Thursday, August 30, 2012

What They Don't Tell You in the Non-Existent Training for this Job

File this under: I had no idea students did this.

In my so-called normal professorial existence, students considering applying to my department for graduate school and possibly wanting to work with me send me an email with various bits of information and assorted questions. I have written about this fascinating topic at length before.

But did you know that some students do this?: They go straight to the person they perceive as the 'top' (for example, a head/chair or other administrative leader of a unit/department/etc.) and explain their interest in graduate studies. They may or may not be interested in that person's particular field of research (most of us are, after all, still professors who teach and advise), but they seem to want to make contact with the "head" -- not the director of the graduate program, not the administrative assistant responsible for the graduate program, not the potential advisor/s (although some may write to these individuals as well) -- to announce their existence, their intentions, and to Ask For Things (advice, confirmation of their self-stated outstanding qualifications for graduate studies, etc.).

This surprised me, although maybe it shouldn't have. Does it surprise you? Is this normal behavior in your program or field?

My usual approach to these things is to be as non-judgmental for as long as possible. Some of the student email I get in my normal professorial existence can be classified as "clueless" (I am somewhat sympathetic to these, as I consider myself to have been among the clueless at the applying-to-grad-school stage of my life). But never in 57 million years would it have occurred to me to write to an administrator (other than the graduate director of a department) to introduce myself and lobby for admission.

Yes, I know it is best not to psychoanalyze a student's motivations in sending one of these emails, but that's what we do in blogs.. sometimes. Also, it doesn't really matter what I think about these students because I don't make the admissions decisions, even if some students seem to think that I do.


Anonymous said...

It doesn't surprise me at all. I would guess that students don't realize you have no role in admission decisions, simply because an individual in your position would indeed have such influence in other departments/universities/fields/countries etc. I don't think this is unusual.

Certainly at my department, the perceived "head" (who may or may not at various times actually be the department head, but is mostly the famous big-shot professor) get extremely many such visits from students, most by email but very many in person also. Formally this person has little to no say in admission decisions; however unofficially, this person has a great deal of influence an can indeed determine whether a student is accepted.

Anonymous said...

Oh no! Combining this with the mailbox post means you're now Department Chair! My sincere condolences.

PS I guess I am jaded as nothing a student might do would surprise me.

PPS Some people, even Deans and so on, think a University is a hierarchy and that, for example, the Chair is my boss. Why shouldn't students make the same mistake.

Mark P

Jo said...

Is this the kind of activity that could be explained as "go to the person who can best direct you to the right person (i.e. potential advisor), by nature of being connected directly to all of them from above?"

John Vidale said...

Depending on the student's expectations, talking to the "head" might make sense. If one isn't sure how to approach the problem, presumably the head does know. He/she would, I assume, comment whether the student should apply to the program at all, and direct the student to contact the scientist(s) in charge of promising research groups.

If the head has nothing to contribute, at least he/she could recommend who the student should contact. Some people are out of town, some would not get a recommendation, some guesses the student might have would be inappropriate.

In contrast, I'm amazed how many good students are content to apply and even decide on graduate programs WITHOUT checking all the relevant facts, and some wind up shipwrecked as a result.

Anonymous said...

Are these the same people who introduce themselves to the manager of restaurants in the hopes that they will get the best table?

Anonymous said...

So how do you respond?

agradstudent said...

I agree with Jo and John. You (the chair) are the most likely faculty member to be in touch with the other faculty. So, for example, it doesn't seem totally unreasonable that a student could show you a list of their interests and you might be able to say "Prof so and so does this thing you like and is looking for a student for next year." In fact, I recently told a student to ask the chair if they had any ideas for potential advisors for this very reason.

Even if a student had looked through the department website on their own or whatever, if they wanted to turn over all stones asking the chair seems like it might be a good idea. The chair seems like they should be a source of information. Probably many students at that stage don't know what a director of a graduate program does (they likely haven't been in a graduate program before), and they might not think an administrative assistant is the right person to ask about this. And they probably don't know what a department chair does either!

Anonymous said...

