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Making an impression March 20, 2013

Posted by mareserinitatis in grad school.
Tags: , , ,

mckayla is not impressed

Female Science Professor recently discussed behavior differences at department visits between already admitted grad students and those who were still waiting to hear.  In particular, she asks, of students:

What was your attitude during your visit? Did you try to impress, or was your attitude that it was entirely the responsibility of the program to impress you?

I have to admit that this question made me cringe because my inclination was to answer, “Neither.”  I’m not one who likes to ‘impress’ people.  I like to get to know them and how they operate.  To me, trying to impress someone implies a certain amount of salesmanship and maybe even a little bit of dishonesty.  I understand trying to put one’s best foot forward, but, to me, that’s different than making an attempt to impress.  (I know I may be making a big deal of this distinction, but it makes for a much more interesting blog post than simply saying yes or no.)

Actually, I was a bit surprised by this whole notion as I took a different approach when looking at grad schools: I went and visited them first in order to decide whether or not it was worth applying.  I liked this approach as there wasn’t much pressure on either side: I knew about the program and profs based on what I saw on the web, and they didn’t know if I was a student worth having, so they weren’t as likely to give me a dog and pony show.

gallagheronbellascage (The cats and guinea pigs were feeling left out, so we should make a separate show for them.)

Visiting before I applied gave a much more realistic impression than one gets during an admitted student weekend or something similar when everyone is on their ‘best behavior’, to the point of being fake, and the activities are highly scripted, to the point of creating unrealistic expectations.  (I do see such events as useful to pick out people who really make a terrible impression.)  My later experiences confirmed my ‘gut reaction’ to the pre-application visits, so my only caution is to not ignore those impressions or rationalize them away…or let those accepted student weekends override the early impressions.

I also think this minimizes the ‘workload’ to both sides: less applications for the student, only serious students applying to the program.  I remember at one visit weekend, I spent some time with another applicant who was very negative about the program we were checking.  She clearly hated the place, and it made me wonder why she’d bothered applying.  I wondered until I realized that, unlike me, she hadn’t been there before.

The down side is that it’s not always possible, especially financially, for students to go and visit other programs.  This is especially true if the only time to visit is the summer and professors are unavailable, mitigating the benefit.  It’s even worse if that prof’s students are also gone so that you can’t have a chance to talk with them about the prof you’d like to work with.

My answer to the above questions is that I never tried to impress anyone, nor did I want them attempt to impress me.  I wanted to see how the people and place functioned and whether I could see myself there.  It’s going to be the fit that matters, and visiting grad schools is going to be to everyone’s benefit when the view of the place and people involved is realistic.

The worst professor April 18, 2011

Posted by mareserinitatis in education, grad school.
Tags: , ,

Between the fact that last Friday was the deadline for acceptances to grad school to decline or accept their offers and this post at Academic Jungle, I’ve been contemplating good and bad professors.  I’ll get to why grad school acceptances are relevant in a moment, but in the Academic Jungle post (or rather, the comments that follow), GMP and GEARS go back and forth about how common bad profs are.  GMP says most profs are not bad, and GEARS indicates that he thinks most are.

My experience is very mixed on this, but I’d like to share a bit about one of the worst of the bad profs I had to deal with.  He was actually a very nice person, and I worked for him for a year.  However, despite his being nice and being a good person to work with, he did two things that, had they not turned out well, could have seriously disrupted my career.

The summer before I finished my MS, I decided to apply to three doctoral programs.  As this person had been a supervisor of a research project, I felt he was the perfect person to write a recommendation on my behalf.  I gave him the forms a good six months before they were due as I was myself turning in my apps before the school year started.  As the summer came to a close, in late August, I checked the one school which had online information.  They had received two of my recommendations, but not the other one.  I stopped by the prof’s office.  He was planning to get them out at the end of the week he said.  I checked once or twice more through the semester, but his letter still hadn’t shown up.  After the holidays, about two weeks before the forms were due, I checked with him again.  Oh yeah, on their way out the door.  Two days before apps were due, one of the schools called and said it hadn’t come in.  I called him.  He was composing them, he said.  The applications came due.  Nothing.

I was fortunate that two of the schools not only considered the application without this prof’s recommendation but that they even went as far as to make me offers, one of which I accepted.  The other school called a year later, asking if I was still thinking about attending.  I have to admit that my was barely able to contain my laughter when I told them I was already attending another (much better rated) school.

I do realize now that I should’ve been wary when he still hadn’t submitted the letters two weeks beforehand.  I should’ve been hunting down another prof for the third recommendation, but I believed him when he said he had every intention of doing them.  And I’m sure he did…but he had no follow-through.

Unfortunately, this is not the worst thing that happened to me.  It turned out that this professor was on my MS committee.  On the day of my defense, he didn’t show up.  We waited for him for 20 minutes before my advisor got a hold of him via telephone.  The prof claimed that he thought the defense was on another day.  Fortunately, I had a larger committee than necessary for graduation, so we were able to proceed without him.  Had I not had an extra committee member, however, I probably wouldn’t have been able to graduate.

A couple weeks later, I was finishing up the final edits to turn into the grad school near one of the coffee shops on campus.  A couple of profs sat at a table near me, and they started talking about this particular professor/committee member of mine.  It sounds as if these sorts of behaviors I witnessed were not simply confined to me: apparently several people have had similar problems with him.

It helped knowing that this behavior was not exclusive to me, and I tried to console myself that most professors don’t behave this way.

While I still believe most don’t, I have unfortunately watched similar things play out with friends.  One friend, who is a brilliant researcher, decided not to get his PhD because his advisor would do absolutely NOTHING to help him or, for a while, acknowledge his existence.  It made me a little sick to see this person claiming credit for his student’s research (which won awards!) when he couldn’t be bothered to even have a meeting with him or read his thesis prior to his defense.  He left with a MS, but he was very angry about all of it.  And since then, I have seen more examples.

While this is not intended to claim that all professors are bad and careless, it is unfortunate that there do seem to be a good number of them.  I realize that professors like to see things from their colleagues perspective, and probably can better than any grad or undergrad student.  However, just as there are students who really care and those who don’t, there are also professors who fall various places along the continuum of professional behavior, and one shouldn’t be so quick to assume that because these stories come from students, they aren’t valid.


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