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Megan Poorman is a Ph.D. candidate in biomedical engineering at Vanderbilt University. You can find her on Twitter @meganpoorman or documenting her travels on her website.

"Piled Higher and Deeper" by Jorge Cham

Bushy-tailed, bright-eyed, crowds of students with glaring nametags crowd around a poster. Holding court as students stare at you with bated breath, waiting on your words of wisdom. Stuffing free snacks in your mouth and chewing emphatically just to avoid the dreaded question, “Wow, you’ve been here so long, are you defending soon?” These are the all too familiar vignettes of graduate student recruitment weekend. Once grand and inspiring, now slightly lackluster as you, a senior graduate student, look around and wonder if you too were once that young and energetic.

Graduate student recruitment is one of the most exciting times of the academic year, a time when the lab finally gets cleaned and free food abounds. The influx of prospective students also means a willing audience to convey a passion for your research and sell on what makes your university better than all the rest. However, when you’re approaching those final years of graduate studies in which you’re stuck in the trenches of experiments and papers it can be hard to take a step back to holistically evaluate your graduate school experience. While it is important to offer the recruits a fair viewpoint of what grad student life is like, a jaded perspective will not do anyone any good. It’s time to pay it forward. Here’s how to muster excitement in the face of a mounting workload and enjoy your department’s recruitment weekend to its fullest potential.

Why You Should Still Recruit as a Senior Grad Student

This is your fourth (fifth, sixth, seventh…) year in the program. You’ve talked to hundreds of students throughout the years – you’ve toured, chatted, pitched, and dined with the best of them. Surely it’s time to pass the buck to someone younger and with less worries? It may be true that you’ve paid your dues, but there are still things to be gained from participating even in your later years.

Free food and coffee – Even if none of the more feel-good reasons below convince you to participate, this one is very practical. By attending events or hosting students you’re guaranteeing yourself at least two awesome catered meals, free snacks, lunch, and likely a lot of coffee. Plus no one really wants to cook dinner after an all-day experiment anyway. If you volunteer to help clean-up, you may even end up with leftovers for the rest of the week or a cake for your office. Win-win.

Face time with professors – Not only can this be practical (time to get that form signed), but it can also be entertaining and instructive. If you’re envisioning yourself in a professorial role down the road, this is a perfect opportunity to observe what some of your responsibilities might be like. You could also get the chance to practice your presentation and small talk skills in front of someone who can provide constructive criticism.

Paying it forward – The entire system of academia is based on a hierarchy where you are required to make large leaps of faith into the unknown when moving from one stage to the next. Without someone to help you through the process this can be a daunting task. Likely when you were a prospective student there were many mentors who provided the necessary guidance for you to make an informed decision. Now is your chance to be that person for someone else in return.

Your perspective is valued – You’re the wise older graduate student, when you speak others listen. You’ve been around the block a few times and navigated many of the ups and downs of grad student life. Your opinion is well-informed, and you can provide valuable insight into all stages of the degree that many of your fellow students may not be able to attest to. Besides, telling prospective students about all you have learned can be a great morale boost when failed experiments make you question if you even know anything at all.

Coping Strategies for Recruiting without Getting Burned Out

Even if you’ve hyped yourself up over the idealism of why you should participate in recruitment, it’s hard to go about it without getting overwhelmed and even more stressed out. The last thing you want is to unload your stress on some poor unsuspecting recruit.

Know your limits – Choose wisely what events you attend. You’ve done your duty in earlier years, so it’s okay to pass the buck to other people as far as planning and coordinating goes. Be firm about saying no when someone asks you to do more than you want to. Allow the younger generation of students to get experience with roles that you have filled in the past. Decide if you’d rather interact with recruits in a group (where you can engage other people but don’t have to talk the whole time) or in a smaller setting (where you can focus your energy) and chose to go to only those events.

Be tactful – You’ve been in the department long enough to have heard a fair amount of political drama and gossip. However, now is not the time to spread rumors or complain about policies. Keep all your interactions with recruits well-rounded to present both sides of an issue fairly. If you are asked about a professor’s mentoring style with whom you have never worked, don’t spread the gossip about what you’ve heard. Instead, direct the questioner to someone who can personally attest to their mentorship style. You want to be honest, but negativity and gossipy is not a good look for anyone.

Let others speak first – Give yourself a few moments to think over your answers before you speak. This gives you the chance to weigh if your response is constructive or colored by being burned out. This also gives other students the opportunity to chime in with opinions upon which you can build. Using your clout as a senior grad student, you can give validity to ideas instead of having to drive the conversation when all you really want to do is raid the dessert table.

Use your hard-earned wisdom – Recognize that you have learned a lot in graduate school and use this to your advantage. As I mentioned before, you have a unique perspective on graduate school that many of the newer students do not. Use this in your interactions with recruits to stress what you think is important for them to know. This could be anything from underlining the importance of choosing a good mentor to offering guidance about what students should do early on to be successful in your program.  

Most of all, take this opportunity to inspire the next generation of students in your field. Who knows, their enthusiasm and insightful comments may even inspire you!

Have you found yourself suddenly the senior grad student on the block? What strategies do you use to remain positive in the face of so many questions?

[Image by Jorge Cham at Piled Higher and Deeper and used with permission.]