Responding (or not) to prospective students

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For all the concern about pipeline problems, we seem to be fond of creating bottlenecks that filter out the people we’re trying to recruit. Let’s take a quick look at how people get into grad school in my field.

To my knowledge, in most other fields, prospective graduate students apply to graduate programs. And then the selection process happens from there. I don’t have much direct experience with these programs, obviously, because it’s not my field.

But in ecology/evolution and allied fields, it happens bassackwards. If you apply to a graduate program without schmoozing with the professor you want to work with, then your application is pretty much guaranteed to be ignored. The way it works is that professors are supposed to have a good idea who they want to be their students before they even apply. If you’re a student looking to get admitted to a doctoral program, the way you do this is contact professors ahead of time. It’s standard to send an inquiry email. You also might have a preexisting relationship with the PI you want to work with, from a summer research experience, or from hanging out a field station, or from a conversation at a conference.

Applying to the graduate program is often a formality. A lot of people might apply to a program, but you’re not going to get in unless a PI vouches for you and says, “This is the student I want to take.” Getting past the graduate committee isn’t a sure thing, as some departments actively filter out students based on GRE scores or GPA or other factors, while others are inclined to just let PIs take on new students if they want to work with them. And some PIs court a few students heavily, but can only choose one. So really, it’s almost not worth your while applying unless you get asked to apply. It’s not a sure thing though, because of funding and competing students, but getting that invitation from the PI to apply is an important step.

So how do you get that invitation? Unless you’re already connected, you hit them up with an email.

OH DAMN. HAVE YOU SEEN A PROFESSOR’S INBOX NOWADAYS?

That so-called pipeline just got all kinds of jammed up.

It’s just, as one colleague pointed out on twitter, a lot of cognitive load to deal with when you get so many inquiries from students mixed in with everything else. If you were to ask people who ask me for things by email, you can be sure you’ll get a list of people who have legitimate gripes.

I’m far from perfect on this. Student inquiry emails are particularly hard to deal with, I think, because they can’t be processed in a snap if you’re doing it right, unless you have nothing to say other than “Sorry, I can’t help you.” So we look at it, and then it slides down our inbox. Then it might be forgotten. Some folks will ignore it forever, maybe deleting it years down the line with a slight twinge of guilt. Or maybe it’s deleted right away with no reply? I don’t know.

But let’s be clear, when people think an email matters, they reply, and promptly. For example, I recently submitted a proposal to create a network involving about 25 universities. I contacted about 25 professors by email, most of whom I’ve never met before. There were two people who never replied to my single email — but everybody else was on it. I got a thoughtful reply within a day from almost everybody. And then when I asked people for a letter of commitment, nearly all of them materialized quite promptly, or with the slightest nudging. I get why I received a prompt response. They liked the thing I was proposing, I’m a respected peer, and people know grant deadlines are not a thing to be messed with. If a colleague sends me a mail, “I’m writing a proposal and I need this,” then this goes to the top of the list.

But then, students will write emails to professors they want to work with, and the majority of these emails get no answer. Ever. They email after a couple weeks (because faculty cognitive loads are piled so high), and they still get ignored. The simplest inference we can make here is that these student inquires are a lower priority than other things.

Okay, I know what you’re thinking. Am I accusing the academic community of putting students at a lower priority? Well, you can see it as an accusation if you wish, but really, it’s apparently just a fact. An email from your dean about getting a fresh chunk of recovered indirect costs will get you emailing from your phone at 2am. An email from your technician that an important piece of equipment needs to be repaired will get a reply. An email from a prospective student, apparently, gets many of you emailing, well, never. I’m not accusing you of placing students as a lower priority, I’m just letting you know what time of day it is based on reading your watch.

Probably the intention is to delay the response until you can find the time to make a quality reply. But intentions have no market value. Intentions are like a teetering stack of National Geographic magazines that a hoarders stash, thinking they’re of financial value to somebody, in some place, but really, it’s just a pile of paper getting in the way.

Okay, so students get ignored. You might think: They need to deal with it. They can be persistent. They are only getting ignored by people who would be bad advisors anyway. They’re getting ignored by people with no space in their labs. They’re going to have to learn to deal with rejection. So what.

