Wednesday, February 10, 2010

Fatal Flaw

All this talk of grad school admissions, reasons for rejection, and whether it is possible to be rejected in a good way reminds me of an incident from my academic youth, when I applied to grad schools.

When I first started looking at grad school possibilities, there were two main areas of focus that were both very interesting to me, so I looked at schools that had strengths in one or (ideally) both of these subfields. As my senior year in college progressed, I tilted strongly towards one of these based on a very positive experience I had with a research project that fascinated me. In the end, I went to work with a professor who was the world expert in the particular topic of my undergrad research and was therefore quite happy with the way my grad school search turned out. Before I made that fateful veer, however, I was very interested in another university.

I visited that university and met its Famous Professors and was very impressed with the facilities I toured and the graduate students I met. I assumed that my visit was organized because my application was at least within the acceptable range for admission. I had good grades at a good school, high GRE scores, had some research experience, and presumably had positive letters of recommendation.

Near the end of my visit, I met with one of the most Famous Professors there. He had my application on his desk. He did not waste any time and told me directly that my application was outstanding, with the exception of one little thing, and if it were not for that one little thing, I would likely be accepted. However, because of this one little thing, my application had a flaw in it and was therefore going to be rejected.

The flaw? During a year spent studying abroad at an international university, one of the professors never gave me a grade for one course. All attempts to communicate with that professor were unsuccessful, and I therefore had an incomplete on my record. Fortunately, I had enough credits to graduate without that course, and it was clearly an outlier compared to my overall academic record.

I explained the situation to the Famous Professor, but he said that there were many excellent applicants who did not have a flaw in their record, as I did, and who would also be rejected. So I had no chance whatsoever of being accepted.

I sort of understood, even though I thought it was a stupid reason to reject my application. It didn't matter in the long run, as I got into the graduate program that was the best fit for my research interests.

I was sort of thinking of this incident when I wrote at the end of yesterday's post that we hope our rejected applicants will succeed elsewhere and eventually make us regret not accepting them. I was thinking about it because I sometimes encounter the Famous Professor in my professional life and I am quite sure he has no recollection of our very first meeting. I was just some random undergraduate -- one of thousands -- who applied to that graduate program over the years. And I have never mentioned it to him, not even when that same university approached me about possibly luring me away from my current university and offering me a senior faculty position.


John Vidale said...

This anecdote does not match my experience with grad admissions.

Usually the process asks EACH plausible prof whether he or she wants to take on this student. Decent students are not tossed out of the pool for marginal issues. One bad grade in a class abroad is no one's disqualifying issue, no matter how good the school. Rather, rejection means all the profs either already had a full set of students or one or two preferred candidates.

Further, no application is flawless. If so, the student has not been sufficiently bold, or has hidden all the flaws. Straight As, for example, usually mean a timid and conventional student. Most may not be as foolish as I was, but my wretched grade in a graduate stellar astrophysics class and my W for the graduate geophysical fluid dynamics seminar revealed my occasional overreaching (not to mention some French History and music grades), but did not cost me admissions.

I have a suspicion that you over-interpreted a casual remark by the Famous Prof, and the issue did not hinge on just the one grade. Or else he was unimpressively silly as well as the sole arbiter of your fate at his school.

Despite this, I'd agree there is a large stochastic component to admissions, and people getting a rejection letter should not take each one as failing a test.

Anonymous said...

Grad school in the sciences: 10 years of hard work, low pay, and an uncertainty about your future.

That secret smug feeling of superiority you get when you realize you beat all your classmates in the paper-publishing and grant-getting game: priceless

Science: when all you care about is what other scientists think about you.

smbelcas said...

On a grad school visit with three other prospective students (all had been accepted, with fellowships), we were told that each of us had flaws in our applications.

Mine was that I had outside interests.

Comrade PhysioProf said...

That's the stupidest thing I've ever heard in my entire life. It makes you wonder how people like that can even survive their stupidity from day to day. I have a motherfucking F on my undergrad transcript (early class Friday morning), and look at me now!

Douglas Natelson said...

Famous Professor sounds like someone with no common sense. I can't imagine rejecting an outstanding applicant out of hand because of a single weird grade (at a foreign university / otherwise optional extension experience at that).

