Graduate School Applications: How to Fail Spectacularly

In Part 1 (see here), I describe my experiences as an undergraduate researcher. These early years set the foundation for my concept of, “what is it like to be a scientist!”. I don’t have an answer as to whether my undergraduate career with Ray Kesner was real or a dream. It was my best years in academics. Ray encouraged my enthusiasm for science, let me flourish as a researcher, and always made me feel like my hard work and determination was worthwhile. My undergraduate experiences with Ray were the ruler by which I measured the rest of my alternative academic reality. My time in graduate school and postdoc, was it a dream, or a nightmare? And when I awoke (left academics), was it time to get on with my real life as a Special Education teacher?

Beginning of the End

The more you read,
The more things you will know.
The more you learn,
The more places you’ll go.

I love reading. I taught myself how to read when I was 3. By the time I was 8, I was reading my father’s very extensive library of novels including Issac Asimov, Tom Clancy, etc. At some point during elementary school, I read the Great Books of the Western World, which included Aristotle, Plato, Shakespeare, Sir Francis Bacon, René Descartes, John Locke, Sir Issac Newton, David Hume, and Sigmund Freud. Just to name a few. I read all these books because my father is a bookworm. To this day, he reads several novels a week. His physical library is now digital, but it is no less impressive. My twin autistic brother, Kyle and I grew up emulating my father, reading anything and everything we could. Not a bad environment in which to grew up. But that did sort of seal my fate…

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Year 1 Interviews

I applied to several dozen programs, but many never even interviewed me. I am just sharing the interview experiences I had. I will refer to individuals as “they” in order to protect all identity.

Program 1

For this program, I was not given any say on what labs I interview with. The interview process was completely set up by the admission committees.

  • For my first interview, we talked about what their lab was up to and the different technology that they had in their lab. They talked about how much they respected Ray’s ability to think big and answer hard questions. We chatted also about place cell recording and other scientific ideas they were currently interested in. The conversation was easy, not strained. We shared a lot of great ideas.

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  • The second person I interviewed with was a young faculty member not yet tenured. I mention this because all my interviews with mid- to -late career faculty members (particularly BSD faculty) went swimmingly. Young faculty members almost always gave me the runaround. This interview started late as they were still interviewing another student. When I finally sat down, a graduate student in their lab was allowed to interrupt. I sat there while they chatted. My interview was scheduled to last 15 minutes. Instead of being interviewed, I got to sit in their office while they casually chatted with their graduate student. When they returned from distraction and started the interview, we ended up talking a bit about epilepsy, but they were more interested in telling me how others labs studying epilepsy were absolutely foolish idiots. After my 6-8 minute long 15 minute interview, I left for my next interview. I didn’t want to be late.

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  •  I interviewed with another young faculty member for my third interview. I walked in and the scientist had me sit down next to their desk. They turned a laptop over in my direction and showed me a powerpoint of work going on in their lab in collaboration with Ray. What they didn’t realize what that they were showing me work that I had actually done for them in Ray’s lab. I never pointed out their error and I just let them blather away about this awesome research they didn’t realize I did. Besides, I was never given time to speak anyways.

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The next week Ray called me into his office and asked me what the heck went wrong with the interviews. Two of the people I interviewed hated me, because I had totally offended them during the interview. They flat said I should not be accepted into the program, because I was absolutely not graduate school material. These two interviewers labeled me as being antisocial and compared me to a previous student that had dropped out of the program because they too were antisocial.

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To make matters more confusing, the first person I interviewed with (mentioned above), tried to do everything they could to get me accepted into the program. I know this because that interviewer told me so when I saw them next. Even upon pushing, no one on the admissions committee would give Ray and actual reason for why I was so anathema to them.

I emailed and thanked everyone I had interviewed with for the opportunity and asked if there was any feedback on my interviewing that could help me in the future. Most blew me off (i.e., no response, which was fine as I did not actually expect one). The second interviewer mentioned above, the one who disrespected my time during the interview, specifically emailed me back and said that they do not give feedback to anyone and it was inappropriate for me to have asked.

