April 10, 2002: On the Campus


And wait ’til you see the D-Bar. . .

The hows and whys of graduate student recruitment

Illustration: ron barrett

By Michael Frazer GS

As I write, enthusiastic new academics-to-be from around the globe are busily making plans for their first pilgrimage to Princeton, not as mere applicants, but as prospective grad students. With the mailing of a single admission letter, all the relevant power dynamics have shifted. It is no longer the responsibility of the applicants to ingratiate themselves with Princeton, but the responsibility of the university and its constituent departments to ingratiate itself with this new batch of so-called prospectives.

As might be expected from a university with an endowment comparable to that of the House of Windsor or the Vatican, no expense is spared to woo prospectives. We otherwise impoverished current grad students look forward to visits by prospectives with visions of expense-account dinners, not to mention long evenings of university-sponsored inebriation in the Grad College’s D-Bar, dancing in our heads. But while Princeton invests considerable financial resources in each year’s prospectives (of which we are all too happy to take advantage), we current grads make an equally sizable investment of time and effort. The standard practice is to devote the bulk of several days to visiting prospectives — committing endless hours to extolling the virtues of Princeton’s program in ancient Chinese tapestries or medieval literary theory rather than, say, actually finishing our dissertations on these subjects.

Prospective grads must be seduced by academic strength — not Princeton’s so much, nor even that of specific departments — but instead, by the quality of the specialized “subfields” within each department. The faculty and students studying in these subfields are determined to outdo their rivals in luring outstanding members for next year’s entering class. If they fail, the results can be disastrous. My own department, for example, is still feeling the effects of our inability to recruit any — none! — new students of American politics last year.

In most cases, though, Princeton is remarkably successful at luring a large and immensely qualified graduate class to scenic New Jersey. Unfortunately, as the graduate student body grows larger, the resources available to grads become stretched ever thinner. And yet, virtually without exception, every Princeton grad student does his or her darndest to bring as many new students into his or her particular subfield as possible. After all, if the relative number or relative quality of students studying political philosophy goes down, that means fewer new and visiting faculty, fewer classes, and fewer interesting colleagues for me.

Princeton’s most Oscar-inspiring grad alum, the always admired but suddenly worshipped John Nash *50, might describe this as a classic example of when cooperation would prove a better strategy than competition. If all grads could come to an agreement not to recruit next year’s class so determinedly, then we all would benefit — mostly just from more time to work on our dissertations, but maybe even from a slightly smaller entering graduate class, perhaps even a better grad-housing situation. But cooperating in this way would be no real Nash equilibrium. Each of us would always have the incentive to defect from the agreement, to spend those extra few hours secretly extolling the virtues of our subfield to a prospective.

The motives of a grad student are never entirely self-interested. Princeton grads are driven above all else by the love of learning. (We aren’t here for the money, for sure, and we certainly aren’t here for the exciting dating scene.) But unlike one’s feelings for some significant other, the love of learning makes one want to share the object of one’s affection with as many people as possible. My eyes light up whenever I meet someone even slightly interested in the arcane matters I’m studying here. I go on and on about how exciting academic life at Princeton can be, and don’t shut up for hours. This can make me a terrible bore at cocktail parties, but it also makes me a natural recruiter for political philosophy at Princeton.

And that’s why, even if I know I should be finishing that chapter on Nietzsche, you’ll find me each spring in endless conversation with that year’s prospectives, singing the praises of study at Old Nassau.

Michael Frazer GS is personally responsible for driving away all of last year’s prospective grad students in American politics.


Paw Online: Abhi Raghunathan ’02 on the Internet as the great seducer, On the Campus Online.


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