Wednesday, October 20, 2010

Archie does a drive-by and leaves an early thirsty in his wake.

OK CMers. Despite all the sound and fury signifying nothing that emerged in the comments, Froderick’s post about letters of recommendation, did generate a discussion about the professional ethics of writing for students. This got me thinking about other ethically tricky areas some of us face. Here’s one that I’ve been actively considering lately:

I teach at a top-ten PhD program in my discipline. We are one of the largest departments (in terms of faculty) of basket weaving, and we offer Ph.D.s in every imaginable form of basket-weaving. I have three other colleagues (four, depending on how you count) in my own field, which makes us an attractive place to do graduate work—most places only have perhaps two of us. We only admit fully-funded students, which means the departmental cohort each year is actually quite small relative to many other programs. So my immediate colleagues and I usually get to admit a single student each year, since the limited number of offers have to be spread around to all the various basket-weaving fields that the department offers.If one of the other fields underyields, we might get a crack at a second offer, but that rarely happens.

Every Fall I get anywhere from 20 to 25 inquiries from flakes of various stripes who are getting ready to apply to work with me, or with someone in my immediate field. Our little corner of the department usually gets something on the order of 50 applicants, so these inquiries represent a substantial portion of the final applicant pool. Many of them ask to speak to me over the phone, or in some cases come in for a meeting. Usually a 30 or 40 minute phone conversation or meeting is enough to tell me whether a particular person has even a snowflake’s chance in hell of being the one student we admit into our area.

So the dilemma is this: I am always up-front with them about the fact that they are competing for what amounts to a single slot. Should I also tell them to save their fifty dollars and not bother applying if it is obvious they won’t make even the first cut? Keep in mind that the administration doles out the funding packages based on how many applicants a particular department attracts. So we have a perverse interest in encouraging applications, even from students we know don’t have a prayer. Moreover, keeping the application numbers high in my own specific field helps us keep our slot from being handed over to someone else in the department who can claim that his or her field deserves more slots because it gets more applicants.

What is the right thing to do? To those of you who are in departments like mine, how do you handle it? To those of you who are not, how would you have wanted to be treated in this situation? Would you want/have wanted to know that you were just paying a fee for the privilege of getting rejection letter in return?

p.s. Stultissimus magnissimusque culeus pro cunnum purgare, aut in Latino respondum aut tu ipse pedicandum est.


  1. Attract as many applications as possible then ask the administration to absolve you of your sins.

  2. I suspect the majority of the applicants would not thank you for giving them the warning. It is the nature of the Snowflake to assume that rules and guidelines are for other people, after all. So they will probably go, in their tiny brains "oh, but they will make an exception for me, because I am so exceptional."
    The ones who can think critically and are smart enough to appreciate the advice are probably also the ones you would actually consider.

  3. When I applied to Caltech and Harvard I knew I didn't have a prayer. It was important to me that THEY said "no" rather than me saying "no" for them. So even if a prof at Caltech had said don't even bother I would have applied anyway because stranger things have happened. And in comparison to Ohio State's letter of reject theirs were quite nice and made excellent packing material (as did the 100 or so letters of rejection I earned on the job market).

    I think you can say, "We usually have X very highly qualified applicants each year and we get to admit 1 of them."

    I think it's better for your professional career to remembered as the kind professor at the high profile school who sat down and talked with me about my future than to be the dickward professor at the hoity toity school who implied I wasn't good enough for him or his school. People tend to take rejection better when they feel like they were respected and fully and thoughtfully considered. Passing that judgement after a 30 minute conversation may make the applicant feel as though he or she has been marginalized and pre-judged. Even though most decisions are snap decisions we continue to weigh the consequences for a longer period of time out of respect (and perhaps a little fear of insult) to others.

    I guess at the risk of sounding snowflaky I would want to feel the decision was "fair" and quick judgements really feel "fair" even when they are.

  4. I agree with CMP. I did talk to professors at several schools I applied to, and though I wished to know what kind of chance/opportunity existed for me, I was certainly cocky enough to believe I could do it anyways.

    One school in particular delayed in replying to my application. Upon investigation, they didn't admit someone unless funding had been arranged. Due to some previous employment, I was partially funded, and with pressure from me, they admitted me, noting that any additional funding wouldn't be decided until the semester started.

