The varsity sports and the musical instruments

This time of year, everyone is applying somewhere. Graduate admission and scholarship applications, postdoctoral applications, tenure-track applications were due recently or will be soon. I’ve helped with a record number of graduate and postdoc applications this year, and that got me thinking about what’s required for such applications and how they’re sometimes evaluated on the flimsiest of criteria.

At one extreme, there’s NSF. Their grants are hard to get, their webpage can be difficult to navigate and I don’t always agree with their decisions, but if you apply for their postdoctoral fellowship in mathematics, you submit a research statement, a CV and the supporting letters, all of which are basically about your research. Even the “synergistic activities” and “broad impact” are expected to be work-related – organizing seminars, say, or perhaps volunteering on a Math Olympiad circle, as opposed to the college basketball team or the musical instruments you’ve played. You don’t have to arrange for a notarized copy of your undergraduate transcripts to be sent by snail mail, either.

The Canadian tri-agency criteria, on the other hand, consist of “academic excellence”, “research potential” and “interpersonal, communication and leadership skills”. NSERC weighs them 30/50/20 at the Ph.D. level. The first two criteria are clear enough; the third, less so. According to these guidelines:


Reviewers will assess evidence of leadership both within university and outside; communication skills as evidenced by publications, presentations; and interpersonal skills as evidenced by reference letters and other work experience.

Communication skills can be reasonably easy to evaluate: if we can’t make out heads or tails out of your research description, we mark you down. But leadership? Interpersonal skills? The funding agencies don’t really place any restrictions on what should or should not be included. Some of the candidates are confused by the whole idea. Others list everything they can think of: the high school choir, the soccer team. I can’t blame them.

A Killam postdoctoral fellow at UBC should:


Be likely to contribute to the advancement of learning or to win distinction in a profession. A Killam scholar should not be a one-sided person. . . Special distinction of intellect should be founded upon sound character.

I wonder if this Harvard student might be a perfect candidate:


Cooper has always been super-active. Even in elementary and middle school, she “adopted an intense work ethic” and participated in track, basketball, chorus, a pottery class, and gymnastics. At the “pressure cooker” Stuyvesant High School in Manhattan, she put the shot and racewalked for the track squad, and added cheerleading. After track meets and practices on Saturdays, she had a Sunday job as a docent in a science museum. And from seventh grade on, she attended summer camps for gifted students at upstate college campuses.

At Harvard, she has hosted a two-hour weekly jazz show on WHRB, and as a freshman acted in Ivory Tower, the long-running Harvard TV soap opera viewable on YouTube. (Last summer, she also acted in an independent film shot by a friend in Miami, learning American Sign Language for the part.) In the summer of 2007, Cooper tasted some ravishing ravioli di zucca (pumpkin)—“I was in heaven”—and determined to learn Italian and cook in Italy. As a sophomore, she got a job with Harvard University Dining Services, working with their consultant, cookbook author Mollie Katzen, and the next summer, after two months in Paris with the International Herald Tribune, was baking in Italy as a pastry chef and speaking only Italian.

I hope that she realizes just how privileged she is. Most of us don’t get to travel to Italy to learn the language. Most of us don’t move in circles where you could be offered a radio show to host, or invited to act in a movie, just sort of because you’re there. I’m sure that she’s talented, but then so are many others who never had a chance to rub shoulders with talent-seekers. Most of us don’t get to pick only those part-time jobs that’ll enhance our personal development.

As we read the applications and sit in judgement of the candidates’ multi-sided personhood and moral character, it’s those other applicants that I wonder about, those who don’t really know what to include aside from their academic work. Those who just get together with friends and go out for a movie, as opposed to forming a film club, becoming the president of it and putting it on their CV. Those who have read every book in the local library, have been writing fanfiction for years and posting illustrations on Deviant Art, but “enjoy reading” is the most you’ll see on the application. Those who might have faced incredible personal hardship, but won’t talk much about it because they’ve learned that disclosing private information can make them vulnerable. Those who worked their backsides off to campaign for a political candidate, only to get thrown under the bus promptly afterwards, so now they see no reason to brag about it.

Speaking of political and social activism: volunteering at the food bank is generally fine, but the safe injection site might rub a few committee members the wrong way. Controversial issues like gay rights or gender equality might be risky. I have yet to see a graduate applicant talk about getting arrested at a demonstration. Better to stick to the lacrosse team and the musical instruments.

Keep in mind, too, that there are countries where a movie club would be an illegal organization and you could get into trouble for starting one. That was more or less the case where I grew up. Almost any extracurricular activity that didn’t have formal approval from the authorities, from a group hike to a theater performance to publishing a newsletter, could be clamped on as illegal. It doesn’t mean that we didn’t do any of those illegal things. It does mean that we didn’t include them on our CVs.

Would we really recognize and reward leadership if we saw it? Leadership, as in forcing social change by doing controversial stuff, making people uncomfortable, and paying the price?

Or are we only getting more cynical about it?


[The Girl Scouts] CEO Tamara Woodbury asked me this question, “What do you think the biggest obstacle is to inspiring girls to becoming leaders in our society?” Having just spoken about the values that the Girl Scouts stand for and consciously make an effort to communicate to their girls – honor, integrity, loyalty, courage, and patriotism – I replied that they must view leadership as a choice that would interfere with other interests.

“No,” she said. “The majority of girls feel that in order to be a leader in today’s society, they have to become liars and they do not want to compromise the values they are learning as Girl Scouts in order to become leaders.”

In the minds of these young women, leadership and lying have become one and the same choice. A leader is a liar – simple as that. Obviously we can find leaders who are not liars – sure we can. But that’s not the point, is it? The point is that these girls now associate the entire call to leadership as a compromise of integrity and honor.

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3 Comments

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3 responses to “The varsity sports and the musical instruments

  1. Matthew Bond

    About transcripts -

    I got a C in Music Appreciation in 2002, and this probably indicates something very bad about my character. I should probably travel to the 18th century and work at a royal court for a semester.

    I did retain the “It’s A Bird; It’s A Plane; No – It’s Mozart” trick, though. Maybe that should have gone in my letter.

  2. Not to pick on the (multi-)talented Harvard student, but on reading that encomium I couldn’t help but think of this old skit: http://www-users.cs.york.ac.uk/susan/joke/essay.htm (Rather beautifully written, too; if I’d read that as a statement I’d be quite impressed with the skill as well as the cheek.)