Deserting students after graduation

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The moment after students graduate, many resources and opportunities become unavailable. This is a problem.

I can classify the undergraduates who are currently affiliated with my lab into two categories: those who are enrolled, and those who have just graduated and are actively preparing for admission into graduate programs. At this time, these two groups are equal in number.

Of these two groups of students, only one can:

  • take a GRE course on campus for free
  • get travel support for grad school visits from our campus NSF-AMP grant, the other group doesn’t qualify
  • get funded by campus to attend any conferences
  • have a university email address with library access
  • apply for for REU programs
  • present at a system-wide conference in January including a free workshop to help students write graduate fellowship statements
  • use financial aid letters to qualify for fee waivers for grad school applications

and so on.

Once you graduate, you’re on your own, except to the extent you have a faculty advisor or a mentor who might be able to support you. However, a lot of guidelines and policies restrict financially supporting people who aren’t students. I’ve spent the majority of my returned indirect funds to support students who recently graduated, to attend conferences and do fieldwork. That well has run dry, though. I’ve taken to covering these expenses out of pocket once in a while, but that obviously is not a sustainable solution for a systemic problem.

Meanwhile, when my students go to conferences and chat with other scientists, they often get advice that taking time off before grad school is important. This comes from folks who aren’t that familiar with the academic, financial and personal situations of the person they’re offering advice to. The gap year is a good thing for some folks, but it’s not good blanket advice for everybody. I don’t even tell my own students what they should do, because it’s up to them to decide. Because once a student leaves campus, they lose access to a lot of the resources they will need to leverage to get into grad school, and this is a real structural problem for people who don’t have access to a lot of resources.

Of course, it takes a lot of time and effort to apply to graduate schools. Very few of my students are well positioned to apply to grad programs in the year before they graduate, while taking a full course load and working 30-40 hours per week. If you look at the timeline of stuff that needs to happen to get into grad school, you can understand how this is a challenging task.

What can we do — as individuals, departments, universities, and as a scientific community — to better support students who just graduated who are applying to graduate programs?

2 thoughts on “Deserting students after graduation

  1. Yes, that’s a real problem. One the one hand, after leaving campus the students lose access to key resources and may get less competitive. On the other hand, graduate school is a big commitment and people should think it through, before getting into a Master’s or PhD program. In Brazil, the best solution for this intermediary stage are technician scholarships. For instance, research foundations of some Brazilian states offer those scholarships for people at different stages of the academic career, from high school to after the PhD. They do not pay as much as Master’s, PhD, and postdoc scholarships, but are good anyway. That’s a nice way to keep affiliated with the university and its resources, doing research (although most times not your own project), and have time to decide whether to go or not to graduate school.

  2. Short internships, summer placements, etc.? Over here in the UK various learned societies and institutions offer funding for these things, and they can be a great bridge between graduation and postgraduate study.

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