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After this interview experience, Ray suggested I needed to soften my persona and perhaps work on some social interaction skills. He said that sometimes I could come off arrogant and a little bit autistic. I didn’t see this at all. My impression was that they just did not want me and were trying to hurt Ray by not accepting me. Interestingly enough, they did not hesitate to collaborate with Ray later on when they needed his help for their grants.

Program 2

Again, the admissions committee assigned us to people to interview with. Fortunately, I was able to make a new acquaintance and we later collaborated on some projects. We probably would have never done research together if it weren’t for my interview.

  • For my first interview, we had a great conversation about the concept of metric and topological processing and how the research I was doing could be used to inform research into how individuals with Alzheimer disease get lost and fail to appropriately navigate. We planned and later worked on a collaboration using virtual reality technologies.

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  • For my second interview, we talked about how much fun operant conditioning with pigeons is. We walked the halls outside their lab and they walked me through the infant research they were doing on developing attention. There was no way we were going to work together, but it was a great conversation.

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  • My third interviewer was the program chair. We talked about Ray a lot, because they brought it up. They asked me quite bluntly why I was interviewing at that school and in a psychology department: I told them I was applying there because of the research program they had in their department. Again quite bluntly, they told me that I was not going to be a very good fit for the psychology program. This interviewer recommended point blank I stay and work with Ray a few more years and apply in the future to their neuroscience program. They thought I was doing great work and felt that I still had some things to learn from Ray and I should take advantage while I had the chance. I appreciated their candor.

I accepted what the department chair had said, and, despite feeling good about the interviews, I knew I was not getting in. I did not get in, but I did not expect to, so it was no shock.

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Program 3

I had an interview at this school after I emailed to ask if they had received my application as I had heard nothing. They had received it, but I had not been invited to interview because they had discounted my intention to interview there because my CV was disproportionally impressive. Why would I apply if I wasn’t serious about the program?

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I had universally positive interviews and experiences with the researchers. Specifically, I spent the day with one scientist tinkering around in his lab and talking about science. We also talked about how much fun Ray is and how big his ideas are. This was an extremely positive experience. So much in fact that I went over to this researcher’s lab over spring break that year to pilot out some behavioral tasks for their lab.

This scientist told they he wanted me in their lab, but the school was not nearly “good enough” for me. I deserved better. I needed to go somewhere that deserves my research record and creativity. I say told, but it was really more of a command. I appreciate this scientist for telling me their opinion so clearly.

Over two-thirds of my applications that year were triaged. I decided to take the advice of the scientists I had met at interviews. I worked with Ray to improve my CV even more and I decided I would apply exclusively to neuroscience programs and not psychology programs from there forward.

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Year 2 Interviews

Program 4

For this program, I got to select the people I wanted to interview with, so I could get to know more about their labs. In hindsight, this might have done me in, because the people I choose to interview with were later forced to leave the school. It amazes me how politics in a school can affect potential applicants! This wasn’t the first time politics among the current faculty prevented me from getting into a program.

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I remember sitting outside prior to my first interview with the admissions committee, which consisted of three professors and a graduate student, and chatting with them. It was a very friendly and casual conversation, so when I was to later interview with the committee, I wasn’t worried.

  • For my first interview, we were talking about hippocampus circuit dynamics and how I thought the hippocampus worked. When I started talking about time in the hippocampus, this scientist laughed and told me (about Ray), “There are some people in this world that are 10 or 20 years ahead of everyone else. They just lack the ability to describe it in a way that others can understand. The rest eventually catch up.” They meant this as a criticism/critique, but when I told Ray he thought it was a high compliment. It wasn’t meant as one, though.

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  • For my second interview, when I actually interviewed with this scientist it was a nuts and bolts interview. They showed me the lab, the apparatus, and we talked about the technical requirements of the acquisition system, how long data analysis takes, and the approach to writing papers in the lab. We talked funding (as this researcher knew Ray shared such info with me). We ran some behavioral ideas past each other as potentially interesting single unit recording experiments and troubleshot why they were likely bad ideas. We also talked about theta and gamma rhythmicity in the hippocampus and what the implications of this researcher’s new theories were on place cell recording as a field. Interesting, this particular BSD research is widely considered one of the bigger jerks in the field, and yet I was able to get along with them effortlessly.

