Wednesday, August 16, 2017

Student recruiting again

It's that time of year again. In the US, there seem to be primarily two systems for admitting students into graduate programs in science, with local variations on the theme. In one, the students are admitted to the department, and select an advisor after starting the program. This may happen with or without rotations through different groups. In the other, students apply to the department and professors select students from the applications that meet admission requirements. Students are then given conditional admission, with the condition that they have to join the group (or one of the groups) they've been selected for. In the Prodigal Department, we admit students to our program, and they join groups after arrival without rotations, so we are entering the busy season for student recruitment.

This year, I will be recruiting hard for new students, as I've had a bunch of recent graduations. My group is small, funding is tight, and I can't really afford a mistake here. I used to do a hard sell when I first started, but now I mostly look for enthusiasm and scientific curiosity. I am never offended when people don't choose my group, because I am well aware that there are different strokes for different folks, and the last thing that I want is someone who does not want to be there in my group. If someone is not excited by their project on Day 1, how will it be on Day 1095?

In addition, I've been thinking about this post at Mistress of the Animals and subsequent comments about a bad PI-student match. There is a big disconnect in the comments, with some people saying that the responsibility lies mostly with the PI (poor mentorship and/or lack of training), and others saying that the responsibility lies mostly with student (poor choice in group and/or not proactive when the situation wasn't working). Like all situations, the truth is probably a little of both, which is why I won't take a student if I don't feel I can work well with them.

With that discussion in mind, each year, I am surprised by the number of incoming students who have already chosen a group from afar. Some choose just from a website, the publication record, and a phone call. Other choose from fairly brief interactions at events for accepted students. Even those who visit ProdigalU separately typically spend just part of one day checking things out, which is a short time to gather enough information to decide if you can work with someone, especially since everyone is likely on their best behavior.

I am pretty sure that everyone who is admitted to our program (which means they have at least a little research experience) has been told that they need to consider the whole group before making a decision and not just the sexy project, the reputation of the PI, someone else's previous experience, or the placement of group alumni. However, these are the only things that people who show up at ProdigalU already set to join a group can use to make their choice. Most of my colleagues who pick up students ahead of time like this have much larger groups than I do, and can more readily afford a mismatch.

So what do I tell my own undergrads when they head off to grad school? Pick a project that excites you. Don't worry too much about how prominent the researcher is as long as they are publishing regularly in good journals. Make sure your future groupmates are people you can work with. Ask about expectations: work hours, progress, expected time in the program, publications and how they will be handled, etc to make sure you and your PI at least start out on the same page. It is NOT crazy to want to know ahead of time about expected work hours and time off.


Grumpy said...

Would you mind sharing what you do to recruit these new grad students? We also don't have rotations in my dept so unless I am teaching a 1st yr grad course then I hardly interact with the students unless they directly contact me.

Do you send out emails to the students with a job ad or similar? Volunteer for activities where new students will be involved? Or is it just that you recruit the best of the ones that email you mentioning interest?

xykademiqz said...

We don't have rotations either; a student joins a group directly, and financial offers have to be made before the student can enroll (mostly RAs; very few TAs). There are very few "unattached" first-year students. I generally look at the records of those who contact me and select the best among those. There are several international schools from which I had recruited before and the students were well prepared, so new applicants from those schools have a slight priority when I recruit.

prodigal academic said...

Most first year students TA in my department, so we have many unattached students at the beginning of the year. Recruitment actually starts after admission--we have an admitted students event where we host admitted students interested in our program. I meet with some students then (though not all pick ProdigalU). I also contact some admitted students whose applications look like a good fit for my group. When I do this, I tell the student that I saw their application and will be recruiting students this year. I send a link the research description on my website, and invite the student to contact me if they want more information.

I am helped by the fact that my department tries to encourage students to find a good fit, since most students show up unattached. New students are required to speak to multiple professors before formally joining a group (this was also the policy at my PhDU). I have a "flier" advertising my group, which I post on my office door. I also encourage my students to attend events for the incoming students, since many of the new students are interested to hear about life at ProdigalU, which gets them interested in my group. My students are the best recruiting tool, honestly.

pyrope said...

We don't have rotations, so I choose students (and they choose me) based on a skype conversation, their application, and a 1-2 day visit to campus. I had a couple of fails early on, but my current group is pretty awesome. I'm not sure if that means I'm a better judge now or if I just have noise in a small dataset (probably the latter). I still do the hard sell (assuming I like the potential student). I feel like if I didn't, I wouldn't get my top choice students....but that's also in the scenario where students aren't already in the program.