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Competing for Graduate Students

Like entry-level workers everywhere, graduate students often carry their industry on their backs. They are the ideal labor force: bright, eager, and extremely cheap. Of course, their salaries don't come close to describing their true worth. Top-flight students can keep a lab humming, crank out papers, and open new lines of thought. In short, they can ignite their boss's career.

A Hidden Competition

Everyone knows how scientists compete fiercely for grant money and space in top journals. But there's another crucial competition that gets far less attention: the battle for good graduate students.

Graduate students may be greener than postdoctoral researchers or lab technicians, but they are still a hot commodity, says David Meyer, a professor of biological chemistry at the University of California at Los Angeles and the senior associate dean of graduate studies for the School of Medicine. For one thing, graduate students tend to stick around for four or five years, at least twice as long as the typical postdoc. Furthermore, every fresh batch of graduate students gives a researcher a unique opportunity to find someone who will make a perfect fit for the lab. "If you can attract the best one or two, you can literally have the cream of the crop," he says.

Like any other competition, the annual Graduate Student Derby has both winners and losers. Jonathan Foley, an associate professor of atmospheric and oceanic sciences at the University of Wisconsin at Madison, likes to think that he's on a hot streak. "I don't know whether it's by luck or design, but I've been very thrilled with the students that we get," he says. "My peers look at our lab and say, 'Wow, how do you do it?'"

The Mismeasure of a Scientist

The first step to landing a future star is spotting one. Many scientists look for astronomical Graduate Record Exam (GRE) scores or a near-perfect grade-point average, but these accomplishments don't always mean much in the laboratory. "The GRE measures your ability to take a standardized test," Mr. Meyer says. He sees no correlation between GRE scores and success in graduate school. College transcripts may be a slightly better predictor, but they're far from perfect. According to Mr. Meyer, one of the best grad students in the recent history of UCLA eked out his bachelor's degree with a 2.2 GPA.

Mr. Foley has seen the opposite side of the coin. He once recruited a student with perfect GRE scores and a 4.0 GPA. "She didn't realize what graduate school was all about, and she bombed," he says. "What makes a good undergraduate student is often not what makes a good graduate student." (The student took a job in the computer industry and, as Mr. Foley puts it, "makes more money than I ever will.")

Talking the Talk

When evaluating an application, Mr. Foley skips right past the numbers and heads for more relevant details, namely research experience and letters of recommendation. When he finds the right combination, he "pulls out all the stops," he says. "We bring them to Madison, wine and dine them, and try to convince them that this is the place to be." Some professors try to recruit students through e-mail or phone calls, but Mr. Foley believes face-to-face contact is essential.

For one thing, not every student who looks good on paper (or e-mail) shines in person. Once candidates arrive on campus, Mr. Foley searches for the hidden qualities that can't fit on a résumé. "I look for intellectual maturity," he says. "They have to be willing to take a few risks in order to do something interesting." They also have to have a sense of purpose. "I always ask them why they want to go to graduate school. If they say they couldn't think of anything else to do, I say, 'See you later.'"

Mr. Meyer has a similar litmus test. He finds students with research backgrounds and asks them to explain their work. In his opinion, a promising young scientist will sound like one. "If they can't talk the talk and walk the walk, that's the deal breaker," he says.

And then there's the delicate matter of personality. It's impossible to truly understand a person after a short interview, but certain qualities stand out. Foley looks for people who will be enthusiastic, optimistic, and fun to be around.

Young Scholars in the Arena

Finding top graduate students is an especially crucial -- and, at times, frustrating -- enterprise for young faculty members. "This isn't really the case at UCLA, but I've heard that the word on the street at other major universities is that grad students should stay away from young researchers," Mr. Meyer says. The whispers stem from the very real possibility that a newer scientist's grant could dry up before a student has a chance to get established.

But junior faculty members also have much to offer to graduate students. Unlike their senior colleagues, they are likely to stand shoulder-to-shoulder with the workers in their labs. And since their college days are still fresh in their minds, young scientists are often more sympathetic to a graduate student's plight. If they make the commitment to land top students -- if they attend every "meet the faculty" session, shake a lot of hands, and talk enthusiastically about their own research -- junior faculty members can compete for students with anyone, Mr. Meyer says. "I have seen some terrific graduate students in the labs of young faculty members, and the faculty members benefited dramatically," he says.

Graduate students who pass through all of the hoops get a lab to call home for a few years and start on their careers. Their bosses get something more. "Faculty at good research universities are blessed. We have an unbelievable opportunity to work with enthusiastic young scientists," Mr. Foley says. "I've worked with a lot of students that I know are smarter than I am. They've not only helped my career, they've changed it for the better."

This article first appeared at the Chronicle of Higher Education Career Network . Chris Woolston is a freelance science and medical writer living in Billings, Mont..

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