Where, oh where, can I find my future grad students?

Trying to recruit grad students into a PhD program where the PhD is BRAND NEW can be tough. In fact, I need the Internets's help.

So here I am, a new faculty member in a new department (sorry, sorry, SCHOOL), eager to do cool research and with startup money to burn.

Okay then. Where are the graduate students? Lemme get my hands on some graduate students. I just was a grad student, you can bet that means I'll treat them nicely.

Oh shoot. There aren't any who want to work with me.

The first challenge has been that I started my job after all the graduate students who were starting in the fall had already been paired up both a) advisors and b) funding. So no one who was starting wanted to change their plans. Understandably.

Then I was put on the graduate recruiting committee, which I thought would be good for making sure I was able to share my work and recruit some graduate students to my group. It hasn't worked out that way for a bunch of reasons, but one that seems to be relevant is that many of our students gravitate to a graduate program in engineering education because first and foremost they care about teaching in engineering. So they want to work with people who directly study teaching: the practice, the motivation, the impact of on student learning, the assessment of, and so on.

I don't really do that. I do this weird social theory stuff that involves history and philosophy and feminism and critical theory and none of it is stuff that undergraduates in engineering have usually had any experience with. And the word "feminist" probably scares a bunch of people off. Indeed, probably the people I need to look towards have degrees in anthropology and/or sociology, but our grad program has required that admitted students be able to accomplish the technical program in engineering, and anthropologists and sociologists would likely have no interest in doing so. Let alone folks in women's studies who might be ideal.

Finally, there is no "pipeline" (although I hate that metaphor) of schools or programs into our kind of program. More mainstream engineering faculty don't know about it and so don't advise students to consider it, and we have no undergraduate programs to recruit from.

Now I'm contemplating my second fall with no students, and serious pressure to get some more significant research going. ACK!

So I want to pose some questions to you, dear Internets, to see if you can help me plan a graduate recruiting strategy for a program that has had only 1 graduate so far.

In particular:

  • if you have been to graduate school, what lured you to the place you went, or pushed you away from the places you didn't go?
  • if you haven't been to graduate school, what are the kinds of things that might draw you to one place or another?
  • for folks who were heavily recruited - what about the recruitment process was appealing or compelling to you? or damaging?
  • for the hip folks, what ways would you find out about novel and innovative programs?
  • for the less adventuresome, what would convince you to sign on to a graduate program that may not have proven itself with respect to the job market yet?

These questions may be too general to be answerable - in which case, tell me about your (past, present, or future) hopes and aspirations about graduate school (in the hopes that we can design our program towards those ideas rather than getting mired in all the problems).

In addition, as we are trying to recruit graduate students into engineering education who generally already have a master's degree and may have been working in industry already, how would you try and get the word out about a new program they may not have thought of before? How would you find them?

Thanks in advance for your thoughts that (if they're good) I'll want to blatantly incorporate into our graduate recruiting strategy. Although maybe I can cite you if you like. :-) And tell you how well it works.

More like this

In part I, I wrote about the shortage of technicians in the biotechnology industry and the general awareness that this problem is getting worse. This part will address the challenge of getting more students into programs that will prepare them for jobs in the biotech field. I've also been asked to…
I realized this morning that I had no meetings scheduled for today. HOORAY!!! In addition, my department (recently renamed a School) is all in an uproar because our academic advisory council is arriving tomorrow, and our open house to the university is Friday. So I decided that I could take the…
I'm teaching our senior major seminar this term, which means that once a week, I'm giving hour-long talks on topics of interest to senior physics majors. This week's was "How to Pick and Apply to a Graduate School." I've probably written this basic stuff up about three times already, but I'm too…
ScienceWoman mused about the completion of her first year here, and I had hoped I would develop similar observations and reflections while on Isle Royale. Truth be told, rather than taking the hiking time to think, uninterrupted, about the last year, I did anything but. Think, that is. Instead,…

Advertising on your blog is definitely one way to find people!

I have a PhD and have no interest in getting another. Still, the first questions that come to mind are:
What types of projects would I work on with you?
How will those projects give me a distinct and employable research direction?