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  • For my third interview, instead of interviewing with the head PI like planned, I was interviewed by two students. The lab PI was on an SFN conference call. We talked about theta rhythms and how to interpret certain data if we increased or decreased the frequency of theta. I continue to have productive scientific conversations with these two students.

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  • For my next interview, we talked about the VTA and behavior, particularly the importance of reward in spatial learning and memory. This was a generic, good experience. At this time, we set up the potential for a research rotation if I got into the program.
  • This was the most fun interview of them all, even though it started off rather awkward. This scientist did not know how to talk to an animal behavioral person given they were purely a computational neuroscientist. To get things moving, I asked them how specifically their modeling software worked and then we had a good conversation after that. We talked about the importance of theoretical neuroscience and how I could develop tasks to test their models specifically before moving the model forward to testing in humans.
  • For my 6th interview, the interviewer and I talked about bug navigation and what we can learn in mammals from insect navigation. It was fascinating. I only put this scientist on my list because they studied navigation and collaborated on some papers I enjoyed reading. It was a good chat, we both had a good time.

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  • My final interview was with the admissions committee, which consisted of three faculty members and a graduate student. This was decidedly _not_ a good experience. From the moment I walked in I was attacked. Their tone of voice was negative and accusatory. They asked why I had chosen to interview with my last interviewer as they worked with bugs and I worked with rats. I told them why and they scoffed at me. For the next question, which was more like a statement of fact, they wanted to know if I was only going to test Ray’s theories no matter what lab I worked in. I told them no, I was champing at the bit to learn new theories, methods, and technologies to better understand brain function. Then they said I didn’t deserve any of my first author publications and further claimed that Ray just put me as the first author even though I had done none of the work. I think I was just in shock and instead of losing control of my emotions over such an offensive statement, I sidestepped the offense and talked about the process in Ray’s lab by which I was successful. Again, the committee jeered. In hindsight, I really wish I had lost my cool over the inappropriate questions, but at the time, I assumed they were being jerks to everyone to see how people responded to pressure.

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Besides the positive interviews I had with everyone BUT the admissions committee, I knew I wasn’t ever going to be accepted by my peers because social time meant drinking lots and lots of alcohol. The school purchased a keg for the student gathering on the first night. When we went out to restaurants the following nights, drinks were ordered on our behalf and the grad students were trying to keep our glasses full to the brim. The graduate students also commented how great it was for the program to buy their alcohol for this weekend. We met for dinner one night at the program chair’s house, I lost count of the wine bottles and students staggering around. That next night was a final party. It was awkward. It was inappropriate. Between Jack Daniel’s and beer, there was too much alcohol being consumed for any professional gathering. I nursed a bottle of beer so it looked like I was drinking even though I really wasn’t. In the end, I was offended and I’m sure everyone could tell, but I’m not sorry for being offended at people drinking too much (Link).

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That school rejected my application. I emailed the professors I had good interviews with and thanked them. The first and third interviewers I spoke with replied quickly and said that they were shocked at my rejection. The first interviewer was actively planning on accepting me into their lab. Funnily enough, I remember during my awful interview with the admissions committee that they outlandishly claimed was how I was a horrible fit for this particular lab. I remember this because I had no idea how to respond to such a statement.

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Program 5

I was flown out a day early to speak with 2 of Ray’s and my collaborators before the interviews. We discussed the nuts and bolts of how both of these labs worked and I spent extra time with the postdoctoral scholars and graduate students. It should have been a sign, but each and every one of the students asked me how many papers I had, but did not seem particularly excited about the answer being 11. In hindsight, I should have lied and said 2.

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The interviews at this school went really well. I had long conversations about theoretical modeling and how it informs scientific inquiry. I got to meet a few computational modelers that were (and still are) heroes of mine.

