Wednesday, February 05, 2014

Excuses Excuses

To those who read applications for academic positions of various sorts: Have you seen a recent increase in supplementary statements explaining possible shortcomings in an applicant's record? I saw a remarkable number this year, but that could just be a random event.
Over the years, I have seen a few, such as when a serious illness or other major life event affected an applicant's academic program or career progress. I am not talking about that sort of extreme event; I am referring to the more routine type of event and explanation, such as low grades or exam scores.

I am actually quite sympathetic to (slightly) imperfect records. A few years ago I wrote in a post about how I had an incomplete grade for a course taken during study abroad as an undergraduate. I was never able to figure out why I got the incomplete or how to make it up, and the "I" automatically changed to an "F". The "F" looked anomalous compared to the rest of my record and I don't recall explaining it in my graduate applications.

When I see these "let me explain my bad grade/score" statements, I sometimes muse about what I would have written had I supplied an explanation for my F. I hope I would have kept the explanation short, provided only the most relevant facts, and didn't insult others (as one recent applicant did to explain some of his F's -- he is actually smarter than the students who got A's because they were mindless sheep).

So: If you have seen "routine" excuse/explanation statements in applications recently, what do you think of them? How do you distinguish between a convincing explanation and whining? Do you know it when you see it? I suppose it depends, but any comments would be welcome.




50 comments:

Alex said...

What do you think of putting such excuses in rec letters? I've been known to write things like:

"Dear Admissions Committee,

[Name] did great work with me etc. etc. I highly recommend him/her.

[A few paragraphs on his/her awesome work.]

Finally, let me note that if you look at his/her transcript, you might see a few disappointing grades early on. It took a few years for this student to find his/her path. However, for the past two years, this student has been amazing, and has shown great motivation and done great work (discussed in the past few paragraphs). Please don't hold this against him/her."

What do you think of letters like that?

Anonymous said...

Short answer: Excuses are for losers. Successful people find a way to get things done.

Long answer: Don't even mention it unless its a major blight on your record and you have a very good excuse. Even then I'm unlikely to care. Sure a gap of four years between your undergrad and grad degree is big, but if you had good marks, good GRE scores and good recommendations, I don't really care why you took four years off. Sh*t happens.

Anonymous said...

if i've seen "routine" ones this year, i've happily blocked them out. the ones i recall this year are deaths or deportations of parents.

meanwhile, i have a late-breaking review for your collection. this is the entire review in the "release to author" section. the reviewer has declined to elaborate on this by before i release reviews to authors:

"I have to say 'no' to this paper. Although well written, the idea and XXXs given in the paper are just too plain and straightforward, not sufficient for publication in a journal like XXX."

Anonymous said...

I don't recall actually seeing such excuses in applications. I'm also in STEM but maybe in Europe the average level of competition between students is slightly less elevated than in the US.

I have to say that I am very sympathetic to varied experience by the applicant, including taking courses they might realize are not that interesting and if someone would see a need to excuse themselves from not getting an A somewhere would make me suspicious.

qaz said...

Our grad school application to our departmental program is controlled by our university, which has a separate essay for "explanations". Which means we get a lot of them.

How this essay is treated varies across the admissions committee. Some people ignore it, some read it carefully. At first, I let it sway me sometimes, but I noticed over the years that people who had trouble under stress tended not to do well in graduate school (surprise) and that the people who "didn't test well" because of some test-taking problem didn't do well in grad classes, even when given time or accommodation.

Unfortunately, with the falling economy and concomitant increase in graduate school applications, there is competition from people who are not only really good, but also lucky, which means that the question is no longer "do we give a person the benefit of the doubt on their excuse" but rather "do we take the spot away from this other person who doesn't need excuses".

Doc said...

As someone who teaches at a PUI, I'm of the opinion that the excuses start way before grad school or professional school apps. They are making excuses in class and blaming others (usually me) for making classes too hard, too confusing, etc. I've actually met two dopplegangers of the one who made the 'mindless sheep' comment in my classes.

Female Science Professor said...

Alex, I appreciate it when a letter of reference provides information like that.

