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.


  • yalengineer

    Interesting to see this. Many engineering programs across the nation admit doctoral students without interviewing them. In fact, I wish that I knew this because all of the Yale graduate students told me that I would be interviewed before I would have been admitted. I digress.

    Applying this to international students will be tricky due to the difficulties of getting a face to face conversation. Likewise, I can understand the concerns about the inverted nature of some academics. While the interview shouldn’t be the primary criterion for admission, it does serve as a powerful method to gauge a student’s interest (subsequently boosting a department’s yields) and a recruiting tool.

    Isn’t a large point of the PhD process to train communicators of knowledge. Scholars with the ability to teach and present? The art of communication and argument as well as the ability to present one’s passion for a subject is an essential trait for any academic scientific or not.

    • yalengineer

      I would add that for many graduate programs, having an invitation to interview essentially results in a 80-95% admission rate. The interview is decided to provide a program or a department a mechanism to remove uninterested students (a highly talented polymath who has no interest in graduate research but is simply looking for something to do) or psychopaths (no further explanation required). These candidates may look good on paper with great academic credentials but they are likely to not 1) contribute to the academic environment and 2) graduate.

  • concerned

    I think it is very important to reveal primary criteria for admission to the Graduate School. Yale as an institution offers valuable resources to beginning scholars and their selection criteria in effect should be accessible to the scholarly community as a whole.

    That independent scholarship is valued and that laboratory team players are apparently screened for are significant determinants in larger scholarly outcomes that do have implications beyond New Haven.

  • commentator

    Dean Pollard is turning out to be yet another example why it is downright dangerous to have scientists running the graduate school — they systematically seek to impose on other disciplines things that are simply unnecessary.

  • Boogs

    I’m certain that Dean Pollard is quite capable in the very narrow range of his own scholarship (keep in mind, after all, that this man has never himself gone through the trial of earning a PhD; he doesn’t have one), but have you ever tried to have a conversation with him? It’s putting it mildly to say that he’s not a conversationalist. When I look at who’s in charge of putting together the new Yale-NUS campus, the wholly approachable and accessible scientist Charles Bailyn, I wonder why the pool of such scientists is so shallow at Yale that we had to settle on Pollard as Dean.

    • Starscream

      Ironically, these are the kinds of people the interviews are alledgedly going to weed out (for better or worse).

  • GeoJoe

    This is hilarious. Usually, scientists are stereotyped as socially awkward. Apparently, that was backwards; humanities students are incapable of appropriate self-presentation, so their advisers send them into exile until they produce quality scholarship. Maybe it’s the way these articles are written, but the humanities DGS keep giving bizarre accounts of the mechanics and purpose of graduate study in their departments.

    Also, @commentator: attempting to have people and organizations under your supervision do things that you think work isn’t a unique trait of scientists. When you use such broad language, I’m tempted to assume that you’re simply opposed to Dean Pollard’s strategy of attempting to improve the graduate school using transparent, quantitative metrics. An aversion to incorporating facts into university administration is rather unattractive.

    • Boogs

      No-one questions that transparent, quantitative metrics are a good thing; the problem is that the wrong metrics are being applied to these disciplines. There has been one constant at Yale for many generations: it takes about 6.5 years to produce a humanities PhD. That’s simply how long it takes to build the cultural literacy, teaching skills, and original scholarship expected of a doctoral candidate. That fact is not a product of a unique University culture; it is a product of reality. It will outlive Pollard’s Deanship (whom I expect to be a one-termer) simply because the man is fighting reality.

  • commentator


    First, Pollard is not using “transparent, quantitative metrics”, or rather, he is not using relevant quantitative metrics. “Quantitative metrics” which doesn’t even attempt to take into account the quality of the research PhD students perform, and which doesn’t take into account the job outcomes is ridiculous.

    As for “attempting to have people and organizations under your supervision do things that you think work isn’t a unique trait of scientists”, I beg to differ. The experience of American academia in recent years demonstrates that scientists are far more likely to try to impose their perspectives on non-scientific disciplines than vice versa. I can’t even begin to list all the trouble that was caused in the humanities at various institutions by deans and provosts coming from the sciences and trying to impose their views on disciplines they clearly don’t understand. NB: I don’t remember dean Butler telling molecular biologists what ‘best practices’ in their field should be.

    • yalengineer

      So when scientists tell you that you should get vaccinated, are you suggesting that you shouldn’t?

      • kdaysandtou

        What are you talking about? How does that have anything to do with scientists imposing their perspectives on non-scientific disciplines?

      • commentator

        @ yaleingineer

        You really struggle with analogical thinking, don’t you?
        When a doctor tells me to get vaccinated, he is fully in his domain, and I will get vaccinated. When a doctor tells a comparative literature/English/history… professor how to organize graduate studies, without showing any interest in the specificity of those disciplines, than we have a problem.

