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June 13, 2005

Just no pleasing everybody

I competed for one of the University's Doctoral Dissertation Fellowships for next year. It's a really great funding opportunity for doctoral students to focus on completing their dissertation in their last year as a student.

I thought I'd be a bit of a long-shot and heard a few weeks ago that my proposal wasn't accepted. (You can flat out say it was "rejected" but in these times of good feelings towards all, the language has been altered ever-so-slightly. Kind of like how the Academy Awards are now announced, exchanging "And the winner is..." for "And the Oscar goes to...")

I'd just gotten around to reading the reviewer comments. I don't know why I get nervous about such things, maybe it's because I have a bit of trouble with criticism. Actually, it's not the criticism that's the problem, it's the anticipation of criticism. And as criticism goes, this wasn't so bad.

For example, all four reviewers thought that my writing was very good. (I am a good writer when I put my mind to it, and it's carried me through a lot of otherwise tough spots in my professional career.) My application was "well written" with a "strong personal statement"; best of all, it was "lucid."

Most of the criticism was regarding two acknowledged weak points: my lack of publications and the vagueness of my proposed methodology. As to the first, that's a common problem which I am trying to remedy. This reinforces my need to get some publications before I enter the job market, but overall it wasn't a shocker. As to the second weakness, that's kind of inherent in what I'm doing for my dissertation. I'm devising a model -- a method -- for linking human illnesses with pathogen rates on certain food and animal sources. I've never done anything like this before and there's no step-by-step formula. So, yeah, the methodology was a bit vague because that's the meat of my dissertation -- coming up with the method! I knew this was going to be a problem and didn't know how else to describe what I was doing, so this wasn't a big shocker, either.

While that was the heart of the criticism, there were some other little tidbits that seemed to reflect the idiosyncrasies of the individual reviewers. One that has caught in my craw a bit is the following:

"Weak undergrad GPA (3.16); never commented upon."

Well, thanks to the personal soap box that is my blog, allow me to comment on what Reviewer #4 considers to be a glaring omission. First of all, I was floored by the idea that anyone cared what I did in undergrad as long as I had graduated. I thought that my exceptional academics through my Masters and PhD careers might over-shadow my solid B average in undergraduate studies. But now that the subject has come up, let me tell you, dear Reviewer #4, why my GPA was probably so "weak":

• My microbiology major was very hard, requiring many high-level mathematics and chemistry classes in addition to the micro classes and labs,

• I wanted to challenge myself, so I took classes like Multivariate Calculus,

• I believed in a strong liberal arts education, so I took challenging non-science classes like History of 19th century China and Contemporary British Literature,

• I wanted to challenge myself physically, so I became a member of the Tae Kwon Do club and worked my way up to a green belt, something I never thought I'd do since was not an athletic kid,

• Grade inflation may be rampant now, but it wasn't in the sciences and mathematics departments at Iowa State University in the early 1990s,

• Many of these classes kicked my butt, but I got through them, earning my B or C and am proud of what I accomplished and that I never had to retake a class (except for Library, which is a hilarious tale in and of itself).

Jeez! It's this type of nit-picking mentality in academia that sours me on the whole profession. But despite my rant, it hasn't gotten me down. Criticism isn't so bad as long as you put it into perspective.

Posted by rigd0003 at June 13, 2005 7:30 PM | Frustrations | PhD Process | Rant


Calm down or you might lose that "lucid" bit.

No, I don't have anything constructive to say. Shutting up now.

Posted by: nathan at June 14, 2005 9:07 AM

Wow, that is pretty crappy for them to pick on that. I didn't realize that a 3.16 GPA was so weak. I would actually think that is pretty good. You have the right to be mad - that is total crap, and like you said, what you have done in the 10 or so years since your undergrad years should be more significant. Why not go all the way back to grade school then. "Applicant's use in kindergarten of yellow-green crayon when the instructions clearly were to use green has never been commented on". "Applicant should comment on how her English report in 8th grade was not politically correct by today's standards".

Keep up the good work and don't let one jerk get you down. That reviewer probably only pointed it out because s/he is self-concious about his/her own "weak" GPA.

Posted by: allan at June 14, 2005 4:09 PM

Thanks to everybody for the comments and commiserations (many not posted). As I said, the whole "weak GPA" thing was a minor, off-topic comment and overall I hold no grudge for my application not being accepted, since it was a long-shot with those other weaknesses. I just had to let off a little steam...

On the bright side, it's probably a good thing I didn't get the fellowship because now I've got even more incentive to finish and go on to other things, rather than thinking I've got an entire year to get everything done.

Posted by: rigd0003 at June 14, 2005 4:22 PM