Of Birds In Hands and Bushes

Graduate-student recruitment season is upon us, and the inboxes of faculty who work at institutions with graduate programs are again filling with emails containing “prospective student” in the subject.

I will be bringing on several people this year, so I started interviewing early. I have pretty much decided whom I want to recruit  already based on the students I’ve already seen, and I’ve given unofficial offers via email. However, there is still more than a month until the application deadline, and some of my other colleagues apparently wait until after said deadline to peruse the candidate roster for the first time.

I have almost always recruited from among the students who contacted me before applying and whose interest and experience in my subfield seemed genuine. That additional step needed to contact people tells me they have the requisite initiative and have done due diligence. In the past, we’d email a few times and then talk over the phone or Skype. These days, we meet over Zoom.

(One thing that’s new — and I don’t think we can blame videoconferencing alone for this, because this is the first year it’s happening and we’ve had Skype  before, but perhaps everyone wasn’t quite so comfortable with presenting over video as they are now — is that some students want to speak at length about their undergraduate research, more so than they want to ask me about how the group is run, what projects they might be working on, or things about the university. It is always desirable to discuss undergraduate research, to a point. These grad-school interviews are meant to gauge personality and fit, both ways, and the prospective graduate advisor is generally not interested in the minutiae of the student’s undergraduate project, but rather the general background and skills and analytic thinking the student can bring to the new lab. I do mention, when we set up the interview, that if they wanted to they could tell me briefly about their work, emphasis on briefly, through just a few slides, but that it’s not required, and that they should come prepared to ask questions. Recently, however, there was a kid who prepared a thirty-slide presentation and — despite me telling him I could not listen to a full talk and that he should pick a few slides worth of highlights — he proceeded to give the full talk to the point that I had to interrupt him, not once but twice, because it ran way too long. I ended up being fairly irritated. Do not disrespect people’s time like that.)

Anyway, the above is more of an aside to the main topic of today.

I like to make contact with interested people early and try to lock them in. In contrast, a colleague says you never know who else will be in the applicant pool, maybe better people will come along. I personally go by the proverb that a bird in the hand is worth two in the bush. There may be better students later, but there also may not. Excellent students who apply later and don’t show a particular interest in my group are also not very likely to end up in my group. Yet, I have certainly lost good students in the past because I had to wait for funding; by the time I got to perusing the whole applicant roster, those kids already had advisors (at comparable or even lower-ranked places) lined up. So acting early has definite benefits.

Anyway, that’s me. When I know I will recruit, I do it as early as possible. To graduate student applicants out there, if you know you want to try someone’s group, get your CV, unofficial transcript, and personal statement in order sooner rather than later, and contact the professors you are interested in well in advance of the application deadline. They will tell you whether a) they aren’t taking new students, b) they would love to take new students, but are waiting to hear about pending grants (by far the most common outcome), or c) they have money and are recruiting. If b) or c), and your background and interests align with the professor’s, they will set up an interview. Come ready to discuss your research experience, but the technical details of that particular experience are less important than the perspective and transferrable skills you acquired through it.

What say you, blogosphere? If you work at an institution with a graduate program, what are your grad-student recruitment strategies? 


  1. Econ doesn’t work like lab-based sciences. So connecting with a professor that you’re interested in working with as an applicant doesn’t really work like it does in more lab-based sciences and is a little odd. There’s really still a lot of an old boy’s network going and professors contact other professors rather than students connecting directly. I don’t know if that’s good or bad. But usually there’s a year or two of classes before people start doing research work with a professor, so most networking happens after the student has taken at least a semester of coursework.

    There has been a large increase in pre-docs though, so there are now formal ways to apply to work for someone for a year or two before going to graduate school.

  2. I’m not big enough to get worthwhile contacts from students about positions. Most are mass generated emails with a generic “Dear Professor” or the cringe-worthy “Dear Sir”… I look forward to the day that I’ll get students reaching out who really want to work for me and are aware of my work when they’re an undergrad! Will I ever get there – especially at the institution I’m at?

  3. In the departments I’ve been in, there has been almost no recruiting directly into a lab. In the engineering fields, it seems more common to admit the students into the program in general, then leave them to find a matching lab in their first year or two. Students who don’t find a lab leave with an MS and generally make more money in their careers than students who stay for the PhD.

    In the department I ended up in, the biology model is followed, where students apply, are interviewed by almost everyone (generally one or two days in January are dedicated to interviewing prospective students), then admitted. Students and labs are not *allowed* to pair up until the students have done 3 lab rotations (originally 10 weeks, now only 7 weeks per rotation).

    Under either of these two systems, there is almost no advantage to spamming faculty with “prospective student” email—indeed, several students lost a chance even to interview by irritating several faculty with such spam.

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