anonP: “How can you tell if someone will be a motivated and productive student when you interview/select applicants?”
RFon asked: “If this is the official “request thread” I’d like to echo anonPs question from the comment section of “Working with grad students .. pt1”: How can you tell if someone will be a motivated and productive student when you interview/select applicants?”
Short answer: This is always hard. There are no strategies that never fail. But some are better than others.
Part 1: If I Get to Meet With the Student in Person
First, I don’t think I say this enough on the blog, but my students are overall great. Maybe I’m a proud advisor, but all my students are above average for the department, and some considerably so (example: I hired one when one of his letters said they guy was a genius; that letter was not wrong, and the student will graduate in a few months). I get so pissed at some of them, especially when it comes to technical writing, which is PARAMOUNT (did I forget any embellishment?), when I see they are not doing what I know they are able to, that they are not giving me their best, and that they are therefore not fulfilling their potential. But that doesn’t change the fact that I think my students are generally awesome and very, very capable.
This is why, if I get to meet a prospective student in person, the most important thing I do is to schedule ample time for them to spend with my existing graduate students. I learned this from a senior colleague, who said years ago, when I asked him how he managed to have such a great group, “Quality likes quality and doesn’t like to be diluted by non-quality.”
This has been extremely valuable because students, as a group, don’t want someone who would drag everyone down.
Everyone in my group knows that I purposefully don’t want a group that’s too uniform in terms of gender or country of origin. I like to have people from the US, Far East, India, Middle East, and an occasional European (they don’t apply often, that’s why “occasional”; I also haven’t seen applicants from South America or Africa). I could have all Chinese or Indian or Iranian students, and it would be so soooo easy to have all boys in the group, but I take all this into consideration when hiring and we have a very nice a friendly group. Also, don’t underestimate students. They too like to be exposed to other cultures, or at least mine do. Diversity is important and keeping an eye on it is a good thing for everyone involved.
Because everyone in my group expects diversity rather than uniformity, I have never seen my group lobby for only one specific type of student. They really do seem to check for: Does this person seem interested in what we do? Can they actually follow what we say about our work? Do they seem like a nice person or a jerk? Do they ask intelligent questions? Do they have research interests that fit with what the rest of us do? Would they be pleasant to have around?
My students are never mean in relaying their comments, but they definitely have opinions and they are usually right on the money. A few years ago, they were super enthusiastic about an American girl, and cold-to-lukewarm and skeptical about an American guy; they were spot on both times. The girl became a wonderful addition to the group in every way; the guy was blah from the get-go, missed group meetings, struggled with coursework, and decided within 3 months that the work in the group was not what he wanted, and left to get an MS in a different field.
Basically, students talk to other students more openly than with advisors, so from the interactions of your prospective students with your group you can get info that you cannot directly. Also, the students themselves want someone both capable and pleasant, probably even more than you as advisor do, because they are the ones who have to interact with the new addition all day every day, so it makes sense to include them in the decision.
To be continued…