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Don't talk about this!!! ?


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Hi everyone!

So we talked a little bit about visitation weekends on other threads and we mostly discussed what to ask POIs, DGSs or how to dress up. However, if I am not mistaken, we never touched upon what should we not talk about during these visits. I am asking both admitted students from last years and this year that what should we be careful about discussing. For example, should we compare our financial packages with other students or should we talk about current policy issues and so on. Please feel free to respond and ask your questions about what to avoid talking about during these visits.

Edited by izmir
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Things that I think prospective students who are visiting programs should avoid discussing:

- Starting arguments about politics or things not really relevant to the program (I see that you are in political science, so maybe some topics are more appropriate than others)
- Harassing other visiting students or current students
- Speak disparagingly or inappropriately about other students, faculty members, other schools you've visited, etc.
- Boast about your other accomplishments or other acceptances (for some reason, I seem to notice sometimes there are one or two prospective students are often trying to one-up the others)
- Go on and on about how much another place (whether it's another school you visited or your current school) is better than the school you're currently visiting

I hope the above is all common sense and falls under basic etiquette! 

There are also things that I think one should be careful while discussing but not necessarily avoid completely. It's a matter of discussing it in the right way or with the right person.

- Finances are okay to talk about but it is tricky and you have to find the right way to do it. I think it's more appropriate to discuss this with a current grad student than it is to discuss this with another prospective student. But you kind of have to judge it yourself: some people are going to be more comfortable discussing specifics than others. I think if you are comparing packages just to figure out if you have the best one or not, then that might make people uncomfortable (or if it seems like you are doing that). But if you are asking and discussing finances from the perspective of trying to figure out if you have enough to live on, then that's usually more acceptable. It might also be easier to have this discussion after the visit is nearly over and you have heard from people like the department head or the graduate coordinator. This is because these people might explain how the funding structure in the department works. For example, at my PhD school, it is very simple: everyone gets exactly the same stipend and funding package.

- Negative aspects of the program. It's important to learn about what makes people unhappy as well as what makes them happy. While I am always happy to be honest with visiting students because I want them to make the best choice for them, rather than just get them to come here, there are right ways to ask this as well as wrong ways! Sometimes people just point-blank ask me something like, "What is something you hate about your department?" and they won't get a useful answer out of me. Instead, I think it's better to talk to current students to get to know them first and they will usually share more as they get to know you. Also, if you have specific concerns, you can ask them a neutral question about the topic (e.g. instead of "Is the teaching load too high?" you can ask, "how do you find the teaching load? is it manageable?" etc.)

- Similarly, if you want to know about the bad attributes of various faculty members, don't ask it upfront. It's better to have these discussions privately with students since you will be more likely to get a sincere and useful answer if the student isn't worried that what they tell you will end up hurting them. So, they won't say the most candid things if they don't know you at all and maybe not while they are in the department / during the day (i.e. wait until the social events). Also, in the list of "don'ts" above, don't repeat what they said to other people or other schools. If students hear you telling people about all the negative things you learned about School X or Prof Y then they will correctly assume that you'll be just as indiscrete with the information they might provide you.

Overall, make sure you balance the tricky topics with things that are easier to talk about and leave a more positive impression of you. Try to keep the sensitive topics only to things that are critical to your decision making. This is going to be the first impression you leave on many other people and then they won't see you again for months, so if you leave a really bad impression, it has months for the impression to solidify in people's minds. So, stay professional, stay positive!

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39 minutes ago, TakeruK said:

Things that I think prospective students who are visiting programs should avoid discussing:

- Starting arguments about politics or things not really relevant to the program (I see that you are in political science, so maybe some topics are more appropriate than others)
- Harassing other visiting students or current students
- Speak disparagingly or inappropriately about other students, faculty members, other schools you've visited, etc.
- Boast about your other accomplishments or other acceptances (for some reason, I seem to notice sometimes there are one or two prospective students are often trying to one-up the others)
- Go on and on about how much another place (whether it's another school you visited or your current school) is better than the school you're currently visiting

I hope the above is all common sense and falls under basic etiquette! 

There are also things that I think one should be careful while discussing but not necessarily avoid completely. It's a matter of discussing it in the right way or with the right person.

- Finances are okay to talk about but it is tricky and you have to find the right way to do it. I think it's more appropriate to discuss this with a current grad student than it is to discuss this with another prospective student. But you kind of have to judge it yourself: some people are going to be more comfortable discussing specifics than others. I think if you are comparing packages just to figure out if you have the best one or not, then that might make people uncomfortable (or if it seems like you are doing that). But if you are asking and discussing finances from the perspective of trying to figure out if you have enough to live on, then that's usually more acceptable. It might also be easier to have this discussion after the visit is nearly over and you have heard from people like the department head or the graduate coordinator. This is because these people might explain how the funding structure in the department works. For example, at my PhD school, it is very simple: everyone gets exactly the same stipend and funding package.

