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I am a mathematics professor in a small, good but non-elite department in the US. Several of my colleagues and I would like to work to improve our recruitment of strong prospective Ph.D. students.

We do not really know how to go about this most effectively. Obviously it is difficult, but -- what are some good ways to do this, in addition to

  1. maintaining a useful and informative departmental webpage,
  2. serving our present Ph.D. students as well as we can, making sure they are happy, and (hopefully!) helping them to land good jobs,
  3. maintaining our own research programs, and
  4. continuing to network and maintain professional connections with colleagues at other universities?

Edit: I see this question is related, although in my case recruiting is handled on a departmental rather than individual basis.

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    Would you have funding to support this? – scaaahu Aug 14 '15 at 3:18
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    My department got GRE data and sent packets to potential recruits by mail, including an application fee waiver. I never heard of them before, but that's what made me join. – user137 Aug 14 '15 at 6:07
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    How about information on what former Ph.D.'s have gone on to do? – ewormuth Aug 14 '15 at 16:14
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    Offer to pay them more. – Anonymous Physicist Aug 16 '15 at 13:43
34

All of the ideas that you've written down so far seem quite useful and reasonable, but I think that there is something important missing. In particular, all of these are aimed at recruiting "generic" students rather than individual students.

Ph.D. recruitment is different than undergraduate recruitment because people choose their undergraduate institutions for so many random reasons, while they tend to be much more focused and "status-conscious" when looking for a doctoral program. As such, rank matters a lot more for students... when they have no personal relationship.

As such, if you want top students to come to your department, you don't want them to be thinking, "I wonder if Nice University's grad program would be good for me," you want them thinking, "I really hope that I can do my graduate work with Professor Neato!"

There are at least two really good sources that I can think of for recruiting such students:

  • Your undergraduates: Because of the high variance in how people make their undergraduate choices, at least some really top students are likely to end up at pretty much any decent school. If you can get those students involved in research as undergraduates, then they will know you and your research personally, and may well be inclined to continue with a cool program that they are already invested in rather than taking a blind leap into a big and possibly unfriendly place far away.
  • Close colleagues at other schools: Reaching beyond your own pool of students, your colleagues elsewhere are likely to have bright students that they may be looking for a good place for. If they've got a top student who's just interested in generic stuff, then packing them off to an elite institution and hoping they'll find their way may be the right thing. But if they think the person might be a good fit for your work on Frabjous Tulip Fractals, then they can refer them directly to you, and again a student may be much more interested in working with a specific professor who they can get to know and meet, particularly where that can improve their chances of admission.

I know of folks who are pursuing both these strategies with significant success. Other approaches may work as well, such as international exchange programs. The common theme, however, is to compete on the basis of your individual personal relationships, rather than as a generic institution.

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    A variation on your first strategy: host REUs (or similar undergrad research program) for top undergraduates, including those beyond your own institution. – ff524 Aug 14 '15 at 3:34
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    I honestly think that a lot of this advice applies much better to STE fields than to math. For instance, I wonder if you aware that in a math PhD program you do not apply to work with a specific faculty member in any sense. In most cases that decision is made 1-3 years later. In my own case, I chose my PhD program precisely because there were multiple faculty members in my broad topic of interest, so that if one of them didn't want to work with me or vice versa, there were still plenty of options. But maybe I'm being too closed-minded; let's see what others say. – Pete L. Clark Aug 14 '15 at 5:26
  • @PeteL.Clark One of the people I know who is using these approaches is in applied mathematics, so at least anecdotally it seems that it can work well for that end of the department. Theoretical mathematics, I have no idea... – jakebeal Aug 14 '15 at 5:35
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    @PeteL.Clark I agree that this may be less impactful for math, but I still think it is useful. One way I chose grad schools to apply to was to ask faculty for advice. I had done some algebraic combinatorics and one recommended Caltech, which is very small, because of one person there. (Admittedly, Caltech is probably not non-elite.) Many undergrads also apply to certain schools because they've met, or heard of, one specific person in the department. – Kimball Aug 14 '15 at 13:51
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Good question. I am answering more to brainstorm along with you than anything else. I think that you have the broad bases covered, but the finer details of implementation are important.

