By Jane Naberhuis, Ph.D. Candidate, University of Illinois
For those applying to graduate school, this is the time of year when invitations to attend a recruitment weekend are sent to prospective students. For some, this may be a very exciting opportunity. For others, like me, the invitation to spend an entire weekend with a bunch of strangers while trying to make informed decisions about one’s future can also be a bit intimidating.
Of course, your experience may be very different from my own, but I am hoping that giving an overview of my experiences will allay the fears of those who are more anxious than excited about the possibility of attending a recruitment weekend. Advice and information for recruitment weekend preparation abound online and elsewhere, so my purpose here is not to simply reiterate existing information. Rather, I am hoping to illustrate the value of being yourself and asking honest questions, being open to possibilities you may not have otherwise considered, having realistic expectations, and being able to expect the unexpected.
First of all, if you’ve received a recruitment weekend invitation, take a step back and congratulate yourself. The very fact that you have been invited means that you meet the school’s admission criteria – schools, like employers, typically do not interview unqualified applicants. Once you’ve celebrated sufficiently, refocus and keep these things in mind:
- Recruitment weekends don’t exist just so the school can check you out. You are also there to check out the school. A recruitment weekend can be the perfect opportunity to determine if the school you’re interested in meets your needs. The best advice I received when I was going through this process was to talk to current graduate students in the program. No one knows what the student experience is like better than the students themselves, and they are a rich source of information. Graduate students also tend to be very honest about their experiences – they were in your position not too long ago, and are very willing to provide candid answers to your questions. In talking to current graduate students, ask them what type of personality thrives in the program (or in the particular lab they’re in, if you’re interested in joining that lab.) This gives current students an open-ended opportunity to provide you with the information they feel is most relevant. Asking this same question of a potential advisor is also a great way to gauge their expectations, and to see if you could align with those expectations. For example, if you are someone who is non-functional until after you’ve had your sixth cup of coffee at 10 am, you may want to avoid joining a lab where students are required to be at work by 8 am.
- Don’t be blinded by big names. Just because it’s a big-name, highly ranked school doesn’t mean it’s necessarily the right fit for you. I was very excited when I received a letter of invitation to a recruitment weekend from a prestigious school, and I was certain that was the school I wanted to attend. Looking back now, it is clear that that school would have been a poor fit for me, and I am thankful for my undergraduate professors who took the time to explain to me that there are other things far more important than the name of the school on the diploma you’ll (hopefully someday!) earn.
- Leave yourself open to all of your options. By the time I was invited to attend the University of Illinois recruitment weekend, I was ready to turn down the invitation. I had already visited and interviewed at several schools, and to be honest, I was worn out. However, it was at the University of Illinois where everything I was looking for came together, and I am so very glad that I took the time to attend the recruiting weekend. As trite as it may sounds, it really is important to explore all of your options, because you never know when the right opportunity will come along. Even though you may visit schools you do not end up enrolling in, recruitment weekends are still a chance to forge valuable relationships with your future colleagues.
- Though many recruitment events may feel rather scripted, it never hurts to expect the unexpected. On one visit, I was picked up from the airport around midnight by the graduate student that I was to be staying with for the duration of the weekend. Interviews were to be held the next morning, so I went to bed shortly after arriving at his house. This student had to be on campus very early the next morning, so when I woke up, I barely caught him before he dashed out the door. In our brief morning exchange, he handed me a bike lock, told me there was an extra bicycle in the garage, and gave me a map. Apparently, I was to find my own way to campus, which was a couple of miles away. On top of this, when I walked outside, I found myself in an outright downpour. Having no other way to get to campus, I rode the bike I had been given. By the time I arrived on campus, I was drenched. I dried myself off as best I could and carried on, leaving a wet impression on each chair I sat on over the course of six interviews with potential advisors. Each interviewer was very gracious about my situation, and in most cases, my soggy appearance actually turned into a great conversation starter.
In short, there is no substitute for proper preparation when it comes to recruitment weekends, but it is also important to remember that your experience will come down largely to what you make of it. Though it may seem impossible at first, relax and enjoy yourself (and all of the free food and drinks!), because I have no doubt that after attending a recruitment weekend or two, you will have plenty of your own stories to tell and advice to give.