Female Science Professor had an interesting post yesterday about mentoring undergraduate students through the graduate school application process. In a contrast with a student she dubs “Student 1,” who is smart, displays initiative, doesn’t have to be told things twice, and (perhaps most importantly) has somehow perfectly absorbed and assimilated the professional culture of hir chosen field. Student 2, on the other hand, “tends to focus on the immediate task at hand. S2 does best when told very specifically what to do and doesn’t seem to be able to handle a lot of information at once. If general advice is given to S2 in advance of a specific task, it needs to be given again when directly relevant.” She then reports a conversation with S2:
S2: I’ve decided to apply to 6 graduate programs and was wondering if you would write me a letter of reference for my applications.
SP: Yes, of course. What are the 6 places?
S2: Do I have to tell you?
SP: Umm.. Yes, you do because each program is different and most programs require me to send or upload my letter to them directly. Aside from that, it makes a better letter if I can personalize it to address your strengths relative to a specific program or adviser. Is there some reason you don’t want to tell me?
S2: No, that’s fine. I’ll come back later and tell you what they are.
SP: Have you already written to some potential advisers at each place so you know they are taking on new graduate students next year and are interested in seeing your application?
S2: No, am I supposed to do that?
SP: Yes, remember we talked about this a couple of months ago. It’s a good idea to make some contact and briefly introduce yourself.
S2. Oh, OK. So should I just send my CV? Do I have to write anything with it or just send it?
SP: I was thinking more of an email in which you briefly introduce yourself; for example, tell them you are doing a senior thesis with Professor X on Project A and that last summer you were a research assistant for Professor Y on Project B and that based on these experiences you have developed a strong interest in Z Science and therefore you are thinking of applying to the graduate program at University K because Professors L and M do interesting work in Z Science. Or something like that. You can be brief but informative. Don’t send a form letter to all 6 and don’t send your CV without explanation.
S2: Oh. This is going to be more work than I thought. Maybe I will talk to you more about this later.
Faculty colleagues who are aware of this conversation with Student 2 have two different reactions:
Type A reaction: Student 2 needs a lot of help figuring out how to apply to graduate schools, so let’s give that help.
Type B reaction: If Student 2 is that clueless, there is no way that student will do well in grad school. Let Student 2 flounder and nature take its course.
Applying to graduate school is a lot more work than it used to be in some ways, and easier in many others. Twenty years ago, before the widespread use of the internets, we never would have thought to telephone or write to a professor to inquire if they were “taking on new graduate students next year and [were] interested in seeing [our] applications.” (That’s the easier thing about grad applications in Olden Times–no one would have expected us to do this, not really, although I remember my advisor shaking the trees a bit with her contacts and asking her former mentors and some grad school friends for advice.) We might be contacted by them, if in our applications, we had indicated an interest in working with them on a Ph.D.–but contacting them in advance would have been very unusual. Now, it’s typical, largely because of the way that e-mail communication has flattened organizational hierarchies. Pretty much every faculty member of every university has hir e-mail address published right there on a departmental home page.
Technology–among other things, perhaps–and the vast amounts of information available to potential students–has raised the bar of professionalism even in graduate school applications. I applied to some totally inappropriate programs to study with wildly out-of-the-question people 20 years ago–all because I had read an article or book they had written (although I hadn’t given any thought as to whether or not they were writing the kind of history I wanted to write), and the universities were prestigious and in cities in the region of the U.S. where I wanted to live. Superscientific, eh? If I could read my graduate admissions application now, I’d probably laugh myself all the way to the recycle bin.
A number of the commenters on Female Science Prof’s blog noted that class bias may account for some of the differences between S1 and S2–and that professors should be patient and non-judgmental with students who don’t pick up on the professionalization as quickly as S1 has. (Other people disagreed, and said that S2 is just a dimwit.) Still others made the excellent point that a student who says, “Oh. This is going to be more work than I thought,” should probably be invited down to the anxious bench and asked whether or not ze is really serious about graduate school. I have to say that if I had a conversation like the one reported above, I’d want to be very involved in hir applications, since I was being asked to endorse S2 with a letter of recommendation. But–sigh–it just sounds like it’s going to be an awful lot of work to turn that little acorn into a mighty oak tree.
(For more tips, please see last winter’s “How (not) to apply to graduate school.”)