Monday, October 10, 2011

You Can Lead a Horse to Water

Just the other day, a colleague who teaches at a very small college asked me what I want to see in an e-mail message from a prospective graduate student. This was of course an extremely timely question, given the topic of my post on Friday, and I gave her a brief synopsis of my opinions.

She said that that was pretty much what she had been telling her students, and that some students showed her their e-mail drafts before sending them to potential grad advisors (and she encouraged them to show her their drafts). Other students, however, either did not want her to see their drafts and/or didn't take her up on her offer to discuss the purpose and desirable content of these e-mails.

In the case of students who did not want advice, she feared that their letters would appear clueless or might even be perceived as rude (for example, if they asked something like "What is your research?").

We talked about this for a while -- what it's like for her as an advisor of undergrads in a small place and what it's like for me as a grad advisor reading these e-mails, and then later, applications -- and this was very interesting.

It occurred to me that when I get an unsophisticated and/or annoying e-mail from a prospective student, I assume that the student did not consult an advisor or was somehow poorly advised. I don't think I seriously consider the possibility that the student might have a very thoughtful and engaged advisor whose attempts to give good advice are ignored or rebuffed.

There's no way to know which is the case (although I wish there were because it would tell me a lot about that student), but from now on I will not make this assumption.

Will this have any practical effect? Maybe not.

But I wonder. Grad advisors who get e-mail from prospective students: If you form a (perhaps unfair) initial negative opinion of undergrad advising quality, do you think this carries over into your reading of the letters of reference in the application? That is, do you think you somehow discount (a bit) the opinions of advisors of students who wrote lame e-mails to you (in addition to not having the most positive impression of the students)?

I know it's not so simple -- the applications are comprised of a variety of materials (transcripts, statement of purpose, GRE etc.). And yet, when there are far more highly qualified applicants than there are admission slots, maybe these things make a difference. Do you think they do?


Doc said...

This thread is very interesting to me because I was at R1 schools for my undergrad and STILL got bad advice. I was told that I should not contact my potential advisors prior to being accepted in their lab outside of the department/school facilitated meetings (essentially, a form I filled out indicating interest in that lab). My chosen advisor wanted me to be in his lab, and I later joined, but he was wondering why I didn't contact him to discuss details. He was flabbergasted that a colleague had given me such bad advice. But, how was I to know otherwise?

Anonymous said...

I got excellent advice from my undergrad advisor (SLAC) and I (tried) to take it. I still may have been a little clueless (e.g. in the case of the person I did my PhD with I freely mixed my interest in topics he worked on 20 years ago as well as more recent research - I knew his work but probably could have been more specific) but overall it worked out well. I'm now at a smallish school where I hear some awful advice from the faculty to the undergrads. In this context I think that their letters probably mean very little. They think that a student with a 3.0 that's done a 'research project' in a lab course from are pure gold in the field. I would question the letters from these folks. On the other hand there are some good students getting bad advice so as you say there are a lot of factors to integrate.

Anonymous said...

Whether or not students are expected to write these courtship letters to potential graduate advisors varies a lot between fields, and what is the norm for such letters varies too. If the undergrad advisors are in a different field from the one to which the student is applying, then it's no wonder that the student may receive inappropriate advice.

So I think people on the receiving end should cut these students some slack on the issue.

Anonymous said...

I read a lot more letters of recommendation than I write (I read about 300 every year, and write about 3). I don't try to judge the letter writer based on other information about the student (such as clueless e-mails or incompetent essays), unless the letter writer specifically addresses a point on which I have other information. A letter writer who talks about the student's straight-A average when I have the transcript showing that the student is a B average loses all credibility. Similarly with a a letter writer who talks about the students amazing writing abilities, when the student's essay is pure b*s*.

Since letter writers rarely talk about the students' facility in e-mail or about the good advice they gave students, any impression of the student I've gotten from e-mail has no influence on the weight I give the letters (unless I see the same punctuation and spelling errors in the letter as in the e-mail, which brings up the suspicion of fraud).

As for Doc's comment "I was told that I should not contact my potential advisors prior to being accepted in their lab outside of the department/school facilitated meetings", I know of at least one department on our campus that has that policy. It strikes me as counterproductive for the students, and I believe that several people in the department cheat on the policy. The problem is that the department has more grant funds than quality students, and some of the faculty resent having to compete for the best students. They put in place a committee to ensure "fairness", which is defined in ways that take students wishes into account but do not allow students and faculty to do their own optimization.