Anonymous said...

What is the predictive validity of these essays? None

Anonymous said...

As the parent of someone who just did grad school applications, I'm wondering how people react to explaining that the reason for only completing 2 course last semester because of an accident that required major surgery and missing several weeks of classes. I don't see how one could not include this info in the application (and yes, this was anomalous with the applicant's record and he has been accepted places).

As an academic, I think there's a place for explanations, if done judiciously.

A regular reader from Quebec said...

I have a related question.

I'm a stem prof in Quebec, in a French speaking university. I recently had to renew my NSERC (Canadian NSF) grant. There is a section about "delays in reseach and disemination" referring to the period when you held the grant you're renewing.

In such period I had a baby and I moved from an English speaking university to a French speaking university. In particular, I had to improve several levels of French pretty fast (because of a tenure clock).

I hesitated for a while what to write in this section. I ended up writing a couple of lines about both the baby and the French. I felt uneasy about this because my research was still quite active, I didn't need any excuses. At the same time, it's not hard to imagine that I could have done much more without a baby and without moving to a different language.

I ended up renewing the grant to a satisfactory level, and I don't know if the lines did any difference.

So, my question is, would you have done any differently?

This is relevant, I had another baby since then!

Anonymous said...

Looking at this issue from a slightly different point of view...

I have always been rather uncomfortable with any type of excuse (and have very little patience for them from others), yet I now find myself in the position of trying to apply for jobs with a grad school record that is less than stellar.

The primary reason for this is that my little sister passed away completely unexpectedly in my fifth year of grad school. Thus, I have taken longer than intended to finish and have a lack of publications and/or presentations from the last few years. Other far less significant reasons include my own struggle with depression since high school (to the point of multiple hospitalizations) and dramatically switching sub-fields upon starting graduate school (so I had to catch up on knowledge that many of my peers already had).

I have generally not mentioned any of this in applications as I don't want to be seen as making excuses. I also have a strong aversion to being told I'm doing well "given the circumstances". Yet my recent record is not necessarily indicative of my future abilities. Would it be better to mention at least the big reason in future applications (I do not have any offers yet)? Or have my advisor include it in his letter? Or is it better to just hope the rest of my CV is good enough and if anyone feels the need to know they will ask?

Anonymous said...

NSERC holder: having a baby is not the same as an excuse. In Canada this is a properly established mechanism to stop the tenure/grant clock. You should definitely mention it. On the other hand I would skip the "had to learn French part"... my attitude to that would be "cry me a river".

Anonymous said...

1. Explanation ≠ Excuse
Mentioning important events (new parenthood, major family illness) that resulted in career gaps or unusual things like a anomalous semester is, to my mind, useful information.

2. Excuses are a BAD idea--blaming others or events for failure plays very badly for me.

3. On the opposite end of the spectrum, an applicant who takes responsibility for mistakes they made, explains to me how they have changed their behavior to correct issues, and provides concrete examples of things they have done to demonstrate this, this plays very well in certain circumstances. For example, both applications i have read and those from some of my own undergrads, have used this opportunity to take ownership of poor performance in grades early on and to showcase subsequent efforts they have made to make up for this.

Mark P

Anonymous said...

Sorry to say FSP, but you should have gotten the F fixed. I can't imagine that would have been impossible to do if it occurred for some legitimate reason that couldn't be avoided.

Female Science Professor said...

Well, I did try. I tried really really hard but I didn't find out until I was back in the US and there was no internet back then and the professor wouldn't answer his phone and didn't reply to letters and no one in the department office at that university would have anything to do with the situation, they just said it was up to the professor. One of my fellow students thought it was because there was an assignment before the term even started and I never knew about it (there was no syllabus..) and then it was too late. I didn't need the credits so I let the F stand and it did cause me to be rejected by one grad school. I hope you will accept this explanation and see that I really was a very diligent student, mostly, I just had this one bad thing happen in one class and it totally wasn't my fault. Really.

Female Science Professor said...

