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How to showcase your department to prospective grad students—virtually

In March 2020, Courtney Roberts’s chemistry department canceled its plans to host prospective graduate students for an on-campus recruitment weekend just 4 days before the event was set to start. In its place, the University of Minnesota chemistry department where Roberts is an assistant professor set out to offer a virtual alternative. Mobilizing to create such an event from scratch was no small feat. “There was no sleeping involved that week,” Roberts jokes.

Despite the scramble, the event was a success. “Y’all did a really good job in a difficult situation,” one prospective student wrote in anonymous feedback. “I felt like I got enough of a feel of the department to make a good decision,” wrote another. Roughly the same percentage of students accepted offers from the department compared to previous years.

The event was hosted on Slack, a platform that allows users to create profiles and interact with one another through topic-specific channels and direct messages. Roberts and the other organizers created a slew of channels for discussing specific lab groups, student life, diversity, and more. They also posted prerecorded videos and links to live discussions on Zoom, which can be integrated into Slack. Roberts and her colleagues explained all this and more in a paper about the virtual recruitment weekend published in the Journal of Chemical Education; it is now her most-read paper of all time.

Science Careers spoke with Roberts about what her department learned, what advice she has for others who are putting together similar events, and why departments may want to consider offering virtual recruitment well into the future. The interview was edited for clarity and brevity.

Q: How did you switch gears to create an entirely virtual event?

A: It came together incredibly fast. A lot of the younger faculty had been using Slack to communicate with their research groups, so we decided to use that. We built some channels and posted a bunch of pictures and documents about our research groups. Then we asked everyone in the department to get in the same room—at the time we were allowed to do that—to bounce ideas off each other. We had a big brainstorming session with students, faculty, postdocs—everyone came together. We presented our Slack channels and asked, “What else can we do?”

We thought about normal recruitment weekends and what prospective students want to see. They want to see organic interactions with students. They want to see people joking around. They want to see the collegiality. They want to see the community. Everyone came with good ideas about how we could achieve that, and our students are incredibly creative. They took their phones and filmed while walking around their labs, introducing their lab mates and letting viewers see the space and equipment. We didn’t say no to anything; we kept saying, “Yes, that’s a great idea. Let’s do it.”

Q: What platforms did you consider using?

A: We saw people on Twitter organizing similar events, saying things like, “If you’re on our recruitment weekend, here’s this hashtag—follow along.” But the problem with Twitter is that for many people, in order to get direct messages you have to be following somebody. The other problem is that if students message a research group, they don’t know who’s answering—they don’t know if it’s a PI [principal investigator], they don’t know if it’s a student. And they can’t really post their questions publicly; you’re not going to reply to somebody’s thread on Twitter and write, “Hey, is this PI easy to work for?” There’s no privacy there. It was just too public a forum.

Other departments were doing things by email, sending out messages with links to Zoom invitations and other information—here’s our poster, and so on. The information was everywhere. We wanted to instead put everything on Slack, where it was all in one place. Slack was also helpful because users could fill out profile information—so before prospective students clicked on a Zoom link to chat with someone or see their poster, they could view their picture and learn a little bit more about them.

It also benefited people who weren’t familiar with Slack. A number of my colleagues emailed me afterward and said, “We didn’t even know what this was. And now we use it.” That was pretty cool to see. It’s an incredible resource that I think every science group should consider using. I don’t even remember how we did it before to be honest. How did I survive graduate school without Slack?

Q: How did people present posters virtually?

A: We held a poster session that, I think, was really awesome. It was obviously not a real poster session—it wasn’t in a big room—but you could go around to the different Slack channels and Zoom rooms. I would pop in with my video off and I would see these students getting super excited about their chemistry, explaining it to a group of prospective students. I could see the dialogue going back and forth. Our graduate students are the best recruiters and it was really cool to see that we had still been able to showcase them and the awesome work that they have done, work that they should be really proud of.

Q: Were there any channels that faculty members were excluded from so prospective students could have open and honest conversations with other students?

A: There were not, but we might do that this year. We’re also introducing a new event that is just for students. Basically, at lunchtime, you can either elect to take a break or you can visit each channel and “have lunch” with a graduate student—you can sit down with them and have organic conversations with no professors allowed.

We’re incorporating a social this year as well. We’re going to have five or six different rooms. If you want to play a game, you go to this room. If you want to talk about classes, you go to this room. If you want to talk about choosing a research group, you go to this room. We also are having a Zoom meeting just for the prospective students to meet each other, with one current graduate student helping to direct the conversation. We think that’s important because prospective students could say, “Oh, this person seems cool. If they’re thinking about going here, then maybe we should both go here. Maybe we can be roommates.”

Q: Did you get ideas from virtual conferences or other events that you attended over the past year?

A: The biggest takeaway lesson I learned from attending virtual events this past year is that you can’t just take something that’s in person and move it online. You can be in an in-person conference all day; you cannot be on a Zoom meeting all day—your eyes will glaze over. You have to take breaks. Some meetings need to be longer, some way shorter. You have to innovate. Times are different.

So this year for our recruitment weekend we’re taking more breaks. We’re giving people time away from the screen—we’re not scheduling every single minute. We’re also starting later. We’re in the Central time zone, which is nice because we’re not on one end of the spectrum [in the United States]. We’re going to shift the time so that our West Coast prospective students don’t have to wake up at six in the morning on a Saturday, and so the day doesn’t go too late for East Coast students. Many faculty would rather get it done earlier in the day, but you have to think about your audience—and our audience is the students, so going on their schedule is really the right thing to do.

Q: In your paper, you noted that you’re thinking about hosting virtual recruitment weekends for a subset of prospective students going forward, even after the pandemic subsides and travel resumes. What do you see as the benefit of doing that?

A: There are lots of students who might prefer that. I think sometimes recruitment weekends can be pretty overwhelming for introverted students. From the second they step off the plane, they’re having to interact with people they’ve never met before—having to be professional but also personable. Also, some students have family responsibilities—children or parents they are caring for—and they can’t spend weekend after weekend traveling. A lot of students are very conscious of their carbon footprint, so they don’t want to be taking these flights over and over again if you can give the information to them online. Some students are studying abroad and they can’t participate in recruitment weekend. Also, some students may have already decided where they’ll attend grad school, and they’d rather get the information and browse it at their own leisure, rather than having to show up at a weekend.

So if we give prospective students an option of doing it online, I think a lot of people will be pretty open to that. There are a lot of reasons to go virtual, and we probably should have been thinking about this before.

Q: Are there downsides for the prospective students if they don’t visit in person?

A: Certainly, there are downsides. One is that you won’t get to know the location well. The University of Minnesota is in the middle of a metro area with more than 3 million people. It’s a really vibrant place. From campus you can see all these high rises downtown, and there’s a light rail train that goes right to the university. If you’re online, you’re not going to see that. We tried to get around that with videos and by talking about the area, but it’s one of those things you kind of have to see in person to really get a feel for.

Another drawback is you do lose some of the organic interactions between faculty and students, current students and prospective students, and also the prospective students with each other. I remember when I was a prospective graduate student how important those interactions were. When I visited the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, for example, I could sense that the stress level of the students was a lot less than at the other universities I was interested in. I saw that they had a lot of really good chemistry with each other and that people were actually friends. That definitely helped me make my decision to go there.

With our virtual event, we’re trying to capture those interactions, just in a different form. With student panels, videos of lab tours, and things like that—you can kind of get the character of the group. We’re also trying to find a way around that by creating smaller atmospheres and smaller breakout rooms. So while students won’t interact with department members and one another across a table at a restaurant or bar, we’re trying to gain those interactions back in other ways.