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?