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  • My first interviewer (one I had visited the previous day) showed me around and told me how their lab worked, and specifically asked if I was willing to learn C++. I said I was and meant it. They thought it would be great if I could continue the neuromodulator story that I had tested in Ray’s lab by using slice physiology, place cell recording, and behavioral manipulations. So we started planning experiments until the next student showed up and I had to leave.
  • With my second interviewer (the other one I had visited the previous day) we troubleshot temporal processing in the hippocampus. We talked about recording coordinates and the nitty gritty of how to get results of well-designed behavioral experiments. We planned what I would do in their lab moving forward.
  • My last interview was great, I had the chance to ask a computational modeler about their models and how space and time were interwoven at the level of the hippocampus. We debated if it was space that led to time or vice versa. They convinced me it was space leading to time. We talked about how important it is for people in my position to read computational work to inform our research, otherwise we were shooting in the dark. I agreed wholeheartedly.

My interactions with faculty were AMAZING, and these were all big deal researchers at a big deal university. We were able to share big ideas. They all wanted me to come into the program and take my experiences and ideas and add it to their own to see what came out of the interaction.

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The students, however, did not seem to share that enthusiasm and once again, my peers, prevented me from getting accepted into the graduate program.

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What did happen was that I was rejected. I thanked the researchers I interviewed with and they told me they were disappointed. The first person I interviewed with later came up to me at the next SFN, pulled me aside where no one was around, and specifically apologized. A BSD researcher apologized to me, an undergrad! Their students did not want me in lab. This researcher did not know specifics but they surmised it was because the students did not want to compete with me in the lab given my publication record. This interviewer felt bad that they did not fight for me. At that point, what they did was to offer me a postdoc when I finished graduate work. The second interviewer specifically told me to keep in touch because they wanted me to postdoc with them after graduate school.

To this day, I consider both of those scientists colleagues and friends. Any time I see them we have long conversations about science and how we can all work together to make the next big discovery.

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Program 6

This school felt like they were working to get me. I was assigned three student handlers that were instructed to speak science and keep me interested, and sell the program to me as hard as they could. They knew how many papers I had and asked about ones in preparation. It was comforting.

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  • With my first interviewer, we talked about TBI and how they model it in rodents. We talked about behavior and how to better model what we see in humans with TBI in a rodent model. We also talked about science in general and what my general approach to the scientific method was.
  • My second interview went similarly well, I spoke with them about the dentate gyrus, extensively. This researcher was a collaborator of Ray’s and was interested in what was going on in Ray’s lab.
  • My third interviewer and I had previously contacted by email and we had set up a way to do a clandestine interview. This researcher does not do interviews with individual students because so many students want to interview with them. My interview took place in the car while they drove me back to the hotel after a presentation of theirs I attended. We talked about the weaknesses of my research using rats and I agreed that there are a number of better models. We also talked about my autistic brother and how that informs my scientific approach. If I got into the program, we agreed I could do a research rotation in their lab.

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I did not specifically interview with my fourth interviewer. They had a cool poster at a data blitz about a genetically altered mouse without a hippocampus. We talked for a few minutes and they asked, to challenge my abilities as they were skeptical of my CV, what behaviors I could run on that mouse. I told them I would run hippocampus and non-hippocampus dependent tasks to show impact of lack of hippocampus but intact everything else. This scientist was so excited to continue our conversation that at a banquet that night we talked for 3.5 hours nonstop about what they were researching in the lab and what I could do for him. If I got into the program, we agreed I could do a research rotation in their lab.

I have covered the partying and nonpartying aspect of this school in a previous post. Aside from the drinking, which was way less out of control that Program #5, I generally had a great time.

Despite every conversation going well and my three rotations already set up, I almost did not get in. The head of the program called Ray and Ray flat told them how foolish they would be to not accept me. Despite my record of scientific success, in the end, Ray still had to beg this school to accept me as a graduate student even though they really didn’t want to.