In a bizarre twist of fate, I ended up working in a broadly similar field to the professor of that course. I had to recuse myself once from a situation because I did not feel that I could be objective about him or his work. It is interesting to think about what I might have done to exact analogous revenge -- just as a thought experiment of course!

BBBShrewHarpy said...

anon at 12:00

I wouldn't mention any of this, tragic though it is.

Anonymous said...

NSERC holder: I would not try to give any explanation/excuse unless you can point to a way that it visibly affected your work (e.g., you went on leave). "It is not hard to imagine" is not solid enough to bother with. IME NSERC is not at all sympathetic to such explanations and it is more likely to hurt than help.

gasstationwithoutpumps said...

I'm not fond of excuses, but a brief explanation of a change in circumstances (as Mark P said) to convince me that good results are to be expected in future can make me look again at a marginal applicant.

Blaming others puts the applicant at the bottom of the list.

Anonymous said...

To NSERC Holder -
Having a baby is completely appropriate for that section of the Discovery app. Moving institutions is also valid - particularly if you are in a research field which involves a lot of infrastructure or a lab which needs rebuilding. My experience in Canada has been that these type of valid time sinks are understood by Discovery reviewers and it's definitely important to mention. This is not the case in other countries, such as the US, where line items on the CV are not itemized and counted so specifically.

Anonymous said...

While we're on the topic, I'm wondering what should be said--either by the applicant or the dissertation supervisor--if the applicant's productivity was impeded by the supervisor? And let's say the supervisor agrees?

Anonymous said...

To the person whose sister died and struggles with depression: first, I am very sorry about your loss.

I would not mention the depression/hospitalization, because, honestly, people might think -- what's to guarantee it won't happen again? and impact his performance again?

I would mention about your sister -- either myself, or ask one of the rec letter writers (if you're close enough with them).

Good luck!

More generally: on one hand I am interested in explanations/excuses in order to properly evaluate the candidate, especially if the negative thing they are explaining is something big and noticeable. On the other hand, indeed excuses sound a bit like whining, and when coming from the applicant, I may worry that it would be a pattern (more problems, more excuses...). Seeing it in a rec letter is much better (unless I feel that I cannot trust the letter writer)

Anonymous said...

I have a question and it is going to sound a lot meaner than I think I really am, but what do people make of a grad applicant who explains low GRE scores by saying that their grandmother died not long before they took the exam and then they were too upset to study or concentrate? I absolutely loved my grandparents and was devastated when they died so I sympathize with their grief. And yet if someone is can't function for a while owing to the loss of a grandparent, does it mean anything about their ability to persevere when faced with obstacles of the sort that happen in grad school? Some of my colleagues don't even believe the "my grandmother died and so I flamed out on the GRE" explanation (excuse) so maybe students should avoid that one even if it is true.

Anonymous said...

I agree with the point that explanations are different than excuses. I've definitely included things in letters of rec that explain anomalies (e.g. a student who didn't get it together until year 2 and then did fantastically). I dislike too much personal info - in part because I don't want to weigh out how much someone should grieve or if they're sandbagging on that mono claim. I would rather have a carefully worded "personal/health issues affected my performance aspects X, Y, Z attest to interest and abilities in the field". Tell me what you do when you face a set-back because that's far more likely to have relevance to your success in grad school than the specifics of what happened to knock you back. Unless what you do is nag your prof until they bump your grade up just to get you out of their hair do tell me that - it will really help me make an admissions decision.

Alex said...

My problem with the "Grandma died before the test" excuse is not the person's ability to function (I get that we will all have a period of mourning and sub-optimal performance), but rather the fact that it's the world's oldest excuse. Yes, yes, sometimes it's true (happened to me once) but you either have to work through it or accept that your only option is to try again next time.

(FYI, my Grampa died before a grant submission deadline. I did what I could, and my collaborators did the rest.)

Anonymous said...

How about this for a 'rule'?: If what happened to you would derail anyone, mention it. If it would not derail most people, suck it up (don't mention it). For example, we admitted a student who had a rough academic year owing to emergency heart surgery as an undergrad. We did not admit a student who said his bad grades were because his parents got divorced while he was in college.

