Applicant Hell

Jan 20 2009 Published by under Uncategorized

Recently I have had to advertise for a PhD student and did so using a few listservs that have fairly substantial followings in the fields I am interested in. My deadline is not until this Friday, but the applicants I have so far are making me very nervous.

I was somewhat specific with what I am looking for. I would prefer someone with an MSc in a related field (even tangentially), some lab experience related to the tasks we are undertaking (which covers a wide range of basic techniques) and some ability to perform, or interest in learning, rudimentary XX. These requirements should not unreasonably narrow the field.

Nevertheless, I have only 7 applicants at this point (still four days prior to the deadline), and only one of these even partially meets my preferred skill set. The majority of the applicants have sent their CVs because I am working in an emerging field and they would like to learn some of the techniques and apply them to their own field of interest. While that is a reasonable goal for them, I am not looking to train a PhD student who is more interested in how they can use our methods to answer questions in their (completely unrelated) system, than they are in working on the project I need people for. It is one thing to have this goal and at least feign interest in the advertised project, but when your letter specifically discusses how you want to learn techniques Y and Z so that you can use them to improve your worm breeding project, then go on to describe the worm breeding project for a page, I'm just not gonna call you up to get you in here.

Granted, I could be worrying for no reason at this stage, with the deadline still ahead. When I applied for positions I never sent in my package substantially before the deadline, so I wouldn't expect others to. But with each new application that comes in from a Pakistani bee-keeper or Romanian goat herder I am becoming increasingly concerned that I may not find anyone suitable. If that is the case, I will essentially lose out on a departmental TAship to support the student and having one more person in the lab who can advance my projects. I don't plan to bring in a seat warmer just to keep the TAship this year, because I know that a bad student in the lab can cripple progress, but it makes me very uncomfortable giving up a lab position at this early point. Therefore, I may be faced with the unappealing options of either taking on a student who I will have to train from scratch and hope for the best, or declining the TAship for a year.

What makes the latter option even less palatable is that the process for assigning TAships to labs is one of the major policies being changed in our college-level reorganization. I was hoping to grab one before the changes happen so that my lab would go into the new system with two TAships, which might bolster my future claims on two or more TAships in the future. If I go into the "merge" (everything has taken on a "Survivor-like" flair around here lately) with only one TAship, I may need to battle to get a second in the future and it will likely take me longer to secure a third. Therefore, obtaining the second TAship or not has longer-lasting consequences than just the next year. We need a metric like the PiT Theorem for the cost/benefit of taking on inexperienced students and securing TAships for the future.

12 responses so far

  • PhysioProf says:

    I was somewhat specific with what I am looking for. I would prefer someone with an MSc in a related field (even tangentially), some lab experience related to the tasks we are undertaking (which covers a wide range of basic techniques) and some ability to perform, or interest in learning, rudimentary XX. These requirements should not unreasonably narrow the field.This is absolutely fucking ridiculous. You are unreasonably narrowing the field. A PhD student joins your lab to be trained. Why the fuck do you give a shit what their goals are after they receive their PhD? All you should concern yourself with is whether the applicant has a reasonable basis in undergrad course work that underlies your field, broadly conceived, and then you should try to recruit the brightest person you can.

  • Prof-like Substance says:

    How is it unreasonable to look for a PhD applicant who has some background related to what you do? I listed prefered criteria, but did not say that I would only consider those who fit the description. If a student came to you and said, "I'm a got a MSc growing worms and I think a PhD in your Physiology lab, even though I have no background in your field, would allow to grow the best worms I can", you might be interested? I'm not saying I am looking for pre-trained students, not at all. I would, however, like to see applications from people who are interested in the project and not just the techniques because they have buzz words in them. I don't care what their long-term goals are, only that they care about the project at hand. This strategy has worked very well with the students I have and I hardly think it is too much to ask.

  • Ambivalent Academic says:

    I'm not sure which country you're in (and I realize that the level of training for PhD students varies widely between them), but in the US at least, most beginning PhD students will not have much background training in a particularly specific field (I'm speaking primarily for the multitude of students who go directly from their bachelor's degrees into a PhD program). They have taken courses in which they are exposed to "hot" topics and there is a very good chance that they are latching onto buzzwords because those topics are what excited them in class. Many of them have somewhat limited lab experience (most have some though)...so they probably know one pet project really well and recognize that this is their only research strength. Hence, if their undergrad research experience was on worms, but they got really excited about buzzword in class, they're going to be thinking about practical applications for buzzwords on worms.Don't take it as "I'm not interested in your project". It's just that they don't know enough about your project to say something more intelligent than that because of their limited exposure -- this improves by leaps and bounds during the first year of graduate school.If you're not in the US then my comments are probably null and void...but then, PIs don't often solicit applications for PhD students here.If you are in the US and already know all this, well, then you already know.

  • PhysioProf says:

    It's just that they don't know enough about your project to say something more intelligent than that because of their limited exposure -- this improves by leaps and bounds during the first year of graduate school.BINGO! Students applying to PhD programs almost always haven't the faintest fucking clue what is really going to excite them once they get going.

