OK CMers. Despite all the sound and fury signifying nothing that emerged in the comments, Froderick’s post about letters of recommendation, did generate a discussion about the professional ethics of writing for students. This got me thinking about other ethically tricky areas some of us face. Here’s one that I’ve been actively considering lately:
I teach at a top-ten PhD program in my discipline. We are one of the largest departments (in terms of faculty) of basket weaving, and we offer Ph.D.s in every imaginable form of basket-weaving. I have three other colleagues (four, depending on how you count) in my own field, which makes us an attractive place to do graduate work—most places only have perhaps two of us. We only admit fully-funded students, which means the departmental cohort each year is actually quite small relative to many other programs. So my immediate colleagues and I usually get to admit a single student each year, since the limited number of offers have to be spread around to all the various basket-weaving fields that the department offers.If one of the other fields underyields, we might get a crack at a second offer, but that rarely happens.
Every Fall I get anywhere from 20 to 25 inquiries from flakes of various stripes who are getting ready to apply to work with me, or with someone in my immediate field. Our little corner of the department usually gets something on the order of 50 applicants, so these inquiries represent a substantial portion of the final applicant pool. Many of them ask to speak to me over the phone, or in some cases come in for a meeting. Usually a 30 or 40 minute phone conversation or meeting is enough to tell me whether a particular person has even a snowflake’s chance in hell of being the one student we admit into our area.
So the dilemma is this: I am always up-front with them about the fact that they are competing for what amounts to a single slot. Should I also tell them to save their fifty dollars and not bother applying if it is obvious they won’t make even the first cut? Keep in mind that the administration doles out the funding packages based on how many applicants a particular department attracts. So we have a perverse interest in encouraging applications, even from students we know don’t have a prayer. Moreover, keeping the application numbers high in my own specific field helps us keep our slot from being handed over to someone else in the department who can claim that his or her field deserves more slots because it gets more applicants.
What is the right thing to do? To those of you who are in departments like mine, how do you handle it? To those of you who are not, how would you have wanted to be treated in this situation? Would you want/have wanted to know that you were just paying a fee for the privilege of getting rejection letter in return?
p.s. Stultissimus magnissimusque culeus pro cunnum purgare, aut in Latino respondum aut tu ipse pedicandum est.