I realize this is a bit rambling.
One thing that I’ve done for the last few years is act as an associate reviewer for graduate applications for our department. Basically this means I can chip in my 2 cents on applications during the initial review. I’ve already written about my shock at the kinds of letters people write (although I was certainly more naive then). One thing that I’ve come to realize over the years is that it is possible to write a full, good letter for someone whom you don’t know too well that both indicates the basis on which you can evaluate them (e.g. took your class and got an A, did research with your grad student, or did research with you) and is not ambiguous due to “conspicuous omission.” Writing a recommendation letter is an art — if you could just talk to the committee it would be a lot easier, but with N-hundred applicants of whom you admit at most 4 N, the written word is most of what they have to go on.
I often wonder about the total statistics of people who apply to graduate school, especially domestic students who apply to graduate school. At a state school like Berkeley there is a policy to encourage the admission of US citizens and permanent residents (a good thing, in my opinion). But how many of domestic students are interested in graduate programs? Are there many potential strong candidates who don’t even consider a career in graduate school? My gut feeling is that yes, there are many graduates who would benefit from and enjoy some exposure to engineering research at the graduate level who never even consider it. But that’s just a gut sense, which may be off.
The whole process raises a lot of big questions, ranging from “what is the purpose of the graduate program?” to “what can we do at the undergraduate level to bolster interest in postgraduate research?” to “where should the future of academic research in engineering go?” None of these has an answer, and I think that succinct answers are impossible unless you subscribe to some inflexible dogma. But they’re good to keep in the back of my head, I think, especially since I am (hopefully) looking towards a future in the academy.