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.