Multidimensional grading, continued

Because I am still a little green to this business of teaching, I will TA the second electromagnetism course next semester, with a small amount of students (6-10) and an instructor known to be disorganized (and acknowledges his lack of organization) so I knew that attempting to supplement a poor instructor with recitations as someone new to in-person TA was a daunting task. Not only because of how I will have to act in the classroom, but also because of the instructor’s lack of organization, I will have to bring him to order every week and even beg him to proctor and grade the tests in his place if it came to that.

Because of his lack of organization, he always wants to teach to students outside the mainstream, which usually means teaching second or third-semester courses to demi-années when he isn’t teaching advanced courses. Nevertheless, since multidimensional grading allowed me to minimize the miscarriages of justice in that applied abstract algebra course, the students I will be teaching to next semester will also be graded according to multidimensional grading.

Chinese grant recipients

A few months ago, I briefly mentioned Chinese grant recipients, and how they were easy rejects for American and perhaps European PhD programs, because they exhibited large discrepancies between their test scores and their actual language abilities as evidenced by their personal statements. But the Chinese equivalent to, say, the NSF GRF is, like its Western counterparts, highly competitive and, in practice, those with the actual grants are among the best and the brightest in China. These grants come with bonuses that can make GRF recipients jealous, and they can get reimbursed all of the following:

  • Application fees
  • Test-taking expenses, including travel costs
  • Supporting materials (however, consulting services other than transcript translations cannot be reimbursed)

But the grant, along with its supremely lavish bonuses, is disbursed only if the student is admitted; if the student is shut out, on the other hand, the grant is revoked and the bonuses are gone with it. For this reason they tend to have extremely long application lists, in hopes that the expenditures will be outweighed by an acceptance (although not often at schools near the top of their lists). Oh, of course, once the student is enrolled, the student has the same obligations towards the government as any other government grant awarded to graduate students, so these extravagant bonuses really are the only difference between an ordinary grant and that one.

So, yes, it can be quite lucrative for students, but, because the lucrative bonuses are granted conditionally to an acceptance, at least a wide coverage is important to them. For them, just being within range of the grant. let alone receiving it, can lead to a year of spendthrift that can either lead to a five-year adventure of graduate study and, upon their return, vastly different prospects on the job market, or a financial disaster that they will have to pay for over many years, their lifetimes even. That is, if the crushing blow of so many rejections won’t lead them to suicide first.

I also mentioned the infamous Chinese grant recipient that applied to 40 schools under such a grant who applied at Vanderbilt. It turns out that he was rejected from both Vanderbilt and the University of Montreal (however the other 38 verdicts are not known) and that grant recipient must have spent over $5,000 in application-related fees… More typical of actual Chinese grant recipients is applying to 15-20 schools.

However competitive the application process that might be, getting that grant is not much different from Western graduate-level scientific grants in terms of paperwork. They have to write an essay (in Mandarin though) about what they intend to use their advanced degree for, an idea as to their proposed research directions, and, whenever possible, relevant bibliography. Since China believes much more in STEM research than in humanities research, I wouldn’t be surprised if there was a completely different grant for humanities and social science, which is much less generous in cash terms than this grant, if any.

But, because the students awarded that grant are among the best and the brightest of the Chinese STEM cohort, and the grant is a symbol of society’s belief and trust in them, as well as of high hopes, most of them truly will do everything they can from the moment they apply for both graduate school and the grant; however, they hear back from the grant before they hear back from graduate schools. They may well apply for both the same year but the grant deadlines are months before the schools’ deadlines…

The city a school is in

Suppose for a moment that you’re OK with attending a school with an urban or suburban campus and that you can afford it. For undergrad, many people will at least care somewhat about municipal issues that go way beyond security on campus and, provided the school isn’t like Vanderbilt and you have to resort to on-campus housing the first four years (in the event you double-major, change majors too late or other forces majeures), cost of off-campus living. Some students may be scared away from a school because something nasty recently happened in the city that school is in.

Case in point: St. Louis vis-à-vis WUSTL. Many prospective students at Washington University in St. Louis, most of them being out-of-state, or otherwise not living in the Illinois part of Greater St. Louis (in fact, about 90% of WUSTL’s undergraduate student body comes from outside Missouri or Greater St. Louis), and then I would not assume that the average applicant to WUSTL would actually know anything about how the Ferguson riots really affected the school (i.e. almost no on-campus effect) despite knowing that Ferguson is a town in the Greater St. Louis area. The truth is that the Ferguson riots have portrayed St. Louis, perhaps exceedingly, as a racist, violent city.

The thought process of many a WUSTL applicant, even some prospective graduate students, is, if they happened to consider WashU when the riots were ongoing:  “WashU is in St. Louis. St. Louis has a lot of riots going on! WashU is unsafe”…

Sure, all the nasty stuff that happens in St. Louis have affected Saint Louis University’s applicant pool as well, but SLU, which is a school with a more regional profile, draws more students from Missouri or southwest Illinois than WUSTL does and is less affected by the naïveté of the prospective students vis-à-vis the social situation in St. Louis. In fact, it really took the girl I mentioned in an earlier post a better understanding of what really went on in the Forest Park neighborhood to put WUSTL back on her application list.

So, other than cost of off-campus living and campus security, what other municipal aspects are taken in account in a college decision?

Dairy farming, poutine and such

In this end-of-semester crunch, time to lighten up somewhat. Here are two food-related questions who, surprisingly, both have the same answer:

  1. Where’s the world capital of dairy farming?
  2. Where are the best poutines in Europe found?

The answer to both: Moscow!