Here’s the so what: Getting ignored by PIs is not an equal opportunity affair. White men get ignored less. An unlike that previous link, I don’t have the peer reviewed paper to show for it but I would be willing to wager an irreplaceable body part on the fact that students from CSU Dominguez Hills are ignored at a higher rate than students from UCLA or Pomona College. I have talked to so many students — who worked with their undergraduate mentors to craft an appropriate inquiry letter — and they still get widely ignored.

I mean, WTF.

I get that if you’re a professor in a program where students are expected to apply to the program, and you’re expected to pick students from the pile of applications, that you shouldn’t be expected to respond to hundreds of student inquiries. But, if you’re in ecology and evolutionary biology, and the query email is the default means and socially accepted norm for student recruitment, responding to some queries and not others is an entirely crappy thing to do. This also is one of the mechanisms that perpetuates inequities. Because the things that you’re filtering for in this email may very well be an implicit ethnic and socioeconomic filter. At least, that’s what the data show.

If you’re not taking a student, copy-and-paste a message that you’re not taking on students. It’ll take 20 seconds each time.

If you’re possibly taking on a student but the one who wrote to you isn’t what you’re looking for, then that’s a different copy-and-paste that’ll take 20 seconds.

I get it. It’s a hard email to write to a student that, in your subjective opinion, that a student isn’t cut out for your lab, or that you think other students will come along who will be better in your lab. But that’s an email you’ve got to write. That’s the responsibility that comes with your power. What if you can’t explain to this student, in terms that seem equitable, why they don’t fit? That’s a question I have for you — why can’t you verbalize why they aren’t a fit for your lab? Maybe you need to reevaluate how you weigh potential students. Are you doing it equitably? Are you implicitly or explicitly biased towards students who have been provided more opportunities? What are your goals and values in training graduate students, and is your selection process aligned with those goals and values?

I’m guessing for a lot of you, your grad student selection process does not reflect your values. Because I refuse to accept that you don’t value the students who write to you and then you ignore.

It’s an ad hoc process. Emails float in over the course of many months. Perhaps if you develop a workflow every time it happens, you can deal with them more fairly?

And what do you do with the letters that don’t follow the norms of our field? What if you got a contact that looks like spam and doesn’t address you by name, and they’re not paying attention to your expertise? Are they serious? Well, they might be, or they might not be. They clearly aren’t getting good advice. A one-minute email with a link to more detailed advice can provide this student with support that they apparently aren’t getting. However, I’d like to be clear. A lot of professional and appropriate inquiry emails that meet all standard criteria are getting ignored, too. A lot. And for some students who I am advising, I know exactly who you are.

I’ve got two short exercises that I’d like you to play along with me: First, think of a highly respected person in the field, who you cite regularly and would love to collaborate with. Got them in mind? Okay. Now imagine that an undergraduate student in their laboratory writes to you because they want to be your grad student. Are you going to be ignoring that email? Second, imagine you get an inquiry email from a student from a university you’ve never heard of, who has a little research experience with a professor you’ve never heard of. Are you going to be ignoring their email?

If you played along with my little exercise, please honestly ask within yourself whether your response to these two students is different, and ask yourself why there’s a difference. Ask yourself whether this is a difference that we need to eliminate if we are going to repair the inequities that are pervasive in our professional environment. Think of all of the policies and procedures to ensure fairness that are supposed to be involved when hiring a faculty member. And that’s just one step in the process of becoming a university scientist. Consider how this process of courting prospective advisors by email is creating a bottleneck in a pipeline that serves the most advantaged.

By the way, how did it evolve that in our field, this became the mechanism of recruitment? I know this predated the advent of email. Has anybody ever considered that this practice is far from best practice for equity and inclusion? I understand the conceit that we have in our field — that we have an unearthly bond that connects our soul to the questions that we are asking, and it is up to the prospective graduate advisor and prospective graduate student to perform a mentoring courtship dance to decide if they will create a five year bond that will launch a student’s career, that involves a student demonstrating talent and passion for a very specific issue meaning they can only work with a small number of possible advisors. Yes, I do get that having a fit with one’s PI with respect to research interests matters, and applying blind to programs without talking to the PIs would seems odd, having been in the field for a while. But now that I’m on this side of the desk, primarily working with undergrads looking to get into grad school, it seems odd that my student’s capacity to get into a doctoral program is entirely at the whim of professors who choose to ignore or reply to email, and most of these professors are actively ignoring our students.

