Can I let myself be happy now or should I guard my heart?
January 22, 2011 4:02 PM   Subscribe

Four days ago, my partner got an email from her #1 grad school choice that sounded good. How excited should we be? I know there are many variables at work here that neither you nor we can know at this time, but I want to know if I can be excited and happy or if I should try to calm myself down. I know many people here are phD's from the hard sciences as well and I am hoping you can provide some perspective. Here are the details:

--this is for a phD program in the hard sciences
--the email said her application was "among the strongest" they had received
--this is a state school
--they are offering to pay for her out of state travel costs to visit the school where they will pay for her meals and lodging. she will be sharing a room with other prospective students. Honestly, we think it is very likely that they sent the same email to everyone and they tell everyone who they are bringing for the weekend visit that their application was "among the strongest"

Here is what I don't know, and I am hoping you can tell me- how good of a sign is it that they are paying for her expenses to come and visit? Do school routinely pay for a lot of students to come visit them knowing that they will reject a lot of them, simply so that they can have a wide field to choose from? Or if you've gotten this far, does it mean you are pretty much in barring some major gaffe?

Anothing thing: this school is her #1 choice for many many reasons and she absolutely wants to go there if she is accepted. If she makes that clear when she speaks to the faculty in her interviews, will that make them less likely to offer a good stipend? What's the best strategy here, to wear your heart on your sleeve or be a bit more reserved?

Please tell me how safe or not it is to let ourselves feel happy anticipation. For myself especially I'd rather expect the worst internally if there is still significant doubt about her chances.
posted by anonymous to Education (27 answers total) 3 users marked this as a favorite
Schools pay the expenses (flight & hotel, as well as probably several meals) for everyone that they choose to interview. Yes, schools routinely pay for many students to come and visit them knowing they will reject a lot of them.

She wants to be interested in the faculty and be smart. But a lot of what the professors are looking for is personality compatibility, and it's very hard to say how she should act in that case.
posted by brainmouse at 4:12 PM on January 22, 2011

Hmm, that quasi-acceptance email is different than my experience, but then I applied to engineering departments. With them, I received an admittance letter with an accompanying invitation to visit the campus (fully paid) before I had to decide. Maybe the actual letter is in the mail and an email just arrived ahead of time? But either way, if they are paying to fly her out, the odds are quite good that she'll be accepted. Probably they just want to screen out the total misfits. As for meeting with faculty, she should show her authentic interest. They won't lowball her stipend or something, and in fact being enthusiastic with individual faculty will make a much better impression which will be useful later when she has to choose an advisor.

Congrats. I hope she knows what she's getting into.
posted by Durin's Bane at 4:13 PM on January 22, 2011

Durin--that varies by field. I'm in psych and my experience was like yours (admit then recruit), but many fields, especially science, do interviews before admitting anyone. My friend in neuroscience went all over the country on interviews (maybe 8 or 9) and didn't get any admissions. OP should assume there's no admittance in the mail.

OP-you can be cautiously happy, I think. She made the first cut and obviously IS among the strongest because why would they invite weak candidates to visit on their dime?! Everyone they bother to invite is a strong candidate.

She should be enthusiastic about the program and act interested. It's not like buying a used car. They don't want to offer limited spots and limited funding to someone who isn't interested or to borderline candidates; they want to target their available funding to recruiting the best of those they interview. If she's good enough for them to want her, they'll assume she's good enough that multiple programs will want her and try to lure her with funding.

She should present herself as intelligent, interesting, and a good fit for the program. I don't think any strategizing is necessary.
posted by parkerjackson at 4:35 PM on January 22, 2011

It's got to be a good sign, but how good I don't think any of us can say, because it varies by field and by university. For example, in my field, they don't usually fly you out until after they accept you, except that I do know of one school that is an exception and does do on-campus interviews.

The amount of the stipend is more or less standard. You don't negotiate the stipend amount, and they don't use the stipend amount as a recruitment tool.

She should absolutely not try to be artificially reserved in order to seem more desirable or increase her negotiating position. This will backfire.

Enthusiasm will reflect on her well, as long as it's enthusiasm about research. (Nobody cares if she knows the school mascot.)