It is tough for a PhD program in mathematics to directly network with undergraduates, because being an undergraduate math major is almost entirely about coursework and very little about research. This limits the usefulness of one of @jakebeal's suggestions in this field: most undergraduates do not understand the research that faculty members are working on -- I mean, do not understand at all, including not knowing what most of the nouns are -- and this makes it difficult to promote faculty research to undergraduates. For instance my most durable research interest over the years has been the period-index problem in Weil-Chatelet groups of abelian varieties. This is a plausible topic for PhD research for a UGA student -- in fact, a student just last month received a PhD at UGA on this topic under my supervision -- but the undergraduates who have any clue what this means are not coming to UGA. So what can you do?

  • Adjust your research program so that some part of it makes sense to some undergraduates.

When I was a postdoc, this would have sounded unlikely to me. As a postdoc I did supervise two undergraduate students' summer research (at my institution), and that research was on a problem in real analysis...which I chose because they were the grader and one of the students in an undergraduate real analysis course I had taught. When I arrived at my current good but not-too-elite tenure track job, I made it a point in my early years to acquire a much broader, shallower knowledge of my own subject (number theory) than I had as a student. Then over the years I have led two different research projects whose main goal, honestly, was to be pitched lower to the ground than WC groups or Shimura curves or flat cohomology. These groups have resulted in several publications which an undergraduate has a much better chance of understanding...and in fact there was a (well, extremely bright) undergraduate coauthor on some of them. Even more recently (since December 2013) I have gotten involved in a research program at the border of number theory and combinatorics in which some of the important results are really at ground level. So nowadays if a prospective PhD student finds their way into my orbit, they can probably grab onto something they can understand.

  • Have a web presence that is attractive to undergraduates.

To be honest, I feel that I do this rather well. I have an enormous quantity of lecture notes, starting at the advanced undergraduate level. I often get contacted from undergraduates about these notes. Unfortunately though I do not know that anyone has enrolled in our PhD program because of this. The closest I can think of is that a faculty member at a top school told me that he recommended UGA to his students because he thought I would be a good mentor based on my webpage (and indeed we got a couple of students from that school).

  • Do REUs.

This is @ff524's suggestion, and it is a very good one. We have done REUs at UGA, and two of our current PhD students participated in them. If a student has a successful REU experience but does not have the profile to get into a very elite PhD program, it is very natural (and actually sensible) for them to want to continue working with the same faculty or at the same program. In fact it is kind of ideal because you are modelling the experience you want the student to have. Of course not everyone who wants to run an REU can, and if this brings one student per year into your program you are doing extremely well.

  • Have a critical mass of happy, successful, sociable female and minority students.

Of course this is a bit of a Catch 22, but it's something to keep an eye on in the cultivation of your current students. If a prospective female student shows up and doesn't see enough other female faces, or if the female faces she sees do not model the kind of experience she wants to have, she is more likely to go elsewhere. Similarly for minorities. Encouraging female students to organize as a group may seem awkward at first but is probably a good idea (and one with a lot of precedent). Having such a group can make them more comfortable and productive, and when a prospective female student comes to town, they will naturally be welcoming.

  • Cultivate and exploit regional pipelines.

The thing which is most frustrating to me about graduate recruitment is that so many students aren't considering my program because it is in the Southeastern US and they're only considering programs in their region. (To give an example, we get a fair number of students from Florida. When I ask them why they come to UGA, the most common answer is "Because I'm used to warm weather and it's the farthest north I felt comfortable going." These are people who are going to be happy to get a suitable job anywhere in the US upon graduation.) But sometimes two students from the same region or same institution enroll in your program in the same or consecutive years, and then all of a sudden for a little while people from that place are primed to come. My PhD program admitted two students from the same tiny Central American country in consecutive years. (Both students have since done strong thesis work and graduated.) And then the following year a third student from that country applied. We had an especially strong applicant pool that year and didn't accept him. I happen to know that he went to another, slightly more highly ranked, US PhD program and seems to be doing quite well there. I wish we had kept the lines open.

  • Develop relationships with colleagues at liberal arts colleges.