- Negative aspects of the program. It's important to learn about what makes people unhappy as well as what makes them happy. While I am always happy to be honest with visiting students because I want them to make the best choice for them, rather than just get them to come here, there are right ways to ask this as well as wrong ways! Sometimes people just point-blank ask me something like, "What is something you hate about your department?" and they won't get a useful answer out of me. Instead, I think it's better to talk to current students to get to know them first and they will usually share more as they get to know you. Also, if you have specific concerns, you can ask them a neutral question about the topic (e.g. instead of "Is the teaching load too high?" you can ask, "how do you find the teaching load? is it manageable?" etc.)

- Similarly, if you want to know about the bad attributes of various faculty members, don't ask it upfront. It's better to have these discussions privately with students since you will be more likely to get a sincere and useful answer if the student isn't worried that what they tell you will end up hurting them. So, they won't say the most candid things if they don't know you at all and maybe not while they are in the department / during the day (i.e. wait until the social events). Also, in the list of "don'ts" above, don't repeat what they said to other people or other schools. If students hear you telling people about all the negative things you learned about School X or Prof Y then they will correctly assume that you'll be just as indiscrete with the information they might provide you.

Overall, make sure you balance the tricky topics with things that are easier to talk about and leave a more positive impression of you. Try to keep the sensitive topics only to things that are critical to your decision making. This is going to be the first impression you leave on many other people and then they won't see you again for months, so if you leave a really bad impression, it has months for the impression to solidify in people's minds. So, stay professional, stay positive!

So in other words, don't be a dick while you are visiting.

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18 hours ago, Dreamer109 said:

So in other words, don't be a dick while you are visiting.

Indeed. It might sound like common sense (and it should be) but everything in my list was actually something a visiting student did! Most of them while visiting my program but a few are stories from my friends and their visiting students.

13 hours ago, csantamir said:

No, it's a hypothetical.

If you are invited as a waitlisted candidate, it's still a good idea to attend so that if you get an offer, you can make a decision quickly about the program. But the specific question you had in mind can be asked via phone/email without a visit.

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57 minutes ago, TakeruK said:

Indeed. It might sound like common sense (and it should be) but everything in my list was actually something a visiting student did! Most of them while visiting my program but a few are stories from my friends and their visiting students.

If you are invited as a waitlisted candidate, it's still a good idea to attend so that if you get an offer, you can make a decision quickly about the program. But the specific question you had in mind can be asked via phone/email without a visit.

That just blows my mind that visiting students would behave that way. Some of it, I do understand. Finances and negative aspects of a program are important discussion topics if they are handled correctly and respectfully.

But harassing students and just generally being a jerk... That just shocks me.

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Is it okay to directly ask professors about their placements? It is something that would be very important to me but it seems a bit... direct?

The website for two of my schools doesn't specify the subfield of the placements or the dissertation committee/chair and for one of them my POI hasn't been at the university long enough to have info on placements out yet (< 5 yrs)

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2 hours ago, tigerlilies said:

Is it okay to directly ask professors about their placements? It is something that would be very important to me but it seems a bit... direct?

The website for two of my schools doesn't specify the subfield of the placements or the dissertation committee/chair and for one of them my POI hasn't been at the university long enough to have info on placements out yet (< 5 yrs)

Do you mean what their students have gone on to do, or who they plan on accepting as their students?

If it's the first, yes, you certainly can and should. Probably best if you ask for "recent" placements because if they have tens of students graduated in their career, it might be hard for them to remember where everyone is at a given moment, and recent stats are more relevant anyways. Just keep in mind that post-PhD job success depends a lot on the student too (in terms of their ability/experience but also their own career goals/priorities). So just because the prof's last 5 students have postdocs doesn't mean you will have one, or just because the last 5 students left academia doesn't mean that you will either. Still, it's a good question to ask to see what possibilities are out there for you!

If it's the second thing, then maybe better off asking something along the lines of how students are placed with advisors and whether they are interested in taking on new students for next fall.

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2 hours ago, Dreamer109 said:

I kind of want a thread now just so I can hear about some of these horror stories.