I'm not surprised by that at all. To most undergraduate students, faculty committees aren't on the radar. They don't know they exist. So, who is in charge of graduate admissions? Probably the person in charge of everything, the head of the department.

Female Science Professor said...

From the content and tone of many of the emails ("I am just writing to let you know that I am awesome and am applying to your program") and the fact that our unit's webpage prominently lists the graduate program advisor and administrative assistant as the main contact people for prospective students, I don't think these students are writing to me because they don't know that there are better people to ask about admissions.

Female Science Professor said...

And I reply briefly and politely directing them to the relevant people via a link to the grad program webpage.

EliRabett said...

So who provides the funding for the student in the first year? Does the department guarantee X years of funding on admission? Is the student expected to stay with the advisor who selects him or her.

Your post has a number of unstated assumptions

Alex said...

I think we're all vastly over-estimating how much college seniors know about the way academia works. Even the ones applying to PhD programs typically know very little.

I mean, I'd say I was pretty carefully mentored on applying to PhD programs, and I still didn't know anything about departmental hierarchy. I knew something about research group hierarchy from working in a few (even then, there was a lot I didn't know), but I really didn't know much about departmental hierarchy. I just knew that the chair was in charge. I was vaguely aware that grad coordinators exist, and I figured that the person in charge could steer you wherever you need steering.

Put it this way: This morning I got an email from somebody seeking a postdoc position in a field completely different from my own. Like, so different that if I were to walk from my office to the department where that sort of work is done, my frappuccino would melt by the time I got there. (OK, the outside temperature was 98 today, but still.)

This aspiring postdoc has a PhD, and he (it's always a he) doesn't even know what field he's applying for. Can we really expect undergrads to understand the department flowchart?

Anonymous said...

I have seen these. They are not from clueless students wanting to get information about the graduate program and not knowing how to go about it, they are more like I just want the person at the top to know that I exist because this might somehow help me get admitted.

Anonymous said...

I, too, would like to express my condolences on your becoming Chair. Our thoughts are with you during this difficult time.

I did not do this as a student, but it doesn't shock me...regardless of who is listed on the website, I wonder if the students think the Chair still makes the final decision?

Allison said...

This does not shock me. I didn't do it, I directed my questions to the people listed on the websites of the programs I was applying to. Even the programs with crappy websites had contact information available. I suspect I had better mentoring regarding grad school applications than many of my classmates, but still...

The professor I worked for when I was an undergrad was the head of her department, and students did this a lot, as far as I could tell. Some of them called her, too, and I (unintentionally) heard some of the voicemails they left her (my desk was just outside the office, if she didn't close her door all the way I could hear) - 1 or 2 in the 4 years I worked for her sounded like they didn't know who to contact. The majority were of the "I'm so awesome and you need to know about me and let me in to your program before I even interview" type.

I have no idea whether this happens in my current department/program or not. I suspect that if anyone does contact our chair like this, he just ignores them...he's not very good at answering email.

Anonymous said...

Still a post-Grad but I have a department chair as supervisor and somehow bundled with senior staff members at meetings, mostly because they don't really know where to put me as I'm cross-department...

Anyhow, really awesome students do get noticed this way by heads and they will do anything to get them onto whatever programs they are offering so there's truth in it. I guess FSP haven't met one that really stood out yet as I suspect when that moment happens the reasons would become obvious.

Anonymous said...

I am pretty sure most heads of departments in my field would nicely tell the student to email the professor they are interested in working with. or ignore the email entirely as they has 10,000 other more important things to do than pander to some students attempt to gain favor.

Oh, plus I have never heard of a student being accepted in my field without a professor willing/wanting to be their advisor

Anonymous said...

Add another condolence letter to your pile in the mailbox too high to see into.