Anonymous said...

Like you know whether it is more "derailing" to have emergency heart surgery rather than having your parents go through a divorce. I don't know either, and I certainly don't know what it was like for those particular applicants, so I wouldn't be passing judgment like that if I were you.

Anonymous said...

OK, yeah, that would be nicer for sure. Let's not judge. Let's admit everyone who applies for grad school. Well, maybe not everyone, just everyone who either has a good academic record or has an explanation for why they don't have a good academic record.

Anonymous said...

I wouldn't be passing judgment like that if I were you.

This is inane. It's our job to pass judgment. One can quibble with the decision in question, but a decision had to be made.

Judging from a couple of examples around here, heart surgery shouldn't slow you down more than a couple of months, so I'm not sure this was the right decision... unless the person spent a year in the ICU, which then is worth mentioning.

I do think successful people have a way of working over adversity: they are given lemons and they make lemonade.

Anonymous said...

The point is that having sympathy for one set of circumstances versus another is a lousy way to determine an applicant's qualifications. Cancer = good excuse; severe depression = character flaw, right?

Anonymous said...

I believe this is a direct result of ever increasing expectations of perfection. Everyone feels like they need a reason to explain why they are not perfect and "no one's perfect" isn't a good enough answer. I for one am sick of the "I don't want to hear any excuses" attitude. A good friend is a wonderful scientist and did very well in grad school. As an undergrad she got Bs and Cs because she had to work a full time job and didn't have the time to study that others do. She was denied a training grant because of her "low" grades. I had a lot of random crap go wrong with my graduate studies (e.g. construction outside the building while I was doing stereotaxic surgeries and the surgery room was vibrating, the lights in the vivarium were all messed up and my rats were exposed to 24hrs of light, not a single person was willing to help me and I had to reinvent the wheel) I was frustrated and upset and mentioned these things (calmly, objectively) in my lab meeting presentation when people were asking why I wasn't further along. The reaction was unanimous. Everyone shut down, no one offered sympathy or support, and later my PI asked if I needed / wanted to change labs. Maybe this isn't exactly the type of thing you're talking about here but I think we either have to present a "no one is perfect" attitude or stop being surprised and annoyed when people feel compelled to explain their imperfections.

EIF said...

My PI died and I had to change labs 1/2 way through a post-doc. I was pregnant at the time and had a baby 5 months after starting in the new lab, so of course the timing was very disruptive. No one wants excuses, so my CV just looks like I am unaccomplished.

Anonymous said...

I did poorly on the general GRE (my subject GRE was spectacular as were my grades). In one grad interview someone asked why it was low, so I answered honestly that I was running a big experiment and had this one single day to take the test so I went ahead and took it that day even though I had had food poisoning the night before. Excuse? Valid reason? Yes, unsolicited excuses are annoying but I agree with Anon 9:31, competition and unreasonable expectations of perfection are inspiring students to provide such excuses.

Anonymous said...

It's not your job to be passing judgment on whether divorcing parents are higher or lower on the Universal Scale of Human Misery than heart surgery. Rationalizing that a student who is derailed by emotional events is unlikely to handle grad school is as reprehensible as rationalizing that a student with a heart condition might need a lot of annoying accommodations or drop dead in the lab. And "successful people work around adversity" sounds an awful lot like blaming the victim.

I think Anon 9:31 has this exactly right. It's the direct result of a system that makes these kinds of explanations are necessary, and it's sickening to see them dismissed as excuses.

Anonymous said...

I am not bothered about the parents divorcing vs. heart surgery misery index judgement. It is actually the job of professors, or at least those on the admissions committee, to judge things like this. If there are some potentially problematic aspects of the academic record of an applicant, it's definitely a judgement call about whether to accept an explanation or not. This is actually a GOOD thing because the alternative is to reject everyone with non-perfect records and not even attempt to judge the explanations.

Anonymous said...

That's not the only alternative. Why not, for example, judge whether the applicant made a good case for how the circumstances were disruptive and how these circumstances are unlikely to arise again? This is quite different from passing judgement on whether an explanation is a "good excuse," which is enormously presumptuous and possibly discriminatory.

