The admissions dance

Apr 09 2010 Published by under Uncategorized

My department doesn't have a rotation program where students are admitted strictly based on their application packets and then spend time working in different labs to figure out where they want to do their degree. There are pros and cons to that system, but it wouldn't work in my department for a variety of reasons. Instead, we do a mixture of our own recruiting and interviewing potential students who apply to the department, but we only accept students who are matched with a particular lab when they come into the program. Everywhere I have worked has been like this, and honestly, I like it that way.

One major drawback however, is the dance one has to do with the candidates. I typically interview 4 students and rank three. One of the factors that has to go into that ranking, however, is whether I think the student will come if accepted. This is critical because once you extend a letter of acceptance through the grad school, the ball is in the student's court. In an ideal case the student will accept and you can then quickly decline the others on the list. More often than not, however, the accepted student takes some time to decide. During that time I am left stringing the other students along, not wanting to tell them that they are not my first choice while hoping not to lose them right away to other labs. If my first choice declines I need to have a pool to go back to, which is why timing is critical and why the pool can quickly dry up if the accepted student delays too long.

I can try to impress upon the accepted student that a timely response is helpful, but I can't demand a response until the official university deadline. Of course, this deadline corresponds with the deadline of several other schools in the area and if the candidate waits until then to decline, I'm pretty much screwed. In this case I would probably be left with a decision between an applicant who did not get in anywhere else or not taking a student at all. Although it is possible to find students who turn out to be excellent in the lab after a mediocre undergraduate experience, the odds are stacked.

In the mean time, the music plays on...

8 responses so far

  • Professor in Training says:

    And then there are those places that don't bother to even look at the applications until the summer, leaving both the students and the PIs hanging and unable to make plans.

  • Unbalanced Reaction says:

    Wow, this seems quite stressful for everyone involved. In my field you are admitted in the spring, and then wait until at least late fall to join a research group. This seems to increase retention, since students can (mostly) figure out a fit in those first few months in grad school.

  • Eugenie says:

    Thank you soooo, sooo much for this post. I'm still waiting to hear from 3 grad schools re: applications (its been brutal waiting). Its great to see/get an idea of what is going on the other side of the process. If i could smack the 1st round accepted students, I would.

  • Eugenie says:

    Oh and... (I was trigger happy when I submitted my first bad)"In this case I would probably be left with a decision between an applicant who did not get in anywhere else or not taking a student at all. Although it is possible to find students who turn out to be excellent in the lab after a mediocre undergraduate experience, the odds are stacked. "I by no means have had a mediocre undergraduate experience (I've had 2 summer research internships, 1 REU, multiple conferences-one national, co-authored paper...etc), and yet I still haven't had any offers.It seems like this year is a total crapshoot.

  • Prof-like Substance says:

    Eugenie - I didn't mean to say that anyone not accepted right away is not a good candidate, though I can see how it reads that way. Obviously there is huge field variability here, and as a relatively new prof I'm not exactly getting candidates banging down my door just yet. Therefore, my situation is not necessarily typical. In a few years, when the lab is better established, I'm hoping that these types of problems are less prevalent.

  • gnuma says:

    How many students are you taking on, ie what do you think is reasonable? I'm getting 2 in my first year, but thinking about not accepting students in the next year...especially since I'm having a baby this summer...

  • LM says:

    How does a new prof attract students anyway? Hot science? Pretty website? Going the extra mile re: keeping them in the loop?I'm really glad for the rotation program in my dept, even though they're not common around here. Apart from the admissions dance, I'd be really leery about committing to a lab after one interview. I assume it's just as tricky from the PI's perspective.

  • Prof-like Substance says:

    Gnuma - First off, congrats on the baby. Second, I found that one at the start was enough because it's tough getting the whole lab set up and having to keep one student busy, let alone two. However, there is plenty for them to do while they get started on reading, etc. I added a second student in my second semester, but that was kind of a freak situation. I added a third student in my second year and will be taking on another in September, but graduating one this summer so there will not be a net gain. If some of these grants start coming through I will begin to increase the numbers, but I don't want to over extend until I have funding in hand. LM - There are a number of ways to recruit early on, but I found that using my network of colleagues has worked the best. We still have a large pool of applicants to the department from which to chose from, but getting students sent from people I know (and trust) has been really helpful.A rotation system works well in some places, it just wouldn't here.

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