I was recently part of a panel to rank PhD applicants and I’ve got to say that I found it really difficult. It was made more so by the extremely short time we had and by the fact that for a while I was unable to access the applications. The joys of modern technology.
What I found difficult was actually assessing the applications themselves. We had very little time, so it was done (in my case at least – don’t want to accuse other assessors of not doing their jobs properly) in a rather superficial way. Reject those whose grades seem too low. Then rank those remaining by trying to find something in their application that makes them stand out. Scan reference letters and research statements to find something that differentiates one applicant from another. What struck me was that if I was applying for something like this at the end of my PhD, I’m sure I would be rejected pretty quickly. This might suggest that I don’t deserve to be where I am today, but I think it just means that we could be missing someone who could be good but who – on paper – doesn’t stand out. I’m sure most of the applicants are academically capable, motivated people who believe that they could do well. We’re rejecting many after a relatively superficial look at their application.
Now it would be nice if we had plenty of time to assess the applications. To sit in a room and go through them in detail and to make sure that we’re not missing anything that might make an applicant look stronger or – in some cases – weaker. We just really don’t have the time. Do I think we get it horribly wrong? Not really. The strong candidates stand out and are fairly obvious. If we spent more time it may differ a little in that we may judge some who were below the boundary to actually be above (and conversely some above the boundary to be below). Does this mean that we’ve selected some who don’t deserve it? No, they’re probably all quite similar and it’s just a different judgement. What would worry me more would be if there was any sense of some kind of prejudice, but the outcome looked nice and diverse. It didn’t appear as though anyone was being disadvantage because of their gender or their race.
I guess, all I was trying to get across in this post was partly how difficult assessing these types of things can be. Partly because we’re often given very little time and partly because it’s just difficult to rank a group who are clearly all very good. It makes me realise how much “luck” plays a role. Somebody noticing something on your application that appears to make you stand out can be what makes the different between your application being successful or not. Having said that, it’s quite likely that many who we didn’t rank highly will go off and become successful somewhere else. Maybe they’ll be lucky that we didn’t select them. Luck can work both ways and I guess the main things is to keep trying and learning from all your experiences. I suspect that – more than natural ability – is what got me to where I am today.