Anonymous said...

Really? I cannot believe it. There must have been some other reason, or that professor was seriously deranged. I cannot think of a single applicant that I have rejected based on one aspect of their application, whether GRE or grades or research profile - let alone a single grade.

Dr. K said...

Wow. You are a better person than I am.

Anonymous said...

FSP, I agree with the 'famous professor', if you have an incomplete on your record you should not be admitted into the program. There are reasons you cannot apply for MANY MANY MANY fellowships if you have an incomplete on your record (even if you don't need the credits). If I were you I would go back (if you haven't already done so) and complete the course! If you cannot reach the professor by phone, mail, email, I would go back to the University where he/she teaches and go camp out at their office and complete the course. In my eyes an I on a transcript is just as bad as an F.

Anonymous said...

Although the post is about random glitches in one's application which ends up getting them unfairly rejected it got me to thinking about another topic, admittedly tangential ... the topic of deciding which grad school to choose (once accepted to a number of them). If you've already established rapport with one professor but another professor at another school's program is more aligned with your interests, how bad is it to decide to go with the latter professor? Would it be burning a bridge with the first prof?

Female Science Professor said...

The anecdote is real, but I agree that it is not typical. Such things happen, but they need not be fatal to one's career (as I hope I showed).

Anon 9:41: I did complete the course; I got an incomplete because the professor was dysfunctional.

Anon 5:31: It's lucky for you and the rest of the world that Science is much more than that.

Hope said...

I sort of understood, even though I thought it was a stupid reason to reject my application.

Well, I don’t. And that is just about the dumbest reason I can think of to reject someone!

I understand that at very competitive schools, it will not be possible to admit every qualified candidate, so some students will be rejected for reasons that have nothing to do with their record. The *least* that faculty can do in such situations is to be honest about that, and not make up some ridiculous excuse about a “fatal flaw.”

And who invites someone to visit who has no chance of being admitted?!

@smbelcas: Mine was that I had outside interests.

I don’t know if you were serious about that, but I’ve heard that one, too, before.

Anonymous said...

I am now faculty at a school where I applied and decided not to attend many years ago. The main reason I turned that first offer down as a single prof who in my interview asked me, "Are you sure you can handle this?" ('this' meaning the really highly ranked dept curriculum). As a near 4.0 student with strong GREs, I was rather insulted and instead went to a slightly lower ranked school that wanted me, got a nat'l fellowship, wrote several papers in a really cool project, and was all around top dog. as evidenced by job offer from really highly ranked school.

However, like you, I still have never asked my now colleague if he recalls that moment..

Anonymous said...

I wonder how many successful scientists today still remember random discouraging comments from 20+ years back. I remember quite a few, and some of them are absolutely hilarious in retrospect. But then again, I'm known for holding grudges. Forever.

Anonymous said...

When I was taking my post-grad course in England, I worked in a shop with a number of undergrads and senior high school students. One of the high schoolers had top marks in her school and was applying to study veterinary medicine. I guess there are only six universities in the UK that teach vet medicine, so she was applying to all of them.

Five of her six applications were rejected because she stapled the application pages together, when the submission instructions had specifically stated not to do so. I guess the rationale was, if you don't follow instructions, we'll give somebody else your place in this very competitive programme.

She was very disappointed, but kind of philosophical about it at the same time, which impressed me, cause I thought it was a pretty stupid and arbitrary rationale.


carlos said...

anon 9:44, who asked about burning bridges: I'm a professor, this has happened to me a number of times, that a prospective student has established a rapport with me but chooses to go elsewhere for graduate school. I understand, and usually have enjoyed keeping in touch with those students nonetheless. Usually they are making good decisions, going to a better school.

Anonymous said...

I agree with carlos. Also, it's rarely either/or: you can work with the second professor while keeping the first one updated with your research. If you do it right, it's called networking.

I've done it before. The first professor was piqued that I chose to do my PhD with someone else, but he later was happy to be on my PhD defense committee and to write a letter of recommendation for me (well, I had to write the letter myself because he was too lazy to do so... that's a different story).

Anonymous said...

Weird. At my University all international exchange applicants are ungraded. Instead, they are given a Satisfactory/Unsatisfactory grade. Come hell or high water, they will not get their letter grades revealed normally.

