Grad School divided over interviews

Programs in the Graduate School of Arts and Sciences will be required to interview doctoral candidates this year before offering them admission, but not all departments are pleased with the new policy.

Graduate School Dean Thomas Pollard said he asked departments to conduct interviews — whether in person, over the phone or via Skype — after a “growing number” of programs found them useful for making admissions decisions. Interviewing is a common practice among Yale’s graduate science programs, which can often use grant money to bring applicants to campus. But some departments, particularly in the humanities, have reservations about a practice they say does not fit their needs.

“I am anxious about what kind of door we open when we begin to assess, consciously or unconsciously, applicants’ personal self-presentation or even personability as an implicit criteria for graduate education,” Katie Trumpener, director of graduate studies for Comparative Literature, said in a Tuesday email. “We should instead be looking solely for intellectual brilliance.”

But Pollard said interviews “bring the written application alive” and can help programs determine if applicants are able and motivated to succeed in graduate study. Given that the Graduate School invests so much in each student, guaranteeing five years of financial support, Pollard said it is worthwhile for programs to make contact with applicants. The average humanities student costs the University a net value of roughly $143,000 over six years of study, according to a report on Graduate School education released in August.

Most science programs at Yale already conduct interviews, said Associate Dean of the Graduate School Richard Sleight, who oversees admissions in science departments.

David Post, director of graduate studies for Ecology and Evolutionary Biology, said his department has invited top candidates to campus for almost a decade. He added that because the department’s graduate program is small, interviews are especially important to determine whether applicants’ interests match those of researchers in Yale’s labs.

“It’s a chance for us to get to know the candidates, and for the prospective students to get to know us and our program,” Post said.

Interviews are less common in programs outside the sciences. Dale Martin, director of graduate studies for Religious Studies, said he feels that Pollard, as a scientist, is trying to “force” ideas from the sciences onto departments that do not want them.

Martin said while interviews are useful for science programs, which may care about admitting students that are personable and can conduct lab work well in teams, they are not necessary for judging humanities students. Since these students tend to work alone, Martin said his department prefers to choose students purely based on their academic credentials, which can be judged from their written applications.

Associate Dean of the Graduate School Pamela Schirmeister ’80 GRD ’88 said while undergraduate admissions emphasize putting together a class of students with diverse talents, graduate programs are primarily interested in students’ scholarship in their chosen field. Schirmeister, who oversees admissions in humanities and some social science departments, said she knew of only two humanities departments — Classics and Music — that systematically interview all applicants they consider before making offers.

The Classics Department has brought some of its applicants to campus since 2005 to meet with faculty and students, said Egbert Bakker, director of graduate studies for Classics. He said this visit allows the department to gauge if they are admitting students who are likely to be “good future colleagues” and complete a doctorate.

Yet Classics is unusual among humanities programs at Yale in having enough endowed funds to pay for students to visit. Most other programs will likely need to do interviews by phone or Skype, which professors said might be very different from talking to candidates in person.

The Near Eastern Languages and Literatures Department has done interviews in the past, said Eckart Frahm, director of graduate studies for the department, but he said they should not be the primary criterion for judging a student.

“Occasionally, genius hides behind awkwardness, while inversely silver-tongued applicants can turn out to be shallow scholars,” Frahm said in a Tuesday email.

Within the social sciences, some departments have already begun experimenting with interviews. The Economics Department interviewed a few applicants for the first time last year using Skype, said Truman Bewley, director of graduate studies for Economics. He added that the department intends to conduct “many more” interviews this year, especially when it seeks more information about applicants’ mathematics and economics background or prior research experience.

The Graduate School received a total of 11,257 applications this year, 9,462 of which were to doctoral programs.

Correction March 8, 2012

A previous version of this article misspelled the name of Eckart Frahm, the director of graduate studies for the Near Eastern Languages and Literatures Department.

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