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Impact of thegradcafe on admissions and the grad student community


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What impact do you think forums like thegradcafe have had on the admissions process and the graduate student community as a whole?

There are many threads for applicant profiles and admissions results, which shed more light on the admissions process than in years past (not that any conclusions drawn are necessarily correct, in fact I would guess most conclusions are either false or too black-and-white). I did, however, find the information here pretty valuable when I was applying.

Admissions committees absolutely know that these exist, so do you think this has affected the admissions process on their end? Do you think this has affected where prospective grad students apply, and what information they consider most valuable on their applications?

Also, on a related note, what does this mean for the community of graduate students as a whole?

Freak-out threads and sweat threads seem to be somewhat toxic, with people ranging between crippling anxiety and bragging, with everything in the middle. On the other hand, we get so many more resources and are able to connect with people outside of geographic location and area of study.

In my opinion, the good outweighs the bad here, but there are some interesting things to think about.

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I don't think it has much of an effect. Only a very small fraction of grad students/applicants are even on this forum. And conversations like the ones we have been having here has been going on well before TheGradCafe existed. This is just another medium for these discussions and conversations to exist. I think the rise of the world-wide web has definitely made some information more wide-spread and while TGC is part of the world-wide web, I wouldn't say it dominates all other online conversations about grad schools. In any case, better communication technology definitely is a good thing, since if you rely on word of mouth to learn about these things, those people who are well connected with others in academia would have an unfair advantage!

That said, I know that admissions committee do consider that applicants talk to each other and that resources (and even companies) exist to help students apply. I've talked to several profs now that say things to the effect that everyone is trying to "game" the system so it's really hard to evaluate applicants. For example, when we discussed the possibility of including different types of essay prompts to specifically probe for certain characteristics that they look for, the concern is that there would be guides online on how to write these essays so that students can basically say whatever they want.

But this problem is already a well known effect (i.e. when you create a measure to evaluate something, people will game it and it loses its value as an evaluation metric). It even has a name: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Goodhart's_law. And it's from before the widespread use of the world-wide web. Now, for almost every aspect of grad admissions, there are companies trying to sell a product that will supposedly help. There are resources online that help students perfect each part of the evaluation. There is more pressure for everyone to spend tons of time reading about how to write SOPs and writing, rewriting and rewriting SOPs. But do all of this time and effort actually make you into a better grad school candidate? Not really. 

There is a similar problem for profs too. Everyone has the pressure to write really really glowing LORs for their students. (see: https://theprofessorisin.com/2016/09/07/how-to-write-a-recommendation-letter/). With widespread knowledge of letter writing practices due to the world-wide web and other technology, there has been kind of an "arms race" in writing these super inflated letters. I don't think any prof really wants to be writing them like this, but they all have to since everyone else is doing it.

So, yes, I do think that information sharing, especially in the digital age, which includes TGC, does indeed affect the way students apply and the way committees evaluate students. But I don't think TGC has any unique contribution to this effect compared to other forms of communication. And while the world-wide web definitely makes it easier to share and makes it more accessible, I think it would be wrong to say this didn't happen before the internet. Instead, technology is helping to even out the playing field by bringing more and more people on the same level. 

I do think that it's worth thinking about how we do evaluations (at all levels) and how the act of evaluation drives the motivation of people and how that can influence how people work! (see: publish or perish, "teaching to the test" etc. etc.)

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Eh. Before GradCafe there were other forums, and before that, there was Word of Mouth - like asking people already in the program (including professors you may know) to help you with your application. People have been trying to game the system for years, and I don't think sites like GradCafe will give them any advantage. All they really do is tell you what the average person is writing in their application - not the ones who were accepted, mind you, but just those applying. And while some of the advice here can be useful, I personally feel like a lot of application advice on this site isn't helpful, so it's definitely a 'grab-bag, buyer beware' situation. I like this site better for the ranting and emotional support.

Do you think this has affected where prospective grad students apply, and what information they consider most valuable on their applications?

Maybe. I was actually speaking to an Admin from my university a week ago, who told me that he's seeing less and less diversity in both SoPs and backgrounds for our Master's program. Our admissions requirements for the SoP are purposely vague to invoke creativity, and yet most of the applications apparently sounded very similar. That could easily be a result of GradCafe or similar sites,  since the program I'm in has a thriving community on this forum. But at the same time, social trends happen all the time, and it could be a result of word-of-mouth, or the direction this Program is moving in. Who knows. (I also have a feeling a lot of it has to do with blitzing Master's programs and sending out 10+ applications, which I think is a more recent trend).

Side note, but:  Sites like this are interesting as a Canadian, because our graduate school is different than the US despite following the same 'educational systems'. We go through the same Bachelor - Master - PhD system... but our applications to graduate school are different. Generalizing within the program I applied to, but: a Canadian SoP for a PhD has a much different style than the US - you need to secure a supervisor who agrees to work with you before you even apply, and have an interview with them long before writing an application. Then you write a quite-detailed SoP based on your supervisor's research; it's very objective and says little about you as a person, beyond short opening and ending paragraphs. You basically rely on your LoRs and your POI to speak to your character and personality. However, the SoPs I read here from Americans are almost like stories, starting off with their interest in the subject as a young child, and weaving their way into what they want to study now, and why they love that research interest. They're less 'research proposal' and more conversational, and you hope for an interview to come out of that SoP (if I'm correct in this; I've never applied to a US school).

That type of writing would not fly in Canada (at least for the area of study I'm in), yet I see Canadians writing with that style for Canadian programs all the time. It has to be learned from sites like this, because you wouldn't hear of that within Canadian circles. So the American influence on GradeCafe on international communities is an interesting thing to consider. People assume applications between the US and Canada are the same, but a lot of the advice here doesn't translate well to Canadian programs. Yet it affects Canadian programs nonetheless.


Edited by timetobegin
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