Anonymous said...

Having just read another round of graduate admissions and postdoc applications, I'd suggest to not mention any excuses or explanations and instead have one of the trusted recommenders mention it in his/her letter if he/she feels it appropriate. If it is really major, the advisor is probably aware of it, and will write the letter accordingly. If it's significant and not major, then as others have indicated, it's just something that you have to suck up. I especially would not recommend mentioning depression specifically. There are quite a few people who give the depression "excuse" and then claim to be fine. However, this particular issue raises questions about the applicant's future fitness (i.e. will they really be fine later?). In this case, performance track record will be the only way to evaluate the person, and so you may as well not mention it.

Anonymous said...

As an undergraduate, there was one semester when my grades were not so great due to some medical issues. My adviser new generally-speaking what had happened. I remember at one point when we were discussing graduate school applications, he advised me not to say anything in my application, but offered to address it in his letter of recommendation. I don't know what he actually included in his letter, but I indeed did not mention anything in my application (I never planned to, I was just going to suck it up and hope that it would be obvious that the one semester was an anomaly - it hadn't occurred to me that he could address it in his letter). I got in to all but one of the schools I applied to.

Female Computer Scientist said...

I think what bothers me is when applicants have trouble figuring out what is professional to write in their statements and what is unprofessional. Sometimes students share way more than is necessary, and that makes those of us on admissions committees uncomfortable.

That being said, we do really like to hear about overcoming true obstacles. We had a student recently who came from a country where students from their ethnic minority were not allowed to attend college. The student worked their tail off at separate-but-not-equal schools, took online courses, etc., to learn as much as they could. Honestly, their grades and GRE scores are awful, but we're actually considering admitting them because they have overcome so much adversity.

Anonymous said...

I'm in a STEM field in Canada. I got burned by a letter similar to the one Alex described. A very high profile colleague whose opinion I thought I could trust wrote that the student was probably the kind whose grades didn't really reflect their talent, cited some circumstances I don't recall etc. Student ended up being awful, e.g., went rogue on an experimental protocol, ruining the study, then, when conronted, quipped, "well, how was I supposed to know? This is the first time I've done a Master's!!" Indeed I was very naive (first grad student) but this taught me some valuable lessons about grad students that come with excuses. I had my misgivings and I should have trusted my gut.

fyogs said...

Female Computer Scientist said: "Honestly, their grades and GRE scores are awful, but we're actually considering admitting them because they have overcome so much adversity."

I can't see how admitting this person is a good idea. Do you think he or she can do the work?

Anonymous said...

This post leads to a lot of interesting moral and practical dilemmas, but this comment is the one that caught my eye:

"How about this for a 'rule'?: If what happened to you would derail anyone, mention it. If it would not derail most people, suck it up (don't mention it). For example, we admitted a student who had a rough academic year owing to emergency heart surgery as an undergrad. We did not admit a student who said his bad grades were because his parents got divorced while he was in college."

This seems to me to be an unwarranted trivialization of the stress of parental divorce. As a person whose parents divorced when I was a young adult, the attitude that normal young adults should not ever be any more affected by their parents' divorce than they would be by, say, a common cold ... well, it really disturbs me. Divorce of one's parents is one of the most stressful events that can happen in a teenager or young adult's life, and is ranked as more stressful than, for example, either a medical emergency requiring hospitalization, or the death of a sibling, on a widely-used scale of the stress of various life events for non-adults (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Holmes_and_Rahe_stress_scale). There is no good reason to think that the divorce of one's parents suddenly becomes magically an easily surmountable minor irritation on one's 18th or 20th birthday. Also, many college students whose parents divorce will suddenly find themselves with far less financial support available for college than they had expected.

Yes, success is built on persistence, resilience and the ability to recover from set-backs, but sometimes difficult circumstances will derail even the most resilient individuals for a while before they have a chance to bounce back. If you would be willing to discount a semester of poor performance based on a serious illness, or the death of a sibling, I think you should also be willing to do so for parental divorce.

