Dr. Mom, My Adventures as a Mommy-Scientist

Discussion of my journey from grad school to postdoc to tenure with two kids, a husband, (and a bit of breast cancer) in tow.

Friday, November 30, 2007

Behind the scences at the advisor selection process

Matching advisers with students may seem like a nebulous process, and in many ways it is, but after my second year going through it in 2 departments, it is beginning to become more transparent. I'm sure there are more methods than those I will outline, but these are the ones I know of:

1)The Rat Race
In this method of adviser selection students are admitted without guaranteed funding. They are encouraged to find their own adviser by talking to faculty. If you are a student this is the most difficult method. You are not guaranteed funding and are typically expected to support yourself on TAs if a suitable adviser is not found or if the adviser has no money. This is the case for Dept #1. If you are a student entering this kind of department, my best advice is to start emailing faculty the moment you find out you are admitted to look for a match, and to be extremely persistent.

2) Hey, Come Work for Me
A second method of recruitment is where advisers recruit their own students. There may still be general applications to the department, but the majority of recruitment occurs by the adviser directly to students during the application process. In this model, you would already know who you were working for before you arrived, unless you were a general applicant, in which case you would probably get matched with a newer, less well known faculty (like me, not necessarily a bad thing). If this is how the department works, as a student you would want to start contacting faculty at the time of your application (generally you should be doing this anyway). This is the process that Dept #2 used to use, but no longer uses, as it vastly favors more established faculty.

3) Roulette
In this method, students are admitted without an adviser and some type of support is provided initially. Students are encouraged to meet with all the faculty and then rank their top 3-5 advisers and then are matched by some opaque process. This is the process that Dept #2 uses. The matching process is designed to ensure that there is an even distribution of students between senior and junior faculty and to ensure that each student finds a "home," which as closely as possible matches their interests. This process can be difficult because there are many faculty personalities to contend with (such as the I only want students who rank me #1 type to the I know I said I wanted/didn't want students but I changed my mind). Again, a student's best bet is to be persistent and follow up with faculty often.

We are currently going through our "roulette" and it is crazy. It is so hard to predict how many students you will need six months from now. Last year we underestimated and were fighting for students. This year I think we may have over estimated and are fighting to give everyone a good home. This will all make for an exciting faculty meeting I think.


At 7:05 PM , Blogger PonderingFool said...

I couldn't imagine any of those three methods. I much prefer the departments with training grants that pay for the first three years. Students are admitted through the general application process. Students spend the first year sampling labs (three over the course of the academic year). Students before each rotation starts ranks their top six labs they would like to rotate in. The director of graduate studies then tries to give everyone their first choice, talking with the faculty member if they are taking rotation students at that moment.

Students are encouraged to talk to faculty members before rotating. At the end of the first academic year, students talk with the faculty member whose lab they want to join. If there is a match, then the student is in that lab. If the students wants or needs to keep looking, it is perfectly ok to do more rotations over the summer.

I like this method because you get a sense of the lab, how they operate and how the PI interacts with people and allows the lab to get a sense of the people who want to join the lab. The training grant provides cover for faculty to take students who are not as refined without much cost, giving those students a good chance of reaching their potential.

At 7:42 PM , Blogger Unbalanced Reaction said...

Roulette sounds insane! We have a modified Rat Race here in my dept at Large U: students seek out PIs, but if the prof can't afford RAs, the department agrees to provide a TAship. But I guess there's no perfect selection process; bad eggs always slip in some how!

At 10:17 PM , Blogger Field Notes said...

Thanks for the insight into the process. I did #2 as a student. I like the method pondering talks about. That seems pretty typical in the biological sciences. I wish my department operated that way for the reasons pondering gave.

At 12:24 AM , Blogger Flicka Mawa said...

Interesting. At my school, we do Roulette, as you call it. I, being only a 2nd yr student myself, can't claim to know the inner workings of this. On the student side of things, I didn't have a problem with Roulette - but then I had already been working with my adviser and she pretty much told me I could continue to work with her if I wished. Two students my year had issues as they didn't get their first choices, and one of them ran into the "I don't want anyone who didn't put my first" issue. The other failed the quals, as I did, but got sent home with only his masters because he had no one solidly in his camp to stand up for him.

On the other hand, I have a friend that got into various schools through the "Hey, come work for me" method, and as a less-knowledgeable undergrad not used to contacting professors at other schools that I didn't know, this seemed rather back-door to me - not so fair to those students who don't know how the system works and have no good undergrad advisor to tell them. I'd prefer it if networking didn't play that huge of a part in getting into grad school. Another problem is you get virtually no chance to find out if you're a good match in personality and working style and are going only on research interests, which in my opinion aren't always enough to make grad school tolerable if you can't work well with your advisor.

The first one, Rat Race, sounds pretty nerve-wracking to me, on the financial basis. At least in our "Roulette" method we are all guaranteed a spot in a lab with a steady amount of funding, regardless if the source is your advisor, an outside grant, or an extra semester of TA'ing.

Maybe I'm being silly, but I think of the three, I prefer the one my department uses - the "Roulette" as you call it. I'd probably call Rat Race "Roulette" myself, as going there and spending time in the department only to realize that no funding will come through would be devastating to me.

At 7:13 PM , Blogger EcoGeoFemme said...

I am in a "hey come work with me" department and as far as I know, all departments in my field work that way. I can't imagine working with any other advisor in my department because they all do really different work that is not close to my interests and maybe not my background. I have often wondered how the rotation system works -- are faculty in rotation departments more similar to one another or are the students more flexible than in my field?

At 2:48 PM , Blogger PonderingFool said...

are faculty in rotation departments more similar to one another or are the students more flexible than in my field?
The professors in my grad department were pretty varied. There was plenty of choices. Some students come in knowing who they want to work for and that works just fine. A few grumble about having to rotate in two other labs but generally it helps to learn new techniques. In fact the department requires students to pick at least one rotation lab that in terms of subject matter and techniques used is significantly different from the other two to insure that happens. Some students actually come in wanting to do A and end up finding they really love Z.

The system encourages students to be flexible. It can also provide a means for collaborations between faculty that wouldn't happen otherwise.

The system to work does require funds to pay students at least in their first year. The department I was in required a fair amount of courses to be taken the first year in addition to rotations. We TAed then one term our 2nd year and one more our 3rd year.


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