A looming question for all students coming to the end of their degree program is “what next?” If the answer is a graduate degree or postdoctoral fellowship, it’s time to start looking for a supervisor.
Universities spend large amounts of money and resources on undergraduate recruitment, but in many cases (notably in the sciences), recruitment to graduate programs is driven by individual faculty members’ research programs. So this often makes faculty members’ web pages the primary contact point for many aspiring students.
It is often difficult to find well-organized, accurate and up-to-date web pages at the department level at many Canadian universities. The same is true when it comes to searching for potential supervisors online. In many cases, faculty members’ websites present outdated and inaccurate descriptions of their research program. Often, the faculty member (or a web-savvy graduate student in the lab) has created the web page, which then sits dormant and forgotten, either because the professor is too busy to maintain it or because the graduate student who did the updating has graduated and moved on.
As an example, consider one of the websites I visited, and assume that it’s the site of Dr. Smith from the University of Everywhere. Dr. Smith outlines his research interests clearly, but as the site hasn’t been updated since 2002, his list of “current students” is almost certainly out of date. Dr. Smith’s e-mail address doesn’t appear on the site, and the site itself is almost entirely text. There are few visual breaks, making it hard to read. If I don’t know Dr. Smith, what is there besides a very nice picture of students sitting in a field to entice me to work in his lab?
Sadly, the problem is more widespread than just one terrible website. In my quest to find a supervisor, I searched every Canadian university for an ornithologist (my specific field) and evaluated those faculty members’ websites based on date of last update, date of most recent publication, and availability of a list of current students and student contact information.
Of the 48 websites from universities with a graduate program and bird researcher (29 maintained by the department and 19 by faculty members), 47 (98 percent) had detailed research interests and 42 (88 percent) were easy to find from the department’s main page. But only half (24 sites) contained a list of current students, and just eight sites (17 percent) provided student contact information.
On average, the most recent publication listed was from 2005 (range: 1997-2009), and on average, sites had last been updated in 2006 (range: 1997-2008). Twenty sites (42 percent) had no update information, and seven (15 percent) did not even list publications.
What’s in a great faculty website?
Listing your research interests is obviously important. If I want to study under someone, I had better know what my project is likely to entail.
Maintaining a current list of publications is also critical since this practice not only allows potential graduate students to assess the work done in the lab but also allows them to assess how productive the lab is likely to be.
Even more important is the need to maintain a list of current students, as well as email or telephone contact information for them (posted with the students’ permission, of course). Peer consultation is essential for prospective students trying to evaluate a research program. They can ask the current students candid questions about their supervisor’s style, strengths and weaknesses, and balance these against their own work habits.
For the truly conscientious supervisors out there, a brief page for prospective students couldn’t hurt. Even if you’re not accepting any graduate students, a statement to that fact will avoid a waste of time on the part of both parties. A current photograph also helps students put a face to a name or e-mail address and will make potential supervisors more approachable (especially if the supervisor has a gender-ambiguous name). General summaries of research for the public can also be useful for non-experts, or for potential students, if your research area is difficult for others to understand.
How to build it and who can help
Many universities’ computing services departments offer guidance or actual professional development seminars on web development for faculty. (You can also read this University Affairs article on how you can build one for free). To paraphrase, you may not know web design, but you know what you like. Browse other faculty web pages in your department or field and, besides noting the esthetic qualities you prefer, notice aspects and functions that you like. You should incorporate these into your own site. A professional-looking website isn’t hard to build if you go about it the right way.
A good website is all about delivering accurate information in an appealing way. Sites should generate interest in faculty members’ interests and research programs, recruit graduate students and be an outlet for public presentation of research. They should not be bogged down in technical jargon, or be difficult to navigate, outdated or annoying. Many people are familiar with designing PowerPoint presentations – the same esthetic rules generally apply. (Blinking text and fire-engine red backgrounds probably aren’t a good idea.)
The best way to “test drive” a new site is to canvas your current students. Ask them what their impressions of your research program would be from your website or how the site may (or may not) reflect what goes on in your lab.
Anyone can make a website, but making a site that looks professional and will be used as a student recruitment tool will take some thought.
Here are a few better faculty websites for your reference. They do not represent an exhaustive list of excellent faculty sites, nor are they perfect (and none are those of my supervisor or other close collaborators). Click through the hyperlinks to take a closer look at what you think works, and what doesn’t.
- Dr. Marc-Andre Villard (Canada Research Chair, Université de Moncton)
- Dr. Tony Williams (Professor, University of British Columbia)
- Dr. Bill Montevecchi (Professor, Memorial University of Newfoundland)
Alexander Bond is a PhD candidate at Memorial University of Newfoundland and a former student web technician at Mount Allison University.
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