    In retrospect, I think that was a "No, but if you insist..."

    I didn't go there.

  5. On the other hand, you should be telling each and every one of them that academia is an insane pyramid scheme that will ruin their chances of genuine employment and destroy their souls. Especially the ones that get in.

    None of them will listen to you, but at least you've given them the disclaimer.

    "Look to the left of you. Now look to the right of you. None of you will be university professors."

  6. Oh, Archie, I'd just love to be able to tell you that I feel your pain on this one. Sadly, there aren't even 50 people in my field who know my name, never mind having potential graduate students beating down the door to work with me! You probably have the serried ranks of the young and beautiful throwing themselves at you at conferences, too. *sigh*

    In all seriousness, though, it sounds to me as if you're really conscientious about letting them know, without being overly personal about it, how competitive your program is. I wouldn't tell them not to apply, but I might tell them what a typical student in the program looks like: has x or y average, comes from x or y undergraduate program, has x or y GRE scores, etc. Those who are likely to do the math will do so. There is an astonishingly large pool of potential gradflakes, however, who will determinedly put their fingers in their ears and sing "la, la, la, la..." every time you try gently to suggest that they, a) aren't suitable for x or y program, or b) may not be cut out for the rigors of the job-market in the end. Those folks are unreachable: I've tried everything from statistics to interpretive dance. CMP is right: they'll only think you're being snooty and unfair. And hey, you never know; we're not god, and strange things sometimes happen.

  7. I don't think you should say anything, because you really don't have all the information yet. You shouldn't make a final decision until you've seen the entire application. Or you can tell yourself that.

    Plus, you know, I wouldn't engage to that degree with an applicant. Some might take it completely wrong and complain, or even get some lawyer. You never know who's taping your call. Why ask for trouble? It's not like the student is giving up their firstborn to apply.

  8. OK, thanks for that. It's interesting that there is unanimity so far. I agree with everything that's been said. I like CMP's framing of it particularly. Still, I feel a little dishonest every time it happens, and I know that at least one of my immediate colleagues does too.

    And Nathaniel, I do give everyone that speech. I usually offer up as examples people in my general cohort who dropped out of grad school after a year or two and went on to become super-successful in high-profile, interesting jobs (people you've all heard of, in other words). And then I point to all the people in my general cohort who stuck it out and ten or fifteen years later are struggling to keep their heads above water, or living in some place they never imagined they would have to. Left unspoken is that my situation is as good as it could get for them, but that they are probably more likely to get hit by a car; and that to be perfectly honest I sometimes wish I could trade places with the people who dropped out. Never seems to make an impression though.

    And Cass, I've never had that experience at a conference, but I did have a book party once to which I invited the gradflakes, and a couple of them stayed really late, got really drunk, and acted somewhat inappropriately. Mrs. Archie didn't speak to me for three days after that one, and she still pulls it out every once in a while when she wants to make me feel a little embarrassed about something or other. Anyway, I fear I'm a little past my prime in that regard, and the charms of youth are fleeting and pretty superficial if you stop to think about it.

    On a more serious note, you are right that stranger things have happened. One of the stupidest people I went to grad school with has improbably pulled out a decent career. I would have bet the extremely modest contents of my bank account at the time that this person would have had no chance at finishing a dissertation, never mind a job. a book, and tenure. I always remind myself of that when dealing with the gradflakes we have in our program. But whatever this person's evident limitations were (and still are) they are nothing as compared to some of the folks who apply to our program. Those are the one's I'm thinking about here.

  9. I... wait... you meet with these people?

    Maybe it is a disciplinary thing, but I didn't go around telling everybody how great I was when applying to grad school. For the most part, I wanted my work to speak for itself. I did visit my PhD program because it was close by and I wanted to see the campus before dropping my application in the mail, however, I didn't meet with anybody on the admissions committee. I don't know that anybody I met with would have had sway over them (in fact, I am almost certain he was universally hated).

    I guess I didn't take advantage of an opportunity, but don't these people realize that there are better ways to network than screaming in somebody's face that they want to be admitted?

