Having gotten through the most terrifying aspect of this season (the GRE), and having experienced the worst case scenario (not only unimproved, but slightly lower scores than last year... when I was high, nauseous and in pain), I am successfully emerged on the other side of doom.
Oddly, I am less bothered by average scores than I expected to be. The relief of its being over with is much more potent than the disappointment with my performance on this particular exam. Frankly -- and I'm not alone here -- I regard that test as far more highly referred to by graduate school admissions committees than is wise. That said, I am acutely aware of how biased, political and funding-based the admissions process is in general and, therefore, am aware that average test scores will not be my undoing.
That is, of course, unless my average scores prevent me from being invited to interviews. The thing is that highly prestigious schools will triage applications to the discard pile if they are not at a particular level. Here is why I think that is a complete bullshit filter for applications:
This summer, I had the privilege of teaching several intern students. Two of them were at he high school level, and were very fun to teach because they were fledgling scientists with lots of interesting questions and a flare for the work. At least by the end of the summer, when the results of their month-long project started trickling in, their enthusiasm was wonderful. This is why I love teaching.
In another vein, however, I had the privilege of teaching some biochemical techniques to one of our veteran students who has been doing analysis in another part of our lab for three years, and whom we had come to regard as a genius. This student happened to be entering his senior year as a Biochemistry major, was applying to graduate programs, and was using his last summer month with us to buffer his resume by learning some new techniques. He was, for all intents and purposes, my peer.
He was also a complete dolt in the lab -- more clumsy, less interested and with the worst memory I had ever seen in a person, scientist or otherwise. I was completely taken aback by his lack of apt for deduction (read: common sense). Please understand that this is not an exaggeration; I was shocked and befuddled that teaching my peer was like teaching a kindergartner. I had to cut in half what I had planned on teaching him in that month because he could barely handle what he was initially tasked with.
How this boy could possibly be an academic genius became more and more puzzling. Yet, his GRE scores trumped mine. And he will be invited to interview at Stanford (yes, he is applying to the exact same programs that I am), and I will not, because his scores are higher than mine. He will bomb his interview, because he knows almost nothing about what he's been doing for the last three years, and has very poor social skills (for which I do feel bad for him), but he will get them, and a small part of me dies whenever I think about that. Despite this, he may actually be admitted to programs that I am rejected from because the more prestigious the school, the more weight is put on his exam scores. I have effectively buffered the resume of a boy who, for all his pompous yet oblivious innocence, will never be a decent research scientist much less a Stanford-grade one. What's more, he has no idea why he wants a PhD; it's just another step in the academic achievement track. And this, as I studied for my own second-go at the GRE, was infuriating.
However!, having faced my worst fear and come out the other side, I am happy with whatever school I am accepted to because I know what I want and what I'm doing, and will be a huge asset wherever I end up. Whatever I want to make happen with what I'm given will happen, because that is something I've consistently been good at. Getting into an amazing school instead of an average one, however, would be much welcomed reassurance that I belong in this field.
I could write volumes on how to best approach finding a graduate school, preparing yourself, exploring options, what the GRE actually says about your scientific potential, and negotiating the politics of science, but this data dump is dry enough as it is.
To end on a pleasant note -- and I must, because I feel better now than I have felt in two months -- this weekend was beautiful! I worked on my grant while being infused for four hours on Saturday, stopped at New Seasons to pick up special sandwiches on the way home, and took the bikes and Frisbee out for some exercise at the park for the afternoon. It was freeing, and wonderful to be able to throw myself back into real life.
Today, I will finish my next manuscript and make some progress on applications having filled my tummeh with my new favorite Lisa-inspired breakfast: waffled eggs with chive Tofutti and onion bagel.