I'm assuming this is in the US.
posted by sesquipedalian at 4:36 PM on January 22, 2011

No one offered to fly me out, even the grad schools in astronomy that I got into, so this sounds good to me.
posted by lukemeister at 4:37 PM on January 22, 2011

Her chances are good. In my case I talked a good game at my prospectives weekend and I got an offer on the spot. Others heard up to a week later. Some who got offers went somewhere else. There were twelve of us and I would say at least half got offers but in the end they only admitted four people myself included.
posted by slow graffiti at 4:38 PM on January 22, 2011

It sounds like your partner has made it to the interview stage which means that her application was among the strongest they received. Most applications get glanced at and discarded. I'd feel happy about making it this far, but I wouldn't start searching for real estate yet. There's no way to know how many applicants the school is bringing in to interview.

I think your partner should be as honest about her enthusiastic and excitement as possible. Science is hard. Grad school in the hard sciences means long hours in the lab, miserable pay, and countless failures. Outside of raw smarts, enthusiasm and passion are the attribute are probably the best predictor of graduate student success. The ideal outcome of this visit is that a faculty member falls in love (professionally) with your partner and desperately wants her in the group.

Also: I wouldn't even mention the stipend during the visit. No matter how high it is, a graduate school stipend will always be insultingly low.
posted by eisenkr at 4:42 PM on January 22, 2011

I went out on a bunch of these too. Usually at this stage it's a double game. They're checking you out, mostly to see that you're sane and sincerely interested at the same time they are trying to sell themselves, knowing full well that the "strong candidates" are looking at other schools too.

In terms of interviewing you need to show the profs that you're interviewing with that you think their research is interesting and might possibly work with them. That entails reading up on some of their work ahead of time and thinking about questions. The other thing is to project a mature attitude. That is, you understand that a PhD is a long process and while you would like to stay in academia you understand that nothing is in the bag and you need to work really hard to get there (don't even say you might not want to be in academia).
posted by blueyellow at 4:46 PM on January 22, 2011 [4 favorites]

how good of a sign is it that they are paying for her expenses to come and visit?

First, this is absolutely standard within some fields. How many people invited to interview who are actually admitted varies wildly by field and university. Grad students in the department will know. If she knows any already, she should ask. If not, she shouldn't bring it up on the visit, and just wait to find out.
posted by grouse at 4:53 PM on January 22, 2011

She looks good enough on paper, that's why she's gotten the interview. The interview itself is to see if she meets the expectations set by her application. Flying people out and wining and dining them is du-rigeour in my field, so I wouldn't read to much into that, apart from timing. She's in the first or second batch of good candidates the school will be hosting. Therefore, at this stage it's hard to screw up, barring complete deafmuteness on interview and/or completely uncouth behavior. She meets the essential criteria for acceptance, but the personal vibe must be assayed as well. Thus the things for her to dial up on the interview weekend itself is her specific enthusiasm for the school and the place and the labs/people she wants to work with.
Assuming this is her/your first choice of schools then just go all gung-ho and study up, ask good questions and be personable... the confidence gained by knowing they want you as much as you want them can be a great boost.
Good luck.
posted by Cold Lurkey at 4:54 PM on January 22, 2011

IME, PhD programs that are flying you out for a visit want you but the visit is to ensure that she's not a total nutjob or might hate the department/location.
posted by k8t at 5:06 PM on January 22, 2011

PS, in case you don't know yet, find out exactly what they're offering financially.

TA/RAships for every term will be there but additional things that really matter (but I didn't know to ask about):

- stipend
- summer funding (and what it entails)
- how many years of funding
- fellowships
- access to research assistants (if she needs them)
- health insurance
- student housing
posted by k8t at 5:08 PM on January 22, 2011

She should tell them ("them" being whatever professor she's been in contact with or, less ideally, the admissions people) that the school is her first choice, either when she accepts the offer to fly out or in thank-you notes once she gets back. It sounds small, but it makes a difference in admissions. Sounds like she's already in, but it can't hurt.
posted by oinopaponton at 5:13 PM on January 22, 2011

At the school that I went to, they interview potential students before any admittance, to help weed out people that aren't a good fit for the program. The transportation and hotel costs were paid by the school.

The advice above is good. I would add that your partner should act excited and/or interested to every person that s/he interacts with on the interview day. As a student at my school, we were regularly asked about (and in fact filled out evaluation forms) of potential students, which were taken into account for admittance. Some potential students said things to graduate students that they would have never said to professors, and might have been horrified to know that it could easily be brought up by the admissions committee.

