09 December 2013

Grad apps

This is one of those times that I should be focusing on something more important, but there’s always something more important that I should be doing (certainly more important than writing on a personal blog I’m maintaining for my own sanity and reflections).

Where was I? Ah, yes, graduate school applications.

For the moment, I don’t want to say “publicly” where I’m applying, but I’m applying to a small handful of pretty prestigious universities. People tell me I’m absolutely going to get into several of these places, particularly since I’ve spoken with (and apparently impressed) at least one faculty member at one university. I’ve never shared in my friends’ confidence, but it’s reassuring that people have confidence in me.

This process has caused me to reflect more on the transition I’ve made since I was essentially a flunky in high school. I still think I was intelligent - or perhaps more accurately, bright - but I wouldn’t characterize my high school self as particularly motivated or ambitious. It took me a few years before I would figure out what the hell I wanted to do with my life, and I’m sometimes reticent about that period of my life out of shame, but I know on an intellectual level that I couldn’t have met the people I’ve met (or had the experiences I’ve had) if I hadn’t taken this winding, tumultuous journey.

I’m still somewhat concerned, occasionally, that my area of research is so ambiguous or such a black sheep that I won’t find anyone who will want to take me. Certainly one leaning or another (either harder sciences or softer sciences) won’t want to take me on, and some level of prestigiousness will just cut me off at the door with a “no thank you” followed by an abrupt slam. I’ve done a remarkable (even disconcerting) amount of background research on various prospective faculty, however, and I’m confident I’m applying to work with the right people, or at least to work at the right places.

I don’t have any regrets about the path I’ve taken, or where I hope to go from here. I’ve certainly made mistakes, but I ultimately never completely squandered an opportunity to learn a new lesson.

With that being said…

grad school apps suck

We need better ways of aggregating graduate school deadlines and requirements. I refuse to believe that I’m the first person to notice this (edit: I know for a fact that others hate this process just as much or more than I do; some of them are even on the other side of things). As soon as I have a few weeks off (read: never) I’m going to look into aggregating this kind of information if it’s at all pragmatic. All I really need/want is:

  • well-formed data points of universities
  • well-formed data points of programs therein
  • well-formed data points of programs’ corresponding deadlines
  • well-formed data points of requirements to apply (would be nice?)

I’m thinking it could be implemented pretty quickly: Either server-side (PHP has regex, right?) or client-side (I know JS has regex) scraping of a few pages for something like r'deadline+*?(December|January) \d+' (case-insensitive hopefully).

I write that but I know UC Berkeley uses table elements to neatly lay out their deadlines. Thanks, Berkeley! (cough please admit me cough)

So if the university uses tables, that might be easier because you just grab the nth table in every row (except the ones which simply repeat the header). Otherwise just regex.search (in python at least) for anything along the lines of the above pattern.

The implementation is “janky” to be generous, but the need is there, so I think it’s worth pursuing. I’m not saying we need a Common App for grad school (with students firing buckshot at graduate admissions committees, inundating them with obviously unserious applications), but grad applicants could be better informed about deadlines, requirements, and faculty. There’s no good reason that this shouldn’t all be in one place (to some extent, you could argue that Google Scholar is an index of sorts). I bet most grad applicants will have created their own index of faculty at myriad universities with recent publications, research areas, and contact info. I know I did.

You can argue that this is good practice for doing legwork and research (something grad students should get used to), or that this is all part of the challenge. This is specious:

  • If your grad applicants need practice doing research, they’re not viable candidates in the first place
  • If you want to assess our ability to do background research, this is a bad way because
    1. you only effectively see the background research we did for your institution, and
    2. this is a symbolic challenge, and symbolic challenges are hollow.

I make the emphatic preemptive case justifying making graduate school applications easier to sort out, but there really only needs to be one reason, and it’s a positive reason rather than ruling out a bunch of negative ones:

we should make graduate school applications easier because then they would be easier.

We do our best to make processes and activities easier specifically to free up cognitive burdens for other things. Rather than every future Nobel Laureate wasting dozens of hours individually on background research and legwork, just get it out of the way now. Sort that shit out once so all of the brilliant minds of the future can more quickly get to whatever cancer-curing, peace-brokering, wheelie-popping awesomeness they’re destined to do.

So over the next few weeks I’ll be posting more about my adventures in grepping content from admissions websites.

If this (project/task/person) sounds interesting, keep following my posts (here) and look for a Github repository somewhere down the road - cool things seem to be found in Github repos a lot :)

If you have something to say about this, contact me