A few days ago, I had the opportunity to ask a few questions from someone who lived it recently enough for her information to be worth something to me. (Julie Larrondo, whom I referenced in an earlier post, while she was admitted at Yale, UMD and UCSC before ultimately choosing Cambridge, didn’t respond) I was told that even a highly-regarded program like the now-qual-free University of Chicago physics department has its share of ego-boost applicants, and these applicants are the reason why even UChicago have a low yield rate. Of course, it often happens that there are people who are accepted to any given program could be accepted to multiple programs, and that’s inevitable.
Every now and then, there seems to be those applicants who apply to what high-ranked programs they can (given their credentials, of course) for bragging rights if their applications are successful. They seemingly apply with little or no regard to what work they actually intend to do, hoping for the fat envelope to reach them and to brag about the fact that they got into some highly-ranked school regardless of whether they actually attend one in the end or not. And, as I said earlier, the students I call Chinese grant recipients seem to try and apply to as many high-ranked schools they can, be it schools that are prestigious in general, despite not being so great in their chosen field, or schools that are prestigious in their field, and for whom prestige is more important than what they actually do in graduate school.
It’s perfectly understandable that applicants do not know exactly know what research they want to do out of undergrad, and that there are some jobs where academic prestige is more important than the actual academic track record, at least when hiring newly minted graduates (I-banking, regardless of whether I means investment or international, comes to mind, but both investment and international banking seem to seek similar things in job candidates). But what constitutes an “ego-boost” move depends on the student’s credentials.
I am lucky not to have met any of them personally at my undergrad, but when you think about it, there are two kinds of ego-boost applicants, depending on what provides them the eponymous ego boost: the ones for whom acceptance provide the ego boost and often decide to attend a somewhat lesser school because it’s a better research fit, for instance. And there are the ego-boost applicants for whom acceptance is necessary but not sufficient for the ego-boost effect to kick in, but attendance of one such school will provide them that ego boost. And acceptance-type ego-boost applicants are more likely to do their homework about applications than attendance-type ego-boost applicants.
The only ego-boost student I’ve ever heard about that graduated from my undergrad actually is the most recent graduate from my undergrad to attend Harvard and, from the description I am given of that student, the student was an attendance-type ego-boost student. Because, as I said in the beginning, this department is very consanguine (a large percentage of the graduate admits are admitted internally, 2/3 is a ballpark figure), not that many will try to go out, and even less will write the physics GRE (1-2 yearly, 3 GRE takers is an exceptional number by my undergrad’s standards). Now, one might say that ego-boost applicants exist because, in part, of what one can do with a PhD degree that uses some of the tools of your field but that does not involve scientific research or teaching, or because of parents who try to micro-manage kids’ applications.