Grad student mentorship

One of the biggest sources of both joy and stress in my professional life is working with grad students. Joy because I love working with other people, particularly students, and feel an immense amount of satisfaction watching my students develop into fantastic scientists with their own ideas.  Stress because the process of mentorship is HARD, and also because I need to be able to fund my students- tuition, salary, and research expenses.

It’s that time of the year when I am starting to get emails from prospective students for admission in 2015, so I’m thinking hard about whether and how many students I would like to accept and what types of students I want.

With this post, I would like to accomplish two things: 1) to communicate to prospective students some strategies that will make me consider them beyond their initial email; and 2) to present the various constraints and opportunities that I am trying to balance, so that students know a little bit about what goes on in the minds of their prospective advisors.

A few caveats: the process of applying for grad school differs by field.  In my field, students are generally admitted to work in a particular lab and not to the program in general. Regardless, it’s helpful and in some cases necessary to make personal contact of some kind with a faculty member in the program to which you are applying.  Second, everyone has their own individual style and own constraints and opportunities, so other faculty members may disagree with me on some points.

First, for prospective students.  

I, and many other professors, receive a variety of requests for more information about grad school.  The point of an initial email to a prospective advisor is to introduce yourself and further the conversation through a Skype call or more emails, which will eventually lead to submitting an application and getting admitted.  I consistently hear from students (and experienced this myself many years ago) that the first and sometimes biggest obstacle they face is getting a response back to their initial email.  So what do you need to do to get a response?

One thing that helps is to call upon your network to introduce you in advance.  I have been approached by my colleagues at various meetings or via email who are putting in a good word for their students.  Then, when the student follows up with me via email, it helps if they say something like “My undergraduate mentor Dr. So and So recommended I talk with you about graduate school”.  This usually jogs my brain: “Oh yeah, Dr. So and So mentioned at conference X they had some fantastic undergrad who might be emailing me in the future.  I will continue reading”.

Regardless of whether you have been introduced in advance or not, your initial email to me should be a professional email with proper salutations and complete sentences, and one that has a descriptive email subject lines.  For example, I will not read further any email that starts with “Dear Sir” (and I and many other women get many emails that start like this).  Similarly, if I see an email with subject line “Inquiry” or that is simply blank, I immediately think it’s spam.  Descriptive but concise subject lines would be “Inquiry about grad school”, “Accepting PhD students for 2015-2016?”, or “Interested in Master’s at XXX”.

But beyond the mundane details of presentation, I am really interested in knowing two things from you initially: 1) Why do you want to work with ME? and 2) Why should I consider working with YOU?

In terms of that initial email, it’s helpful to state briefly why you find my research interesting* and how my research ties in with your own interests. I am typically not looking for students to fill a particular slot**- I am looking for students who are interested in particular ideas that tie in with my own research and perhaps have some thoughts on how they might investigate those ideas. This does not mean there needs to be 100% alignment between our interests.  But, you should be able to articulate why you think your research interests would fit into my lab.

You should also articulate what you bring to the table.  Is this your previous research experience using a method?  Is this your expertise and interest in a particular system?  Is this your lifelong interest in a topic?  What is it about your past that prompts you to pursue graduate work? This may include mention of your stellar academic record, but doesn’t need to- there are many things prospective students bring to the lab besides GPA and GRE scores.

Together, these two elements address why YOU want to pursue grad school with ME.

In my case, if I’m interested in learning more about a student, I will try to schedule a phone call with the student.  During the phone call, I’m essentially interested in learning more about the same two elements, but in more depth.  I’m also trying to get a sense about how you think on your feet, how independent you are, how you would fit in the existing lab, how serious you are about my lab, etc., though some of this also comes from letters of recommendation.

Second: my constraints and opportunities

OK, so why do I want [more] grad students in my lab***?  In my case, as an early career professor, I’m trying to build up my research program and that means attracting grad students to my lab.  More generally, I’m interested in lots of different ideas and topics, but I only have a limited amount of time to put into developing those ideas.  Having grad students allows me to branch out a bit, but still further my own core research interests.

However, my decision about whether to accept a student or not, and which particular student to accept, isn’t trivial. There are a number of things I’m trying to balance (in no particular order):
Number of students: How much time do I have available to mentor new students?  Is there physical space in the lab for new students?

  • Funding- Do I have grants or start-up funds?  Does the student have outside grants?  Are there TA positions available? Does the student have a background that will allow them to TA?
  • Research goals: While I might not have grant-funded positions available in my lab to carry out specific work (yet), there are particular areas of my own research program that I want to build up.
  • Diversity- In viewpoint, gender, past experience, and research interests.  I am trying to assemble a diverse group of people to create a positive and supportive lab environment.
  • Academic record of the student.  For example, I look at whether I think the student will succeed in my lab and my institution? This comes from my conversations with the student and letters of rec, and is not necessarily tied to GPA/GRE.   However, lately I also consider how much will I have to fight for a particular student, and how easy they will be to fund on TAships? Policies on funding grad students in my school are contentious and almost completely tied to GPA/GRE scores****, so to make an exception for promising students with low GPA or GRE scores requires a serious investment of time and political will on my part.