Anonymous said...

As an undergrad, I would've been a little insulted if my adviser had asked (or even wanted) to see a draft of the emails I planned to send prospective PhD advisers. In a series of short (10-45 min) phone conversations, my undergrad adviser helped me whittle down my list of potential PhD advisers, gave me broad advice on the statement of purpose, and then helped me decide which one to go to. Maybe this attitude is snobby, but I think the actual mechanics of the emails and statements of purpose were way not worth his time. (That said, I received a boilerplate and somewhat patronizing rejection from one prof whom I contacted, so my approach might have used improvement. In that case, I had read at least half a dozen of her papers and her one-month-old book, but she still suggested I hadn't done enough background research... and it's true that I didn't know her funding situation.)

I agree that prospective advisers should cut students some slack, though. A good friend of mine in grad school had also heard as an undergrad that it was totally wrong to contact potential PhD advisers in advance, and it was officially his department's policy too... except everyone in the good groups had violated it.

Anonymous said...

If you are an international student applying to US grad school purely out of love of academia and the sciences and desperation to get out and follow the dream, I can guarantee you that there is NO undergrad advisor in question. The student probably has limited internet access and therefore, cannot do much research on "what research do you do?" As the precious few female undergrads in my department back in my home country, I hardly ever got access to the far-less-than-demand computers, where the male students marked the territory really well; not to mention after-class hours curfew by my family, This meant I had NO scope of getting advice or doing internet research beyond just looking up the professor's name and email. The only way out was desperate honesty, so of course, my email went something like:
" Thank you for reading this email. I tried to understand what you do from your website, but my knowledge of the field is limited. Can you please explain more? Broadly, I like your field, not sure what I want to do, because I did not have the chance to explore much here. Btw, you should not judge me based on my transcripts as they are graded very very differently from the US or more famous institutions in my home country (I went to a not-very-famous school that nobody had heard of in the US). So, before signing me off as uninteresting, why don't you at least give me a problem to test me?" From where I came from specific research topics did not mean much. Again, lack of scope and opportunity, undergrad advisors were unheard of. I had good mentors, but they had no idea how to send me to grad school, except "I should go to the US."

Needless to say, of the approx. 70 emails I had sent out to professors all over the US who seemed to be doing exciting but esoteric things, ONE wrote back. I did not know he was a venerated star in his field, but he was intrigued that I was so honest, and essentially gave me a toy problem to test me out. That is how I came here to a top US school and did a successful PhD, and now in the academic ramp because ONE person out of everyone else (includes many institutions of different sizes and rankings) took a chance to respond and test me out. Now that I am soon to be on the student hunt myself, I know how to test them out. Give them an open toy problem, and see what they do with it.

I generally never ever jump to conclusions about a student and with limited time, have a draft email reply setup that asks open-ended questions which test them out.

Anonymous said...

It never occurred to me to blame the advisors. I just thought the students are clueless - not just about grad school, but also general protocol for human interaction, at least on the internet. And none of these recent posts, though interesting, have changed my mind.

Anonymous said...

When it comes to whether students should contact potential advisers, not only does it vary by field but it can also vary by school/departments. When I was applying to grad school I was advised to contact potential advisers. The school I ended up attending was one that I had not made any prior contact with anyone there - one reason why it didn't really matter is that we do rotations before selecting our thesis lab.

The department that I did my undergraduate work in is one of those departments where students essentially apply to their lab of interest since they are expected to have selected a thesis lab before starting. Oddly many of the professors in this department said they would find it distasteful if a student contacted them before getting accepted because they felt the student was trying to "get around the process".

Anonymous said...

as an advisor at a small college, I can assure you that there are at least the two types of undergrads you mention (take advice, and ignore advice) but there are also the ones who do the opposite of my advice, and the whole spectrum in between. Generally speaking, though, my students come to me to get advice, pay attention, and then try to follow it.

One problem I have is that times have changed since I went to grad school (and I'm not even THAT old, though I am through tenure and all that). I would never have considered emailing a potential advisor before hand, so I rarely suggest that to my students. the best advice I feel I can give in my field to students is that to make sure they love research, make sure there are 2-3 people at their chosen institutions that they could work for, and to try to come across as eager, excited and willing to work hard.

I'm going anonymous on this one...

AnEngineeringProf said...

I definitely do not infer something about letter-writers, based upon a clueless email from an undergraduate who is interested in applying to our graduate program. Frankly, it wouldn't occur to me...