Finally, you should definitely be excited if you feel that way. Acting reserved might lead someone to think that you are ambivalent about grad school, and therefore might not succeed in your studies over the long haul. Nobody will admit a student that they don't think has the potential to succeed in the program (especially because it really is a looong haul.)
posted by nasayre at 5:17 PM on January 22, 2011

Even in the same field, different departments do all this stuff somewhat differently, so there are no real guarantees how this particular visit and subsequent process will work. It's certainly unlikely that the department would fly out more than twice-ish the number of people they intend to admit, so it's a vote of confidence and a signal of strong interest, but it's not necessarily a guarantee of anything. The main thing is, as has already been said, to realize that it's a bilateral assessment — the candidate should be confidently assessing the department, feeling out the "fit" between her interests and needs and the department's, just as much as vice versa.

She should absolutely not try to be artificially reserved in order to seem more desirable or increase her negotiating position. This will backfire.

Absolutely right: trying to play bluffing games while you're still just a candidate for admission is a really bad idea. The goal should be to be open, honest, and enthusiastic with who you are, what you're looking for, and what interests you. (Being open about the dept. being your first choice, e.g., is absolutely fine and probably even flattering.) The one and only caveat here is that it's okay to be guarded about what other programs have admitted you and with what funding, which is information that you may be asked for and/or subtly felt out about during your visit. If you have been given a nice offer someplace else that you're seriously considering, don't go bragging about it among the prospective students, but it's okay to mention this with the DGS or admission director; if you haven't, it's okay not to volunteer that, and it's also okay to say you're uncomfortable talking about it if someone asks you directly.

One other thing about this kind of interview/pre-admission visit: please realize that your grad student hosts may be in on the admission decision in some official or unofficial capacity. It's still fine to hang out and get drunk with them, but you should expect that anything that you reveal to them during the visit will be public knowledge within the department. This goes for professional information (your unguarded opinion of the department and others you're considering, funding, etc.) and personal information (single/partnered status, orientation, hobbies, etc., and in particular they'll definitely be assessing your general sanity — you'd be surprised how many prospective grad students immediately reveal themselves to be deeply unbalanced).
posted by RogerB at 5:30 PM on January 22, 2011 [4 favorites]

All of this varies by university and by department. I've had some schools do the "fly you out to interview before accepting you" thing and other schools do the "accept you first and then fly you out to convince you to come."

However, I have never heard of departments trying to recruit students by sweetening the stipends. AFAIK, stipends of all department-supported stipends are the same (it will vary if a student is supported by an outside company/country/scholarship that is paying for it). If a place is a really good school, and it's your #1 choice, your research interests align well with the professors you want to work with, and you really want to go there, then you should be clear about that. I mean, be professional about the whole thing, but be clear about what you want and your goals.

I have heard of students who flew out for a visit to a grad school thinking it was a "pro-forma visit before being officially accepted" but was actually an interview process. So that would be the thing you'd want to be aware of: be professional, be ready to discuss your background and research interests/goals, and if that's where you really want to go, be up front about that.
posted by deanc at 5:37 PM on January 22, 2011

If she makes that clear when she speaks to the faculty in her interviews, will that make them less likely to offer a good stipend?

No. At my school, stipend are set.

What's the best strategy here, to wear your heart on your sleeve or be a bit more reserved?

On the visit, be enthusiastic, engaged, ask good questions. Talk to as many people as possible. Be carefully observant about the possible advisors' personalities, the demeanour of thier grad students. She should definitely let it be known that the school is among her top choices and she would be very happy to get an offer.

She should avoid being fake about anything to try to make a good impression. If she doesn't know the answer to questions she's asked, or isn't up to speed on research being discussed, that's fine, as long as she doesn't try to fake it, or even worse, sit there like a lump. They most likely want happy, bright, socially comfortable, engaged graduate students.

Please tell me how safe or not it is to let ourselves feel happy anticipation.

She got a visit. Presumably there were a large number of applicants who did not. You should be happy that she has a chance to go and wow them in person.

k8t's questions are good, but in most departments I know, the faculty couldn't answer those questions, which should instead be directed to the graduate admin. I would center discussions with faculty less on the funding deal and more on upcoming research projects and getting to know the faculty personalities.
posted by Squeak Attack at 5:37 PM on January 22, 2011

I would also talk to the graduate students and ask them about their experiences, how long it typically takes to finish*, and how they feel about their advisors. There is nothing wrong -- nothing! -- with deciding that what you thought was your #1 choice isn't going to be a good experience for you and looks at other options.

