Natalie C. Tronson, University of Michigan, Department of Psychology, Ann Arbor, MI
With all the excitement and energy of starting a new lab, one of the Big Things is recruiting graduate students to work with you. It seems easy enough; I mean, you are younger and less jaded than many of your colleagues, you have the cutting-edge new techniques at your fingertips, or you will once you have the brand-new shiny equipment1 in the lab and running, you have start-up money to burn through, and you have that very recent memory of all the good—and bad—mentoring from your graduate school and postdoctoral experiences. Surely everyone will want to work with you!
But there are a couple of problems that come up: the big one is that people don’t know your lab exists yet. Another that comes up is that belief that good mentoring comes from people with well-established labs. Both of these impact who will apply to your lab, and the latter will also impact who will accept an offer to join.
There are a few strategies for finding and increasing applicants. Some are obvious, and some seem obvious in retrospect, after seeing other people successfully use them.
1) Your department’s/program’s applicant pool. The easiest strategy is to rely on your program’s applicant pool, and hope that enough applicants are interested in your general field of research. Although you might not be on the list of an applicant’s possible mentors, if there are individuals whose research interests fit with your lab, reach out to them. This is great when it works, but it isn’t usually enough.
2) Word of mouth. Tell friends, mentors, and other people in your field that you are looking to recruit graduate students, and ask them to pass that information on to undergraduates/masters students looking to apply to grad school. If they have students looking to apply to graduate school, or inquiries from potential applicants, they will know to suggest you as someone to contact.
3) Make sure colleagues in your department/program know you are looking. Make sure everyone knows, but particularly those people who have some overlap in research area. More established PIs get more e-mails of interest, and they will be able to suggest students contact you instead/as well as them. Be sure to ask your colleagues to do this.
4) Advertise. This one sounds obvious, but it wasn’t something I ever thought about until I saw someone do it. I’m not talking about a sign at a poster at a major meeting (but do that too!), I’m talking about ads in society journals/job posting sites. Colleagues who have done this have had a much larger pool of applicants to choose from and have the opportunity to ask students to contact them before applying, helping with the application process and allowing some to apply for fellowships (e.g., NSF GFRP) before starting graduate school. Advertising is especially useful if you do interdisciplinary work, and students from one field might not see your lab listed in a totally different kind of department.
5) Reply to e-mails expressing interest. As soon as your lab website or faculty profile is live, you will probably receive at least a few e-mails from interested students asking whether you are planning to take on a student the following fall. Reply, Yes! You are definitely recruiting2 But go further. In your reply, e-mail-introduce them to graduate students in the program or graduate students/undergrads who were in the lab you came from (get their permission first, of course) and encourage the applicants to get in contact with them. Offer to talk on the phone or via Skype. Provide additional details about the program and application process, and take it as an opportunity to show your enthusiasm and willingness to help.
6) Departmental recruiting events. Just say Yes! This is essentially free advertising for your lab, geared toward students already interested in your program/department. Be a part of your program’s table at graduate fairs. If you are in a rotation program, this also applies to student-run events, and invitations to speak at the weekly seminar, department/program retreat, or other events. Increasing your visibility to current graduate students means you will be someone who “springs to mind” when students are talking about labs, and word of mouth is extremely helpful for new students looking for labs to join or rotate in.
7) Describe the advantages of being in the lab of a new PI to students interested in your lab. Enthusiasm! Time to be hands-on! Students will learn techniques from you rather than from the person who learned it from the post-doc who learned it from the person who…learned it from you! A smaller lab means more small-group interactions. These are just some of the real advantages of being in a smaller lab.
8)…and have strategies for dealing with disadvantages. Sure, you don’t have the experience mentoring graduate students, but your institution has training and support for mentors? Talk about your commitment to taking part in that. Yes, training grants often need more senior mentors. Have people in mind who could serve as co-mentors for your students (as both a fellowship-writing strategy and a standard benefit for students).
From Applications to Successful Recruiting
So you’ve done all this and you have a lot of applications, or at least a few. For programs that accept students directly into labs, you will have to decide on who to select. Now “How to select the perfect graduate student” could be a lot of long posts all of its own (preferably written by someone else so that I can learn from them), but there are a couple of additional things that are useful to do or keep in mind as a new PI.
1) Serve on the graduate student application committee. I know, I know, you’ve been given the (excellent) advice to not do service in your first year or so of your job. In this case, the service is very beneficial. You get to see all of the applications, so even if one doesn’t mention your lab or research as a possible match, you can flag them (see Getting Applications #1), you get to fight harder for the motivated and promising students whom you’ve talked with already, and you get an insider view into how the process works, which can help advise students the following year.
2) Think about strategy. If you are recruiting students to start directly in your lab, then the easiest strategy for getting at least one student would be to go ahead and make offers to everyone who looks good. But there are two problems: first, you might end up with too many students, and second, chances are good that your program has limits on how many students they can accept, and so won’t allow you to use that strategy anyway. Obviously, you should take the best applicant (or applicants), but what does “best” actually mean? Highest GPA? Research experience? Motivation? Absolute dedication to academia? (Probably not GRE3). Part of your calculation of “best” should include likelihood of joining the lab—because recruiting someone is (usually) better than not recruiting someone.4 So get as much information about their interests and goals and so on even before interviews. Talk to everyone you would consider taking. Talk to them before applications are due, talk to them before you decide on whom to invite for interviews, call their letter writers, talk to them at interviews and again after offers go out. Ask them questions about science and research experience and future goals, but also ask about where they are applying, where they are excited to live/visit, what their ideal location would be. Yes, some are going to say “your school” and “your research” and “your town,” but it can be easier to read through the lines than you expect, and many are more honest than you’d think. Ask colleagues to interview them and get their opinions on whether this student is likely to join the program/your lab.
Will Students Join My Lab?
Maybe! According to some of my colleagues, which students will accept an offer remains something of a mystery. But here is what we know: people make decisions about graduate school (and pretty much everything else) based on a huge number of factors, including geographic location, institution and program reputation, the students (both current and interviewing) they meet at interview/recruitment weekends, stipend levels, family, advice from others, and somewhere on that list is also the type of research and potential mentors. That is to say, rejection is often not about you, but sometimes your research, energy, genius5 enthusiasm, and very convincing description of “why new PIs are the best” might just be what tips the balance to a yes.
Natalie C. Tronson earned her PhD from Yale University in 2006 and is currently an assistant professor in the Department of Psychology at the University of Michigan, and, along with several amazing graduate students, is working on molecular mechanisms of memory.
1. Including the machine that goes ping.
2. Yes, Captain Obvious. But make it a priority so those e-mails don’t get lost in your inbox. Also, there is recent data showing that there are racial disparities for whose e-mails get responses, so have a strategy (an enthusiastic form e-mail, for example) to ensure you can easily respond to everyone.
3. Moneta-Koehler L, Brown AM, Petrie KA, Chalkley R. The limitations of the GRE in predicting success in biomedical graduate school. PLoS One 12: e0166742, 2017. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0166742.; Miller C, Stassun K. A test that fails. Nature 510: 303-304, 2014. doi:10.1038/nj7504-303a.; Sternberg RJ, Williams WM. Does the Graduate Record Examination predict meaningful success in the graduate training of psychology? A case study. Am Psychologist 52: 630.641, 2014
4. The exception here is taking on someone you have concerns about just to have a graduate student.