Anonymous said...

Anonymous @ 1:03 pm:

Thanks for sharing your history. My advisor and several of my family members thought I was out of my mind last year: "You want to go into academia and you're turning down offers from [two well-known universities] so you can go to [decent but not famous school]? Are you out of your blinkin' mind?!" (I should add that, at one of these schools, I was asked the same question as you by two different profs--"Are you sure you can handle it?" Ummm, would I be applying if I didn't think I could?)

I love my small department, where I have become a "rock star"--and I still hold out hope that maybe I can get an academic job after all. It's nice to know that someone has trod this path before.

John Vidale said...

I'm surprised at the number of posters who found the "can you handle it" question insulting, intimidating, or off-putting.

Really it is THE question facing skilled beginning graduate students - whether they are interested enough and effective enough to conduct research, so it is the question of the day in application season.

I remember being amused at a faculty interview with a top department (which led to an offer) when the the chair asked "how will you lead [my field] into the 21st century"? If challenges are intimidating, it will limit one's ambitions. I wasn't leading anyone anywhere; it was just another way of asking about future plans.

Anonymous said...

I would get rid of recycling. I do not like when some treehugger looks at me when I put my soda can or newspaper in the trash. Do they not realize I am creating jobs in the future by providing aluminum to the landfill to be mined in the next 100 years or so?

Also, no more bikes on campus. There is nothing more annoying than being stuck behind a bike going 12 mph.

The ideal solution would be to embrace the moped. Most students at Asian universities have a moped. It would be cool if my university had moped riders instead of slow bikers and even slower walkers.

Ms.PhD said...

John V said I have a suspicion that you over-interpreted a casual remark by the Famous Prof, and the issue did not hinge on just the one grade. Sexism, anyone?

Keep in mind, we're still in an era where Famous Profs are known to say they don't need to admit more women because they already have one in the department. That may have been a factor whereas for CPP it was fine to have an F. Boys will be boys.

The thing is, from what I understand it's more competitive now than ever. I'm not sure how many students are admitted now with Fs and Is - or even interviewed.

Having said that, I interviewed for grad schools in a field where sometimes you're admitted before visiting, and sometimes the visit determines whether you're admitted or not. I had a similar experience with a not-so-famous prof who tried to intimidate me. I do think this is part of the hazing because, fellowships aside, there's nothing else about research that correlates with grades or GREs.

As I've written extensively on my blog, students with strong grades and test scores are often the least prepared to handle the kind of constant failure that is a life in research.

You have to have a kind of bull-headedness to get through grad school. If you're put off by people questioning your ambition or ability, probably better to find something else to do. The sooner the better.

And good riddance to Famous Prof. I'm sure he doesn't remember saying that to you- he probably said it to hundreds of other students, still firmly believes he's right and completely forgot all the examples of successful people like FSP who prove he's absolutely wrong.

Kevin said...

"...there's nothing else about research that correlates with grades or GREs."

Ms.PhD, do you have any data to back up that assertion?
It looks like hyperbole to me.

I've certainly seen a positive correlation between undergrad grades and research ability, and a (probably smaller) correlation between GRE scores and research ability. I don't have hard data to point to, and my sample size is probably too small to be really meaningful, but I'm certain I could find validation studies done by the publishers of the GRE that show a positive correlation.

I'd be really interested if you could show a zero or negative correlation.

Having just gotten through the admissions process, I can tell you that one F in a sea of As is going to raise questions but is not going to result in no admission, if the letters and personal essay indicate that the student is a really strong researcher. A bunch of Cs is much more likely to cause rejection than one F.

John Vidale said...

John V said I have a suspicion that you over-interpreted a casual remark by the Famous Prof, and the issue did not hinge on just the one grade. Sexism, anyone?

My remark was that the rejection of an application was probably NOT entirely due to one European incomplete grade.

How is that sexism?

If you're a hammer, everything looks like a nail.

John Vidale said...

On second thought, the only logical reading of your "sexism" comment is that you agreed with me - it wasn't the odd grade, it was really FSP's gender the FS wouldn't accept.

I don't know enough facts to opine on the role of gender as you did, but if that was your meaning, sorry about the "hammer" remark.