Saturday, March 15, 2014

Andy's Brain Blog Advice Column: How to Make Yourself an Irresistible Applicant for Graduate School

In our modern times, obtaining an advanced degree is imperative for getting a good job. Whereas in the past merely completing the eighth grade qualified you for self-sustaining and socially acceptable jobs, such as crime boss, today those same academic credentials will probably shoehorn you into a crime boss chauffeur position at best. Nobody wants to graduate high school just to find that the only options available to them are menial, boring, "dead-end" jobs, such as chess grandmaster or porn star.

Because of this, increasing numbers of people are starting to attend graduate school to receive even more advanced training. For those of you who are not in graduate school - and you guys can trust me - I would describe this training as eerily similar to the kind of training that Luke Skywalker did on planet Dagobah in the Star Wars movies, including becoming fluent in pseudo-philosophical BSing, developing telekinetic powers to remove your car from snowdrifts, and carrying your adviser on your back whilst running through jungles and doing backflips. In fact, your adviser will even look and talk like Yoda, although there are important physical differences between the two, as shown here:

In addition to that, you will also become an expert in a specialized field, such as existential motifs in Russian literature, or the neural correlates of the ever-elusive default poop network. Paradoxically, however, even as one learns more abstruse and recondite information, many graduate school veterans have reported losing knowledge in such simple and rudimentary areas such as basic math, maintaining eye contact when talking to someone, and personal hygiene. Furthermore, for all of its emphasis on reading, graduate school can actually lead to the atrophy of normal reading skills, as one who reads nothing but scientific articles and technical manuals will, after a long period of immersion in his studies, find books dealing with actual human beings or fantastical creatures as bizarre and ridiculous, even hateful.

"I don't have time to read for pleasure anymore!" one of my colleagues once exclaimed. Partly this was a boast to bring attention to his laudable reading habits, at the expense of anything else that could possibly vie for his attention; partly to sound a note of despair, as I really believed that he hadn't read anything for pleasure in years, defined as something unrelated to his work or something that was, practically speaking, useless, but somehow pleasurable and, possibly, edifying. I once tested the strength of his claim by having him read the back of a Honey Nut Cheerios cereal box in order to use a series of clues to solve a riddle; after wrestling with this headbreaker for several hours, he finally gave up, utterly exhausted. (Although, to be honest, some of those puzzles can be pretty tough.)

But I digress. The fact is, there are legions of talented, motivated, eager young persons all applying to the same graduate programs that you desire, and there is simply no practical way to kill them all. To make yourself stand out, therefore, requires a superhuman amount of dedication, responsibility, work ethic, intelligence, charm, good looks, ruthlessness, and knowledge of advanced interrogation techniques - all qualities that you, quite frankly, don't have. Clearly, other methods are required. I'm not going to come right out and say things like "bribery," "blackmail," and "intimidation," but that's pretty much the gist of it. Perhaps you can even call in a favor or two from the local crime lord that you chauffeur around downtown Chicago.

However, if this kind of skullduggery just isn't to your taste, there are other ways to manipulate the thoughts and feelings of the admission committee to realize that you are, in fact, just the applicant that they are looking for. One underhanded way to worm yourself into their good graces is by working for several years or decades as a lab RA, which is an acronym that stands for "Indentured Servant." The way this works is that you literally beg a professor to work in their lab for free, for ten, twenty, even sixty hours a week. You need to make it clear that you absolutely, positively, swear-on-a-box-of-Honey-Nut-Cheerios need this position, and that you will kill for this professor, if necessary. Professors are used to getting these kinds of requests all the time, and in fact find it odd whenever somebody asks to work with them for something in return, such as money, recognition, or humane working conditions. By whatever means possible, do not fall into this "it's all about me" mindset! At this point remember that you are not even a graduate student yet, which, in the academia hierarchy, places you a couple of rungs below a Staph infection. If you are lucky, you will possibly get a letter of recommendation from the principal investigator, which you should expect to type yourself. Just remember to print your name correctly.

But, against all odds, let's assume that you have gained some experience, worked a few relevant jobs, carried out a few hits on your professor's enemies, and have finally been invited to a university for their graduate recruitment weekend. However, even after you have been invited to look around the campus and meet with the faculty, you will still need to have the street smarts to ace the interview.

Let us say, for example, that you have been invited to visit the Dwayne T. Fensterwhacker University of Fine Arts, Sciences, and Advanced Interrogation Techniques, and in particular that you are keen on working with distinguished professor Earl W. Gropeswanker. During the interview, you should be ready for curveball questions, such as the following:

DR. GROPESWANKER: Who is your favorite scientist?
YOU: That is a tough question, but a fair one, to which I reply, entirely of my own volition: Earl Gropeswanker.
DR. GROPESWANKER: Excellent answer. But surely, aren't there any other scientists whom you admire?
YOU: Well, let's see...Walter White, he was a scientist, wasn't he? He was pretty good. Same with Albert Einstein. The rest of them are scum.
DR. GROPESWANKER: You are hired on the spot.

Obviously you should be ready for tough questions on other topics, such as: How much do you respect, love, and admire the professor you are currently interviewing? Would you be willing to chauffeur this person around campus to meet with the heads of the other departmental families? How would you rate your capabilities as bodyguard, trafficker, and yegg? Once you have determined whether you can beneficially work with this person, you should be prepared to work with them for a long time, and to develop other talents and skills so numerous, that I suppose not all the books in the world could contain them. But that is another topic for another day.

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