Saturday, April 2, 2011

Recruitment Time Blues

'Tis that time of year again. The time when grad students receive offers from multiple universities, and faculty are trying to attract the best possible younglings.

Mine is a large public R1 university, the state's flagship, with several top-10 ranked STEM departments and many in the top 20 in their respective fields (mine is ranked 14 or 15). So it's a very good school, but still not a FancyPants Private U. We almost invariably lose good candidates to private schools. I am in a department that does not offer many fellowships or teaching assistantships, so most financial offers to incoming graduate students have to be research assistantship offers, made by individual faculty. (For biomed readers: we don't do rotations.) At best, you meet some applicants at the open house (only those from a few neighboring states are invited in the case of my department), but I rarely find any students I like at these events, and those I do like typically have other attractive options.

The work I do requires a very strong math and physics background, which is often found in international candidates, so my group has a number of international students. With international students, it's really hard to recruit. You go by the BS school's reputation, letters of reference, test scores, talk to them on the phone, exchange emails. It's still hit or miss. For instance, from the same excellent international school I have had one stellar student and one complete dud, who both came in with very strong and very similar records. With international students you have less ability to do a thorough pre-screen because they are remote, so there is a greater chance for an advisor/advisee mismatch. On the other hand, the commitment to fund an international student is quite serious: if without funding, international students cannot pick up a McJob to support themselves or pay the tuition, they cannot always qualify for TA-ships because of language skills, and their dropping out of good standing as a student endangers their ability to stay in the country. If a student -- domestic or international -- doesn't work out, you have to suck it up and pay them until they find another advisor, but this aspect has added importance for international students who usually have absolutely no financial safety net.

I have also been trying to grow my own grad students, i.e., recruit them in my undergraduate courses and have them do research with my group for a summer or two, or at a lower pace over the semester. The good ones usually do it for the letters of recommendation and the fact that they got research experience, and then go on to greener pastures. And that's quite alright. Sometimes, though, you invest considerably more time in some students and they aren't very forthcoming about their plans: my most recent disappointment is a kid, an undergrad who was with the group for two summers and three semesters, coauthored a couple of papers (was one of the middle authors, did small, specific calculations in a large team). He sent a couple of grad school applications to private schools, but was saying the entire time that he planned on staying here for grad school because of family. I helped him write 3 fellowship applications (based on ideas in my larger grant proposals) to federal agencies to help support his studies here. Now he got admitted, with a lucrative first-year fellowship, to a FancyPants Private U, and has jumped on the offer like a kid into a pool of ice cream. I know that pedigree of the PhD institution matters, and that for his career the move is the right one. Still, I am disappointed as I spent a lot of time and energy on him, and some other place gets to cash in on a well-trained student, experienced in research, who may also end up getting a fellowship based on my grant proposal ideas. It's a great deal for the FancyPants Private U. (Ironically, their department is not more highly ranked than mine, but the overall name recognition trumps everything.)

The part that I hate the most is "the recruitment courtship." To stellar candidates, someone in a school like mine is never first choice; I know that very well and ask each potential candidate to tell me honestly what their first choices are, and that if they don't work out we can talk. But, many good candidates feel they need to pretend that my group is their first choice, so we go through this elaborate dance where they swear they are dead serious about coming here, make me issue RA offer letter and everything, only to yet again reveal that they were waiting for an offer from a more prestigious place the entire time. What I hate the most are the patronizing email apologies for not coming here, which come from feeling very smug because multiple places want them. *eyeroll* Whatevs, kid, happy trails.

I don't think there is a magic formula for recruiting good students while not at a FancyPants Private U (perhaps even if you are). When recruiting, I mostly go by the BS school's reputation and look for candidates with excellent undergraduate records and some research experience, but those who may be passed up by FancyPants Private U's because the record has a blemish (e.g., perhaps less than stellar GRE scores). My most recently hired student, who looks like he will be awesome, fits this recruitment pattern. Another way is going by recommendations: my best student so far looked nothing special on paper, but I hired him based on a recommendation from a trusted colleague, and it worked out great.

What is your recruitment strategy for graduate students -- especially if you have no benefit of testing the student out through rotations, but rather have to take him/her on, with pay, essentially sight unseen?


Namnezia said...

@GMP: "My most recent disappointment is a kid, an undergrad who was with the group for two summers and three semesters, coauthored a couple of papers.... I am disappointed as I spent a lot of time and energy on him, and some other place gets to cash in on a well-trained student. "

But you also got two papers out of him, so I wouldn't by any means consider this a waste of time. I usually train 2-3 undergrads at any given time but never expect them to stay for grad school. In fact I discourage it since it's probably better for them to move to another institution (even if our program is very good and well funded).

On another note - are there any training grant mechanisms available for your field? This makes recruiting students so much easier since they typically cover the students for the first 1-2 years while they do rotations. The ability to do rotations is not usually due to public vs. private, but to the availability of training grants.