By the way, here’s the twitter thread on this topic I wrote yesterday, and the response is why I wrote this post. If you click on it, I bet you’ll find many of the responses enlightening.

9 thoughts on “Responding (or not) to prospective students

  1. I’m conflicted. I’m rooting for those of my students who want to get into grad school, but I also realize that the sheer number of PhDs has flooded the market and made it possible for academic employers to rely on adjunct work. It’s obvious that we’ve cut our own throats by producing so many PhDs (or more problematically, that PhD-producing faculty have cut the throats of teaching faculty).

    But still, my students should get in …

  2. I agree with your concern Terry, which is that students’ inquiry emails might get ignored too often, discouraging students. BUT, speaking only for myself/my department, I do not agree that this blocks their path to getting into the graduate program in the way portrayed here. The way I perceive it is that while having prior contact with the professor is crucial, it is NOT the case that the professor pre-selects who they will admit and the actual application process is a formality. First of all, both the graduate programs I work with are actually pretty selective, and not just based on some numerical cutoff. Second, I don’t make my decision until after in-person interviews. Third, our Admissions Committee leans heavily on professors to comment on every applicant for their lab. Fourth, personally, when I am asked for these comments, I search through my email to see if that person did in fact contact me before even if I might have missed it. Fifth: I see initiative as one of the main deciding factors. Yes, this is still something that some people with privilege have easier access to. But if a student from any institution emails me beforehand, I see that as evidence that I am one of the few places they are applying to, and that they actually read my website and are interested in what I do. I don’t see how any information on the CV is less biased than that, and certainly none of the standard criteria are. Persistence is also a factor: just send that email again and ask if it was received.

    There’s another broader issue though, which is: why are we getting so many emails? The noise level, and level of expected commitments in a plethora of areas of life and work, is beyond exhausting. A lot falls through ‘cracks’, which just means we are constantly putting out fires, and a lot of good issues get ignored. I don’t have a solution, but seriously: we are doing a lot more jobs than a generation ago (parenting, household, advising, teaching, outreach, research, grantwriting – in every one of those areas our expectations, output, and efficiency have increased, and so have our hours. Something has to give.). I’m not saying answering students is the thing that should give, just that its a general problem (try to find a reviewer, for example…).

  3. Perhaps this is because I’m only a few weeks into the tenure track, but at the moment, I’m taking all serious inquiries, well, seriously. The only ones I’m tempted to ignore are 1) those who clearly have no background/interest in what I do and are spamming hundreds of PIs, or 2) seem unlikely to meet minimum TOEFL score requirements for the program (which is important because they will be supported on TA-ships). I’d be thrilled to receive inquiries from interested and qualified students, regardless of their undergraduate institution, but it’s just not that common (or maybe just not yet for me). Out of every 10 inquiry emails, I’d say 2 meet my criteria above.

  4. This is a slight tangent, but reading this made me realize that I have no idea how to select students to admit into a lab (I don’t have a tenure track position yet, so I haven’t had to before). There are obvious issues with GRE scores, grades, letters of recommendation, undergraduate research experience, and name recognition of undergraduate institution or advisor. What legitimate criteria are there to use instead? In a perfect world, I’d love to work with anyone who is interested in the same questions I am and makes a positive contribution to my lab community (i.e. is not a jerk). But when I think about the practicalities of limited time and needing to graduate at least one student within 6 years to get tenure, it’s scary not to factor in some additional assessment of expected success. Are there any such assessments that don’t lead to discriminatory outcomes?

  5. I completely agree with you Terry. It is a matter of treating other human beings respect. If its a copy and pasted email from somebody completely outside my field (like biochemistry) I will ignore. But if I can tell (or think it possible) it was an email sent by somebody specifically approaching me to work in my lab, I feel I should respond and feel guilty for the few that slip by me.

    Proving your point, it is surprising how often I get an email back from students I have said thanks but no thanks to that say “thank you at least for replying”.

  6. “If you’re not taking a student, copy-and-paste a message that you’re not taking on students. It’ll take 20 seconds each time.”

    Or just put a note to that effect on your website: that’s 20 s just once.

    I find profs who encourage folks to get in touch (via their lab websites) and then don’t bother to reply to well-crafted, specific emails especially deplorable!

    This is an issue that applies to other fields as well. Just think about it: how do most grad students find postdocs?

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