Jokes aside, Russian dairy farming can still boast having the largest voluntary milking system in the world. But whether or not Moscow will be able to retain the title of “world capital of dairy farming”, earned in the early 1990s, only time will tell; in fact, Moscow’s ability to fend off the challengers (St. Hyacinthe, Canada, Emmental, Switzerland, to name a few) to this title depends heavily on the health of Russian dairy farming as a whole.

As for poutine: since Moscow is the world capital of dairy farming, it can be counted upon to supply the cheese required for poutine, even when accounting for the locally-grown potatoes. However, it goes without saying that, while Moscow may have the best poutines in Europe, the gravy used in poutines served in Moscow (and in Russia more generally) is quite different from the gravy used in North American poutines (and Quebec in particular).

Vanderbilt back on my list

Today, I just received an email from Vanderbilt saying that they have actually received my application, while, in fact, I kept a near-finished application that I could submit for free (not exactly because there are supporting materials to submit) if any unforeseen circumstances happened. It so happened that I received an email from Vanderbilt while I haven’t quite submitted it yet, claiming that they have received it.

Dear students, (bcc to all applicants)

Thank you for your interest in the Department of Physics and Astronomy at Vanderbilt University.

This email is to acknowledge that your application to the Vanderbilt University PhD Physics program has been received and is being reviewed.

My name is Don Pickert and I am the Administrative Assistant to the Physics & Astronomy Graduate Program Committee. (GPC)

If you should need any help with your application or have any questions regarding it, you may contact me.

If any items are missing from your application or if the GPC needs additional information from you, we will contact you.

After re-checking Vanderbilt’s website, I made what adjustments was necessary, and then to submit the application in order to rectify the situation. I thought at first that, if they go to the trouble of sending me that email, I should at least be an interesting student to them, but, on the other hand, I would receive a rejection letter from Vanderbilt without having asked for it. Because I would otherwise cause headaches to Vanderbilt if I didn’t, and all I had left to do was fairly simple, I let my app list expand to 12. Let’s truly hope that there will be a happy ending.

Letters of recommendation and personal statements revisited

It might be difficult to accurately gauge the strength of a letter of recommendation, because the content is highly subjective. Often it is recommended for a student to sit down with her recommender if her interactions with the recommender have been somewhat limited (because, for instance, you have been a little shy in the lab), but the person nonetheless agreed to write a rec on her behalf. But, most of the time, when one has the opportunity to sit down with a recommender, you would want to tell them about your plans for the future, as well as what relevant experience, credentials and skills you might have, hence the common advice to send your CV and personal statement to your recommenders.

But, at some point, you may ask about what schools you should apply to. Oh, of course, there are some clueless professors, including one of my research-based recommenders, who could trash some schools that are otherwise legitimate for a subfield, especially at the low end of the scale. (That recommender advised me against Brown, even if it was the final decision of the last student my supervisor wrote letters of recommendation to US schools for, and applying to WUSTL instead) However, if, in light of your discussion with the recommender, she recommends you to apply to schools that you’d otherwise consider to be out of your league, you are either dealing with a clueless recommender or the recommender actually thinks you will have a strong recommendation from her part.

Also, take in account that what’s considered “top-X percent”, as on some letter of recommendation cover sheets would say, where X is usually 5, 10, 20, 25 or 50, depends on the level of the student being vouched for. For example, a top-25% student as a senior in undergrad is not the same as a top-25% student in the final year of a 2-year masters. Depending on where the latter fits in the top-10%-to-to-25% interval, the funnel effect induced by the cycle shift from undergrad to masters means that the student could have been a top-10% undergraduate, since only the best ~50% will make it to graduate school in, say, BSc+MSc+PhD countries.

Undeniably, a more detailed letter is stronger than a generic letter with ~100 words of content, because one such letter could tell more about the student, so make sure the recommenders write comprehensive letters (although it can be quite hard to do if you waive the right to see the letter, which you should do because non-waived letters will be taken less seriously)

And, for the personal statement, it is recommended to review it with a recommender, yes, but also with someone outside your intended subfield. After all, admissions committees are made up of professors in a variety of subfields: it is important that your personal statement can be understood by people outside your subfield, so avoid using too much subfield-specific jargon.

UPenn woes with ApplyWeb

If anyone here is applying at the University of Pennsylvania for a graduate program, you may have realized that the implementation they made of ApplyWeb is not exactly that great. Upon checking the status of my application, I emailed them to see whether they actually received my GRE and TOEFL scores, and it turned out that they did. After getting that email, I checked my status again and this is what the status had to say:

Please WAIT until December 15 before contacting Penn about receipt of test scores.

Due to technical issues, Penn has received test scores that are not reflected on this Checklist. If you correctly designated the University of Pennsylvania as a recipient of your GRE, GRE Subject and TOEFL test scores, we have your test scores.

Thank you for your patience.

Now, the email invited every single one of us to view the application checklist periodically for updates. I hope the issue will get fixed by December 15th…

The oath of transparency

This oath is long overdue from my part…

Considering that future applicants deserve truthful information pertaining to the entire admissions process,

Considering that applying to PhD programs is an investment whose implications are far-reaching and, therefore, should not be taken lightly,

Today, I swear that I will be completely transparent when it comes to all aspects of my experience through the PhD admissions process, be it financial, credential-related or just the psychological implications of waiting, either for the credentials to arrive in due form, or for the decisions to be rendered. May shame befall me if I prove to lie on any one aspect.

That said, if Princeton, UChicago or UPenn (or any top-20 school for that matter) each rejects hundreds of applicants that had what it takes to succeed once there, to be rejected from top-20 schools is not by any means an indictment of one’s lack of research skill.