GMP said...

Oh man, I hate blogger. Lost a whole comment again. *sigh* So here we go again.

Namnezia, thanks for the comment.

But you also got two papers out of him

He was one of the middle authors on those papers, he did smaller calculations as part of my theory team (with senior students) on a large collaborative project with experimentalists. So I would say the benefit of coauthorship was mostly to his CV.

I usually train 2-3 undergrads at any given time but never expect them to stay for grad school.

I don't either; they are here for a summer or a semester, do a little bit, get a nice letter of recommendation and move on; it's understood. I spent considerably more time (and NSF REU funding) on this guy because he kept saying he would stay here. I guess the part I am most peeved about is that his fellowship applications were all based on my research grants; I would not have been so ready to share those had I known he would not stick around.

On another note - are there any training grant mechanisms available for your field?

I wish, but no, there aren't any. There are typically no rotations in the physical sciences. Departments that teach large service courses typically cover their newbie students for a year or two as TA's. My department is not one of those, so there aren't that many TA-ships available, and the few available department fellowships are usually for 1st year US students only (so they never help with my international students).

Acr said...

I am new to this - only 2 recruitments and I have 2 students one year and none the second. But I have another switching over to my lab. So I'm OK and the students are great so far.

We are in a highly ranked public R1 too. We are also an interdisciplinary dept. If a student wants to go to FancyPants uni discipline specific program, they probably should. We are different, and are a "boutique" kind of dept. So I basically decided I wasn't going to "recruit" out of my way, I only wanted students who really wanted to come here. This is how I chose my PhD program, choosing a public R1 over fancypants. And I don't regret it. I might be too cavalier about this now and change my mind later, but this is what I did so far.

Also, thanks for writng about the foreign students issues. The stakes are really much higher for them as you explain. For me foreign students, my stakes are high too as the university doesn't pay tuition for non-residents. Though most foreign students are so good, they are worth more. Mostly because their hearts are really in it for taking this path of high resistance. And they work harder, stakes being high and all. And their educational background helps too!

Anonymous said...

You sound a lot like my graduate advisor. Similar type of school, similar concerns with competing for students. I was one of those, good BS school but obvious blemish (so-so GPA) that made me likely to be overlooked by some FancyPants schools.

Obviously I'm biased, but I think that is a good strategy.

Anonymous said...

I sympathesize with your situation. But giving a hard time before he/she leaves, in my honest opinion, will be an immature childish wishful exit kickass strategy.

Dr. Sneetch said...

Losing a student who you helped write fellowship proposals based on your research group ideas really sucks. Will he be working on the same problems? Then it would be reasonable to expect him to collaborate with one of your students and the four of you (the student his new advisor and you and your student) coauthor papers out of those ideas. In this competitive environment, I wouldn't want to lose a good idea too along with the student.

When it comes to hiring students sight unseen I look for some indication in their letters that they are self-starters and take initiative. The GPA is not always a good indication. But to a large extent it is a crap shoot.

Thanks GMP for bringing up these thorny issues.

Anonymous said...

"Losing a student who you helped write fellowship proposals based on your research group ideas really sucks."

It does unless you look at it as a long-term investment. That student knows you are a great advisor and will recommend other students at his new institution (and eventually his own institution) to look into working in your lab. While it takes a few years, this strategy has worked well for me. Being known as a good and supportive mentor can pay off.

I have really good group & their happiness, good work and optimism are great recruiting tools. I have every student applying to work with my group email & skype with people in the lab. My current students have a great radar for figuring out students who will be (and will not be) a good fit for our lab -- and they are a great selling point for our program.

Anonymous said...

I am at a fancy pants private U - not the top ranked one in my field quite, but a very good one, and the U overall has extremely good name. All I can tell you is it isn't really much different for us, and I haven't found any great strategy that works. Our best applicants also get into several other fancy pants private U's as well as top state depts (some of which are well recognized to be at the top of the heap in my field) and rather few of them end up coming here. As the top applicants tend to be savvy and apply to many places, this is just inevitable based on statistics alone.

The one difference for us not being a state school is that a foreign student costs us the same as a US one - which just means our US students cost us a lot more than yours do you, due to our high tuition which residency doesn't change. The only difference is that US students have more chances to get fellowships (from NSF etc. - some require US citizenship).

As far as putting your ideas into someone's fellowship applications... I guess it's easier to say this with hindsight, but if you could have predicted that it was going to bum you out if he went somewhere else after you gave him the ideas and worked with him on the fellowships, you shouldn't have done it. Just realistically you have to assume the risk that someone will leave in that situation, no matter what they say.

Really, I think it isn't quite right to "grow your own" anyway, at least in a big market like the US where there are many options. It's better for the students to leave. We tell our undergrads (who tend to be excellent, maybe better than our grad students after correcting for age) to go elsewhere for grad school, unless they really really want to stay for some good reason. If nothing else we are supplying some well trained kids to other programs, I think in the long run that has to do us some kind of good, at least karmically...