Since you have a PhD program, you are almost certainly not at a liberal arts college, and in fact most good-but-not-elite PhD programs have little natural interaction with good-but-not-elite liberal arts colleges: we run in different circles. This makes it hard when students from such places apply: a student who gets perfect grades while taking only undergraduate courses, has letters saying they're the best student in the last few years from faculty you don't know and who has okay but not great GRE scores is kind of a black box: they could do excellently in your program, disastrously, or anywhere in between. If you can cultivate personal contacts at these places you can get much more information and maybe you can leverage the dynamic the other way: probably the faculty at a top 50 liberal arts college do not have many top 50 research university faculty on speed dial.

  • Encourage -- and fund -- dynamic faculty to make recruitment visits.

When I get the chance to visit a new department I usually have a blast, and because I have a shallow knowledge of a lot of different parts of mathematics I have sometimes had the experience of going door to door, talking to each faculty member about their work: not super deeply, but enough to make a positive impression. (And you could send people in my department who would do much better than I would, in particular people who give amazing talks.) However I almost never travel to a place unless I have been invited by someone that I already know, who is willing to fund my visit. I have been to the majority of the top departments (at some point, anyway) but only a small minority of the departments whose undergraduates we could be best recruiting from. If my department had the funds to send multiple faculty members around for multiple recruiting visits, we could make much better connections that would reinforce a lot of the points above. Apparently we don't have funding for this, but maybe we're not trying hard enough.

  • +1 For Encourage -- and fund -- dynamic faculty to make recruitment visits. and the following paragraph. This is exactly why I asked OP the question Would you have funding to support this? – scaaahu Aug 14 '15 at 5:29
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    @Massimo: I softened the language. There is no doubt that there is a disconnect between the way I think about this and the way many prospective students think about it. I understand that one does not want to live in the middle of nowhere, and one or two top graduate programs in the US (not Stanford) fit that description for me. My point is that if you are going to cross off whole areas of the US as being unsuitable for living, then you are in for a rude awakening in your later academic career. – Pete L. Clark Aug 14 '15 at 14:08
  • @PeteL.Clark: I noticed and appreciated the edit. I deleted my comment, which was also definitely too unfair toward the Stanford area. I agree with your point. Students should take opportunities and start somewhere, they will have time to move somewhere else later on their career if the starting region proves to be inadequate to their needs. – Massimo Ortolano Aug 14 '15 at 14:20
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    @MassimoOrtolano I think Pete was just expressing frustration at the disconnect between what factors students actually consider when choosing graduate programs, and which ones will seem relevant when they graduate. I can also attest we get a lot of random applications from people in Virginia who don't seem to have thought much further than "What good Ph.D. programs are in Virginia?" As an undergraduate, thinking "My in-state school is pretty good, guess I might as well go there." is a reasonable plan; it's not for graduate school, and it can be pretty frustrating to encounter. – Ben Webster Aug 14 '15 at 22:36
  • "In my PhD program admitted two students from the same tiny Central American country in consecutive years." Either the "In" is superfluous, or I'm missing something. – Faheem Mitha Aug 15 '15 at 18:11
9

Based on my experience investigating and applying to grad schools (2010), I believe that it is easy for nearly any grad school/department to significantly improve their recruitment success. Why? Because nearly every grad school and department does such a poor job today.

The "secret"? Treat your potential grad students like customers and apply basic marketing methods. (By this, I do not mean hype, exaggerated claims, gimmicks, hucksterism, or carpet-bombing all media with advertising.)

First, segment the marketplace of graduate students. "If you aren't thinking segments, you aren't thinking", said Theodore Levitt in The Marketing Imagination (highly recommended book!) But your segmentation scheme requires imagination and insight into what differentiates some grad students from others in terms of their motives, behavior, and choices.

Second, decide on how you want to position your department and your offering. Read the book Positioning: The Battle for Your Mind. The essence: your "brand" needs to be "top-of-mind" for **some* meaningful segment. If you are 4th or below on everyone's list, then you are no where.