While your writing is interesting, I've never seen clear answers to these and even this post doesn't answer these questions. I've definitely seen faculty post sample project ideas for short term projects. This gives an idea of where research could go.

Another option is to partially advise students both formally and informally. If someone is studying teaching methodology X, you could encourage them to look into gender differences/interactions within that method. It's less of a commitment than for a current student to work solely with you and it would enrich else's' project along with giving you mentoring experience/credit/authorship.

Of course, the hardest question for a new faculty member to answer is: Do you expect to still be here in 5 years and if not, what will a student do?

Hi Alice,

I'm in my final year of grad school, and I can tell you this about my particular experiences:

* if you have been to graduate school, what lured you to the place you went, or pushed you away from the places you didn't go?

*** LURED: I picked my school based on the amount of $$$ they were offering (more than any place else), the faculty matched my interests the most, I liked the environment of the town, and there were other programs at the school outside of my discipline that I could participate in that would help me grow my non-engineering skills.

*** PUSHED AWAY: One school I liked a lot, but I didn't go there because they had no women on the faculty (I'm in engineering).
I passed on another school because the only faculty member I was interested in YELLED at a current grad student while I was in the office. And then, while I was walking to another meeting, I heard him yell at a different grad student.

* for folks who were heavily recruited - what about the recruitment process was appealing or compelling to you? or damaging?

*** I liked meeting the other prospective grad students and current grad students (it made me feel comfortable with the department). One comment: no one really ever explained how funding worked or how you find an advisor. We had faculty meetings during my recruitment, but I didn't know what questions to ask, how to prepare, or how the process worked.

* for the hip folks, what ways would you find out about novel and innovative programs?
*** In my experience, this is mostly by word of mouth in departments of undergraduates or based on the ranking of the school.

* for the less adventuresome, what would convince you to sign on to a graduate program that may not have proven itself with respect to the job market yet?
*** If I had secured funding for the time in grad school and I was interested, I would do it, but I would need to know from you some potential career possibilities I can do with the degree.

Some other thoughts:
* Think outside the department in recruiting students. Are there any students in history of science, psychology, education, engineering, etc that might be interested in your research? Is there any way to reach these students?
* Try reaching out to liberal arts schools in the midwest. One "pipeline" could be liberal arts schools with no grad programs of their own. You will usually find women there with double degrees - maybe in science and psychology - that would be interested in what you do.

Best of luck! I know you will get them! After all my time in school, and seeing the number of people drop out because they weren't happy with the science they were doing, I'm sure there are people who want to do what you do, they just don't know it yet :-).

I do this weird social theory stuff that involves history and philosophy and feminism and critical theory and none of it is stuff that undergraduates in engineering have usually had any experience with.

Maybe the problem is that nobody can understand exactly what that stuff has to do with engineering.
Sounds awful post-modern, to me. I'd think engineers would be the more analytical type.

I'm actually in the process of visiting grad schools right now, so I'll take a crack at helping you out with your questions.

The things I'm finding appealing in graduate schools so far mostly have to do with the people. If the current grad students are happy, relaxed and relatively informal when dealing with each other and the professors, then I feel comfortable in the department, even if it's much bigger than I'm used to and I'm initially afraid I'll get lost in the crowd. If the professors are open to collaboration and don't mind being available to their students without scheduling appointments, I feel like my participation and work are important to them, rather than me just being a body to work in their lab or collect data.

I've just received a few acceptances and one rejection, and the acceptances have turned out to come from the people who were open to communication before applications were due - they were eager to talk about their work, frank about the pros and cons of their departments, and not afraid to discuss where else I was applying and who I was considering working with. I was surprised but pleased that I got recommendations to talk to specific people at one institution from professors at another - it showed me that the work they were doing wasn't so much a competition but an effort to help people contribute to everyone's knowledge and expertise. (In other words, more like a multi-institution team than a bunch of exclusive clubs.) The rejection came from an institution where I was warned ahead of time that competition for research positions was stiff, and where I had a little trouble keeping in touch with the people I was interested in working with. This may have been difficulties on both ends, but I received an initially stand-offish impression of the research group, and I was never completely able to shake that.

