Friendship and colleagues

In the academic world, the coming of spring brings more than migrating birds and warming temperatures. We can also count on seminars filled with faculty candidates, and prospective graduate students flocking to elaborate departmental recruiting events. Little time has elapsed since I was an interviewee in the latter category, but seeing things from the departmental side this time around has shown me the importance of recruitment events for everyone involved.

It is easy to see why potential students should take the process seriously, but it’s harder to grasp the large impact that these events can have on current graduate students, post-docs, and faculty members. Scientists rely heavily on professional and social connections for future positions, advice, critiques and collaborations. For many, the foundation of these important networks are laid during graduate school. Interviewing and recruiting potential students is essentially vetting the composition of our future social and professional networks – a task not to be taken lightly.

As a student, I have a vested interest in my program’s ability to select the top candidates and to convince those candidates to enroll. Their aptitude and productivity will ultimately affect the value of my institution and, by extension, my degree. Far more importantly, these individuals will have an effect on me because a portion of them will be my future friends, collaborators, and reviewers. Faculty should likewise concern themselves with graduate student selection; these students compose the front-lines of research, share bylines, and likely also comprise a considerable portion of scientific connections years down the line. And, of course, everything that I mentioned both for faculty and current students applies equally to post-docs, the vast majority of whom are conspicuously absent from recruitment events.

During these formative events, the more personal interaction we get with students the better. After all, we don’t choose our friends based on transcripts, essays, and GRE scores, and choosing friends is at least part of what we are doing. Surrounding ourselves with people that we respect scientifically, and get along with socially allows for productive and informative conversations to take place outside of the lab. These social connections unite people across labs and disciplines, providing fresh perspectives on our own research as well as informing us about diverse areas of research that our colleagues are working on.

Though it may sound exhausting and futile to converse with a litany of students in order to get a fair picture of both their aptitude and amiability, time with recruits need not be intellectually taxing. As a recruit, I found even casual conversations with professors and current students to be more informative than hours spent with web-pages and journal articles. These encounters were relatively brief in nature, but I am nevertheless continually amazed about how accurate my initial sketches proved to be. Most of us are busy with research and other obligations, but surely everyone can spare a small amount of time for our own sake as much as the potential students.

Of course, if students attend the highest ranked school that they get into regardless of their interviewing experiences then we have little incentive to bother. However, I still believe that student decisions are not quite so rigid. Ask a few of your close colleagues about their graduate school choices and recruitment experiences. While you’re at it, give a thought to where you met those colleagues; you might be surprised to find how many of your scientific friendships started during graduate school. When you’re finished, get out there and recruit a few more.

—Adam Hockenberry