Reader query: how to handle prospective student visits?

A reader writes with the following query:

I wanted to pose a question to readers about a situation that I’m sure others have faced before.

I’m a female graduate student in philosophy. In my department, we are expected to host prospective graduate students who make a campus visit. I have recently been asked to host a woman in the coming weeks.

I am very divided about how to respond to this request. On the one hand, I desperately want there to be more women in the department. The percentage of female graduate is already incredibly low and the climate suffers as a result. On the other hand, I could not in good conscience recommend to a female visitor that she join our department. Since I have nothing positive to say about the climate of the department, I don’t think it would be appropriate to play host.

What should I say to a prospective female grad student? Should I lie (directly, or by omission) about the climate so that she will be more likely to accept our offer, and so help contribute to the diversity of the department? Or should I be frank, making it less likely that she will accept our offer? Is there any middle ground? I don’t want to lie, but I also don’t want my department to continue to have so few women.


We would very much welcome thoughts from readers on this issue, but we ask that comments be kept general. Any comments making reference to specific departments or individuals will be edited or removed.

17 thoughts on “Reader query: how to handle prospective student visits?

  1. Tell her. There are things I would have liked to know about my department before coming here that no one told me; and there are things I learned about other departments in the course of interacting with current grad students while visiting programs that made me decide not to go there.

  2. Yes, tell her. Ultimately, the prospective student will weigh the potential costs and benefits for herself. But she won’t be able to do that as best she can if information about climate is withheld.

  3. Since you cannot in good conscience serve the purpose of the host program, I think you are correct that “to play host” would not be appropriate and, thus, that you should decline to participate. But you should be honest with prospective grad students who ask you, as a non-host, about the climate of your department. Lying or deceiving in an effort to attract more women seems out of bounds.

  4. Please be frank and tell her the truth. The department’s climate isn’t going to be improved by recruiting students who are subsequently surprised and unprepared for what they experience there. An improvement in climate seems more likely to result from some top-down changes, rather than simply from the bottom-up recruitment of more women across whom the problems can be distributed.

  5. At the same time, do know that sometimes the department finds out that they have been portrayed with some negativity. They do not like that. One thing you might try is to try to create a context in which some criticism is appropriate. E.g., let her decide how much she wants to ask, balance the negative with some positive. E.g., “We have hardly any women. Even though the department is very strong in X, Y, and Z, that does not balance out the gender distribution. I’m really hoping you’ll be interested in coming, since the low numbers of women is for me a large negative.” If there’s more than the usual from the male domination, then perhaps you should add that in and maybe even think of leaving???

  6. I feel guilty to this day that 10 years ago I did not discourage a woman from becoming a Master’s student in the department I was then in. When I think about how she and her husband spent their life savings for what I knew (but did not tell her) would be a miserable experience, I feel sick.

    Do it tactfully; do it in a way that protects you; but tell her.

  7. If the climate for women is the main problem and you have other positive things to say about the program, I think you should go ahead and host. After all, her choices unfortunately might be limited only to programs that have climate problems! It might be important for her to know she will have at least one ally in your program who is willing to be both frank and fair. I would answer questions honestly but without dumping on your program or engaging in any needless gossip. When I was in your position, I answered questions by limiting my discussion only to climate problems I had personally experienced – I didn’t want to repeat any rumors that might not have been true. And I balanced that information with strong praise for those professors and students who were supportive and made the department a good place. Ultimately we did recruit more women and the climate improved. I feel like the best recipe for change is a combination of honesty and energetic, positive support – I would rather be at a place where most people had that attitude, even despite some problems, than a place where people were deceptive or despaired of making any change.

  8. As another woman in philosophy, I would not encourage you to lie to the prospect, but I want to point out that the climate is unlikely to change unless your department attracts more women, and if she comes on board, that is one more step towards fixing things. I would tell her that also. If the department is otherwise a good fit for her interests, she might well both succeed academically and contribute to making things better. I know some people will balk at the suggestion that it is women’s responsibility to make things better, but frankly, I *do* feel a responsibility. Not the whole of it, obviously, but I intend to spend my time making a safer space for women. If we all give up or only flock to a few departments, the rest of the discipline will suffer.

  9. Current graduate students have a moral obligation (a) to make themselves available to answer questions from prospective students, especially if they possess important information that others may not possess or may not be willing to share, and (b) to be honest with prospectives.

    Note that you need not make a recommendation. You need not say “Don’t come here” just because you think the climate is problematic. Nor must you say “Come here” just because your department wants your help recruiting.