Third, differentiate your department and your offering in every way possible to fit your positioning and to satisfy the unique needs of your target segment. (The book The Marketing Imagination includes a chapter called "How to Differentiate Anything".) Your "offering" involves every aspect of the grad degree process, from investigation, to application, to selection/commitment, to funding/financing, to doing academic work, to work/life balance, graduating in a reasonable amount of time, to getting a job after graduation, and even connections among alumni. There are dozens of changes your department might make in each one of these. Here are a few simple examples, focused on the investigation/application process:

  • Post on your web site the specific qualifications you are looking for in Research Assistants, not just generic statements. (This list would change as often as your requirements change.)
  • Post statistics on the number of applications you receive, the number of students you accept, the % of accepted students who enroll, the demographics of applicants, and the demographics of accepted students, what % get funding and of what type, etc.
  • Create a decision tree or maybe an interactive web page to help prospective students assess their chances of being accepted and their fit for your department.
  • Assign an experienced grad student to each incoming first year student to serve as mentor, especially for the non-academic aspects to help avoid common pitfalls of grad student life.

Finally, put in place a handful of objectives and associated metrics so that everyone can see if your department is making progress or not, and also whether you are doing these things in a quality way.

Oh... one other thing. Read the book How Economics Shapes Science. It will give you plenty to think about regarding how graduate schools fit into a larger socio-economic system which frequently works to the disadvantage of PhD students and, especially, Postdocs. Find ways to go against this tide and you will really stand out!


If this sort of marketing thinking and action is uncomfortable for you and your colleagues, or it is beyond your skills and capabilities, then I strongly suggest that you hire a marketing consultant. You could also recruit some students or interns who know "Design Thinking" and use your department as a case study.


In addition to the two books above, you would greatly benefit by reading anything by Peter Drucker. To pick one: Management: Tasks, Responsibilities, Practices. A few choice Drucker quotes, woven together: "The purpose of a business is to create a customer...to convert need into demand...Marketing and innovation produce results; all the rest are costs."

Why are academic departments so poorly managed? Because the people who run them don't think they need to know anything about management or have any management skills.

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    My first reaction to this answer is that there is a lot of terminology that I don't understand, e.g.: "If you aren't thinking segments, you aren't thinking." Could you write that in the form of an equation, perhaps? :) But I strongly agree with the underlying premise that we know nothing about marketing and that our traditional ways of recruiting can be shockingly bad. – Pete L. Clark Aug 14 '15 at 5:19
  • I wish though that I could see the generalities translated into specific points that I thought were applicable. Concerning your four bullet points: (i) There are no Graduate Research Assistants in any math department I have ever been affiliated with. (ii) Are you sure it is legal to post demographics of applicants? In terms of funding: 100% of our PhD students are funded, as is the case with many other programs. But giving more information about better funding that some students get is a good idea. (iii) and (iv) Sounds good. – Pete L. Clark Aug 14 '15 at 5:21
  • @PeteL.Clark Yes, I know the marketing terminology may be unfamiliar. That's why I referenced these books. Even if you don't act on them, you will greatly benefit by reading them. They are easy reads! Levitt is a superb writer. Regarding ii), check with your Legal dept. But notice that corporations are publishing demographics on their applicants and hires and employees. If you post group photos of your grad students, you are revealing their gender (and maybe age and ethnicity). In any case, you could have an "opt-in" policy on applications. Regarding funding: more info = better! – MrMeritology Aug 14 '15 at 5:40
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    @PeteL.Clark Not that you are doing this, but many academics and intellectuals look down on "marketing", based on a cartoon image of it. Result: their "customers" suffer for their ignorance and arrogance! – MrMeritology Aug 14 '15 at 5:42
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The excellent suggestions already posted mainly target getting applications, and encouraging your selected applicants to accept places.

There is another piece to the puzzle. There are a lot of students who have a low GPA because of some problem or simple immaturity. Large, well-known programs tend to set hard cutoffs for any individual consideration, because they have so many applications.

Consider searching the reject pile for diamonds-in-the-rough, students who have a low GPA for reasons other than lack of ability, and who really want to do research. See How does the admissions process work for US Ph.D. programs, particularly for weak or borderline students?, and related questions. Check that any hard requirements that do not allow for exceptions are really essential, not just habit.

