Graduate Schools and The Voice

I like to watch The Voice. The reason why I like it and not other singing contests is due to its interesting format. Every season of The Voice starts with a Blind Auditions round, in which each contestant walks on stage and sings a song of their choice. The judges, who have to turn their back and cannot look at the contestant, have to decide whether they like the contestant enough to admit the contestant into their team. If more then one judge presses the button to choose the contestant, the contestant then has the power to choose between those judges to decide which team they want to be on. This format is fascinating to me for two reasons:

(1) The fact that the judges cannot see the contestant automatically eliminate the importance of having “the look” – it’s purely based on the voice instead.

(2) It actually doesn’t really matter if the contestant sings well. Many people sing well. It depends on whether you deliver a final blow, a moment of extreme climax of perfection that is attractive enough to force the judges to press the button. Some people with good, consistent audition do not make it. Some with less of a voice, however, still get in because they have only one precious, irresistible moment.

Here is why I’m writing this post: there are SCARY, scary similarities between this contest and the graduate school admissions process that I’ve just been through. I realized those resemblances this morning, and had to think about the implications for a while.

In the graduate school admissions process, the PhD programs have to pick their candidates without ever knowing the candidates. They only see the grades on the application, and read the recommendations from other professors. There is no telling whatsoever how the applicants will do later on, nor whether the applicant will fit into the program. That is similar to point (1) I mentioned above. Moreover, for the top programs, what matters the most is that you have something outstanding. I was like any other students for most of my undergraduate study, and I still am. I was just lucky that in my junior year, I was assigned to an awesome professor who advised me to write a paper that was good enough to convince the professors and the graduate schools I applied to that I’m qualified for their programs. It is just like being on the stage, singing. Everything was normal; nothing was special. And then, there is a moment that captivates people’s attention. It was like that for me and graduate schools.

There are more similarities: after having that special moment, often almost all of the judges would press the button to choose that particular contestant. Then, the contestant would be praised by all of these judges, who themselves are amazing artists, that they are so good, that they are perhaps the best so far in the competition, and that they probably could win the whole competitions. Some of them actually deserved these comments; most don’t. But when you are in that position, it is so easy to buy into those sweet talks and believe that you are worth it. I am still in the process: many schools, Harvard, MIT, Princeton, Stanford, etc. amazing schools that I’ve never dreamed of getting into, are now trying their best to convince me (as well as other applicants who they think must have been admitted into many top schools) to join their program. Does it make me feel special? Yes. It is a great validation for my efforts. But maybe it’s a bit too much. Objectively speaking, I’m worth far less than what they are trying to sell me; and I’ll have to try a lot harder to deserve the honor of getting into all of these places.

I often think about this stage as the “honeymoon stage” – for both The Voice and grad schools. You feel so good that you think from then on, everything will be easy.

Well, I haven’t experienced grad schools, but I know exactly the hard truth in The Voice. Most people get eliminated regardless of how much praises they received originally. Some were told by the judges that they could win the entire competition if they picked the right judge, then they chose that judge, and as soon as the next round occurred, they were eliminated by that very judge without mercy. Only through time that one realizes real talents, efforts, and persistence are required to persevere and succeed in the long run.

I suspect the same thing is true for graduate schools. You are told that you are special. As soon as you pick a school, you realize that there are 25 other equally, if not more, special as you are. There are 10 top schools, so that’s a pool of 250 special people. In the end, only less than 10% of these people will actually have a successful career, or actually contribute to the society, or have a lasting impact. So I just thought that I, who lack the talents, must exert much more efforts and be really persistent, if I want to survive in this harsh environment called academia.

Of course, you don’t have to be the very top to be successful or useful; so in some sense these two things are a little bit different. (Actually, even in The Voice, being the winner doesn’t guarantee success; some who did not win was eventually more successful). In my opinions, it all comes down to (1) who get out of the honeymoon stage early enough, (2) have a clear sense of purpose, and (3) work hard to accomplish that purpose.

The road ahead is quite scary, when I think about it, but having good options for graduate school is a good start. Now I just have to make it all about the work rather than pride, honor, or fame.

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