Trying to find Profs at a University? Just 5.4 clicks away…

Here’s a rant for you.

Yesterday I was trying to find lists of Entomology researchers and staff at various Universities.  This turned out to be a very frustrating experience, and I decided to follow up on this a little more closely.  I pretended I was a potential graduate student who was interested in Entomology, but who did not necessarily know who (i.e., by name) to look for.  So, I went to main University homepages and attempted to navigate my way to a list of faculty within, for example, a Department of Entomology.

This was a stunningly frustrating and annoying process.  In my largely unscientific approach, it took me an average of 5.4 clicks (range 3 to 7) to get to Faculty listings in a series of Canadian and US Universities (my sample size was 20).  The best was Ohio State and Iowa State – in three clicks I was able to get to the list of Entomology Faculty.  These worked – essentially you move from University Page to Academics, where there is a complete list of Departments and from the Departmental page there is a clear link to ‘people’.  The most clicks was seven, and of these, Penn State was the worst because once you got to the Department of Entomology, you still could not easily access a list of people and had to instead navigate through ‘research areas’.   At my own institution, it took me 7 clicks to find a list of faculty within my department (yikes!).  The most significant challenge of this exercise was to ‘guess’ what College or Faculty (or Department) to navigate to (Faculty of Science?  College of Life Sciences and Agriculture?)

Department of Entomology at Iowa State - a winner!

Department of Entomology at Iowa State – a winner!

You might argue this is useless exercise, because people will just use Google.  However, if you don’t know who you are looking for you are forced to deal with University websites.

I tweeted about this issue yesterday, and Alex Wild and Crystal Ernst suggested this is one key reason why researchers need to set up their own profiles through Google Scholar profiles (e.g., here is Alex’s) or through their own websites.  I agree with this, but it is still important that you can be found at your own institution!  

Think of this again in terms of a potential graduate student searching for staff listings in an area of study that interests them.  How quickly will someone give up and seek a site that is easier to navigate?  

A bigger question:  who is the audience for a University website?  Donors?  Alumni? Staff?  I would argue the audience is students, and as such, these sites must be designed for students – and in many cases (especially for potential MSc and PhD students), students are looking for people: informative and easy-to-find listings of faculty should be a priority.

In sum, University websites are not easy to navigate.  Try to find a list of people?  Good luck.  

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8 thoughts on “Trying to find Profs at a University? Just 5.4 clicks away…

  1. Since universities started building a web presence back in the 90s I have felt that their websites are some of the worst-designed on the web. I do not understand why it’s SO hard to make a clear, attractive, intuitive interface with the world. We may be under the impression that the primary audience for university websites is students, but I think we’d be wrong. The front pages of most university websites are there to say “look how awesome we are!” They trumpet the accomplishments of the people who are already there, or who have been there in the past. This appeals to the media, the donors and the alumni, and it may make the place very appealing to potential students. But the next thing those potential students must do is Enter The Maze. Good luck, young searchers. I think many more potential students and collaborators find me through my blog or facebook or other more ‘friendly” gateways, than those who navigate the institutional labyrinth.

  2. I absolutely agree with your frustration as I have ‘been there done that’! Both while on search for my M.Sc. and Ph.D….. and currently again while thinking of post docs. Although there will always be a culture of networking and ‘who you know’ in academia, I am always at lost for an answer when undergrads come to me for advice about how to find potential supervisors. For those interested in my general field I usually sit down with them and give them a list of names to google, since its often easier to find someone’s website (personal or university) via a search engine than within the university’s website. Otherwise my best suggestion is for them to look in the literature and google names of people whose research they admire. Granted this can be a very time-consuming and often frustrating exercise if the people they are looking for don’t have a website (or a very poor one). The Google Scholar profile is a great idea but not one I have seen used very often.

  3. It’s a real problem. I remember spending an incredible number of hours looking for labs for my PhD (I was in the position, as you’ve suggested, of not really knowing who/what I was looking for and so was using a shot-in-the-dark approach). Sometimes googling “entomology” was helpful but not always, as many practicing entomologists identify as ecologists, modellers, evolutionary biologists, etc. and as you know there are nearly no formal entomology departments in Canada. It was basically a matter of manually working through University web sites, one by one, (page by page by page by page by…) until I hit on something that looked appropriate. A very frustrating and time-consuming experience. (I’m lucky I managed to find YOU in all that mess, lol)

  4. Most of it all comes down to luck, I think, regarding to finding the most suitable project/professor as a new graduate student. Other parts of the process are networking and knowing the most appropriate places to search (e.g. society webpages, third-party sites with position postings, etc).

    It certainly weeds out the less-passionate students if they easily give up at this very initial stage of their career.

    That being said, I wish there is a Canadian version of http://www.findaphd.com/ because that’s what I am heading towards to in the coming part of my career.

  5. Collecting information for grad applications was so frustrating an experience that I could only resign myself to the idea that ferreting what I needed from university websites was part of the evaluation process. And it shouldn’t be.

  6. Thanks everyone, for the comments – these have confirmed what my little project showed. So… can we do to make a change? Perhaps, at the very least, Departments/Unit need to have a VERY clear list of faculty with descriptions of what they do, so hopefully a google search will get people to that page. And it’s pretty clear that individuals also need to have their own profiles independent of a Uni website.

    Finally, as was suggested to be move through twitter, “directories” can be important e.g., http://esc-sec.ca/direntomology.php and http://entsoc.org/resources/education/colleges (thanks Chris MacQuarrie for reminding me of those lists)

  7. Hi Chris,
    My daughter has been struggling with this exact problem as she attempts to apply for her Masters. In fact, frustration with navigating universities’ websites to apply for her Bachelors eliminated more than one university from her application file.

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