This season, the biology doctorate program in which I work had a wonderfully diverse, interesting and impressive pool of applicants (not more applicants than our batch last year, as one might expect in a year of economic downturn, but perhaps more of high quality). Our admissions committee had a hard time coming to a consensus in picking the cream of the crop to invite for our two-day recruitment event, but once they did, I, along with the graduate student who works with me, started intense planning efforts. In the two weeks between inviting these applicants and the event, we planned two days filled with: a panel discussion for the recruits interested in working with co-advisors at affiliated institutions off-campus; a special symposium of research talks by current students in the program; a panel on TA responsibilities; a trip to a natural history museum for those interested; individual meetings between faculty and recruits; discussion-style lunches, dinners, socials and a party for recruits to meet and talk with various people of interest in the program. We stuffed take-home folders full of information about the graduate student center, commuting options, housing possibilities, nearby restaurants, and maps of attractions in the local area. In short, everything we could think of to illustrate what it would be like to be a Ph.D. student in the program.
Last week we held the event, and I worked way more than my usual time commitment. Part of the reason for my long hours was, of course, the time intensiveness required to put together this event, but also, as it turned out, my graduate student partner-in-planning went into labor and gave birth two days before all the recruits arrived. (Although she had a great birth, and now has a beautiful baby boy, she was a little disappointed about the timing, because, especially after reading their files, it is very fun to meet the candidates in person.)
My graduate student partner was on my mind as we hosted these candidates. She was missed, since she had interacted extensively with all of them right up until a couple days before. I announced her news as an explanation for why she would not be around during their visits. As I did, I realized that 8 of the 12 perspectives were women. While none of the recruits reacted except to express the general pleasure of hearing about a happy, healthy birth, I wondered what they were thinking about this. Did hearing about a (third-year) graduate student in the program building her family make the program seem more family friendly? Did they want to ask questions, but feel intimidated to do so? Were they curious about the expectations of the advisor or the program, or the mechanics of how the graduate school works out leaves and tuition? Did they wonder what percentage of graduate students in the program had families? Had they thought about combining family and academia, or had they not gotten to that point in their lives? No one brought the topic up again.
We worked hard to open up all aspects of the program, yet I feel like we missed a giant hole. Even with a remarkable segue to open up discussion of balancing family and graduate school, this topic was not approached. In some ways, I hope that it was simply not a pressing or current concern of the recruits. At the same time, I hope that if we can’t be the ones to answer these questions, they have support elsewhere if and when it does become pressing.