“How about just putting names in a hat and just picking one?”
A friend, Theresa, and I were comparing war stories about the graduate application process, and she offered up this witty solution. Indeed, we weren’t actually “comparing” stories, not really. I was simply relaying frustrations that have been voiced by some of my friends and colleagues forced to choose as few as two graduate students (sometimes even just one) from among hundreds of prospectives.
This isn’t about finding a needle in a haystack, the one gem that objectively shines brighter than all the rest. It can feel more like throwing a dart at a far away dartboard and then subsequently drawing a bullseye around it.
Of course, others have lamented the seemingly arbitrary criteria that sometimes separate some great grad-school candidates from other great ones. That’s why I always tell my undergraduates not to take such rejections personally, not to view them as some kind of referendum on one’s potential as a academician.
“You never know what they’re looking for,” the argument goes. And sometimes the departments doing the vetting don’t even know. Or their constitutive faculties simply don’t agree, and really fabulous candidates get rejected as a consequence. So, you put your application out there and just hope for the best.
With the economic downturn, some programs have seen a marked uptick in their applicant pools as further credentialization becomes the reasonable response to a decimated job market. And quite a few of these applications are very strong. Clearly, there are also many prospective applicants who seem further below the bar (in terms of having a legitimate shot at these competitive slots). These are the students who have performed poorly on GRE’s (an easy way to make a first cut), who didn’t get good advice about how to write a compelling personal statement, or who fell victim to lukewarm or minimalist letters of support.
But even after you remove those files from the mix, there are still dozens of stellar undergraduates and post-undergraduates who “tested well,” breezed through their colleges and universities without a single hiccup, wrote prose that could have been put to music, and are asking for admittance to your intellectual community.
The next criterion is “fit.” And that can sometimes do a lot of the work in the post-triage phase of things (or as part of the earlier cuts). Still, there are many more square pegs for square holes than universities can financially support. Combine that with the fact that many departments are worried about academia’s own (shrinking?) version of the job market, which was terrifying to doctoral students even before “the economic downturn” ratcheted up the traumas intrinsic to the process of searching for tenure-track jobs in an increasingly adjunct-tracked scholarly world.
But a lottery might solve all of our problems. Maybe a kind of mixed-method approach—easier early cuts (on merit) that get finished off with an unabashed drawing of straws among the best of the rest.
To hear some of my colleagues and friends tell it, their final choices sometimes already feel a bit like that anyway. With sometimes equally strong candidates turned down as accepted, the entire process can feel quite capricious. You can only hope that another department threw its darts at a slightly different trajectory, different enough to allow them to pick a different name from among the many amazing alternatives you saw.