Mysterious admissions

No, GG is not going to talk about where he was when the space shuttle exploded or why the cat went missing.  As it is that time of year when hopeful students look to move forward into graduate school, it seemed a time worth reflecting on how oddly this process works, at least (for the most part) in geosciences.

You might think that the very best students–students with the highest GREs and best GPAs would be a lock to get into grad school.  Oddly, the answer sometimes is not.  We here at CU routinely end up declining to admit a number of very highly qualified applicants–sometimes people who might appear to be better qualified than some of the students we admit. how could that be?

A big criterion for places that admit students faculty member by faculty member is, will this student fit into my research program? Are they going to show up and, three months later, realize that they really don’t want to do XXX? Is this really the way to run graduate education?

At first blush, this seems profoundly selfish.  You only admit students who can help you achieve your research goals.  You aren’t admitting students to be educated, you are hiring workers for your lab.

Now you could do things the way some places do.  For instance, on our campus, Physics will admit a bunch of students who are the cream of the applicant pool.  They spend a year as TAs, learning about the various labs, trying to ingratiate themselves with the labs they want to work in, and at the end of the year labs take in some students and others have to find a place in some less prestigious corner of the department. Maybe you want to come and work on condensed matter, but that lab didn’t take you in, so you are off to do quantum electrodynamics.  Maybe not so happy. There are a few geoscience departments that fundamentally work this way.

Turn this around: When is a student most likely to be successful in their graduate career? It will be when their interests best align with the graduate program they are in.  And as graduate education involves doing research, ideally the research direction of the group should align with the student’s interest and abilities.  Taking a student who has been a star in the field but is quantitatively challenged and having them work in a seismology lab environment will probably not end well.  So while it might seem the professor is being selfish, there is a real desire to admit students with the best chances of completing their degree.

As a result, though, it can be rough on applicants.  And so this is why GG usually advises applicants to contact potential advisors, learn what the research is they do, and see if that is a direction they want to go.  If you apply to a school with no seismologist to do seismology, you are wasting your time and money. If you apply to a school where the person you’d want to work with has no room for a new student, that probably isn’t going to go well either.

So students can help themselves and future advisors by trying to get a sense of what kind of program they want to pursue.  This can be very hard in geoscience as many colleges have a minimal breadth in earth science; the whole field might appear to be mapping and petrology in many places. Being able to overcome the limitations of your personal knowledge can be a big help: don’t limit yourself if in fact you aren’t sure you want to be limited.  Saying “I want to work with Professor X on Y” is great, but if that is all you indicate, probably only Prof. X will look and if she isn’t taking students to work on Y, well, you aren’t getting admitted.

Students choose a college for their bachelor’s based on a host of often odd factors: weather, architecture, sports teams, etc., that will matter little in the education they get. But these are often personal decisions on the part of the applicant but not so much on the part of the college (there are exceptions). At the graduate level, it gets personal on both sides of the fence.  And that is why sometimes things seem oddly unfair.


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