I'm actually looking at some smaller institutions that usually get a "huh" reaction from people when I name them, and I often find myself defending my lesser-known choices. I would have to say that a student will (hopefully) find the program attractive if there is an opportunity to work closely with their advisor on something that interests them, rather than being shoehorned into a vaguely relative project - even if this means the advisor has to allow the student to suggest a new tack to their research. Be open to expanding your research projects! Also, if the current graduate students are happy with what they're doing, a prospective grad will pick up on it. If the current grads feel like they're stuck in a rut and aren't being productive, it'll show. Court the new grads, but make sure the current ones aren't neglected, either. I wouldn't hesitate (much) to sign onto an unproven program if I knew I'd be happy working with the people in it - after all, it would be a good opportunity to help the program develop and recruit even more good people.

I'm seriously considering working with a new professor who currently doesn't have any students, and I'm excited about it because it means I'll have his full attention. He's also open to collaborating with the other faculty in his research group - in fact encouraging it - and they've all made it clear that if my research interests change while I'm there, it's no problem for me to change advisors or focuses. That flexibility is very appealing.

As for active recruiting - I found out about some of my prospective schools from conference booths, some from internet searches (because I knew what area I wanted to specialize in), and some by word of mouth (which is your problem). I would say that you should definitely try to be a big presence at conferences, if at all possible - start up a booth and grab passing students to talk to. Or, for another method, send out brochures and recruiting posters to attractive undergrad institutions and companies. I was in charge of handling the ones my undergraduate department recieved, and we always sent out emails announcing new arrivals. (We also often got emails from former grads or colleagues of our profs, mentioning grad opportunities at various institutions.) Accompany recruiting materials with emails to department chairs or admin assistants, and ask them to pass it on to their students. I'm not sure of more innovative means, but often the difficulty in finding places to go to grad school is that they don't make an effort to advertise their programs in the first place, so no one hears about them. Be persistent, and people will start talking about your program.

Please feel free to incorporate any of this into your strategy - it's pretty basic, but I'm happy to help. Also, let me know if there are any other questions I can help you with. Good luck!

Well, my first step in this might be to start a blog ;).

Seriously - I'm a year behind you, it sounds like: just accepted the offer, but the grad applications have already been processed and the two potential students from the (small) pool of admittees have already decided to go elsewhere.

So I plan to hire a couple of postdocs, teach (if possible) a mid-high level undergrad class that might allow me to recruit a couple of stellar undergrads, and work harder for the next crop. I'm also going to hit up colleagues and friends, of course. But seriously, I may need to increase my web presence as an initial step.

[When I went to grad school, I was limited both by (i) requiring a program in commute range of the woman who is now my wife, and (ii) coming from the UK and hence requiring funding for non-citizens; but from the available options I then picked entirely on the basis of my preferred advisor, and I suspect that this is the norm.]

It has to be employability. What can I do with a PhD in your field? What will the future look like for me? Why is there benefit to doing a PhD in your (quite specific niche)subfield versus more broadly in engineering?

Can you coadvise with another PI to use your methods and ideas in general engineering education?

Word of mouth, with friends who are teaching undergrads, could be very good for you. Most of my undergrads who have gone onto grad school in my specialty (psycholinguistics - very different from your field, but still not a specialty that often gets a lot of play for undergrads) have been pointed to (by me) various graduate programs that my friends and colleagues run. I can usually even give them a heads up about personalities that might or might not mesh, and advertise new programs. So my advice would be to network - contact anyone you know who works with undergrads (I'm at a SLAC, but it could be bigger universities as well) who can point those students working in their lab to your work. Send out materials to them too, so it is up in the hall and in the department.

* if you have been to graduate school, what lured you to the place you went

Finding the right people to work with. I'd had a good interaction with some of the faculty at a conference, so I was optimistic about our working together.