Some more stories / things to not do:

- Suddenly show up unannounced at the department without an invitation and ask to meet with students and profs 

- Tell everyone at visit that you already decided to attend somewhere else and you just want a free vacation to this city

- Tell everyone at visit that they are just your safety school / that you really wish you could get into School X instead

- Make unreasonable demands on the time of the host grad students / take advantage of host students' desire to be a good host

- Make sexist/racist remarks to visiting students (in the example I had in mind, this was actually done by profs[!!!!], not the visiting students)

- Being rude to the non-research support staff (e.g. admin assistants) that actually did all the work to plan the visit in the first place (tip: the admins are probably the most important people in the department in terms of getting stuff done, especially when you're a student that need help)

- After receiving clear instructions from the admin staff, booking a first class plane ticket and expecting full reimbursement

Fortunately, these cases are quite rare: the list here comes from my and some of my colleagues, which means for these bad cases there were also several hundred visiting students that were perfectly professional, courteous, friendly, interesting, etc. When I was a student, I always looked forward to visiting students day because I'd get to meet so many awesome people that would be future colleagues, whether in my department or elsewhere (we'd meet up again at conferences and such). So while there are some jerks out there, the majority of people are actually great, thankfully :)

And the last point is also a reminder that even if you don't choose a particular school, the people will still be colleagues in your field. If you stay in academia, the current students and your fellow visiting students may end up as your lifelong colleagues: they will serve on review boards for your grants/conference proposals/etc, they will choose who to invite to their dept colloquia, they will peer-review your papers, they might get asked to be your external letter writers in a hiring case or a tenure/promotion case etc. For the above "do not do" items that happened to me, I still remember who they are! So, really, don't be a jerk!!

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  • 2 weeks later...

I feel like I need to add/emphasize a few bits after visiting day at my Department:

- Don't talk shit about the rest of the visiting students

- Don't talk shit about the professors at the department you're visiting

- Don't tell people you know everything there is to know about the subfield you're planning to go into 

- Don't get drunk at the dinner/parties

- Try not to be a jerk for the 48 hours you'll be around these people that'l potentially be your colleagues for the next 5 years

I thought these were common sense, but apparently not. It's also important to remind people that offers can be rescinded/withdrawn, and some departments/subfields rely on the feedback of the current grad students/hosts to make decision on whether or not a candidate deserves a better deal when they ask to negotiate their funding offer.

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On 2/23/2018 at 9:25 PM, TakeruK said:

And the last point is also a reminder that even if you don't choose a particular school, the people will still be colleagues in your field. If you stay in academia, the current students and your fellow visiting students may end up as your lifelong colleagues: they will serve on review boards for your grants/conference proposals/etc, they will choose who to invite to their dept colloquia, they will peer-review your papers, they might get asked to be your external letter writers in a hiring case or a tenure/promotion case etc. For the above "do not do" items that happened to me, I still remember who they are! So, really, don't be a jerk!!

I feel like this is so important.  I met a surprisingly high number of applicants who openly complained about other programs where they interviewed or made it clear they were not considering the current program.  These comments are remembered by faculty - and future colleagues.  Thank you for this reminder! 

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29 minutes ago, Albert01 said:

Is it ok to ask about attrition rate and details?

Yes, you can ask about rates. The best way to do it is to pick a milestone (or several) and ask how many get there. For example, how many students leave by the time of quals (either by choice or because they failed?) How many at comps (if your program has them)? How many students start the program but don't finish with a PhD?

You should not ask about details such as "who was the student that left, and why did they choose to leave?" etc. That's personal information that they probably won't provide you with anyways. Maybe you can get some info about this through conversation with grad students, but it's unlikely for you to get official info from the dept.

Be aware that some schools only consider students who are forced to leave as leaving when they cite statistics. For example, I found that many programs cite things only 2% of students fail the qual exam and have to leave the program. However, by citing it like this, it means they don't count the students who choose to leave the program at or before quals. They might argue that this isn't the department failing the student (i.e. the student could have passed if they stayed) which may be true. But in many programs, you have another try at quals if you fail the first time but depending on how the department/your advisor treats you after the first failing, it might be suggested to you that you leave and if you leave without trying again, most places do not  count that as "failing" quals since you "chose" to leave. Just some things to keep in mind.

I wouldn't ask these questions in a way that sounds like you are accusing the dept of hiding the numbers though. Asking it like I wrote in the first paragraph (absolute numbers, asking about leaving rather than failing etc.) is more neutral and could get you more useful information (unless you specifically want to know about the failing rate).

Finally, just a note: lower attrition rates isn't necessarily better. As long as attrition is not alarmingly high, there is no problem if students are leaving the program. In many cases, students realise the PhD path isn't for them, or that the particular department isn't a good fit. It's better for a student to leave after 1-2 years than to finish a PhD that isn't useful for them.

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Is it fair game to ask specific profs you mentioned in your statement of purpose if they find your research topic interesting? What about your chances of getting in on off the waitlist? And possibly changing your topic and subfield? In the end I did get invited.

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