04 May 2018

Rethinking the graduate admissions process

Warning: The following post is a piece of devil’s advocacy. I’m not sure I believe myself.

The process for selecting graduate students is mostly deeply flawed and should be revamped from the ground up. Almost everything in the admission process works against increasing diversity in academia.

Let’s take the elements apart piece by piece.

Application fee: Many program charge an application fee. This works against students who are good, but economically disadvantaged. There is no way that those fees are paying the bills of the graduate office, Friction can be a useful thing in preventing spurious applications, but generally the cost is so high that multiple applications quickly add up and remove options from students who can’t pay them all.

GRE scores: The cost of writing and submitting scores is another economic barrier. Many have written about the low predictive power of the test (also here).

Undergraduate GPA: Grade inflation is making it difficult to distinguish student performance. Plus, they are not exactly comparable from institution to institution, both in calculation (is the top score 4 or 4.3?), a situation that gets even more complex when student cross national borders. And it’s highly likely that the same grade point average will be interpreted differently depending on the issuing institution.

Recommendation letters: So much room for bias here. People write different recommendations for men and women. Like, twice the men get glowing letters than women. People are influenced by university of the letter writer and the seniority of the recommender and probably other factors that have nothing to do with the candidate. Recommendation letters are the primary tool for old boy’s networks to reinforce themselves.

CVs: Recently, we learned that a large number of graduate fellowship applicants were told they didn’t get the award because they didn’t have a publication yet. These are supposed to be people at the start of their academic careers, so it is not reasonable to expect them to have a lot on a CV. And given that so many places have not cracked down on unpaid internships, experience on paper will tend to favour people in well off families. Again.

Personal statement: This one might be okay, as long as applicants gave no indication of their gender. Because just the name alone works against increasing diversity.

If grad review is so messed up, what can we do?

One idea is to stop the tedious review by committee and just let individual faculty pick students they want to supervise. It doesn’t eliminate all the biases, but at least it’s less work.

In research grant applications, there’s occasionally serious suggestions crop up that the peer review process is kind of ineffective and that we’d be better off assigning funding by lottery. Maybe we should consider admitting grad students by lottery, too.

On Twitter, I asked students what they would like to see in the application process. Zachary Eldredge brings up the idea of a lottery, and Olivia mentions a face-to-face interview. Will Lykins says it would be good to normalize non-academic work on the forms, which again many students increasingly have to do to make ends meet instead of doing those unpaid enrichment activities.

Related posts

I come to bury the GRE, not to praise it
How do you test persistance?
Why grade inflation is good for the GRE
Does grad school have a mismatch problem?
The “Texas transcript” is a good idea, but won’t solve grade inflation

1 comment:

Ewan said...

"just let individual faculty pick students they want to supervise" - this is what we do, in fact. There are some hurdles to get into the 'admittable' pile - not very high ones - but after that, it's purely based on who wants to take a student and which student they want to take.