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Why getting into graduate school was hard

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People define me by my intelligence. There’s no stopping them. Much of the feedback I got was that I’m antisocial or arrogant. Here’s the thing. When it comes to social interactions, it is a lose-lose situation for me no matter how I try to act. If I’m silent? I’m called aloof, pompous, and antisocial. People will then try to force me to talk. If I talk? I’m often seen as pretentious and labeled a “know-it-all” and not in a fun/good/endearing way. I can’t downplay my intelligence either because then I’m being pretentious. There’s no winning. If you haven’t gathered yet, I love learning new things and it isn’t hard for me to be genuinely enthusiastic about new ideas, new challenges, and new problems to solve. I get overly animated when I get to learn something new or have figured something out for the first time (i.e., that’s why my blog is all about celebrating discoveries whenever possible). Admittedly, I probably tend to over share with others. Buy hey, knowledge is power, right? I get very animated and lively when talking with others and being tall (6’6″) that just makes my liveliness all that more awkward.

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My quirks and tendencies likely cause people to think I’m weird. I’m sure therefore people think I’m a braggart, flaunting my knowledge and showing off, but I’m just enthusiastic about learning something new and I want to share. More than once, my quirky intelligence has resulted in people angrily calling me “autistic”. At first, I didn’t think much about what people were saying, but then more and more people used autism as a derogatory slander against me and I noted that it had become inescapable.

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To be frank, I don’t know why getting into graduate school was so difficult. The ACTUAL reasons given to me directly from the schools and people who interviewed me ranged from the ridiculous and to the offensive: I was too good / I was a poor fit; I would have been too much competition for the other students in the program; I had too many publications; I was too knowledgeable and not tabula rasa; I was too much like Ray Kesner; I wasn’t likely going to be able to complete graduate school and would drop out at some point; I was anti-social; I didn’t get along well with others; I was autistic. Because so many people just willfully misunderstood me and said these awful things about me, I felt like my failure to get into graduate school was 100% my fault, because I was unable to express myself appropriately. Unfortunately, everyone around me also thought it was my fault. Ray advised me to “soften my image”, so I grew my hair out long to look more laid-back. Others commented that I was “autistic”, so I doubled my efforts to try and be as outgoing as possible. Only now do I realize, I was never going to win…

In terms of interactions with current graduate students during all the social gathering, I was keenly aware that I was the odd duck. For starters, I was the only one among the interviewing students and current graduate students that were married. Students interviewing were interested in the night-life / dating scene, whether or not they could easily get medical marijuana cards, how lenient were the programs about extended vacations, etc. I just sat their silent (not aloof), because there was no way for me to include myself in their discussions. In retrospect, I wonder how much of this contributed to my not getting into programs. But if being married hurt my chances or contributed to my being called autistic, then draw whatever conclusions you want. It hurt a lot at the time to know I was being rejected by my peers.

I should probably mention at this point, that I KNOW that I am not on the autism spectrum. I have the testing to prove it. I was part of the UCLA-University of Utah Epidemiological studies in the 1980s characterizing autistic children and their nonautistic twin probands. I was one of those nonautistic probands. Multiple ADOS and ADI-R say so.

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Conclusions

All in all, most of my interviews were fun. I was able to have great, lively conversations. When it came to interviewing with my peers (graduate students and young faculty), they were the ones that didn’t like me. My interviews with well-established and BSD researchers were all fantastic.

What strikes me as the most peculiar in all of this, is that schools and programs that actively triaged my application have also probably triaged a lot of other qualified applications. Programs do this and not think about the reputation they are developing. By treating potential graduate students so abominably, you are guaranteeing these individuals will make sure everyone they know should not apply to this school and even avoid collaborations with faculty. In the future, they won’t even consider the school for postdoc or faculty positions. By gaining a bad reputation, universities are limiting their overall pool of potential candidates for all positions (graduate students to faculty). Just something to think about…

What are some of your graduate school interview experiences? Please share in the comments section!!

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One thought on “Graduate School Applications: How to Fail Spectacularly

  1. Kathy Buck says:

    I enjoy reading your posts! (Although I have to admit that I don’t understand most of your experiments and results. Of course, you already know that!) I didn’t know about all of the problems you were having getting into graduate school. I’m sorry it was so difficult. I hope you are enjoying your new career! You always were great with Kyle!

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