Successful Graduate Recruitment Weekends

Terry McGlynn offers some tips.

March 14, 2018

What should departments do when running a graduate student recruitment weekend -- and what should they avoid?

Many departments invite a gaggle of potential Ph.D. students out for a big weekend. There are a few advantages for this approach. First, it allows the department to put on a big show to convince applicants to say yes when they get an offer, and the synergy of excited potential cohort mates is helps.

It’s also easier on the department to focus recruitment visits on one weekend, rather than having people visit over the course of a few months. There are often more invitees than slots in the program, and so this allows principal investigators to comparison shop among students who have expressed an interest. On the downside, that can also result in a kind of grad school-Hunger Games dynamic.

What do I know about this, anyway? The last time I was involved in a recruitment weekend was about 24 years ago. That said, I get a lot of feedback from both sides: from my own students and colleagues experiencing visiting weekends.

These recruitment weekends can, typically, be positive. But in recent months I’ve heard from several students and principal investigators who have been concerned about things that should be done differently. (One applicant with a bunch of useful observations has been using #GradSchoolSearch on Twitter this season, and it’s worth checking out.)

For starters, applicants need to meet with graduate students in the program or lab that they are applying to, without any interference from faculty members. That is important so that those students can get a full picture of potential challenges and risks they might be facing. Some of these events are designed to give prospective students separate time with current graduate students, but some don’t create that opportunity. The latter can be interpreted as a red flag by the prospectives -- and rightly so.

Also, applicants need to have their travel expenses covered in advance of their travel. Many applicants literally don’t have a few hundred bucks to spare. If you’re a PI inviting a student and your program doesn’t pay up front, then it’s on you to offer to cover those expenses. Departments that take recruitment of underrepresented minority students seriously need to take advance travel funding seriously.

Keep in mind that students are coming from very different backgrounds. Some of the applicants might not be used to the social conventions of the white upper middle class, which prevails in most science departments. Some may never been to a professor’s house, or been in snow before or eaten in a restaurant that uses cloth napkins. If you are evaluating applicants by their capacity to be eloquent about science or to be jovial with lab members, then you’ll be selecting against people with backgrounds different from most of the people in the room. Make your department a place where folks can actually be themselves, without counting cultural differences as a demerit.

It also helps if the applicants receive a copy of their schedule in advance, just like we do for faculty job candidates and visiting seminar speakers. If the schedule is really packed, be sure to leave time for bathroom breaks and time to decompress.

Finally, applicants should be treated like other kinds of job candidates -- and that means staying away from questions about spouses, childcare and stuff like that.

For those readers who’ve experienced these types of events, what do you think are some other good (or bad) practices?


Terry McGlynn is professor of biology at California State University Dominguez Hills and a research associate in entomology at the Natural History Museum of Los Angeles County. His blog is Small Pond Science, and you can find him on twitter at @hormiga.


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