Last year, I had the dubious honor of chairing a search committee for two positions in my department. The speciality was open. I learned about my department and my university by seeing it through the eyes of applicants and would-be applicants. There’s a lot I’d like to say about the process that I can’t, or shouldn’t, say. But I do have some observations to share.
Now’s the time of year when prospective grad students need to get serious about applying to graduate programs.
Students are probably relying on their professors to guide them through the process. While professors are generally well informed, we have to be careful to not overestimate how well we can steer our students.
Please remember a few facts:
- The grad school application process varies dramatically, even among subdisciplines.
- Procedures vary greatly among different universities, and many are idiosyncratic.
- Personal experiences with the grad school application process >5 years ago are outdated.
Undergraduates typically have misconceptions that are particularly difficult to dispel. After all, telling our students a set of facts doesn’t necessarily make them understand how important these facts are.
Undergrads are often very surprised to discover that the process is haphazard, and how their personality and professionalism affect the outcome. Even if you tell them about it in detail before they start.
What is the fix for this? Undergraduates should be getting direct advice from current graduate students who are just a little further down the same road. Ideally these students are alums from your lab or your institution, but if you need to stretch further to find grad students to advise your undergrads, it’s worth your while.
In addition to talking with grad students, it’s not hard to find quality contemporary advice to share with your students, like this post by Christine Boake. Be careful to provide information germane to a particular field, because sometimes it’s not obvious that what appears to be written as generalized advice may work really well only within certain disciplines. If you are in ecology, for example, here’s another great post about the grad school application procedure from Dynamic Ecology. If you know of others that you want to share, please post them in the comments. (You can do it anonymously.) I wouldn’t even know where to start for physics, chemistry, computer science, cell/molecular biology, and so on.
While you’re at it, please don’t give generalized advice to students wondering whether to do a Master’s or Ph.D.