Visiting really sold me. When I visited I found that their students were happy, well funded, and doing the research they'd hoped to. (In a good campus visit, it should become apparent if the programs doesn't fund students consistently, or plays bait-and-switch with research.)

for folks who were heavily recruited - what about the recruitment process was appealing or compelling to you? or damaging?

MIT talked trash about other programs. The competitiveness among their students and toward other programs was a warning signal, and when I visited the other programs I found out most of the trash was untrue. I lost interest in the MIT program both for grad school and as a future employer.

for the hip folks, what ways would you find out about novel and innovative programs?

I googled, of course, but many programs have pretty generic info on their websites. I wouldn't get seriously interested in a program unless it had:

1. Active, detailed webpages on its faculty (not just a CV but their students and grants), the department's ongoing major research, its grad students and where they are now, its goals and directions.

2. Great word-of-mouth.

for the less adventuresome, what would convince you to sign on to a graduate program that may not have proven itself with respect to the job market yet?

I've done this once. The job market wasn't my primary concern, because the program offered some unique opportunities intellectually and through research partnerships. However, the payoff was enormous. I wrote interesting papers and worked with interesting people, so my name got out there. Likewise, in a new/small program it was easy to be visible (big fish in little pond).

There are also more tangible indicators of how that department will help you in the job market. It's a good sign if the department:

1. Has funds for students to attend conferences, and a clear policy encouraging such activities.
2. Has partner programs at other universities so the students get to know other faculties.
3. Regularly meets with industry or government and takes students along.

Believe it or not, I found the PhD program I applied to listed on Wikipedia (I was searching for STS and interdisciplinary programs).

Y'know, I think that it would be really neat to have a forum where profs could find grad students, and vice versa. There probably is one.

A friend of mine would be a perfect candidate (aspiring polymath like me), but I'm not sure where she's at in her undergrad. But I've mentioned it to her.

It strikes me that you might find more interested candidates among people who have their engineering degree and have been out in the workforce for a while. They're more likely to have recognized that they have been "victims" of gender bias or to have been actively discriminated against on the job, and thus be looking for new opportunities where the subject matter itself indicates there will be no gender bias.

Another undergrad area that might bear investigation would be among math majors.

chezjake makes a good point. Your subject area might attract returning students, which is a challenge because recruitment typically focuses on undergrads. Does your program advertise in professional association journals/trade magazines? Do you participate in the local chapters of such associations? Are you active in organizing sessions at engineering conferences? Returning students tend to have professional networks and know the value of word of mouth.

Another relevant undergrad field would be computer science.

If you are looking for students who have been out in industry for a while, you might try contacting alumni.

A lot of the material on this blog could be turned into a monthly or quarterly newsletter that people could subscribe to. This could get the idea of the program into people's heads if they're looking for something new but don't yet know what they're looking for. You might try contacting the women's studies departments at engineering-heavy institutions and ask if they have any networks of graduates who might be interested in such a newsletter or recruiting materials.

As far as careers post graduation, engineering education is obviously one option, as is consulting, personnel management, etc.

I want to clarify something I said above ...

I said:
"Try reaching out to liberal arts schools in the midwest. One "pipeline" could be liberal arts schools with no grad programs of their own. You will usually find WOMEN there with double degrees - maybe in science and psychology - that would be interested in what you do."

But what I should have said was:
Try reaching out to liberal arts schools in the midwest. One "pipeline" could be liberal arts schools with no grad programs of their own. You will usually find PEOPLE there with double degrees - maybe in science and psychology - that would be interested in what you do.

My own gender bias came through subconsciously ... sorry about that!

I like the idea of reaching out into industry. I'm 10 years post-PhD and work in industry (engineering even) and would be highly interested in your program, if I lived anywhere remotely near you :-)

I was recruited into and found my grad school position because I had spent the previous summer there as an REU student. So, on potential source of grad students (won't help you this year) is to set up some sort of summer internship program, so that undergrads can find out about your program.

what would convince you to sign on to a graduate program that may not have proven itself with respect to the job market yet?

