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Like Watching Sausage Being Made



blog-0094846001360979028.jpegThis week I got a peek behind the curtain at the application review process and it's not pretty. As they say "a little like watching sausage being made".

At a social function I overheard some discussion about the PhD applications under review (in another department at another school on another planet with no specifics about any individuals, I swear).

Using a sample size of admittedly N=1, I was struck by the difference in the relative importance various members give to different parts of the application. Some like SOPs some don't place much emphasis in them. Some want a hard number for GREs, others(like many of you I gather)think they are worthless. Some are impressed by pedigree - others almost seem to rebel against the idea. Apparently a sort of weighting system has evolved - but in trying to reach consensus among near equals there appears to be a reversion toward the mean - so that in the end no single part of the application was rendered unimportant.

In reflecting on how applicants probably need to react to the process I thought about that old joke:

Two campers are awakened by an angry bear outside their tent. Fearing for their lives they jump out and start to run away. One camper says to the other "I sure hope we can outrun this bear" and the other says "I don't care about outrunning the bear - I just hope I can outrun you".

With no absolute formula or level that ensures acceptance - how you stack up compared to the next guy may matter the most. (Ah, a true economist - thinking at the margins). If the rubrik depends on a small set of judges who hold very different opinions about what they are looking for the best bet is solid strength everywhere rather than brilliance in one aspect of your work that hopes to compensate for major shortcomings elsewhere. This may not be the situation in a lot places - but I suspect it's more common than not.

Fez Out.


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I think luck is the biggest variable in that formula. 

Reviewers moods, personal opinions, and own experiences bias the outcomes more than not. 

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I've talked to professors who don't care about the GRE at all and others that use it as their biggest deciding factor. There's really no way to guarantee a spot without kicking ass in every aspect of the application and hoping that the admissions officers are feeling generous that day.

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I agree that the whole admissions process is very unpredictable and there is no magic formula that will guarantee success (other than to be awesome at everything and apply to a lot of schools). I think that the mindset "well, the GRE isn't important, so I shouldn't worry about it" is foolish, but so is the thought that "If I do really really well on the GRE, perhaps the committee will overlook other aspects of my application!" is also incorrect. I've also heard similar stories to the one TheFez presented here both by other students as well as being a part of a discussion about applicants with current faculty members. 


I don't think it's a bad thing that grad school admissions vary so much from one place to another and that you can't have a magic formula / list of things to do that will guarantee success. In courses, for most assignments, we know what the expectations are and we know what we need to do in order to get an A etc. But in research, and in "real life", there is no magic formula. You can do everything right and still end up wrong. Or, you can make tons of mistakes but still turn out okay. 


I think it makes sense for people to discuss and ask things like "Is a letter from X better than one from Y?" but I don't think it's possible for people to exactly quantify their "value" or compute some overall score based on LOR+research+GPA+GRE+whatever and then compare to some master list with the magical numbers required for each school. I think this is a good thing -- it would be very depressing to know that all the aspects that make you unique gets compressed to just one number. Maybe it's easier said now that the application season stress is a year away, but I felt a HUGE wave of relief after I finished my last subject GRE (and even after I got the mediocre score). At that point, I knew that I had pretty much done everything I could towards my applications and there was nothing left to do but wait. I knew that some schools might really hate that GRE score but there's no way to know which one and there's nothing I could do about it!

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I think luck is the biggest variable in that formula. 

Reviewers moods, personal opinions, and own experiences bias the outcomes more than not. 

Timing, as with so many things in life, is crucial. Space: also crucial, though dependent.


I was chatting with one of my LOR writers about the general misery involved in the application process--the harrowing self-doubt, the statistical near-impossibility of matriculating, &c., &c.--and she told me that one can only do so much to make oneself appear beautiful in the eyes of an application committee, but one cannot help it if his or her application happens to be on the bottom of a giant pile, at the end of a LONG day for an adcomm. It is unfortunate that all applications must be done in a sequence--one after the other--because, should yours come at the bottom of the aforementioned pile, you may get a more cursory consideration from Dr. Twinkle-toes and friends, who want to de-parch their gullet at the local watering hole (and Happy Hour is ending all too soon!) Would that the adcomms had the resources to evaluate equally each and every application !


But, assuming that the space-time continuum would remain unmolested, I approached my applications with this insight in mind. If my application should have the grave misfortune of spending a day crushed under the weight of heavy GRE scores and swollen curricula vitae, then I should do my best to make it as enjoyable as possible for an adcomm; I can command their attentions and respect if I can but earn them; I cannot blame them for growing sick and tired of listening to the same song over and over again for days on end; it is my duty to sound the reveil, to wake them out of their unhappy slumber, and prove to them that I am worthy.


We all are charged with burdens heavy, gray,

And yokes uneasy; better 'tis, methinks,

Like Oxen under Sun, to bear the lot

Unconscious happy, always dreaming red.

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This all makes complete sense to me.  15-20 years ago I wouldn't have believed it (too naive, too invested in the idea that the system is rational and functional) but in my working life, having been involved in hiring people, evaluating proposals, etc, I've seen how arbitrary these kinds of processes can be.  You need to be good enough to be seriously considered, but beyond that, things get really idiosyncratic.  And often a completely deserving candidate just doesn't get it because there is room for only so many and someone had to be rejected.

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In terms of there being no magic formula, I don't think the system is "broken" (in contrary to margarets' post above). There may be other things broken with the system but I think the grad school evaluation process works.


Like margarets said, once you are good enough to be seriously considered, it's kind of arbitrary. And I think this is fine. I don't think there is a real difference between candidates at this "good enough" level. Most people on an admissions committee may be able to agree who the top X students are and any finer ranking is probably going to vary depending on expertise, luck, interest, etc. In addition, I think once you are "good enough" (varies for each school), you probably will succeed if you have the resources, so that's as far as "merit-based" considerations need to go.

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