We're a little crazy, about science!

More on failure

After a rough night of sleep I knew exactly what I wanted to talk about today. Failure. Because like I mentioned yesterday, in my journey to a PhD, there was plenty of it. Part of this was due to the fact that I had no idea what the hell was going on or how to prepare for my PhD, but a big part of this was due to the fact that I held a belief that wasn’t true. I thought, because it’s what we’re told, that when applying to grad school grades aren’t the only thing that matters. And I was lied to.

Today’s post was simply going to be titled “On failure,” but would you believe upon searching the archives I’ve already written that post? Almost a year ago exactly! Funny how that works, but these things are cyclical and every year we get a new batch of rejection letters, be it from universities or fellowships. It’s the season for rejection, or for a few of us acceptance. If you’re in the latter group, then congratulations! If you, like me, find yourself perpetually in the former, well then maybe my story will help… a little.

Yesterday I mentioned applying to MIT, because I did. I thought why the hell not, you miss every shot you don’t take and at the end of the day I could at least say I applied. They make a big deal about sending paper letters notifying you of their decision and all I got was a lousy email, so once again screw you MIT. But to be fair, while my GPA was good, it certainly wasn’t the 3.8 – 3.9 out of 4 that they average for their acceptance group. What I did have was a compelling story and I was told that was enough to make me a viable candidate.

The truth is they probably never even read my statement. I had an admissions person at USC confirm that they too do first rejection based on GPA and GRE scores (fucking GRE, I hate standardized tests….). So they never even saw the reason I didn’t have close to a 4.0 in undergrad. They had no idea how much I struggled and frankly they didn’t care because to be honest they get so many applicants they don’t have time to read through each. So at the end of the day, chances are even if you have a compelling reason for why you didn’t succeed with a spotless GPA, no one will ever read it. While I haven’t shared my statement, I have shared why my undergrad GPA wasn’t 4.0, it was ~3.3 I think, something like that prior to my suicide attempt it was 3.88 though (here)!

The point being that there is a lot of reasons you may end up in a reject pile instead of the acceptance pile. More often than not, it’s the system and nothing you did personally. This is especially true if you’ve struggled, were first generation, or dealt with mental or physical health issues. The GRE in particular is hard to get testing accommodations for even if you get them through your university, ask me how I know! Oh and I never actually got accommodations, so that sucked. At the end of the day, the first bar to clear is your GPA, that’s the system and we can’t really do much about it. It’s a sad truth and counter to what you were, or at least what I was, told.

Still, this doesn’t mean you’re set up for failure because of your GPA. Survivors bias is a thing and I’ve written about that too (here). Hey, I used a picture of my mom for that post, what a nice surprise. I don’t know her, but I would like to find her one day. Anyway, that was off topic, the reason I bring up survivors bias is because what I’m about to say will sound a lot like that, but I promise this is not the case. The fact is that even if your GPA isn’t great, you can still succeed. I know this because I’ve done it and I’ve seen others do it.

While your GPA can be a roadblock, there are people out there who are willing to help you because they hear your story and believe you are more than your GPA. The catch is, if you don’t talk to these people, they won’t even know you exist. That was something I stumbled onto accidentally because I didn’t have a mentor, but it’s something I passed along to kay and we know from yesterday how well that advice worked out for her.

A PI is a very busy person, but that doesn’t mean they won’t help you if you reach out to them. It also means if you don’t get a response right away it’s okay to email again because chances are they are just busy and forgot. The key is having a good idea about what you want to do. If you know what you want and have found a lab that is doing that kind of work (google scholar is your friend) then there’s a good chance the PI will want to work with you. PI’s are almost always looking for people to do research in their lab.

More specifically, PI’s are looking for people who are interested in the work they are doing. Bonus if you have a background in something close to what you want to do, but I went from my masters in mechanical engineering to a neuroengineering PhD program, so it’s not a sticking point. The trick is to figure out how to best sell your skillset to the lab. If you can show that you’re interested, you’re already ahead of most people. That’s because at the end of the day, a PI has a lot of weight when it comes to applications.

While application deadlines have come and (mostly) gone, there are still plenty of chances for you to reach out to a PI in your dream lab if you’ve applied to a school. You can be the most motivated person on the plant, but if the PI of the lab you want to work in has no idea who you are, you’re just another name on a piece of paper. If they can put a face (or at least an email) to the name, that sets you apart because you took the time and effort to do something most people won’t think to do, or at least something I was never told to do and haven’t seen many people do.

Emailing a PI is a lot like emailing anyone, be respectful (guys, because it’s always guys for some reason, if the PI is a woman, that’s Dr. to you, never Miss, Mrs, Ms whatever). As a rule of thumb, I never, EVER call someone with a doctorate by their first name unless explicitly told. It’s just respectful, school-PI we call by his nickname because he said to, I’ve worked with hospital-PI for years and he’s still Dr. to me and I’m okay with that (technically he’s Dr.Dr. MD/PhD, but he would kill me if I started calling him Dr. Dr.).

Oh and look at that, I’ve even written a whole post on how to reach out to a PI (here). These are the things no one ever taught me, so I want to pass this stuff along to anyone who may be in the same situation.

This is also grant/fellowship season, or rather announcement of who was awarded season. In that regard, it’s a lot of luck and effort. I don’t have tips or tricks to help you with that specifically other than don’t reach out to the project manager (or whoever is the point of contact for the fellowship) unless the call for applications says it’s okay or AT LEAST doesn’t explicitly say don’t contact us. I know for a fact NDSEG says do not contact even after the awards go out to find out why you weren’t accepted.

However, if you can reach out, do it. Seriously, some of the best people are in charge of these things and want to help you succeed. This is more for grant applications than fellowships, but I think there are at least a few fellowships (I believe NIH is one) where you can reach out with questions or for help. It never hurts to clarify the call for proposals and to see if what you want to do aligns with what they are asking for.

As for me, I applied to eight schools, still waiting to hear back from one… but I applied four years ago so not holding my breath. Got rejected from the rest and only found the school I’m at because I bumbled my way to emailing a PI who helped me get to where I am now (thank you for that). I’ve applied for four fellowships and was awarded one. I also applied (or ghost wrote) six different grants and was only just awarded one, which the school did a story on me about (here). So look at all that failure I’ve had, summed up in one paragraph (don’t even get me started about robot paper….).

The point is, you keep trying because you’ll get something eventually, even with all that failure I’ve still had a few successes. Failure happens, but with enough tries you can succeed too. The article about me says nothing of my failures, so it’s easy to assume I succeed constantly, but my ratio of success to failure is tiny, because success happens to so few people out of the huge number of applications.

It’s all a numbers game, but you keep trying and you’ll succeed too.


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