What a good recruitment weekend looks like

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What should departments do when running a grad student recruitment weekend — and what should they avoid?

Many departments invite a gaggle of potential PhD students out for a big weekend. There are a few advantages for this approach. First of all, it allows the department to put on a big show to convince applicants to say “yes” when they get an offer, and the synergy of excited potential cohort-mates is helps. It’s easier on the department to focus recruitment visits on one weekend, rather than having people come our over the course of a few months. There are often more invitees than slots in the program, and so this allows PIs to comparison shop among students who have expressed an interest. On the downside this can also result in grad-school-hunger-games dynamic.

What do I know about this, anyway? The last time I was involved in one of these was about 24 years ago. On the other hand, I get a lot of feedback from both sides, from my own students and colleagues experiencing visiting weekends. I’m sure your comments will be super informative.

I think these recruitment weekends are typically positive, but in the recent months I’ve heard from several students and PIs who have been concerned about things that should be done differently. (One applicant with a bunch of useful observations has been using #GradSchoolSearch on twitter this season, it’s worth checking out.)

For starters, applicants need to meet with grad students in the program/lab that they are applying to, without any interference from faculty members. This is important so that these students can get a full picture of potential challenges and risks they might be facing.

Also, applicants need to have their travel expenses covered in advance of their travel. Many applicants literally don’t have a few hundred bucks to spare. If you’re a PI inviting a student and your program doesn’t pay up front, then it’s on you to offer to cover expenses up front. Departments that take recruitment of URM students seriously need to take advance travel funding seriously.

Keep in mind that students are coming from very different backgrounds. Some of the applicants might not be used to the social conventions of the white upper middle class, which prevails in most science departments. Some may never been to a professor’s house, or been in snow before, or eaten in a restaurant that uses cloth napkins. If you are evaluating applicants by their capacity to be eloquent about science or to be jovial with lab members, then you’ll be selecting against people with backgrounds different from most of the people in the room. Make your department a place where folks can actually be themselves, without counting cultural differences as a demerit.

It helps if the applicants receive a copy of their schedule in advance, just like we do for job candidates and visiting seminar speakers. If the schedule is really packed, be sure to leave time for bathroom breaks and time to decompress. Applicants should be treated like other kinds of job candidates — which means staying away from questions about spouses, childcare, and stuff like that.

What are other good (or bad) practices?

12 thoughts on “What a good recruitment weekend looks like

  1. When I was recruited, the department put everyone in a hotel and you shared your room with another potential member of your cohort. This was comfortable and easy for everyone (but likely very expensive).

    A couple years after joining, the department decided to have prospectives stay with students currently enrolled in the program. This was to give prospectives more time with students and to give them a chance to see what living in that city felt like (and save the department some money). This actually worked out well for a year or two, but about year 3 there was an excess of female grad students volunteering up their homes and a very low number of male students. Additionally, there were students hosting from labs where no students being recruited, while students from other labs with prospectives did not volunteer to host. In hindsight it should have been a mix between the two. If a member of your lab is not able to host, figure out other accommodations.

  2. While visit weeks can be really useful, there will be students who have unmovable conflicts. Allow them to visit another time, and treat them as you would during a visit week. People who come outside of visit week are giving your school serious consideration. If meals are paid for during a visit week, then meals should be paid for non-visit week recruits as well. If you have organized a time for recruits to socialize with grad students during visit week, then a similar opportunity should be provided to non-visit week recruits as well. Of course, there will be limitations, as busy schedules may not allow a non-visit-week recruit to see as many people and you probably can’t have a full department get together for just one student, but that said, make an effort to suggest days where there is a department seminar or similar function.

    The one school that I visited outside of visit week had nothing planned for me, besides the professor meetings I specifically requested. No grad student was even informed I was coming! I was left to wander around the streets alone for meals. It was an isolating experience. And to boot, they did not arrange for accommodation.

    Make it clear prior to the visit week what will be paid for and what won’t. It’s quite nerve-racking when you enter a restaurant and the food is way more expensive than you’re used to paying and you’ve never specifically been told that the department is covering the meal.