Employability would be my main concern, and it applies to the particular research projects as much or more than to the overall department/program. Not just faculty/teaching positions, but can I get a job that doesn't involve 50+ hour work weeks? Contacts in industry or government or administration who have interesting, related jobs - maybe someone from the diversity office? - who can talk about the background they are looking for would help, I think.

What got me to the grad school I went to -- and the advisor I had -- were two main things: money and the recommendation of my undergrad advisor (he had been the grad advisor of who was to become my grad advisor).

Both of these criteria were a mistake. There are lots of other, better ways I should have evaluated grad schools, but I didn't know any better.

So for the younger, more naive students like I was, funding and word of mouth about whether you'd make a good advisor does matter (do you have an advisor who can send folks your way?). For the older, or just better prepared/advised folks, I think a lot of the other issues others have named in the comments are helpful.

My comments will only help once you have people aware of and interested in your dept/work. I hunted online for people doing interesting research, so pipelines/professor recommendations weren't needed.

I applied to schools where people emailed back with detailed descriptions of their work. One person actually snail-mailed me reprints (with a handrwritten note) rather than just pointing me to .pdfs, which definitely stuck out.

What it really came down to was "show me a good time", and more importantly "show me I'll have a good time when I'm there". This was in terms of both interactions with the current grads (staying in a hotel was bad, having several grad-students-only social gatherings to get the "inside scoop" was great) and with the potential advisor. The advisor I had worked with won out because I knew we got on well, that she would provide guidance, that our meetings were often filled with good brainstorming and exciting exchanges of ideas.

You don't have current students to host prospectives and do some of the convincing for you, but if you have any kind of positive interactions with the other students they'll be able to report on their interactions. I often report on the other faculty from when they were my teachers, which can give a good idea of how dedicated they seem to their students.

If you don't have the funds to bring students out, phone interviews might be good. Personally I hated them, but then I hate phone calls in general and refuse to even call to order pizza if I can get someone else to do it for me. You might make it a policy to have current grads do a phone call as well, not as part of the admission process but just to talk about the program more informally.

I wasn't concerned with money, but then I was lucky and had good funding opportunities at my top 3 choices so it wasn't too salient (and my field doesn't have great business earning potential to compete). Environment did play a role, since I was looking at schools in very different cities/states.

Alice: a slightly related question for you. I was wondering what you have in terms of funding for grad students? Did funding for students come with your start up package or do you already have your own grant with funding? I'm asking because I will be in your situation soon and am beginning to think about how to get grants or what else to do in order to be able to fund grad students and generally get my research up and running.

I apologize for hijacking the comments, but I'd be interesting in hearing what your situation is. With regards to your original question I don't think I have much to add to all the great suggestions above. I would think heavy active recruiting is the way to go(conferences, flyers to potential departments, email announcements to all your colleagues/ friends/professional networks at other universities). Being the geek I am, I would also be attracted to such information on blogs, wikipedia, other web pages, but that's probably not for everyone. I think it is likely that you will be able to recruit someone or at least spread the word through this blog if you can be a bit more specific about what you do.


As a fellow PhD about to take on a faculty position and recruiting of my first graduate students in civil engineering, I feel your anxiousness. But, I have some ideas for you that might work. Civil engineering education has taken quite an interesting turn towards social consciousness in the last decade, with activity in Engineers Without Borders (EWB) sky-rocketing. In addition, engineering education has benefited from ABET's requirement for students to be involved in leadership, teamwork, and multi-disciplinary projects. I feel you can work this to your advantage. Why not recruit from places with EWB or active SWE (society of women engineers) groups or from smaller undergraduate engineering programs at liberal arts colleges, such as Smith or Lafayette College or the like? Perhaps you can find some students who have engineering backgrounds but also have interests outside of the purely technical realm.

At an interview at City-With-Famous-Arch a professor told me 'We're a mill; we just churn out grad students, and we don't give a damn if they learn anything.'

Don't do that. :)

Do you want grad students? Propose something spectacular. That attracts high autist geeks possessing no concept of self-preservation, but it's enough. When you've dropped deep roots you may abandon genius and join everybody else dredging swamp mud. Diversity!

