At the end of March, after two years of virtual recruitment events, the department of Biological Sciences hosted its first in-person recruitment event. It was a smaller, more intimate open house for the students who had been accepted to the program following virtual events in January and February. And it was the first time in the past two years that the department has been able to gather and celebrate. For students admitted during the pandemic, it was their first experience at a live recruitment event. The atmosphere was vibrant and inviting and as I sit here writing this, I find myself smiling. I missed my department. I think we all did.
PhD student recruitment everywhere follows the same general format: interviews with faculty, a tour of the facilities, and drinks with current graduate students. Recruitment the past two years, though, has been a little different. Covid-19 necessitated that all recruitment events went virtual. A Zoom-based dueling pianos show replaced the usual Broadway show. Online games took the place of bar night with graduate students. It was an adjustment for everyone, but the excitement and care that went into these events was undiminished.
Recruitment planning is a collaborative effort between the administrators, faculty, and students. Dr. Nam Ho, along with Program Manager Sarah Kim Fein, Dr. Lars Dietrich, Dr. Dan Kalderon, and current PhD students make up the recruitment committee. They’ve had their work cut out for them these past two years—despite setbacks due to the Covid-19 pandemic, applications to the Biological Sciences program have doubled from around 400 to 800.
One of the most important aspects of recruitment is to give prospective students a feel for the program’s culture. Conveying that nebulous je ne sais quoi that is our collective culture, especially over Zoom, is somewhat of an art form. Dr. Nam Ho, a former PhD student in the program and current adjunct faculty member, has perfected it. Nam is the face of recruitment, the boots on the ground during the weekend. Ask any current student what the most memorable part of their recruitment weekend was and they’ll tell you the same thing: Nam’s campus tour. Nam darts around campus, leading prospective students on the most colorful campus tour they’ve ever experienced. He becomes equal parts tour guide and orator, weaving historical facts and animated storytelling. So legendary is his tour that faculty have requested to join.
“Switching over from a live to virtual recruitment does not mean it was easier or took less time this year,” said Nam. “Planning is a multi-step massively collaborative effort that begins in November of each year - it was a real group effort.”
When I was applying to graduate schools, it was ultimately the culture of the Biology department—warm, social, a bit nerdy in the best way— that sold me on Columbia. I already knew the Biological Sciences program was top-notch. I knew that living in New York City would be the adventure of a lifetime. I knew the faculty and students would be brilliant. What I didn’t know was that I’d feel so at home.
This April, twenty new students joined the 2022 cohort and found their home in the Columbia Biological Sciences PhD program. I hope they’re as excited about starting this new chapter as I was when I went through recruitment five years ago. I know we’re all looking forward to getting to know them!
By Paige Wilson