    Often graduate student women experiencing bad climates are in a position to say something like this, “There are ways in which it’s hard to be a female student here. For example, [be specific]. But there are some positive things for female students: [be specific]. I would love to have you here. I hope you come! I hope you’ll talk to a whole bunch of students here, and at the other places you’re visiting too.”

    (Sometimes a student has had some bad experiences she doesn’t want to share. The moral obligation to be honest that I’m talking about is just a pro tanto obligation and can of course be overridden.)

    Some students are so miserable at their program that they are not able to get themselves to speak at all positively about the program, or to speak calmly about the program. Such students should not host prospectives in their homes. But many students have had bad experiences but can still be friendly, cheery hosts who will describe their own experiences without being too intense, and have at least something positive to say about their program. Such students would make fine hosts.

  10. Not sure if this is the case for your department, but people’s experiences of a place with a chilly climate can vary quite a lot depending on whereabouts in the department they are located, i.e., which faculty members/other postgrads they spend time with. In my experience of a place with problems, there were the problematic people, and then some very lovely people – all of whom were members of faculty. Folks whose contact was primarily with the problematic people had a very different experience from the folks who were supervised by the lovely people.

    If this describes your department, maybe it would be worth also talking about this, to give prospective graduate students an even more detailed picture?

  11. What I did was send a prospective student (who was curious about climate issues) the emails of half a dozen or so women who had recently graduated. At least one of them told the prospective student not to come and I did nothing that the department could blame me for. So, one can do the right thing w/o risking getting into trouble. (FWIW, I don’t think our climate is that bad. We’re generally a supportive bunch. But the ratio of men to women is definitely higher than it should be.)

  12. I’ll echo Liz’s points (as I often find myself doing these days…). Its actually very detrimental to recruiting if hosts don’t seem to be dealing with prospective PhDs straightforwardly. Also departmental cultures can vary wildly; it is in everyone’s interest that new PhD students know what they are signing on for when they make a 5-6 year commitment to a particular department.

    Prospective graduate students should make sure that they talk to *lots* of different people in the department and that they ask very specific conditions about what it is like to work there. Who are the main advisers? What are advising relationships typically like? How will your progress be evaluated? What kind of support is out there? How long does a PhD typically take? What do people do outside of work? Where do people get job interviews? What do they do once they leave? Don’t settle just for vague reports about the climate—try to get lots of particular evidence about what it will be like there.

    Hosts should be willing to answer these and all other questions honestly (and like Liz said, this is a pro tondo “should”.) The only good reason not to host is if you don’t have the time or sufficient concern for the department to want to help prospectives get this information. Also departments should make an effort to recognize that conscientious grad student hosts are doing everyone a huge service… those visit days really are critical to the grad program’s future.

  13. I am a bit concerned to see you say grad students are “expected to” host prospectives. Is this a reasonable expectation? Is it possible to draw to the department’s attention that it should not be assumed?

    I really liked participating in liaising with students who looked at Wisconsin, and I felt free to tell prospectives honestly that the climate wasn’t perfect (this was the ’90s, so not reflective of the current state of things) and also to report some reasons I found the place rewarding, instructive sometimes, but needing improvement in others. This didn’t seem to deter people. The only time one looked like she was having second thoughts was when I pointed out that Wisconsin didn’t have particular strengths in French Continental thought, which was undeniably true and which was important to her. But if you feel like you’ve got information worth sharing, that could help someone learn more about the department, and if among other things you really believe some of the problems are due to low numbers of women, this seems reasonable to tell prospectives.

  14. With regards to beta’s comment, I can say that when I was a graduate student (not too long ago), it was absolutely expected that we would host prospective incoming grads, that we would set up social events, show them a good time, etc., etc. Although this was often fun, it also contributed to several of our more horrific climate incidences. In that sense, the booze+social events aspect that was present in CO was also present in my department. I suppose it was as honest an introduction to our department and its plusses and minuses as could be expected (though I really wish we had found a better way, since this kind of stuff is an invitation for things to get out of hand).

  15. “I am a bit concerned to see you say grad students are ‘expected to’ host prospectives. Is this a reasonable expectation?”

    It is not a reasonable expectation when there are serious climate issues in a department. When there aren’t serious climate issues, and students are satisfied enough, the need for any strong expectation would (usually) be superfluous.

  16. You might also consider where else the student is visiting and what you know of the climate at those places. My department does not have a great climate for women, but it’s something we’re talking about and trying to change. I know of departments with similar climates who are not talking about it and are not trying to change it. Prospective female students will not be told honestly about the climate problems at those places, and may come away from the visits with the impression that things are worse at our department; that impression would be false. That is, all other things being equal it’s better to be at a bad department that’s trying to get better than an equally bad department that isn’t, but part of getting better is being honest about shortcomings.

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