Monday, August 22, 2016

Recruiting students

When I first started at ProdigalU, I did a hard sell on my group and my research. I gave a flashy presentation, had handouts to give to students, and pushed pretty hard to recruit. Since then, I've kind of had a change of heart. After a few years of recruiting and mentoring, I came to realize a few things that made me change my approach:
  1.  Selling my research to someone not really interested is a bad idea. A PhD is a marathon, not a sprint, and if a student is lukewarm on their project at the beginning, they will either not finish, or do a half-assed job when what little shine there is comes off. Student enthusiasm is the most important thing, so now I discuss my research, showing off all the really cool things, but backing off a bit on the sales pitch, and allow the interested ones to select themselves. Relatedly, persistence is much more important than what is on the CV when they arrive at ProdigalU.
  2. Being able to work with someone is really, really important. Sometimes people just don't "click" for whatever reason. I do not become best buds with my students (more on socializing here), nor do I expect a personal connection with everyone in my group. It is human nature that some people are easier to get along with than others, and I try my best to be fair. I try to provide as equal opportunities as possible for things like fellowships, conferences, introductions to other scientists, and other professional development stuff. If when meeting someone, I don't think I can successfully do that (they rub me the wrong way, or I feel like our communication styles don't mesh well), I am better off not having them join my group.
  3.  My current students are the best recruitment tool. I try to do a good job as a mentor, and help my students be successful. If I am doing a decent job of it, my students are happy and excited about their work, and convey that to new students looking for a group. Many new grad students are not all that sure about what they want to work on, so having exciting research with good results paired with a happy and productive group is more effective at recruiting than any flashy presentation or web site. 
  4. Success builds on success. Probably true everywhere.
So my approach now is to try to have a good conversation with incoming students, show off my latest results, describe what my students actually do in terms of techniques and methods and then send them off to meet my current students if they are interested in hearing more.  After a few years on the job, I am hopefully better at selecting students I can work with (when it doesn't work out, it is very, very painful). I've developed this more laid back approach in the past couple of years, and so far, I am pleased with the results.


xykademiqz said...

I agree with everything you said. No hard sell, there are enough genuinely interested and qualified people that I don't have to try to covert those who aren't. And I definitely have them spend time with my students. While my students are generally nice, they will let me know in no uncertain terms if they would like or dislike to work with someone, and they are also very sensitive to the potential student's enthusiasm and interest. They are all passionate about their projects and they don't want someone who'll be all 'meh' or who will slow them down or who won't pull their weight in collaborative work. As my older colleague said, "Quality likes quality and doesn't like to be diluted by non-quality." I like to think my students are considerably better than the department average.

prodigal academic said...

I like to think my students are better than the average as well! :-) I also like to hear what my students think about new students, especially when I am recruiting someone to take over a project from a finishing student. A friend of mine says "A's hire A's, but B's hire C's".