Thursday, 1 September 2011

Check Us Out

Prologue. This post is motivated by the fact that I am already getting emails from prospective graduate students, so I started thinking about the graduate admissions process and remembered that there was a topic I have been intending to discuss well in advance of graduate application deadlines.

Every year when colleagues and I from other departments/institutions talk with each other about graduate applications, we are often collectively amazed that some PhD applicants mention their interest in being advised by professors who have not had a publication, grant, or a graduate advisee in many many years.

I am not talking about a gap of a year or two. I am not talking about distinguished near-retirement faculty who have a reputation for their scientific awesomeness and who might be quite interesting mentors, even if they are ramping down their research programs. I am talking about associate and full professors who no longer do active research. Of course, there are not many of these, but I think most of us can think of one or two.

Didn't these students do any investigating beyond what is listed on a department directory-type webpage? I could be wrong, but I imagine that these students saw the professor's field of interest listed, saw that it corresponded with their interests, and then went no further.

It is not difficult to figure out whether a faculty member is active in research. I understand that web pages may be out of date and contain selective information, that some undergraduates may not be too aware of different citation databases, such as Web of Science, and that most undergraduates probably don't know that they can search for list of active awards to individuals in the databases of the major funding agencies.

It would be great if more undergrad advisors told students about these resources, but even without knowing about these, you can find out a lot about someone by using Google or its moral equivalents.

I think it is particularly important for prospective PhD students to do a bit of background checking before applying. It is not so critical for MS students, who may do quite well with an advisor who doesn't have a lot of funding or research activity, although it depends a lot on the specific field, the nature of the thesis project, the funding structure of the department, and the student's likely post-graduate career plans.

In the sciences, the 3 things that potential doctoral students may want to know and that can be found with some fairly easy searching are:

- What has the potential advisor published in the last 5 years? Search for both peer-reviewed journal articles and presentations at major conferences. You can try Google Scholar, Web of Science, or some other relevant database. It's important to know how to use such databases, so it's good to start learning now if you don't already have experience with them.

- Has the potential advisor had a grant in the last 3-5 years? For NSF, you can go to their main website, select Search Awards, input the name of the relevant professor in the field labeled "Principal Investigator (PI)", and check the box for "active awards". You can also select expired awards to get information about longer-term funding history. To understand these data and what someone's funding record indicates about their level of research activity, it is important to have some context; some fields don't require a lot of funding, others do. The undergraduate advisors could provide some help here.

- Has the potential advisor advised (and graduated) other doctoral students in the last 5 years? This one is a more ambiguous indicator than the others. Some professors do not advise a lot of students, and the reasons for this are quite varied. The reasons might have nothing to do with whether this person would be a good advisor. It is worth looking into, though, just so you have a more complete picture of what you are getting into. If there have been recent PhD students graduating with this professor as advisor, it can be very useful to know what they are doing now in terms of careers. You may be able to figure this out with some creative searching, or you could ask around.

I think most prospective graduate students do some research into potential advisors and/or programs, and that's a good thing. We all want to increase the chances of a good fit between advisor and advisee, and just as the potential advisor is looking at student records, so too should prospective students be looking at the professor's record.

[note: I apologize in advance for sporadic comment moderation for a day or two during an intense time of travel.]

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