I dimly recall another age in my life, when I was not even yet an undergraduate, when I was interested in studying something completely NOT science. I was travelling to a foreign country to do it, too, and was trying to find out how to apply to a foreign university from a US high school and get access to the exams. There was no internet in those days that I had access to (we still booted up with an actual cassette tape! -- in fact, I believe that when I was doing this research TCP-IP was only *just* standardized) and the universities with people whose books/papers I had read and who seemed to be doing work in my area of interest had no catalogues. I recall writing several letters blind. I tried to get information from people at the embassy; but, I didn't live close to even a consulate and had no driver's license when I started looking into this and, shocking as it may seem, no one wanted to talk to me at any length over the phone.

I recall getting a very kind, handwritten letter from a now long-dead lion of his field giving me the name, office number and address of the appropriate party. I had gotten his address and written to him based on cross-referencing his books from Oxford U Press and an international biographical dictionary.

Oh for the days of onion-skin airmail paper...perhaps if all your self-promoters had to really write a letter you'd hear from them less often.

TreasureSeeker said...

You sound surprised, yet this happens every day in the private and public sector. It can be funny and annoying at times.

I'm a programmer, and when a customer has a custom code request that isn't being handled how they want it handled (eg: not fast enough or they want special favors), they do one of three things:
1 - Go to my boss because that was their first point of contact, and he hands out the work to me.
2 - Come to me, thinking I might just slip something through and escape the bureaucratic processes.
3 - Yell at or wine & dine the CEO, VP, or department head to get cheaper/faster service.

Students are just clients who pay to do work and hope their investment pays off. Many are just as dumb, misguided, and lacking knowledge as clients outside of academia. I remember being in 4th year and looking at all the first years coming in who thought they knew everything and and acted really immaturely. That's when I also wondered, "How do I appear to the people with master's and phd's?"

I typically view most people as if they are sheep: dumb, insecure, and stubborn. Once I got used to this idea and whenever I need to remind myself, I am then pleasantly surprised when I encounter intelligence.

Anonymous said...

What do you recommend an undergraduate student to do in this situation? Information online does say that it may be a good idea to email those professors in graduate programs that you would be interested in working with. As an undergraduate, seeing this advice puts me at a disposition because I would like to email a professor with similar research interests, but at the same time I do not want to sound pompous or over-achieving because I recognize my place and I have a long way to go. But at the same time, I feel at a disadvantage because this advice online gives me the feeling that I am losing out, since others are most likely emailing. It is a tough situation and I don't know how to address it.

Anonymous said...

I hope I just stay anonymous. I had an experience years ago, when I was rather naive about academia. I was admitted to a graduate program at the university where I received by B.S., and even given a TA position. However, it was a rather half-hearted admission, and I was told that I would probably be better off going elsewhere for graduate school. Unfortunately I did not heed that advice, and I accepted admission into the program there.

It was late in my senior year of college, and strange rumors started to fly around that I was queer, mentally ill, etc. etc. At first I just laughed it off, as who cares if somebody thinks this or that about me? It was a small department, the department head rotated annually, and pretty much everybody knew everybody, students and faculty, or so I thought.

I had asked quite a few professors for general advice and guidance, and when I noticed other students doing interesting projects, and inquired what they were doing, I was invariably met with either dead silence or a change of subject from professors who had formerly been friendly with me. I had been ostracized from the department, and I became rather depressed, totally lost interest in my studies and FAILED out of grad school.

For many years, I had a tough time finding a job in a market for which I was "overqualified". Now I'm working and studying in a rigorous program for professional certification in a different field.

I was left with an impression of academia as nothing but overblown political correctness, hypocrisy, backstabbing, covert prejudices, and axes to grind. Now when I see the skyrocketing university tuition of recent years in the U.S., all the wasteful spending and fraud, and public money going for research that is patented and exploited by private for-profit companies, and how the universities take full advantage of all that easy student-loan money Uncle Sam so generously puts on the table, I realize that this is all par for the course given the long-standing corruption and rottenness within academia. And they're laughing all the way from the golf course to the bank.

Anonymous said...

That would work super-well in my department. The department chair is super involved in recruitment and takes it on as his personal responsibility to bring the best grad student talent to our program. So if a prospective student with a good resume contacted him, it would be a very good way to make initial contact and make sure he payed attention when reading the applications (but it would only work for a very strong, desired student).