Fear and Loathing over Recruitment Weekend

Plain and simple: recruitment weekends are awesome, if not a little bit overwhelming. Generally, there’s 48 hours or less to figure out three important things:

  1. Is this the department for me?
  2. Which professors would I actually want to work for?
  3. How best can I take advantage of free drinks, while not getting too drunk?

It’s definitely taxing, especially when you start mixing 1 and 2 with 3. With my first weekend down, here are some extensive tips I’ve rapidly developed (prototyped?) to not just survive recruitment weekend, but to really ‘overclock’ your experience.

Have a notepad: I strongly suggest you take notes. Not full lecture notes or anything, but little blurbs to help jog your memory. If you think of a question but can’t ask it just yet, write it down, lest you forget. If you’re really on your game, you might find little stretches here and there where you’ve developed a backlog of 5-10 questions and when you finally get to ask those questions, you don’t want to be left with the lingering feeling of “crap… what else did I want to ask, and was it even important?”

As soon as you’re done meeting with an individual professor, dump anything you can remember about the interaction into the notepad. Their research, follow up questions you’d like to ask, their general demeanor – anything. It might help you later on.

You’re more than likely going to be on the move all day, and you’ll probably end up with hands full of an admissions folder, and perhaps handouts from individual professors. I found great success with a pocket sized notepad – something that’s virtually weightless and out of your hands, but with easily accessible for quick/discreet notes while somebody’s giving you a presentation.The Rhodia No 12 is my weapon of choice.

Know when to speak up/keep quiet: Yes, yes, it’s a recruitment weekend, and that means ask questions about anything and everything. However, I think there’s a better way to go about asking all those questions, and that sometimes discretion is the better part of valor. Consider the following:

Sometimes, you’re going to be in group situations, where your guide presents information to you in a general manner, but you have a very specific question. This happens a lot during the facilities tour. Rather than slow down the tour with questions/geeking out over remote data accessibility, Bruker vs Varian, or how accurate the auto-probe-tuning is, you can just jot down your question, and ask it later. That way, as your on your way out, you can pull the NMR tech aside, ask a quick question or two, and then catch up with the group.

Sometimes, when meeting with a professor, you might quickly realize your research interests don’t align much, if at all. If this is the case, and it’s looking doubtful you would actually join their lab, you can chill out and stop grilling them. (A girl this weekend ruthlessly questioned every professor, even across many sub-disciplines of organic chemistry. Maybe it’s just me, but I found it unlikely she was sincerely interested in all of them.) Ask questions about the chemistry first, and if you’re actually interested, then move on to questions about funding, size of the lab, years to graduation, etc.

On the other hand, even if you wouldn’t necessarily do the chemistry yourself, sometimes it’s still very interesting. Very rarely do undergrads get such a unique experience to pick the brain of a random faculty member, so take the opportunity to chat about some cool chemistry! You can always drop hints that it’s not exactly what you want to be doing in grad school, but as long as you’re interested and engaging, most professors will still be happy to chat about their work.

Enjoy what they’ll cover, but do not ask/take anymore than necessary: Don’t fly business class. Don’t ask to bring your significant other with to the prospective dinner. I made neither of these mistakes, but I saw them made. In general, it was an awkward interaction, or has great potential for awkward interaction.

I’d previously half-joked about flying business class, but no matter how you try to justify it, it’s probably a bad idea. For example, I usually fly Southwest, and I’ve accrued a nice pile of frequent flyer points. When I was looking to book flights, I preferred* to fly Southwest, as I could also inch closer to a free round trip flight. For a return flight, all of the ‘Wanna Get Away” fares were unavailable, leaving the “Anytime” fares (~$230) and “Business” (~$250). I met some guys that took this to mean “Lets fly business class!” Instead, I opted to fly JetBlue ($130 – cheapest option) for the return trip. What I didn’t gain in frequent flyer points, I retained in tact. And that’s important for this kind of thing (see below).

Don’t ask to bring your girlfriend with for dinner. There’s going to be no point where you can casually slip “So, can I bring a guest?” into conversation. It’s going to have to be up front, out of the blue, and awkward. I saw it with my own eyes, and it was definitely all three. The department will probably say no if it’s a group weekend (although they might be more lenient if you have to visit on a non-recruitment weekend), and even if they do OK it, you’ll probably be the only jerk at dinner with a tag-along guest.

In general, err on the side of caution, and don’t ask for/take anything they’re not giving you, because they’re already giving you plenty. Barring extenuating circumstances, you shouldn’t ask for any kind of special treatment.

Stick to the end (and then some!): If you’re offered anything else that’s not on the official tour, definitely consider taking it.

At the end of the first night, a select few of the host grad students asked a select few of the prospectives if we’d like to continue on for another drink or two at another bar. Of course, I went, and it was great! Although I was pretty much out of questions by this point, it was nice to be able to ask any random remaining questions to grad students that were significantly loosened up. Beyond that, just hanging out with some of the grad students presented some unique opportunities – like checking out a group meeting. The next morning, I had the option to go on a museum trip, or check out the group meeting of my ‘first choice’ professor. Betcha can’t guess which one I went to…

Your mileage may vary, but in general, the opportunity to do something not on the official itinerary means they like you, and is definitely a good thing. If you’re also interested in them, there’s no reason you shouldn’t go do it. By making friends with the ‘cool’ grad students, there’s more chance you’ll get some kind of additional/uncensored look at the department.

Stay the extra night: Some visitation weekends will offer to let you stay an extra night to do things on your own time. It’s an easy way to squeeze more fun out of your trip, and also get a much better feel for the city than the one prescribed ‘cultural’ (read: TOURISTY) activity. If you really want to go out on the town, get sloshed, check out a concert, meet up with some friends, meet some new friends, or generally enjoy the city, this is your chance! Although it won’t be at the university’s expense, it will be fun you won’t have to censor, which is usually worthwhile.

I stayed the extra night, had a blast with some friends in the area, got a much better idea of the city itself, and did it all without having to worry about making a good impression to the university.

Be polite/Follow up: As hinted before, tact is important. While on the trip, mind your Ps and Qs. Always make proper introductions, shake hands, say “please” and “thank you,” hold doors open for people, etc, etc. When you get back, write up specific thank you emails to the professors liked the most. (Specific! You did take notes, right?) In general, try to network, and be polite, dammit. In case you do go to the school, and want to join a group with minimum space for new recruits, a good impression, and continual contact with the professor can put you in a good position for once you actually arrive on campus.

If you’re still looking for more tips and tricks, Excimer at CBC wrote up his own list of survival tactics a few years ago. Check it out and study up, because preparation is half the battle.

*The opinions expressed here are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the positions of C&E News, it’s subsidiaries, or affiliates. That being said, JetBlue is awesome, and I can’t wait to get my free flight from Southwest so I can jump ship to JetBlue.

Author: chiraljones

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