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    I agree that it is not in the best interest of all but (perhaps) the very top departments to automatically reject applicants for low GPA. If someone has a low GPA and every other aspect of the application is sky-high, including GRE scores, then in fact they would not be automatically rejected by my department. But in my experience this situation is quite rare. (FYI, in my department there are no literally automatic cutoffs: the committee sees all applications.) – Pete L. Clark Aug 14 '15 at 16:47
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    I certainly agree that many students who did not distinguish themselves from the pack in their undergraduate work have the potential to be excellent, or even superior, PhD students. But how do we tell? Taking the person that some faculty member swears up and down is amazing works well if you know and trust the swearer perfectly. In other instances, it works less well, unfortunately. – Pete L. Clark Aug 14 '15 at 16:48
  • I agree strongly with @Pete's comments. In particular, unless you can identify the reason for a low PhD and have good reason to believe it won't affect graduate work, this is a risky strategy. "Simple immaturity" doesn't normally fall into this category. – Mark Meckes Aug 15 '15 at 11:47
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Summer Schools

Organising summer schools (and workshops) on interesting topics also helps boost visibility, and allows you to market your research and results. You could pick a topic in your particular area of expertise and organise a summer schools catering multidisciplinary students at all levels. Make sure to dedicate part of the training program to discussion and poster sessions where students can get to engage with and pitch their work to the speakers as well as their fellow students. Don't forget to tell your participants, explicitly or not, that you have graduate opportunities available and are looking for valuable candidates.

3

Well, the obvious thing to do is advertise, as evidenced by the inordinate sums of money spent on this each year. It's helpful to just get your name out there, and the more students see it, the more likely they will be to remember your school when it comes time to apply.

While the other answers make good points, I don't believe any of them explicitly mentioned the following:

  • Send advertisement posters to other departments. I think ads may be particularly effective in certain foreign countries, where people want to come to the US to study, but many of the top schools aren't so well known. There are a lot of good foreign students who don't really know where is appropriate to apply. And as foreign students often follow their predecessor's footsteps, getting one good student from Nepal, say, may lead to many more in the future.
  • The annual Joint Math Meetings has a Grad School Fair. I represented our department there last year, and it's hard to measure the direct impact, but as I recall we got a couple of applications that year from students we met there out of 30-40 names that we took down (and not all students were graduating that year). My feeling is it's a worthwhile way to get your name out there.
  • Organize undergrad conferences or a regional competition at your school (or as ff524 mentioned in a comment, do REUs). Virginia Tech's competion became very successful. This option is of course significantly more work.
  • Offer one or two nice fellowships (e.g., more money and/or less teaching, but mostly more money) to top applicants to be competitive. I've seen many students choose lower ranked grad schools for an extra $1000/year.
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You could use Gradschoolmatch.

It's an easy way to introduce your program to people who are thinking about a graduate degree. It solves pretty much the choke point problem that others have already mentioned.

It works somewhat like a dating site. Prospects have profiles providing information about their academic background and interests. Graduate programs have profiles, too. Since either side can make the first move you don't have to wait and hope.

So, for example, you can spot someone with a profile that you believe would be a good fit for your PhD program, click a button, and follow up with a short warm message.

Voila! They know about you. Will they engage with you further? Can you attract students? That's up to you and your value proposition.

Obviously, students have biases towards elite institutions. In most fields, those are unwarranted. But those biases come from a lack of insight, more than anything else. It just takes a little mentoring to help them understand your program is a good as any other.

Full disclosure: I'm a professor at Emory University and use Gradschoolmatch to recruit for our pharmacology PhD program. Pharmacology is the unknown step sister of the biomedical sciences--it's not taught at the undergrad level, so it's overlooked by people looking for biomed PhD programs whom we would like to attract.

That problem frustrated me so much that I went ahead and invented Gradschoolmatch.

  • Downvoting, as this is essentially a service promotion. – Scientist Aug 2 '18 at 15:15
  • @Scientist Flag as spam instead of commenting. – user9646 Aug 2 '18 at 17:02
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    @tj_m: Welcome to Academia SE. Please read our guidelines for self promotion. It would help your answer if you can edit it to have a more neutral tone and phrase it more as an answer to the question. – Wrzlprmft Aug 2 '18 at 17:35
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    @Scientist What difference does it make if the person running the ad works for the company or not? In the end, it's still an ad. – user9646 Aug 2 '18 at 18:38
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    @NajibIdrissi I don't know, I just interpreted what says in the spam flag instructions – Scientist Aug 2 '18 at 18:49

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