GMP said...

Thanks for the comments!

I agree with the last few comments that
sending good students away results in good karma and likely brings longer term rewards.
I too find that my own grad students are excellent in helping recruit new group members, are the group's best ambassadors, and can be quite critical of new candidates. As a colleague says "Quality recognizes quality and doesn't want to be diluted by non-quality."

Regarding growing own grad students -- there's a bit of local culture that comes to play here. I am in the part of the country where student mobility out of the state is much, much lower than in a number of other areas; it has to do with the local culture (who settled this part of the country etc.) Therefore, we have a large percentage of students who do stay here for grad school and a large percentage who just go to flagship state schools in the neighboring states (so as never to be far from family). I know I was surprised by the fairly low mobility of people from the area when I first moved here. So my expectation that a student may stay here for grad school is really not out of the norm for this school (would have totally been for my PhD school, for instance, and presumably many other schools).

Anyway, undergrads come and go, it's not that big of a deal really. I guess I do sound overly dramatic in my blog posts; alas, blogging brings out the whiniest in me. ;)

prodigal academic said...

I admit, I use a similar strategy to you--I look for students with a black mark in an otherwise stellar application. My main criteria for consideration is prior research experience. I can't afford to pay someone for a year or two who ends up flaming out and not producing because research isn't what they thought it was.

I am lucky--students in my department TA their first year, so they don't pick an advisor until they arrive on campus. This means I get to talk in person with recruits before they join my lab. I do, however, try to steer the cream of the crop my way after they are admitted--might as well get them thinking about my work as soon as possible!

I have no yet had the experience of an undergrad getting a fellowship off of my ideas and going elsewhere, but it happened to a colleague for a summer student, and he was pissed. I would be too, but what else can you do?

Anonymous said...

Part of our job is supposed to be mentoring. Between this post and the last one, I wonder how you view this part of your position.

GMP said...

Thanks for the comments, Prodigal and Anon at 11:35.

Prodigal, I totally agree about the importance of previous research experience. In my experience, students who come in with an MS from elsewhere are often excellent (very mature and focused on their PhD).

Anon at 11:35, I write a lot about mentoring and interactions with graduate students (if you have time, look at posts further back), which should indicate that I think about it a lot and don't take it lightly. I probably write disproportionately more about instances that make me upset than those that make me happy, simply because blogging is quite conducive to whining and venting (at least for me). I generally enjoy my mentoring relationships with my students and postdocs, but these relationships are not all unicorns and rainbows, as can be expected -- they are close, long-term interactions between humans. PhD advisor/advisee relationship has many elements of parenting, but it's not a parent/child relationship, for many reasons, one of them being that both are supposed to be adults and have obligations to one another (not just advisor to advisee). The relationship should provide the advisee with plenty of opportunities for professional growth (enhancement of technical expertise, giving talks, writing papers, networking, etc.), but there are constraints: the advisor has obligations to federal funding agencies, other group members, and the university, and must ensure that quality scholarly work is produced at an adequate pace.
I like this article, written by Irving Herman, of what constitutes a symbiotic advisor/advisee relationship:

Irving Herman's "Following the Law"

The article is a bit exaggerated for comedic effect, but the core elements are there.

Anonymous said...

I'm starting grad school this fall. I talked to 4 professors during the application process. I told three of them that their school was "one of my top choices". For the record, they really were in the top 4 among the 12 places I applied to. However, I can see how this could've been misinterpreted to mean /the/ top choice. I told the other professor that his school was near the middle of my list. Do you think this is a reasonable response? If not, what should I have told them?

I'd also like to know what counts as a patronising response. I replied to some of these profs saying that "it was a tough decision, but I decided to go to the U of X". Should I have avoided saying that? What I wanted to convey was that I did seriously consider their offer, but wasn't sure how to put that across.

I know this is mostly grad student paranoia, so feel free to ignore this.

Thanks for the great blog!

GMP said...

Anon on April 7, good luck with your graduate studies! I can't speak for all professors, but I would appreciate being forthright. "My first choice is MIT, my second Stanford, and you are my 3rd choice." That means if you flame out at MIT and Stanford, you will come here, and that's quite OK. Also (again, this is me personally) once you decide to accept another offer, simply write "Dear Prof. X, I have decided to accept the offer from FancyPants U. Thank you for your time and your interest in recruiting me/your generous offer. Best regards, Student A". You don't have to justify yourself, or to go at great length into your thought process (how and why you ended up deciding what you did). I also hate generic patronizing statements "In them end, I feel that going with FancyPants U is the best decision for me." Duh! Of course you think that, otherwise you wouldn't make that decision.

Anyway, that's just the grouchy me. :) Don't worry too much and enjoy this time of high demand for your talents! And, of course, do choose the school that's best for you. ;)