've taught did (excepting those with academics as parents). So, thanks for the advice, but cut the applicants some slack.

Anonymous said...

I was geographically limited, so I just applied to the two nearest universities and decided to take whatever I could get. I wasn't sure which professors would be taking students when I would start on my Masters' thesis, so I customized my statements to mention areas of research that were specific to my interests, but broad enough that they were related to several professors.

I got accepted at both universities and decided to move out of my alma mater, but in hindsight, I should have put more effort into contacting faculty and going to the grad open houses even if it meant skipping classes. At the very least, it would have made me more comfortable about my application and contacting people I need to get in touch with to sort out the details.

The good news is, I'll still be geographically limited when I start on my PhD application next year, so I can make up for it then.

Anonymous said...

Thanks. I'm seriously considering applying to graduate school this fall, and I would not have thought to search for grants.
#1, #3, and Web of Science in general are all things that I was previously aware of, but I have excellent advisers. (Also, I read scientists' blogs...)

Anonymous said...

"these students saw the professor's field of interest listed, saw that it corresponded with their interests, and then went no further."

Yep that was me. I don't see how I could have been expected to know the in's and out's of what makes a professor a 'good' researcher vs not. No one explained to me, I didn't know who to ask and what to ask. I assumed that all professors were more or less the same. So, what drove my choice in advisor was topic of research, and word of mouth that that person wasn't a complete jerk.

It wasn't until I became a grad student and was working for an advisor, that I started to learn how the whole research/academic enterprise works. I don't see how else I could have known before having become part of the system myself. Are 20-21 year old undergrad students supposed to have a-priori knowledge of how the academic research enterprise works.

In the end I did alright despite my ignorant start to grad school. I got my PhD, did several years of productive postdoctoral research, won some awards and fellowships, and have made a personally satisfying career as a scientist in a national lab heading my own group which includes grad students and postdocs and other staff scientists. But now I do try to give advice to prospective grad students (such as the bright young undergrads who join our summer undergrad program) and new students whenever possible.

Anonymous said...

I agree with most commenters that it's a bit much to expect an undergrad to know all the ins and outs of what really goes on in the ivory tower. My own parents are in academia, but in a completely different field, and I never would have thought that the field I ended up in would be the rat race that it is, nor would I have ever thought to look into the things you mention. Without already knowing the ins and outs of the particular field, it's practically impossible to get all the required information you refer to (especially with websites being out of date, funding coming from all over the place, departments not distinguishing between their slacker and star professors). On top of that, the professor with all the money and the high impact papers is not necessarily going to be the best mentor for you.

But there is also something that concerns me even more. If everyone went ahead and picked their advisor/program based on a checklist and not on a "this looks interesting" gut feeling, I am 100% sure my current field would be populated by back-stabbing, self-centered, cut-throat fast-track people on their way to the top more than it already is. It took me until my postdoc to realize that if you want to make it to said top (i.e. a tenure track position) you had better jump on moving trains. But perhaps that's what we want to tell our youngsters. It would take all the fun out of academia, though. I guess what I am trying to say is: Yes, students need some common sense and intelligence when they apply for grad school (or postdocs). But not everybody wants to (or should!) live life like it's a check-list that gives you the perfect solution if you just check all the boxes.

Anonymous said...

I agree that it would be good for prospectives to find out if the advisor has grant funding, but I worry that your specifically advising them to go to Fastlane is too specific. There are MANY other sources of funding, and if someone has a big private grant or grants from some agency that the undergraduate doesn't know about, then they'll never find this out by poking around agency websites.

A much better way is to ask people at the institution. Certainly the admissions chair of the department would know. But another indication is simply whether the person has other students and postdocs. If so, then they surely have grants.

Anonymous said...

Most of your problems sound like your departments's fault, not the students'. Do you not list any of this vital information on a department webpage? I've never used Web of Science (in my subarea of physics, we use a different literature database - you expect students to know all this?). I didn't know the advisor status of faculty in my PhD department until I'd been in the department several years. I didn't know how many students my advisor had advised until the day I was wearing the tam and gown (literally).

How many undergrads know anything about where funding comes from? In astrophysics, a lot of it doesn't come from NSF - do you know where it comes from? You might guess NASA (and you'd be right), but you'll never find it on the NASA webpage. You'd have to search, say, the HST proposal archive, and that doesn't tell you anything about dollar amounts.

Damn, give the students a break. Undergrads don't know the intricate details of how academia works, or what your specific department is like, or what your specific subfield of physics uses for literature databases and funding. If there's all this stuff they need to know, tell them. Make a webpage with this info for your department. List it in the application materials. Applicants will thank you! And you won't get pissed off for no valid reason.

Anonymous said...

Oh, and to add to the funding complications - in my subfield, at least, often funding doesn't just go to the PI. It's split among CoIs (often at several different institutions). But you can only search successful HST proposals by PI.

So I can pretty much guarantee that you yourself would be unable to figure out jack squat about the funding levels of my former PhD advisor. And you expect undergrads to do better?

First rule of teaching is to figure out where your students are coming from, and realize it's not the same place as you. That's why they're students, and you're the teacher.

Female Science Professor said...

Perhaps I got the "tone" of the post wrong. My amazement is not that students aren't searching Fastlane for awards information. I am only surprised when there is very easy-to-find information -- such as on an up-to-date faculty webpage -- but students either didn't bother to click past a directory page, or they don't know that it is important (in many fields) for a PhD advisor to be an active researcher. Hence the post -- to provide some help to any students to happen to read this and also perhaps to prod some undergrad advisors into being proactive in giving this kind of advice to their grad-school-applying students.

Anonymous said...

I've never heard of undergrads researching the grant status of potential grad advisers—that seems like it borders on paranoia. It also doesn't provide much useful information, particularly in fields where funding comes from a variety of different sources (our tiny department has funding from NSF, NIH, HHMI, and industrial sources—it would take some really good search skills to find out exactly what funding each faculty member has).

Publications and recent grads don't tell you much about funding. My publication rate has been roughly constant, despite wild fluctuations in funding, and my "recent grad" rate went way up just after my funding ran out.

Anonymous said...

When one of my undergrad advisees is deciding on potential departments/advisors, I sit down with them at a computer and we do a bit of research together. It doesn't take much time, and the students find it helpful. They are very interested in searching for grants and publications, and later say that they are glad that they learned how to do basic searches for this type of info.

Anonymous said...

I wish i had known this before i joined PhD. I had to switch advisors and my previous advisor had a good track record of funding and publishing until 2005 and between 2005 and 2007 he didnt do any work.

Had i known what to look for, i would never have approached him and lost out on 3 years of PhD life since by the time the university arranged for switching of advisors i was into my 4th year. He did not do anything at all, no advising nothing.

This is especially true for students from other countries who have no idea what to look for. I remember i searched for a lot of information on the internet about what to look for in a potential advisor but unfortunately for me i didnt come across this advice