It is graduate school admissions season, at least in my part of the world. That has me thinking about who decides who gets into graduate school. As usual, what follows are my own thoughts and not the official policy of my employer.

In my faculty, graduate admissions decisions are made at a couple of levels. The questions that get asked include the following:

  • School of Graduate & Postdoctoral Studies: does the applicant have the relevant prerequisite degree (or expect to have before arriving) with the required undergraduate grades? Do they have proof of English-language ability? Did they pay the application fee?
  • Department/program admissions committee: did the applicant take relevant courses in their previous degree, and how did they perform? Do they have research experience? Do they want to do research in an area that we actually have expertise in? Do they have a potential supervisor? Are they Canadian (international graduate students pay much higher tuition and can be much more expensive to support)?
  • Potential supervisor: most of the same questions as department committee, plus do I have funds to support an additional student (or does the applicant have independent funding)? Do I have other resources (time, facilities, etc) to take on additional students? Will the applicant be able to work well with me and the rest of my lab?

The potential supervisor business is important. In general, in Canadian science graduate programs, students are supported by some combination of funding from research grants, teaching assistantships, and scholarships. It used to be the case that pooling research funds to support students was not allowed by the major granting agencies (I can’t find documentation of this; possibly it’s not the case any more), so potential graduate students must be matched to an individual supervisor, or perhaps co-supervisors.

There are problems with the individual supervisor model. Sarah Tuttle argues that the master-apprentice system gives too much power to supervisors. In addition to having first right of refusal over trainees’ publications and dissertations, because of the recommendation letter system supervisors can also determine the course of trainees’ future careers. Abusive supervisors can ruin lives; merely negligent ones can scuttle careers. Co-supervision can help to mitigate these problems (and I really wish I could find a good article I read on this recently!) While I completely agree that a department’s faculty should bear collective responsibility for graduate students, I do wonder if “everyone’s responsible” somehow ends up with no one being responsible.

I also see the elusive quality of “fit” – can I and the rest of my team work with this person? – as potentially problematic. People have different personalities and interests, so determining whether a student/supervisor team can work together productively doesn’t seem unresasonable. But a lot of issues can be cast in terms of fit: a faculty member might think that a research group comprised of students of only one gender, ethnic or language background would be more productive. He or she might decide that a potential student’s disability, health condition, or family situation would make it harder for them to work with the team. How do you determine what’s a genuine concern about personality and working style, and what’s (conscious or unconscious) bias?

In some discussion of this with other faculty, I’ve heard it said that as long as a qualified student can find an academic home somewhere, potential issues of bias aren’t a problem. It’s argued that supervisor/student fit is so important for a successful relationship that relying on a faculty member’s best judgment is necessary. I’m not sure it’s that simple—there are lots of studies showing that scientists are not as objective as they might think. There is substantial underrepresentation of people of colour and people with disabilities, among other groups, in science, and gatekeeper bias could well be a contributing factor. But in the current system it’s not clear what to do about this: I think most departments would be reluctant to “force” graduate students (or even undergraduate thesis) students on a supervisor.

So where does that leave us? What do we do? As usual, better data would help. In my university, the only demographic data we collect is on graduate applicants’ gender and country/university of origin. We have no way of knowing the acceptance rate of (e.g.) disabled, visible-minority or transgender applicants. Better faculty training (like this Royal Society material) might help; and finally, of course, we would need to overhaul the entire system of grant funding and research recognition so that faculty members have a stake in the collective success of graduate programs, not just “their” students. How hard could that be?