  • concerned

    Yes, here we have an example of metrics collected that are not so obscure enough as to escape immediate challenge as to relevancy.

  • scienceprof

    There are reasonable arguments for Dean Pollard to advocate exporting practices from the sciences to other disciplines in running graduate programs. Dean Pollard’s quantitative metrics show that science grad students at Yale are more successful than their counterparts in the humanities and social sciences by several reasonable criteria. For example, many more humanities and social sciences graduate students leave Yale after several years of study without obtaining a PhD, and I think everyone should agree this is a serious failure of the system. Something is wrong with either graduate admissions or graduate training when a lot of students train in a program for >3 or 4 years and then leave without a degree. More anecdotally and less quantitatively, the focus of GESO activities at Yale over the past years at Yale has been in the humanities and social sciences, and definitely not among the science graduate students, and this seems to reflect greater levels of dissatisfaction among the humanities and social sciences graduate students than among the science graduate students with their experience here. Yes, there are difference between disciplines that require different practices in educating graduate students, but we need to be able to admit when there are problems with current practices and to be open to trying new things to fix these problems.

    • Boogs

      One only needs sit around the bar at GPSCY for a few weekends to understand that the level of satisfaction among science graduate students isn’t terribly high. The dissatisfaction simply isn’t of the same nature. Humanities and social science graduate students are very focused on funding, but one will hear few science graduate students singing the praises of the current state of academia from their perspective. Also, I would say as a general observation, the sciences pull a lot of graduate students from cultures where people don’t voice complaints so openly. Let’s be honest, a good number of science graduate students can barely carry on a conversation in the English language.

      • yalengineer

        I beg to differ. The level of satisfaction among science graduate students is low due to the nature of their work. In addition, as a significant number of science graduate students are not seeking employment in academia (~70%), their opinions of academia will certainly not be positive.

        If humanities graduate students are capable of carrying a conversation in English, an interview will certainly not hurt. If interviews in their current nature do not weed out poor spoken non-native English speakers pursuing a scientific doctoral degree, why would it be significantly different for the humanities? It is in the best interest for the humanities graduate programs to have a higher graduation rate and these suggestions may go a long way in terms of positively affecting those rates.

      • khymos

        So many general observations here – science students are not happy, science students don’t voice complaints, science students cannot speak English! If I were equally adept at generalizing, I might assume that all humanities students at Yale had similar thought processes; it would hardly come as a surprise then that so many are getting booted out without a degree.

    • attila

      This may be true, but he is always insisting that what the sciences do is right and what everyone else is doing is wrong. Even when his “data” says otherwise. By some of his metrics my department scores very high, but he is uninterested in how we achieve that.

      We found it particularly galling when two of his recommendations turned out to be based on what we do… he did not mention that the ideas came from a department outside the sciences.

      And yes, the man truly is autistic. I have never met someone with less interest in actually interacting with other people… a stupendous mistake by Levin, appointing this man.

    • roganjosh

      Leaving without graduating is often success, not failure. Many people get in for the wrong reasons. Some because they were pushed into it by well-meaning college advisors. Some because their parents pushed them in for the vicarious prestige, or because it’s what they did. Some because they didn’t know what else to do with their lives. Some because they had not yet thought about other possibilities. When you do realize what you want three or four years in, sticking with grad school, hemming yourself into preparing for a faculty job that you don’t want, teaching students you know you’ll come to hate, is not a wise decision. Learning something that improves your life, and maybe the lives of other people, and acting on it, is a far better outcome than a diploma for the wall.

      Many of us know people who shouldn’t have been admitted, and people who missed out because they didn’t present well on a written application. An interview could be set up to benefit both kinds of applicant, plus those who would soon be taking them on as colleagues.

  • CharlieWalls

    I am a complete outsider these days but did do my PhD work in a program started elsewhere by a Yale science professor who left because of difficulties with the Yale administration. I note: “Pollard said he asked departments to conduct interviews — whether in person, over the phone or via Skype.” That is no real hardship. Hence the series of thoughtful and heartfelt comments above really suggest major stirrings of discontent. That should be the subject of an article. What are the common complaints whether ‘arts’ or ‘science’? Future jobs are difficult for both sides and both sides involve testing ideas among thoughtful people.

  • River_Tam

    LOL I like the angry grad students in a snit in the comments. Criticizing Pollard for not having a PhD and for having a “personality that borders on autistic”?

    Suit up and go to your damn interviews.

  • penny_lane

    I am very concerned that the DGS for Comp Lit does not know that “criteria” is a plural noun of which “criterion” is the singular. For any other field I would (maybe) let that slide, but a literature professor should know better.

    Also, as an aspiring graduate student (though not at Yale), I plan to use my interviews as opportunities to figure out whether *I* will be able to have a fruitful relationship with my POI. I don’t see why humanities students should not be afforded the opportunity to make the same evaluation as students in the sciences.

  • joey00 – Although technically i am a Dr. but not a licensed Physician..