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Graduate school examines admissions to lower attrition

While the University's doctoral programs go to great lengths to bring in applicants, the increase in attrition rates throughout most of the Graduate School has led administrators to question the thoroughness of admissions processes.

Lewis Siegel, dean of the Graduate School, said virtually no correlation exists between degree completion and GPA and GRE scores, and that programs should delve further into the actual applications, giving priority to those students with deep-rooted interests in the respective fields of study.

"Just using numbers is a lousy way of determining the best fit," Siegel said. "We need to read the damned applications."

The University Program in Genetics has the highest completion rate at the University, about 87 percent. Dr. Joseph Heitman, the program's director, said their low attrition rate is due largely in part to strong faculty-student relationships.

Heitman stressed the importance of making sure the student-adviser match is strong. He said applicants are also encouraged to view the website, which has links to all of the current students, newsletters and descriptions of events hosted by current students.

"In any graduate program, you have to consider that there are different career aspirations," Heitman said. "Not everyone who enters the program will become the head of a lab, but we don't admit anyone that we don't think should be getting their Ph.D."

Marcy Speer, director of graduate studies in genetics, agreed that the program looks for students who show their commitment from the beginning of the process. She said they pay special attention to students who have previous research experience in science and in genetics in particular. "The normal [reason for attrition] is lack of fit--what's going on in the department doesn't interest them," Siegel said. "The question is, 'Why don't we know that before they get here?'"

Siegel said one tool that can ensure a better match could be interviewing students in person, although flying in international students would be expensive. Also, paying more attention to parts of the application like the essay could help predict success, he said.

"To be honest, it's difficult on any sort of paper to tell whether someone is going to be successful in their field," Graduate and Professional Student Council President Rob Saunders said.

Kate Anderson, graduate studies staff assistant for economics, said cost is a factor for some of the programs. She said the economics department rarely flies in international students, but they do pay for domestic students to fly to the University, go to dinner with professors and stay in a local hotel.

However, Monty Reichert, director of graduate studies for biomedical engineering, said their program strategy tries to match students and faculty members from the beginning by placing application folders in bins which are accessible to all faculty members.

"Rather than taking the top 50 applicants in raw horsepower, we recruit people specifically into labs," Reichert said. "The downside is that it makes lateral mobility difficult if they want to move labs, but we have mechanisms for that. It occurs very infrequently."

Reichert added that the BME program is at an advantage over other engineering programs, because it is a specialized program not common to every engineering school.

"We are able to skim off the top of the applicant pool.... [whereas] civil engineering is working against a much larger cohort of competition," he said.

Reiko Mazuka, director of graduate studies for social psychology and health sciences, said the program does not accept students without first interviewing them. Applicants visit the University for a weekend, during which they usually stay with a current student in the program, interview with six to eight faculty members and go to a Saturday night social mixer.

"It helps both our perspective and the student perspective," Mazuka said. "After being here for a weekend, they have a much better idea about what graduate school is like and don't come in with a very wrong expectation."

This helps narrow the pool from about 400 to the seven or eight psychology acceptances.

"The main thing is to create an environment where students have continual contact throughout their graduate career with people at different stages-doctoral, postdoctoral and professors," Heitman said.

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