* Yes, everyone is special. Everyone is extra hard working. I know. But at the end of the day, if it takes all the other grad students working with that advisor X years to finish, it will take you X years to finish.
posted by deanc at 5:41 PM on January 22, 2011 [2 favorites]

Here is my experience in the biological sciences. I was invited to visit a number of schools I applied to, with travel expenses paid. Of those schools, I only was accepted to one. However, being invited to interview does mean that your partner has made the first cut and is now in a much smaller pool of competitors. Being invited to visit is a good sign, but not a done deal.

If she makes that clear when she speaks to the faculty in her interviews, will that make them less likely to offer a good stipend?

I can't speak for everywhere, but at my school, stipends are at a set level, so that's not an issue.
posted by pemberkins at 6:45 PM on January 22, 2011

I have a PhD in microbiology- I applied to 6 schools, and 4 of them flew me out to interview and paid all associated expenses (it's the norm in my field). The interview offer is a good sign. I was accepted at all 4 of those places and I found the recruitment/interview weekend a really good way to get a sense to what the department was like- that's the whole point, to see if the department is a good fit for you and vice-versa. My department generally invited 10-12 applicants to a recruitment weekend and sets up lots of activities where the applicants would interact with faculty and students both formal and informal settings. Afterwards, we were all asked to give our opinions on the applicants. Generally, everyone who seemed intelligent and not psycho was accepted. The girl who dressed like a hooker and ordered 10 long island iced teas at dinner? Not accepted. The guy who made no secret about the fact that he'd rather be going to medical school but didn't have the grades? Not accepted.

Some tips:
There is no good or bad stipend- all students at the same level at the same institute receive the same stipend, so it's not worth discussing or worrying about it. (in my department, students who had passed their qualifying exam got a couple of extra K a year). Before your partner goes, she should read up on the research of all of the faculty members of the department. She'll want to be able to at least have an idea of what they do and be able to ask intelligent questions, and she'll want to know that there are at least a few research groups in the department that she's interested in joining. Faculty members love it when you know what they work on and express interest in their research. As for interacting with students, you can be more relaxed but still remain professional. They are an excellent source of information- ask them about the department, about their labs and projects, what they do and do not like about them.

Did your partner apply to anywhere else and get interview offers? Chances are she'll get asked about it. A short "I'm also looking at Schools X and Y" is a good enough answer. It's fine to express the fact that this school is one of her top choices, but make sure she can give a good reason (i.e. "there are so many groups doing great work on bacterial pathogens in this department!" rather than "the weather is nice in this city and I have family in the area").

Best of luck to her- keep in mind that it's not just an interview for the school to decide if they want to accept her, it's an opportunity for her to get a closer look at a department and see if it's really a good fit for her.
posted by emd3737 at 9:09 PM on January 22, 2011

In my field (biomedical science), everyone they interview gets paid for, and everyone gets the same stipend. There's nothing to negotiate here.

I'm actually interviewing prospective students for my grad program next week. We are told that the interview is 50% figuring out if the candidate is legit and 50% trying to sell them on the school. We will accept around 2/3 of the people we interview, but that will vary a LOT by institution. The main things we're looking for in the interview are decent social schools, reasonable intelligence and interest in the program, and an indication that the applicant actually understands the research they've done in the past.

It is completely fine to mention that the school is her first choice if it comes up. Her interviewers may ask her where else she's applied and where she's interviewing, but that's not really information that's going to effect any decisions. Mostly, her interviews will be talking about her past research and the research of the interviewer. She should mostly just try to act interested and ask good questions.
posted by juliapangolin at 9:30 PM on January 22, 2011

Chemistry here. Every school that I applied to used visits after making offers, not as interviews. Also, advisor/group selection was -not- done in advance, so all the interview sessions were nominally informational.

The main point if the visit was for the 'prospective' student to decide whether he of she wanted to live in town x, work with facilities y, and interact with colleagues z.

Of course, that assessment of one's potential future colleague(s) goes both ways. She should expect that the impressions she makes will be factored in if/when she arrives and is looking to join a group.
posted by janell at 1:38 AM on January 23, 2011

I'm in ecology and that way it seems to work on the organismal side of biology is that when they fly you in you are checking out the department, town, etc, but most important it's to meet with the faculty to find a prospective advisor. Ultimately, in my field, you can't be accepted unless you have someone in the department who is willing to be your advisor, based on your application and interview and what you're actually interested in studying. In some departments, all applications just sit in a drawer and a faculty member has to like you enough to be willing to go and get your application and of the drawer and say "I want this one." Of course some people will change advisors later, but, unlike on the molecular side of biology, and it sounds like from what other people are saying about other fields, you have to come in with an advisor and a fairly specific research interest that fits in that lab.
posted by hydropsyche at 5:05 AM on January 23, 2011

Nthing that the grad student hosts will very possibly tell whatever you tell them to the admission committee.