In terms of this upcoming year, I’d like to accept another student, but am hesitant because I already have two students who are supported on TAships and I have not yet gotten an outside grant to fund them- I feel like I need to focus my energy on taking care of the students already in my lab.  I’ve also invested a lot of energy and political will into getting my current students into the lab, and frankly, I’m tired of fighting my administration; this might mean passing over candidates that I am sure would be great students but just don’t look impressive on paper to the higher ups. But I’m balancing these issues with the need to keep furthering the goals of particular areas of my research and keeping in mind advice that I shouldn’t pass up great students when they come my way.  So we’ll see what happens.

Edit: In the comments, Jacquelyn Gill pointed to an excellent post she wrote on a similar subject.  Go check it out!  It also links to other posts, and the comments are very helpful.

*Please do not simply regurgitate the information that is in the “Research” section of my website- I wrote the content so I know when you are doing this.

**This can vary a lot by lab and funding source.  Some professors have grants with specific research needs to be filled. Sometimes those grants are flexible, some times not.

***Besides the joy that working with students brings me- see paragraph 1.  Also note that different people have very different ideas about the ideal size of their lab.

****Which we hate as faculty members and are working to change at my school, but isn’t changing quickly enough.

10 thoughts on “Grad student mentorship

  1. This is a great post! I just wanted to chime in and say I second everything you’ve said, and to share a post I wrote on writing inquiry emails that might be helpful for readers:

    I’m also running into a situation where I get way more interest from great people than I have resources (in time or money) to devote to them. I do try to send students to other colleagues if I think they’re promising, but it’s always hard to pass up on someone I think will be a good fit!

  2. Excellent advice! As a PI, I’m also looking for evidence that the applicant understands what independent research is about and has some burning curiosity. The curiosity doesn’t need to be very focused (yet). They need to send signals that they’re taking charge of their careers, not merely going back to school because they get good grades.

    My next comment is extremely superficial. I promise I’m trying to help. In writing and speech, it’s always “X and I…,” never “I and X….” I’m pointing this because “I and X…” grates terribly on my ears (as a native English speaker) as mildly selfish and pompous construction. Yes, I’m being superficial. No, I shouldn’t care. It’s still a reflex that affects how I perceive the writer. I will work on my reaction!

    • I agree that understanding what independent research means is key.

      And thanks for the editing suggestion. I think I initially wrote it simply as “I receive a variety of requests…”, but then realized that many other people do as well. I have edited this slightly though it’s probably still mildly grating to you🙂

    • I am a native english speaker and I have learned the proper placement of “I” in conjunctions. However, I am pretty surprised that it would grate on anyone’s ears. It does not cause subject verb conflict, or any ambiguity in meaning, or difficulty in understanding. When I catch myself making this error, I correct my mistake. But, I do not even notice it in others’ writing.

  3. Nice post, but why is it called “Grad student mentorship”? This doesn’t really tell me anything about how you mentor your students once you have them in your lab. I was expecting a completely different post from that title.

    • Perhaps I should have called it “Mentoring students on how to become grad students, and what constraints professors face in deciding on grad students”, but that seemed a bit long. It was difficult to find a short title that captured the dual purposes of the post.

  4. Nice post, I especially liked hearing about your thought process about whether to take on more students. People in my own field seem to vary a lot in what they consider an “ideal” lab size, and of course they also vary in the financial and administrative constraints that prevent them from achieving that ideal:

    Lately I’ve found myself rethinking my own approach to attracting grad students and wondering if I actually need to be less selective. But I find it very hard to judge, in part because there’s such large variation from year to year in the prospective students who contact me.

  5. Wonderful post, and I’m proud to say that I did this when I applied a few years ago, and I did get replies and then had phone calls. It was a great way to learn about the particular programs, and it also made me realize that after talking with some people, a program wasn’t the best fit for me. I especially appreciate the information about funding. If we can’t get paid, then it should be a big warning.

    I might add a few tidbits. One thing I did is spoke with actual students in the program as well. If a person seems really interested in what your lab is doing, it is also worthwhile to talk with some folks who are going through that process right now. Actually, this is when I learned that the funding through a particular group was really poor. People always want to go to University X for the name, but without funding, is it really worth it for me?

  6. Having just had someone attempt this … I really don’t like being Cold-called (i.e. on the phone). It’s not usually a good time, I don’t have the information at hand to help you, I haven’t thought about whether you might or might not fit etc. Stick with email, or if you can introduce yourself at a meeting. These thoughts are great for writing an email that is more likely to get a response. I would also add that it’s fine to re-send your email once, as a reminder, but if you don’t hear with that, then it’s time to move on. Yes we should all be polite and answer all email inquiries, and I try to do that, but particularly if I’ve said no, or if I’ve said ‘I will keep you in mind, but we have a lot of applicants etc’, or if your topics of interest aren’t particularly aligned with mine, or if I just haven’t managed to get through the ‘urgent’ things in my inbox, then emailing me another few times isn’t going to help your case.

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