Back in the day, grad student recruitment offered years of reliable annual revelry. As a prospective student, it meant free trips, souvenir logoed coffee mugs, meeting new people, and talking about science, all in interesting, vibrant new locations—or, alternatively, New Haven. Then when I became a grad student myself, the department would beg us to help with recruiting new students. Beg us to have reimbursed meals and a huge party? Yes please!
Like everything else, however, grad student recruitment is different this year. No fancy lunch, no hotel, no trying to avoid the same weird prospective student in Ann Arbor that you saw last week in St. Louis. But even though we’re not traveling right now, recruitment can still be useful and enjoyable, whether you’re attending the event or avoiding lab work by pretending to help run it. So for those of you checking out (or promoting) schools from the comfort of your laptop screen this spring, here’s how this year will be different—and how you can make the most of it.
Interviews with professors
Meeting professors in your prospective department is important because one of them—ya never know which—will be the one holding your future career hostage 5 to 7 years from now. So the department sets up brief sessions for you to hear a little about their research while you both scan desperately for red flags.
“This interview,” they’ll tell you, “is as much for you to learn about us as it is for us to learn about you.” Yeah, that’s partly true. Then again, they’re asking all of the questions, holding all of the power, and rating you on a little form that they fail to hide under other papers. So whose interview is this really? Still, if you find yourself talking to a professor whose work you admire, and in whose lab you hope to work, it’s a great opportunity to learn, in ways you never could from published journal articles, that the dude is a royal jackass.
Virtual interviews are similar, except you’re not just exposing your words and appearance to someone judging you; you’re exposing the interior of your home. Use this to your advantage. Place a giant tower of textbooks next to you, stuffed full of bookmarks and sticky notes. On the wall behind you, hang a framed photo of your interviewer; this will both impress and unnerve them. Finally, if the conversation goes south, you can always do what my kids discovered in their online elementary school: Turn your camera off and change your Zoom name to “Reconnecting … .”
Meeting other students
Depending on your tendency toward extroversion or introversion, this is either your favorite part of grad student recruitment, or you absolutely dread it and wish you could go read. For better and worse, virtual social events are simultaneously more awkward and less awkward than in-person events. You don’t have to worry about self-consciously standing alone in a corner (unless your Zoom box is in the corner), but at the same time, you can’t relax your face for a second because you have no idea when the other grad students are staring at you.
Regardless, meeting other students is a valuable aspect of recruitment: If you’re a prospective student, you can ask your potential classmates what the program is really like, and if you’re doing the recruiting, you can help ensure that the annoying candidate in the necktie chooses a different school. No matter which side of the acceptance decision you’re on, the best approach is to act as much like a normal human as possible. Presumably you’ve seen examples of this type of behavior outside of science departments. You know, with the “Hi” and the “How’s it going?” and the “Nice to meet you” and what have you.
See the city
Every school wants to convince you that its environs are dynamic, enriching, fun, and safe. To that end, they’ll arrange some sort of “outing,” which is really a semi-sheltered glimpse at something pleasant you’ll never see again once you move there.
When I helped with grad student recruiting at Johns Hopkins University, for example, we always took the prospective students to visit the aquarium—you know, to give them a true sense of what it was like to live in Baltimore. “Gee,” we’d tell them, “I don’t know, I’ve never really watched The Wire. Honestly, Baltimore is more like a bunch of dolphin shows and manta ray touch tanks.”
This year, you can’t exactly tour the city you’re preparing to call home, but honestly, what’s to see? Oh, hey, look, there’s a district full of cute pubs—that are all closed. There’s a nightclub and a cinema—that are both closed. There’s an art gallery—that’s closed. But man, oh man, when they reopen … you won’t have time or money to go there anyway.
A sense of the culture
This is the biggest intangible that graduate recruitment weekends are designed to convey: a general impression, a nebulous intuition, a squishy kind of feeling that there’s something about this particular school that jives with your personality and values. This factor isn’t about academics, or personalities, or stipends, or career growth—it’s just an inexplicable feeling that this school is your future home.
Even in virtual recruiting, you can get (or give) a sense of the culture at a particular school. For example, given a year to plan, did the school adapt to make their recruitment enjoyable despite the circumstances? Or did they just shrug, email you a page of links, and leave you literally to your own devices?
It may sound like a stretch to attribute a personality to an entire department, or an entire school—especially without actually being there. But hopefully you can gather enough clues to sense whether they’re passionate, or haughty, or unprofessional, or laid back … and ultimately to tell if the school is a good fit for you.
I mean, you’ll have to. That’s what we’re doing this year. Either that or skip the recruiting events entirely and join whichever program mails you a mug.