Anonymous said...

Just to offer another perspective, I would have much preferred for my parents to get divorced. I'm not sure it's possible to make blanket statements about what adversity affects people in what way.

Anonymous said...

Anon at 2/11/2014 11:45 again. I agree that it is not possible to make blanket statements about these things. Situations can play out differently in different cases, and the cumulative amount of stress a person has been exposed to in the past year or two also plays a huge role in how well they will be able to cope with the next big stressful thing to come along.

What bothers me is that so many people make the blanket assumption that young adult children, should be unaffected by their parents' divorce. It seems both bizarre and callous to me to make a blanket assumption that parental divorce "would not derail most people" in the way that a serious illness might. This assumption implies that if your performance temporarily suffers when your parents divorce, this is a sign of a permanent weakness or character flaw.

Our culture needs to allow children whose parents divorce the freedom to grieve for a time, even if their parents divorce when they have passed the age of 18.

Anonymous said...

I don't see that anyone said that young adults with divorcing parents shouldn't be sad or grieve. It is a strange excuse to put on a grad application in my opinion. On the other hand anyone with a life threatening health problem that leads to surgery will be affected, that just seems obvious.

Female Computer Scientist said...

@fygos -

The applicant wasn't in my pile to review and doesn't work in my area, so I can't really say one way or another.

But I will say as a general rule you can often, but not always, go by how people look on paper. Currently, my best graduate student (most papers, best ideas, great work ethic) had the lowest undergrad GPA of all my students. And I've seen students with great grades be entirely ill-suited for research.

Anonymous said...

@fcs -- I completely agree with you that grades are no predictor *conditional on being admitted*. When you are making difficult admission decisions, though, that isn't much help. Did the student you are referring to have a C or C- average? While the grades-research correlation breaks down at the top end, at the bottom and middle of the grade distribution it is still pretty good.

Continuing to the top end, I see grades as a one-sided test: good grades are certainly no guarantee of good research ability. But, poor grades indicate lack of research ability, universally in my experience. Does that match yours? I guess I am wondering whether "lowest GPA" means "low GPA" in your example; the student was admitted, after all.

Anonymous said...

I did not bother to include excuses with my grad school applications. I had poor grades but near-perfect GREs and spent several years working as a tech, took a couple of courses and contributed to a couple of papers.

Most of the schools I applied to rejected me (one rejected me three days after I submitted the application, which hurt a bit). Every school that interviewed me accepted me, and only one interviewer was particularly negative about my grades.

I don't think including an explanation would have helped much; the places that wanted to reject on grades alone would probably still have done so and the places that were willing to give me a chance might have been harder to sway on paper than they were in person.

Anonymous said...

I would not put any explanation unless something happened that was bad enough to completely take you out of work and put you on unemployment benefits for a long period of time. But if you continued working through whatever happened, albeit with much struggle, I would not mention it. Everyone has problems in life, though at different times. People have babies, get divorced, family members die...these are difficult times but these are common life problems that almost all people face at some point which they keep working through. Something that I think would warrant an explanation is for example having to stop working because of a serious illness

Anonymous said...

In my experience, not only the explanation/excuse, but how it is written are important. Some applicants know that their record has problems and want to explain to convince us that it was an anomaly, and it will not happen again. Others are writing so that we do not hold it against them. Those are two different things. The masters student messing up an experiment and having no regrets is a good example of someone not willing to take responsibility. The vast majority of people with bad performance have excuses. Bad things happen, and will happen. Learning to deal with them is necessary to success.

My Dept chair will not accept excuses for messing up a lab, not publishing and having no grants. A student who has "issues" may be a great person, but I will not take the risk. I am not passing judgment, I am just trying to avoid problems.

On another note. Many years ago a friend and I were filling up applications for grad school in the US (from abroad). We saw the "explanations " part and thought it was funny. I left it empty, though I considering writing stuff that now I realize was crappy and unnecessary. My friend wrote "my marks are excellent, as you can see from my record. However, these should not be considered to mean anything except that I am good at getting good marks." He was accepted. He left before finishing the first year as he got bored.