external validation

People who work in higher education are dependent on ‘external validation’ as a measure of status and success. This means that you are only as good as others think you are. This measure starts at the undergraduate level but most students don’t need to worry about it until you consider grad-school.

I think about this process of evaluation a lot. This is the fate of any aspiring academic who spends half of his or her early years in school fretting over funding applications and the obscure shadow-land of awards competitions.

Mutatus mutandis, and you have the same anxiety ridden world of the newly pressed PhD in search of a secure tenure-track job. Keeping up with the various posts at Pearls of Wisdom keeps me in something of a mental rut over my own hunt for secure PhD funding.

The real mystery begins with the certain knowledge that there are two measures at work amongst those in charge of the funds (programme openings, teaching jobs, whatever). There is the standard of measure they tell you about and there is the standard of measure they actually use.

I’m not suggesting there is some conspiracy here, or that there is deliberate obfuscation on the part of universities and committees but there is a difference between what is said, and what is practised. The difference often turns on how the system would like to work and how the system actually works. And again, we have a mirror of the tenure track process where candidates (often while still PhD students) are told one thing, the ‘it should work like this’, without having the added caveat; ‘… but it actually works like this.’

This is why I am increasingly irritated by the common advice I find for funding applicants in pursuit of the PhD.

There is plenty online advice about writing winning graduate applications but most are seriously flawed. All competitions are created differently and no one-size-fits-all strategy exists to cover all possibilities. looking carefully at most of the advice actually works on the unstated assumption that you will already have all the basic building blocks of the ideal candidate. All they advise is how to write-up the applications in such a way that the committees see all those essential elements clearly. If you do not fit the standard template, they can’t help you.

For example: Your background (and please don’t take this a cynical caricature, I’m just trying to build a model of the stereotype expected).

– Most applicants are going to be young, often early graduates of their undergrad programmes, with a long history of academic success before higher education. Only the most extraordinary circumstances will compensate for a lack of early success, like profound poverty or some other developmental impairment.

Academic background:

– If you don’t come from an institution of significant academic charisma you should probably have experience working with charismatic scholars. A good BA is likely not enough, you will need some special BA project, a thesis, or some participation in a large project with a senior academic. If you have tagged on to some conferences or a paper or two, all the better. If you are in a programme that lacks these opportunities or you are from a mundane university, you will need to compensate with a stellar transcript and as many scholarships and awards available. There is little room for struggles to overcome adversity at this stage. Whatever challenges you have had should have been sorted before the BA.

Research interests:

– The ideal PhD aspirant is working in the sciences or social sciences and has a project with immediate contemporary relevance. This is the ‘cure cancer’ narrative. Many of the sites that give advice on research proposals suggest that this project have roots into your primordial past because a long commitment to your topic is important. Since you are also probably about 22-23, this means you will say something about your decision in grade 2 to become a physicist and invent a cure for your Grandmother’s cancer.

Yes, that sounds more than a little snarky, but really, you should read some of the sample proposals online. These are more than saccharine, they are high-fructose corn syrup for the eyes.

What then is the humanities student to do? What about the late-bloomer, what about the self-starter who made do with limited options for extra credit? How far can other accomplishments compensate if you don’t fit this template? I’m still not sure you can, at least I won’t know until I manage to get funding myself.

From long research in writing applications, personal statements, research proposals, and the traditional language of the aspirant, it appears that I am about as unconventional as you can get without being a visible minority or the developing world (and don’t get me wrong, I fully endorse the criteria that helps level our the disparities in opportunity for minorities, and the like).

I hope, that at some point, the disparity between my recent progress (one fully funded MA, 2 papers in peer review journals, 2 in submission, 5 conference papers between 2008-12, 2 book reviews), when compared to my past record (dropped out of my first BA in 1995, had a rough 1st year when I returned in 2004, finished the 1st BA in 2008, and didn’t get a diagnosis of a learning disability until the first year of my MA) will start to look to others the way it looks to me. But getting that external validation to match my internal one isn’t something they advise you on in school.



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