    Schools that can’t afford to pay accommodation for visitors should offer visitors the option to stay with a grad student who has an extra couch/bed (especially if visiting outside of visit week – where the visitor is more likely to have more limited social opportunities). Getting alone time with a grad student outside of the university environment is very useful. They often open up the most during those times.

  3. Thanks for starting this thread, Terry. I strongly agree with the suggestion to get current students to put up the prospectives (even if hotels are within budget), because it allows prospectives to see a real slice of student life and also generates more one-on-one interactions than they might have otherwise. Minnesota’s EEB department does this–perhaps for these reasons, or perhaps because there are no hotels near the St. Paul campus; I’m not sure. But either way, I remember it feeling more personal when I interviewed, and then when I arrived later as a student, it felt like I already knew people in the lab. In fact, the student who put me up on interview weekend ended up being my office-mate for my whole grad school career.

    The other suggestion I have is that current students should be explicit in making the prospectives feel valued and sought after. Most schools do these interview weekends before sending out offers, so the professors sometimes have to be a bit cagey/coy in their academic courtship. But current students don’t have this constraint as much. So if students are impressed by a candidate applying to their lab, I suggest saying so both to the candidate and to their supervisor after the interview. I remember us doing this in the Tilman lab for several prospectives while I was there. I know it can mean a lot to prospectives to hear encouragement and feel valued, and I suspect advisors like to hear the feedback on new recruits too.

  4. I’m pasting in a range of twitter remarks:

  5. The best interview experience I had involved each one of us being put up in a local hotel. Each interviewee got their own room, so there wasn’t much mingling at the end of our days, but the department chair hosted a house party with several professors and all of the grad students.

  6. When I applied four years ago, I attended recruitments that fell under two broad categories: 1) put recruits in a hotel, hand them a pre-made schedule packed with interviews; OR 2) put recruits up with current students, schedules are more open depending on how available people are. Both had pros and cons.

    Pros of a hotel are that they are potentially easier for introverts or generally private people. If staying with a current student, people feel pressure to be “on” because the student is going to judge them and their suitability for the school. Hotels also put less demands on grad students.

    Pros of staying with current students (besides budget) is of course, getting the opportunity to get private information about the department/lab group. You also get a chance to see if you vibe with current students on a personal level (like, can these people be my friends once I come here?). Seeing the living arrangements is a great way for students to anticipate the cost of living on that school’s stipend.

    Some schools give students a pre-made schedule, usually pretty packed with meetings from people all over the department. Pros are perhaps more for the department side, maybe everyone gets a chance to weigh in on a prospective student. Cons (based on my experience) is the overwhelming feeling of needing to learn everything about everybody; I tried to read papers from everyone I was meeting with, and I didn’t understand a lot of what I read because I was meeting with people from lots of different subfields. It’s exhausting.

    The school I ended up at has a much more casual (perhaps to a fault) approach. They give out links to prospective student’s calendars, and ask anyone to schedule a meeting at their leisure if they are interested in meeting with someone. This sounds nice in theory, but in practice most people forgot or didn’t care enough to schedule a meeting, even people in my prospective lab group. I was told a little too late that I should email people I wanted to meet with to get them to schedule a meeting; that’s a lot of work for the prospective who knows only a little about the department as is. So my schedule ended up being pretty open, which was awkward because I was there for the sole purpose of meeting people. At least I got to fit in a hike.

  7. Off topic (sorry), just wanted to say I’m glad to see the comments open again here. Happy that my hunch that they’d remain closed permanently turned out to be wrong.

    • 😉 the methods of this experiment are pretty haphazard.

      I’m thinking, at the moment, that I can classify posts into a couple big categories: some are clearly “so, what do do you all think, what are your experiences?” And others are, “okay, here’s what I think. Feel free to share and discuss and tell me I’m wrong but I’m not sure I want those comments (from a highly nonrandom subset of readers) to live on the post and have that kind of real estate on my own site.”

      So the ones that comes out in 7 or so hours doesn’t have open comments. I don’t know about the next ones, because I don’t know what those are.

  8. Davis Ecology has a student-run research symposium the same weekend as recruitment, so that prospectives have the opportunity to see what students at different stages are working on.

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