Sunday, March 17, 2024

Grad Student Visit Day: That was then, this is now.

(Harry Lewis helped me with this post.)

March 15 was UMCP Computer Science Grad Student Visit Day. I suspect many of my readers are at schools that had their Grad Student Visit Day recently, or will have it soon. 

In 1980 I got into Harvard Grad School in Applied Sciences. I went there in the Spring to talk to some people and take a look at the campus. I paid my own way- it  did not dawn on me to ask them to reimburse me and I doubt they had the mechanism to do so. 

I know a student who got into two grad schools in 1992 and contacted them about a visit. Both set up the visit and reimbursed his travel, and the two trips helped him decide which school to go to. His criteria: The grad students looked happy at one and sad at the other. He went to the school where the grad students looked happy. Was it the right choice? He got his PhD so... it was not the wrong choice.

That was then. 

In 1980 no  schools that I know of had anything called Grad Student Visit Day.  In 1992 I suspect some did but it was a mixed bag. 

Now all schools that  I know of (including Harvard)  have a day in the spring where prospective grad students in CS are invited to come to campus. There are talks about grad school at that school, a very nice lunch, and 1-on-1 (or perhaps finite-to-1) meetings of grad students with faculty. Students are reimbursed for travel and lodging (within reason). There are variants on all of this, but that's the basic structure. The idea is to convince grad students to go to that school. It also serves the purpose of helping grad students who are already coming to get a sense of the place and a free lunch. It costs money: reimbursing students for travel and food for the students on the day itself. 

Random thoughts.

1) In 1980 no grad schools in CS did this. In 2024 (and I think for quite some time except the COVID years) all CS grad students do this. Does anyone know when the change happened? I suspect the early 1990's. 

2) Do other departments do this? For example Math? Physics? Applied Math? Chemistry? Biology? Engineering?  I doubt Art History does. 

3) Does it really help convince students to go to that school? I suspect that at this point if a school DIDN"T do it they would look bad and might lose students. Is there a way out? See the next  two points. 

4) Do students judge a school based on the professors they see (``Oh, UMCP has more people doing a combination of ML and Vision then I thought- I'll go there!'') or on the quality of the food ("UMCP had ginger bread for one of their desserts, which is my favorite dessert, so I'll go there.'') or how smoothly the trip went (``UMCP had an easy mechanism for reimbursement, whereas school X had me  fill out a lot of  forms.'')

5) Are we really advancing the public good for which we (schools) either have tax-exempt status OR are using tax-payer money by spending extra money to provide better meals and softer beds than our competitors do? Maybe we should all agree with each other to not waste money trying to outdo each other on stuff of no educational or research significance to the students. But wait---THIS MIGHT BE A VIOLATION OF ANTITRUST LAW. We are competitors, and under federal law are not allowed to (I think) cooperate to prevent a bidding war, even when it would be in the public interest that we do so in order to save money to use on the stuff that matters. 

6) One benefit I get from this as a professor: During the talks  I  hear things about my department I didn't know. 


  1. I chose my undergraduate school (partially) on basis of the tour I got.

    School 1 : "Here's a big concrete block of a university building, go wander about!"

    School 2 : "We'll set you up with a 2nd year student, you get to follow him around, following lectures, and you can ask him anything!"

    Both schools were equally reputable, I chose school 2.

    Fun fact: after the graduation ceremony I had a chat with the student councillor who set up all of the above and found out she knew more about me than my thesis advisor (with whom my relationship was a bit... strained...)

    For my PHD I chose a topic I understood and an advisor I could get along with.

    So yes, students will go for "the food" in the sense that they will prefer a school that will try to make their learning experience pleasant! At the time, I really did not have enough knowledge about the field(s) I wanted to study to make a reasonable judgment about which schools were best for my ill-defined goals.

    And this doesn't only hold for students! When I recently had to renew my teaching certificates, I chose the course that I'd heard, via-via, that offered the best free lunch.

  2. Visit days existed by the late 1980s/early 1990s. I am not sure when schools began cooperating on dates and sharing travel expenses for students going from one school's visit day to another.

    1. (Bill) (1) Earlier than I thought, thanks, (2) Some schools still don't cooperate.

  3. To address points 3-5: yes, students base their decisions in part based on their experience at visit days, just as professors base their decision in part on second visits, where they get some impression of what a school is like as far as general culture, personal connection with potential collaborators, the city, etc. While this is a not 100% representative setting, as presumably the schools try to put on a show, it is not unreasonable to base where to go work (lit. study/research) and live for half a decade or so on such features. As far as the impact on the public good: decreasing the number of poor student-school assignments with some kind of cultural or other incompatibility, only to be discovered in hindsight (or more positively, increasing successful matches) seems well worth the cost of these visit days; this is especially true given that these visit days’ cost for schools is a negligible 1-2% of the *yearly* cost to an advisor of a grad student whom said prof presumably wants to hire for half a decade or so.

    1. (Bill) I take your comments as more of a question: DOES the visit help inform the decision of what grad student to go to (you think yes). This would be a good thing to study and get more information on.

  4. I went to a Berkeley visit day as a prospective grad student in 1985.

  5. In the mid-90s I visited chemistry PhD programs. But I think students arranged these individually rather than having all students visit at once. (Of course, the number of admitted students was an order of magnitude small than the number of students admitted to CS programs now.)