  10. I know it is sometimes bad form to comment on one's own thread. So forgive me.

    MLP, maybe it is discipline specific, but I was advised to do it when I applied to grad school, and I'm sure that these people are being advised in similar ways. Of course in my day it meant typing a letter, putting a stamp on an envelope, and walking to the mailbox. So I presume very few people bothered. Now that we are all easily findable on the interwebs, the threshold is much lower and lots of people do it.

    And for the record, all the people I applied to work with answered my letter and graciously gave of their time to talk to me about their programs. One even gave me the names and phone numbers of some of his graduate students so I could talk to them about the program if I so desired. I didn't end up going there, but the offer made an impression on me, so now I will put the more promising sounding people in touch with some of my students so they can ask what it is like to work with me and what the program is like from the grad students' perspective.

    Maybe some of them are a little pushy, but looking ahead to the end game, when we are competing against another top department to land our first choice candidate, the fact that I've taken the time to talk to them, and that my students have done the same, is sometimes enough to sway the decision our way. So while I feel bad about the no-hopers, I'm also well aware that a few hours of work in the Fall helps recruit the best ones in the Spring.

  11. I don't have any advice. I just want to say I always enjoy your posts and comments, AA.

  12. Dear Archie,

    Once when I was a postdoc at an R1, I was phoned by a scatterbrained old fool who was in a department to which I'd sent an application for a tenure-track assistant professor job. He jabbered on and on, wondering why such a highly qualified applicant like me would want his job (desperation in a bad job market appeared not to have occurred to him), asking irrelevant and frankly illegal questions about my family and religion (which, being desperate, I didn't call him on). After an hour of wasting my time (naturally, on the night before observing proposals for Hubble Space telescope were due for that year), he ended the call abruptly, by saying I was not one of the primary candidates.

    Another time, when I was a postdoc in England, I was told to "not bother" to apply for a permanent position there, because it would be "too much trouble" to hire a non-UK citizen. I was told this by a permanent faculty member who I was dating (not in my chain of command, of course): and yes, that was the beginning of the end of that relationship.

    These experiences lead me to think that you should -not- tell your applicants over the phone that they can save their $50 because they don't have a snowball's chance, even if they patently do not. People don't like the feeling of being judged hastily. Let the committee they imagine will be examining their application carefully do this.

  13. I applied to MIT just so that I could be rejected. I think some students know they will be rejected and just apply so that they can say they tried. It's like the lottery. The odds are ridiculously against you, but you can't win if you don't play, right?

    Mathsquatch out.

  14. You'd be surprised. I agree with most comments here.

    Some of the applicants might surprise you. When I was applying, I made a lot of contacts and networked across my sub-field. When I turned down a X MA program to go to Y MA program, I told the professor in X program that I was going to Y. I had previously met with him to discuss my qualifications for his X program. He talked me down. He grilled me. I came out of the meeting in tears but I was really grateful that someone took the process seriously enough where I stood and what I needed to do. I wavered for a while whether to apply or not but I did. After the deadline. But I name-dropped his friend's name and he said please, go ahead and apply even though it's WAY past the deadline! Clearly I had made very strong impression on him. I was accepted. But I decided that Y was better for my MA experience to be at X and told him so. When it was time for me to apply for PhD, I had heard that this professor would open up a lot of doors in academia, I decided to talk to him. He was eager to hear from me and we caught up with each other. He heard me out why I wanted to leave my MA program and not stick around for their PhD. I applied for his PhD program but dammit, he was on sabbatical. The following year, we e-mailed each other again and he kept me updated what he was doing...

    You get it. What you're doing is not wrong. If a student sounds quite promising and s/he maintain contact, take him/her seriously. You never know what kind of relationship you'll have in the future once s/he is actually in graduate school, at your program or elsewhere. The last thing you want is for that student to think you're totally unapproachable in any way. There are/were a few professors on my list whom I wouldn't think of maintaining contact as a graduate student or faculty member simply because of how I was treated during the process. Bottom line: Do treat serious and qualified students as potential collaborators and colleagues.

    If anything, while in my PhD program, when I told different professors and fellow graduate students who I knew and have talked to, their jaws dropped. They hadn't expected me to be networking and maintaining strong contacts.


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