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Shira Lurie is a PhD candidate in Early American History at the University of Virginia. Her research focuses on popular political conflicts over the American Revolution’s legacy in the early republic. You can follow her on Twitter and on her blog.




Grad school has certain dependable patterns, and often sandwiched between the awkward departmental "welcome-back” party in January and Spring Break in March is the prospective student visit. This is an exciting time for grad students as we get to meet some potential new colleagues, usually over some free(!!!!) meals, but it can also be stressful. How much do we tell them? How honest should we be? Is it our job to persuade or dissuade them from attending grad school?


In addition to talking to your Grad Chair, advisor, and other grad students about your role for such visits, here are some tips to help us all strike the right balance between transparency and professionalism:


1. Be honest, but also balanced

I think we have an obligation to the prospective students to tell them the truth, good or bad, about our experiences. But we should also try hard to give balanced responses. Try to follow up a negative comment with a positive observation about something else, and vice versa, to provide a full picture of life in your department. For example, “The funding package here is not as competitive as some other schools, which is frustrating. But the cost of living here is very low and most students are successful in getting big fellowships once they’re ABD."


We should also be prepared for prospective students to ask difficult questions. In fact, when I went on my recruitment visit to my current institution, I asked a panel of grad students to tell me the thing they most disliked about the department (I thought I was pretty edgy). I think we should answer such questions honestly, but also be quick to offer some context and perspective. For instance, my current answer to that question is, “I dislike the comps process in my department because I think it’s outdated. But some improvements were made recently and I hope grad students and faculty continue to press for more changes.”


2. Avoid gossip

There is always departmental gossip flying around, especially regarding the horrors of working with certain faculty. But it’s only fair that you speak exclusively to your own experience. Instead of repeating a rumor you may have heard, point the prospective student in the direction of someone who can give them some concrete information. Of course, if you have some substantiated intel, it might be fair to say something like, “I have no personal experience with that person, but from what I’ve heard they can be difficult to work with. Why don’t you talk to XXX who did a comps field with him/her?” We all want the next generation to benefit from our knowledge and experience, just make sure you’re not using the prospective student visit as an opportunity to spread gossip.


3. Know your role

Of course, there are a whole host of reality checks a prospective graduate student needs to receive, but remember that it is not your job to give them “the talk,” at least not in this setting. My preferred option is to pull a prospective student aside and mention to them that they should consider having a serious talk about the realities of grad school and the job market with a trusted advisor if they have not already. Katy’s suggestion that you tell a prospective student about GradHacker is another great strategy, and not just because GradHacker articles are all brilliant and a pleasure to read (which they are)! But scrolling through even just some headlines will give them a good indication of the types of things grad students worry about.


4. Remember your roots

Prospective student visits are a great way to reconnect with the excitement we all felt when we received our acceptance letters and began to think through our options. Feed off of the energy of your department’s potential incoming cohort and remember all the reasons you wanted to come to grad school in the first place. It’s a nice way to reenergize and refocus mid-way through the year.


And if you’re a prospective student who is reading this, remember that your role is to ask the difficult questions and get as much information as you can. Be wary of anyone who wants to complain to you too much or, conversely, who wants to tell you the hallways of their department are paved with gold. Do your research, don’t be shy, and enjoy it - it’s not too often in life that you get to be wooed!


Have any tips for handling prospective student visits like a pro? Let us know in the comments!

[Image by Flickr user zsoolt and used under the Creative Commons license.]

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