Organizing a Recruitment Experience With Impact

Hannah Foltz offers five tips for the faculty members or grad students tasked with planning a weekend for prospective Ph.D. students to remember.

March 20, 2019 debenport

Late last winter, I had a happy problem: I had been accepted to seven Ph.D. programs. After months preparing for a blanketing of rejections, I was now awash -- and paralyzed -- with choice. I cashed in my vacation days and RSVP'd “yes” to seven campus visits.

Then fate intervened in the form of several snowstorms, ultimately knocking my number of visits down to only five. “Only” isn’t doing a lot of work here -- five campus visits over four weekends in a six-week period is still too much meeting and greeting, schmoozing and boozing.

The campus visit is a sensory overload for everyone involved, but my senses were working extra, extra hard. You see, while I was choosing an academic program, I was still working as a brand strategy consultant. This meant that in a sense, I was making campus visits all the time in my professional life. At least once a month, as part of a team, I’d hop on a plane, fly to a new city, interview a bunch of strangers, sit through a couple presentations and finish things up with a happy hour. All the while, I’d be looking for clues about the company’s brand and how it could work harder and more effectively.

When my visits shifted from the corporate campus to the college campus, the evaluative instinct, of course, remained. But unlike most of my peers, I was assessing programs not solely on the basis of my own interests but also on what institutions’ recruitment weekends said about their academic brand. Five visits, one decision and one graduate school semester later, I’m reflecting on my decision process to offer five tips for the faculty members or grad students tasked with planning a weekend for job candidates to remember.

No. 1. Control the narrative. Recruitment weekend is your institution’s chance to tell its story on its own terms, on its own turf. This is a rare opportunity -- seldom does a brand get such complete control over its message. But departments don’t uniformly take advantage. While many do, developing and executing thoughtful itineraries, others opt for something more … relaxed. I understand the logic: an “authentic” recruitment event will foster “authentic” connections. But I can’t shake the little branding voice inside me that asks, “Why leave anything to chance?”

There’s a difference between putting on a show and putting your best foot forward. The academic aversion to marketing means that, too often, these are confused. If you have the ability to control your narrative, that’s what you should do.

If your department is a laid-back group of largely independent scholars, “controlling the narrative” doesn’t mean subjecting your visitors to a whirlwind day of team-building activities. It means that rather than leaving discovery of your special atmosphere up to chance, you can carefully build it into your programming with plenty of downtime, one-on-one coffees and the like.

When charting out your recruitment weekend program, ask yourself: What is the one overarching message our department wants to communicate about ourselves? It could be collegiality, innovation, interdisciplinary cooperation … Whatever it is, use it as a decision guide for your events.

For example, if you want your message to be one of lively community, don’t schedule a visit to a lecture-only class; have students sit in on a small group seminar instead. If you want your message to be one of inclusivity, maybe shift that Heidegger paper to next week’s colloquium.

No. 2. Play the A team. By the time an admitted grad student makes it to your building, they probably know whether or not they want to work with your faculty. What they don’t know is whether they want to work -- and play -- with your students for the next four to six years. To help convince them that they do, showcase your best ambassadors. This doesn’t necessarily mean your highest-profile publishers; it means your most enthusiastic and welcoming students.

In one of my visits, my first interaction was with students who I can only assume were the department’s least happy representatives. I was so drained when I left them that I cried in my room. My subsequent meetings with students were truly lovely, but the damage was done, and the institution was out. On the flip side, I chose Texas largely because of the students who helped with recruitment. They were kind, funny and a little acerbic. I could see us sharing a classroom (or a pitcher).

Encourage, but don’t require, students to take part in recruitment activities. A bad attitude will do far more damage than an empty seat. And a friendly face will do far more good than just about anything.

No. 3. Keep it short and sweet. Two days and two nights is just too damn long. Wrap things up after lunch on day two. Prospects will appreciate it, and so will your department’s pockets.

No. 4. Be transparent about controversy. “So, you probably have some questions about the Title IX investigation.” I’ll admit, when I heard this at my first campus visit, I was taken aback. Particularly because I hadn’t known about the investigation in the first place. But in retrospect, I think that when this department’s representatives laid their cards on the table, they got it right.

An acquaintance of mine in a different field accepted an offer, enrolled, moved and arrived at orientation -- only to discover that her professor of interest was no longer able to advise graduate students because of his involvement in a Title IX investigation. I wrote earlier about telling your best story, but as any branding consultant would tell you, your story can’t be a fiction. Yes, framing your narrative is about playing up your strengths, but it’s not about denying weaknesses. The situation need not be as dire as sexual misconduct: perhaps a professor of interest is retiring or budget cuts are looming. Whatever it is, when an issue can negatively affect a student’s career, transparency is mandatory.

Conversely, the institution that addressed its investigation head-on managed to begin to win back trust by demonstrating honesty and contrition. I didn’t ultimately attend that institution, but I esteem it highly and think its representatives showed impressive moral fiber.

No. 5. Invest as much as you can. I get it. Departments, especially those in humanities, are strapped for cash. But recruitment weekend is exactly the wrong time to be stingy. Prospective students have funding on the brain: Is my package enough? Is there extra money for conferences and research? Is the administration supportive of this program? In short, is this department stable? With such questions ringing in their heads, what seems like a minor cost-savings measure to you might seem like a sign of ruin to visitors.

Because so many departments do face fiscal uncertainty, there isn’t an easy answer to this conundrum; I debated whether or not it was fair to even include it in this essay. It made the cut, however, because of how heavily funding weighs in most students’ decisions. Anything that makes them doubt your finances will lower their chance of accepting your offer. Recruitment weekend is worth the investment. You’ve got to spend money to make money.

When I had corporate clients, I would tell them that branding is all about focus, about choosing a direction and committing to it. Over all, I offer the same advice to programs preparing to woo their prospects. Challenge yourself to articulate the single takeaway you hope visitors will glean from your recruitment weekend and then plan and execute events that communicate it. And do it in a day and a half.

As we head into admissions season, best of luck to those applying and those applied to. We’ll see you on the other side.


Hannah Foltz is a first-year Ph.D. student in rhetoric and writing at the University of Texas at Austin. After graduating from Davidson College in 2013, she spent more than five years working in brand strategy in San Francisco and New York City.


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