Don't get drunk with them, but be friendly.
Ask them for inside information, but don't tell 1 what another 1 said.
posted by k8t at 7:42 AM on January 23, 2011

1. If it is true that she will accept an offer if they make it, she should tell them that. It's fine to say so after the interview, once she's got all her information. It may be REALLY IMPORTANT. Depending on the intricacies of departmental and interdepartmental politics, it is not always true that if one student turns the school down, the dpt. can just turn around and make another offer. Also, if she's looking at working with one particular prof, it's even less likely to be sure that the prof. can just turn around and get another student that year.

This is not the time to play hard to get. She should share her excitement about the department, in specifics. While "sweetener" stipends are rare, they are more likely to offer her a sweet fellowship if they believe she will come.

2. Being flown out for an interview is a good sign. As people have said, this can range from "you're in, let us woo you" to "you look good on paper, let's see if we can fit you in". In addition to the costs of interviewing, interview weekends are CRAZY BUSY! In my dpt. they barely have time to talk to all the candidates. It's hard to imagine wanting to invite "chaff" just to fill things out. Basically, every student invited is someone they think they'd admit if resources were infinite. (On the EEB [evolution/ecology/behavior, aka organismal] side, invitees are prospective -- they're not in yet. On the Microbiology side, invitees are in, and being wooed. I think this is because, in our dpt. , EEB students tend to work closely with a professor from the start, so fit and lab space are important; Micro students are admitted into the program as a whole, and attached to a lab later. )

3. As a grad student, I am occasionally asked about the interviewees; personally, I only share positive impressions, but I have occasionally made a sufficiently negative impression of someone that, if I were asked, I'd have repeated what I'd heard (e.g., "Ecology is bullshit science." )

4. Anecdata: I was invited to interview at 5 schools, and received 3 offers. The two I didn't get into, I can look back on and see there were real fit issues (and one had issues so bad that I questioned whether I'd have accepted an offer from them if it were my only offer.)
posted by endless_forms at 2:25 PM on January 23, 2011

Just wanted to weigh in on negotiating a stipend. For now, your partner should not discuss the stipend, it is standard and non-negotiable (at this point). My experience, however, was that once the offer is made, everything after that is negotiable. I applied and was admitted to several schools in my area (hard science) and was offered a substantially higher stipend at one school, which was not my first preference. I emailed the admissions director at choice #1 and politely asked for them to match. After a few days, they did. I have also heard about students with offers negotiating preferable student housing assignments. If you don't ask, you will never receive.
posted by roquetuen at 10:20 PM on January 23, 2011

treat these like a job interview in terms of professionalism: decorum and dress (and drinking and all that). but i don't believe one is ever asked to make a decision at the end or whatever. from what i remember, the interviewee receives a letter later, and the official decision date across the country is april 15. i can't remember how official this is, though, or just a 'custom.'

half the schools i applied to invited me to interview like this, and 3 of 4 then accepted me.

i found at all schools, there was typically an evening with faculty and students, a day or morning interviewing with faculty (it can be a good idea to bring visuals with you, if you've already done any research -- faculty will be interested to see what sort of projects you've worked in, what role you played and how you talk about them), and then a 'fun night' with just students (typically just 1st and 2nd years because more advanced students just don't have time for these things). watch out while you're with the students alone -- this is an all-expense paid night out for them, away from faculty, and they all know each other. don't freak out about it, just know that. they'll feel free to let down their hair, but you're not quite part of the group yet, and they'll remember anything too wacky. when i was a first year, the oddest (male) recruit asked me out of the blue whether i thought our stipend would be enough to cover an unexpected pregnancy. ???? i still remember that 10 years later.

and you'll be shown housing/living/health details as well. i would recommend paying very close attention and reserving judgment, until you decide how much each detail matters to you. i can also remember recruits being very shell-shocked about the realities, but from them it came off as, 'i can't believe i'll be expected to live under these conditions,' even if it was just shock. fwiw, everybody at my school got exactly the same thing, but i'd say we were treated pretty well for grad students.
posted by Tandem Affinity at 6:11 PM on January 27, 2011

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