  • tideliar says:

    Might be worth calling some of the possibles up and talking to them to get a feel for what they really want/think. I remember (very vaguely) applying for PhD positions back in the day and I think I tried to talk a massive amount of wank to get my foot in the door. Obviously, in retrospect, simple interest would have served better/just as well.

  • PhysioProf says:

    If a student came to you and said, "I'm a got a MSc growing worms and I think a PhD in your Physiology lab, even though I have no background in your field, would allow to grow the best worms I can", you might be interested?If the kid seems bright, absolutely! What the fuck do I care why the person thinks they want to train for their PhD in my lab? So long as I am convinced they are bright enough and motivated enough to be successful, I don't give a shit what they think about the intrinsic interest of what we do in my lab.I think you might need to release your ego investment in other people thinking your science is TEH BEST EVAH!!! Particularly clueless n00bs who probably have only the vaguest idea about the real conceptual structure of your field.

  • Anonymous says:

    When I was looking for a PhD supervisor, I probably said stupid/irrelavant things like what you are describing. If the student is coming out of undergrad with limited research background, he/she just doesn't have the language to talk about what you are specifically interested in and it makes sense that he/she will try to relate it to previous work, as this is what he/she knows. I entered my PhD from a completely unrealted undergrad background and didnt 100% understand what exactly my PI and his lab really did until I got there. But I was generally enthusiatic and shaped up to be a more than decent grad student. So don't count these kids out yet

  • Professor in Training says:

    What PP said, just with less use of the word "fuck" - I think I went over my yearly quota last week. I would also like to make the point that having students arrive after having been "trained" in previous techniques is sometimes more problematic than it is beneficial. Often they will have done a technique once or twice and learned it from someone who didn't really understand things very well themselves and you might spent twice as long undoing their bad habits than simply starting from scratch. I would take a student who was bright, enthusiastic and motivated over one with a mediocre attitude and a ton of previous experience any day. If you don't get any applications that really strike you as being great, it might be worth re-advertising and spreading the net a little wider - you never know what you may get. Also, having a student graduate and then move into a different area isn't a loss for you as it will widen your network and potential research area.I'll let you know if I come up with a metric to suit your needs 🙂

  • Prof-like Substance says:

    Alright, alright. Let's clarify a couple of things here.1) Advertising of PhD positions in uncommon in SOME fields, but not others. It happens regularly in mine, and especially in my case since my department does not do rotations. 2) Because of the wording of my ad, I am mostly getting applications from people with (or soon to complete) an MSc. So, these are not freshly minted undergrads with no idea about research. Perhaps that was a mistake on my part, but that's what I am dealing with at the moment. 3) In retrospect, I didn't clearly indicate the types of applicants I am getting. I have mainly received packages from people with no related experience who want to pursue a PhD in the US, no matter what the subject. Anyone who has ever posted an opening (and many who have not) has gotten these and they are not the kind of application that gets one excited. When I said I was hoping for people interested in the subject, I meant those interested in more than just a US PhD. 4) I am not holding out for an applicant who thinks my project will lead to world peace. Most of the letters I am receiving never even mention the project or field in them, instead referring to "your PhD program", etc. Those that do, have cut and pasted it into an often grammatically awkward spot. Again, I did not make this clear above, but I don't think that most of you would consider a letter as serious if it were so clearly being used to respond to every job opening available. There are still a few days for applications to come in. In fact, this morning I got one from an individual who at least has some related experience. Hopefully the trend continues as Friday approaches.

  • Professor in Training says:

    That's pretty much what I thought you were getting at in your original post and that's also part and parcel of advertising.Re your statement that: "I have mainly received packages from people with no related experience who want to pursue a PhD in the US, no matter what the subject." If you haven't seen it already, it might be worth checking out PP's post over at Dr Isis's house on this one. He was talking about choosing a postdoc and made a throwaway comment about foreign applicants that (undeservedly) sparked quite an uproar, but the applicants he was referring to are exactly the same as what you are describing. One of my final comments to this post was trying to address this very issue: "There is a subset of foreign PhDs who will see a job ad for an American university that has key words and phrases like "vacancy", "PhD required", "research" and "salary" and shoot off their CV on the off-chance someone will say yes. This happens regardless of what field the position is in and also regardless of the PhD's field. The point is that these people are typically NOT suited for the advertised position because their backgrounds, interests and experience just don't match what's required." Again, that's part of the peril of advertising ... but you need to advertise to get the students so it's something you can't avoid!

  • Prof-like Substance says:

    Yeah, I commented on the same post with a similar sentiment. So, with that in mind, the real question is whether I take on a student with "questionable" motivation if they have somewhat relavent experience just to claim a TAship in the department, or do I concentrate on the students I have and hope that losing out on the TAship for (hopefully only) a year will not set me back?

  • Arlenna says:

    As long as you have a departmental process for getting people out if they turn out to not work at all, I would probably go for it even if the person doesn't look perfect. If there's someone who is qualified enough and sounds like they are mentally engaged in research pas, present and future, they might turn out to be a diamond in the rough. And if they don't, you can limit the damages to your research program by gently moving them on and out of your lab.As one who's been the random-skilled person doing something completely new, sometimes we turn out to be pretty awesome at learning new fields. 🙂 BUT when we aren't awesome at it, we could potentially suck the life and energy out of everyone around us. So, yeah, it's a tricky decision, hah.

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