Suppose a student is applying to a graduate school. Who is typically on the admissions committee? Is the chair of the department on the admissions committee?

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At my (large CS) department, the graduate admissions committee officially consists of:

  • The director of the graduate program. This is a ~3-year rotating position among the senior faculty.

  • About a dozen faculty members, distributed roughly uniformly across topic areas and faculty rank. The department head is not a member; he's way too busy.

  • About a dozen graduate student volunteers.

However, our graduate admissions database is open to the entire faculty. Each faculty member is expected to help review applications, and in particular, to identify applicants that they would be willing to advise, offer an RAship, help recruit, and/or recommend for fellowships. We ask each applicant to name a few faculty they'd be interested in working with, so I usually start by reading the applications that mention my name. I haven't been on the admissions committee since 2000, but I still read a few dozen applications every year.

For each round of admissions, each research area (theory, graphics, architecture, etc.) provides a ranked list of applicants for their area to the committee, along with estimates of advising/funding capacity. This usually requires discussion among the area faculty, coordinated by the area chair, who may or may not be a committee member. (I was the theory area chair for several years.)

Final admissions decisions are made by the official committee, but positive reviews from extra-curricular faculty carry a lot of weight. In particular, nobody is admitted without at least three positive faculty reviews, including at least one potential advisor. Decisions are folded back into the database so that faculty can track their favorite applicants' progress, and if necessary, drum up more faculty reviews.

So, in practice, everyone is on the committee, including the department head.

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    To offer a contrast to JeffE's answer, at many (and I'd argue at most) departments, the graduate students are rarely involved in the admissions process itself. However, they are usually heavily involved in, and are in fact critical to the success of, the recruitment process once students have been admitted. – aeismail Mar 28 '12 at 17:57
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    I think it depends on the department. In CS, having graduate students on the admissions committee seems to be relatively common. In math, it's absolutely unheard of. – Anonymous Mathematician Apr 16 '12 at 18:21
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    Indeed, I am a mathematician who is on my department's graduate committee, and the idea of having current graduate students on the committee is nothing I have ever heard of. Can you explain why you do this in your program? Is it simply a matter of dealing with high volume? (How many applicants do you get each year?) – Pete L. Clark May 26 '12 at 18:11
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    @PeteL.Clark — Yes, exactly, it's a volume thing. We got 737 PhD applications and 717 MS applications this year; 64 new PhD students and 34 new MS students are joining us in August. – JeffE May 26 '12 at 19:37
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    @JeffE: Holy crow, 100 new students each year?!? Your department admits about three times as many students per year than any math program I know of. Are there many other CS departments as large as yours (or larger)?? – Pete L. Clark May 26 '12 at 20:57

It's highly unlikely that the chair of a department serves on a graduate admissions committee. The committee is usually composed of some set of faculty who represent the different areas in the department.

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Since this question has somehow come to the top of the queue: in the U.S., in mathematics, the department chair would rarely participate. The person in charge of graduate admissions would be "Director of Graduate Studies in Math.", or equivalent title. This would be a position that would/should involve genuine PR and recruitment work. The old tradition was that the position would be a backwater/sinecure for otherwise inactive faculty. In modern times, the level of energy required to do the job has increased to the point that most faculty could not cope, and do not want such a job, since it would take away from "refereed publications", the baseline for salary and status improvements.

But, of course, grad admissions and policies around this issue have a tremendous impact on the atmosphere in a department. Somehow the internet has made things more intense, more stressed, so choice of people to be around is all the more critical... ironically?

To some degree, the "grad admissions committee" is supposed to represent "all constituencies", but, in reality, this doesn't make much sense, since in the U.S. the thin-ness of undergrad preparation does not allow students to make competent announcements of their eventual interests.

The "real-politick" of grad admissions, involving understanding of the wildly varying undergrad or Master's level preparation around the world, and how those things translate to functioning in the U.S., is not interesting to most faculty, so the responsibility descends to the shoulders of a relative few who've paid attention to the reality, rather than the PR.

Who this is in a given place, and whether it's anyone at all, depends...

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  • At Stanford the position of Director of Graduate Studies rotates through research-active faculty (the most recent people to be DGS were Akshay Venkatesh, Eleny Ionel, and Leyna Ryzhik, all very much research-active). – Tom Church Feb 18 '16 at 7:31
  • @TomChurch, probably relatively smaller, relatively elite places need to expend less effort on "recruiting", ... and all that that does or does not entail. At my univ, if we rotated all faculty through the position, it would be a disaster, I think. – paul garrett Feb 18 '16 at 14:08

To give a completely different view, here the graduate admissions are handled by a central committee run by the graduate school of the university, as faculty I have next to no incidence on their decisions. We are rather small (some 600 graduate students in all).

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  • To clarify: you are in mathematics, correct? – Tom Church Feb 18 '16 at 7:32
  • @TomChurch, Computer Science, actually. But that doesn't matter, admissions are all handled centrally. – vonbrand Feb 18 '16 at 12:03

In our small department (about the same size as David Ketcheson's), there is no admissions department per se. Master's applications are initially read by our student-services person, who routes the ones passing an initial sniff test to two reviewers (faculty/instructional staff), ideally ones whose specialties align with the applicant's. Reviewers score applications on a rubric, adding a five-point-Likert-scale recommendation (from "definitely admit" to "deny").

A third reviewer may be sought if the original reviewers' opinions diverged significantly. The assistant director of the program resolves any remaining in-limbo applications.

Ph.D admissions, however, go through the Ph.D Committee, which consists of tenured faculty.

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In my department of 15 faculty, 3-5 faculty serve on the committee. This usually does not include the chair, but sometimes has. The committee makes final decisions on most Masters applicants, and screens PhD applicants. But promising PhD applications are also reviewed by likely potential advisors before a decision is made, so faculty who are not on the committee also play a major role.

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