Pitfalls of a Grad-School Bidding War

How to deal with competing financial offers from 2 or more graduate programs

Competing graduate school offers

Many students are busy with graduate-school applications this time of year, and although it will be a few more months before most of them learn the fate of their applications, good news will eventually come for those who are accepted by at least one program. Today, I have a few thoughts to share for those who end up in the enviable situation of having to choose between offers of acceptance from two or more programs. Many factors are likely to be considered when deciding which offer to accept, and the significance of each factor can differ from one person to the next. Financial considerations often weigh heavily.

This is one main reason why, in many disciplines, students tend to be provided with significant financial support while they are in graduate school. Read this article on the MyGraduateSchool web site: How much does grad school cost: Can I afford it?  for more information on calculating the costs of graduate school and exploring the many sources of funding. Providing ample financial support to graduate students allows them to be engaged full-time in their studies and research without needing to take a job in order to pay for living costs, the costs of tuition and fees, etc. There is no standard amount or form of financial support from one graduate program to another, and in some disciplines there tends be very little or nothing provided or guaranteed to students in most graduate programs. Money to support graduate students tends to be available in disciplines in which the research done by faculty members attracts substantial amounts of research funding. This would include, for example, anything related to the natural sciences like chemistry, physics, biology or life sciences, and related subfields, and also most of the social sciences, like psychology, economics, sociology, and more.

It has been my impression that over the past 10 or 15 years, there has been a trend toward more and more graduate schools using money as a tool for recruiting the most promising candidates to accept their offers of enrolment. This has certainly been the case in Canada, at least. We now hear frequently of cases in which two programs get into a “bidding war” over a particular student who seems to be exceptionally promising. In most such instances, however, it’s not really the graduate schools that are competing for the student. Instead, it really amounts to two potential graduate supervisors competing to reel in what they both perceive as a big catch. A “big catch” for most university faculty members engaged in research is someone who will be a tremendous asset when it comes to actually getting that research done. Some grad-school candidates are perceived as rising young superstars, and so they may become hotly desired by more than one potential supervisor, who may then decide to compete for the student with the easiest tool at their disposal – taxpayers’ dollars. (I bet a lot of readers did not know that money granted to scientists by government agencies to carrying out research is sometimes used in this way).

When it comes to the interests of the students who find themselves in these situations, however, there tends to be two negative, but not inevitable, outcomes. The first negative thing is that a student whose confidence is understandably bolstered by the fact that potential supervisors are competing for them, misjudge the significance of what it really means, and they become deluded about the greatness of their past accomplishments. The student eventually ends up in one of the programs, where he or she feels that they have already proven something to at least someone – the person or people who tried so hard to get them there. In reality, the money was used to lure promise, not proven abilities and accomplishments. As a new graduate student, one has not yet done anything at all to benefit the program, the school, or to his or her graduate supervisor. Only some promise… still unproven.

But, even if students who face competing financial offers manage to keep that fact from going to their heads, there is still another pitfall to beware of and avoid. Understandably, a student in this situation may feel very tempted to take up the best financial offer. The problem is that this may diminish the influence of other factors, including some that may be more relevant to the student’s long-term goals. These other factors are going to be related to the respective training environments and the opportunities that may be available at the two schools, and these considerations should remain heavily and firmly weighted in the mind of the applicant so that a bit of money doesn’t displace them before important decisions are made.

Frankly, I would never try to recruit a graduate student to join my research team with any kind of special monetary enticement. I prefer to offer the same financial support package to anyone who I decide to accept as a new graduate student. I assume that students interested in doing their graduate studies and research under my supervision have reasons related to the research, the research environment, the properties of the graduate program, and other such relevant factors. And so they should, as these are relevant things to consider when choosing between potential programs and supervisors. I would personally lose interest immediately in any potential graduate students who told me they were being drawn to another place by a superior financial offer. In my opinion, anyone who thinks a few thousand dollars over the course of 5 years in graduate school is the most important consideration when it comes to choosing a graduate supervisor is probably lacking the good judgment they will need to succeed.


image courtesy of Alghasra ahmed665 – http://www.flickr.com/photos/ahmed665/5003252877/


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