The best way to make everybody equal is to cut them down to size. If social advocacy lacks academic rigor, the math is Procrustes methods. Rather than foster brilliance, we allocate for its suppression.

If you persist in taking the high road you'll be cut down to size in turn. Management is all about process not product. Nothing in ISO900x, Mil-Spec, or Six Sigma mentions a working product.

I have to start by saying that I'm in a different field (social sciences) but perhaps my experience can be a bit helpful.

# if you have been to graduate school, what lured you to the place you went, or pushed you away from the places you didn't go?
I have a terminal master's degree but decided to continue on to a PhD. This meant that I couldn't go to my MA school. I relied on advice from my mentors and a lot of investigation on my own. I decided to come here because there were multiple people I could work with and still be happy. I am extremely grateful for this decision as one of my possible major professors just accepted a job at another university. Several of the other programs I looked at had only one person I could imagine working with. For me, this was just too much of a gamble. I can imagine this might be a problem for you.

# for folks who were heavily recruited - what about the recruitment process was appealing or compelling to you? or damaging?
I wanted full financial support, active research AND teaching opportunities (I want an t-t job someday and experience with both is important in my field), and faculty who were active researchers themselves. I ended up with a full tuition waiver, teaching and research assistantships, and grants from the department. My SO and I can actually afford to live (not well, in crappy grad housing, but still live) on my support alone. Since I moved us 1000 miles from our nearest friends and family, I wanted to be able to support us while SO found a job that didn't suck too bad. As a 30-something woman, I wanted a department that would support my decision if I decided to have kids during my program. I wanted to see faculty members and students who actually had LIVES- instead of living in the department. As someone with a partner, I wanted a department that was social, that could provide opportunities for my SO to meet people too.

At my school, I emailed and talked with current students. Their enthusiasm was evident. Faculty were quick to respond to email questions and I met several national conferences. I was courted by those faculty (taken out to lunch, asked about my research, etc) and that felt like sincere interest rather than flattery.

Departments that had big classes, enormous numbers of faculty, or were otherwise "big" were suspicious to me. I want individualized attention, mentoring, and support. I also wanted a fairly collaborative rather than super competitive department.

# for the hip folks, what ways would you find out about novel and innovative programs?

When I applied to my program, they had just started their first year of PhD students. My closest advisor, friend, and mentor had previously taught at my new school. On her advice, I talked with faculty and current students here.

Wow, y'all - these are great ideas. I had intended the questions in the general sense, but it was great to get some specific queries about what I do. Clearly I need to do a post about that soon. :-) And then if there are any folks out there who particularly want to work with me, we can tawk. ;-)

saxifraga - my funding that I have on offer for students is from my start-up - 2 students for 2 years. However, if you're going to be in a t-t position soon, I would take an hour sometime sooner rather than later and go through all the funding sources you can think of, and make a little calendar about when all the grants you might be interested in are due so when you officially start, you can get going on working for external funding for students. Important because of the funding cycles - grants are announced, due some months later, funded some months after that, and that last date may or may not coincide with the academic year (and when your students start). Hope this helps.

Jenny - check. :-)

Others - thanks again for your thoughts and ideas. Keep them coming!!

Some ideas that I didn't see mentioned

-Have and update your department related webpage with your interests and opportunities available
-If you definately have a project or money advertise on a list-serve that is relevant to your field

Thanks for sharing, Alice. "Investigate ressources for funding grad students" has now gone on my always-growing list of things to do during Easter break ;-).

Btw the grad students we have where I am now are practically all recruited either by word of mouth or by ads circulated on email lists and institution web page. It's a research institute and hence we have no undergrads or automatic pipeline into the system. Many do seek us out though because they figure they would like to work here some day and are looking for opportunities.

I'm on several listservs that frequently advertise ms and phd projects. Even if undergrads aren't reading these lists, they might have a professor who does and will mention a relevant position to them. If you do something really unique/new, potential students may not even know to look for it so it seem like you need to tell everyone and her sister what you do.

ask to find my future how i will find job in my life?