Why don’t superstars always win?

All the GRFP advice I’ve found is pretty straightforward:

(1) compile the information that demonstrates you’re already awesome;

(2) outline a clear career plan that shows you’ll continue being awesome; and

(3) demonstrate a commitment to service which extends your awesomeness.

Done. But you still didn’t win.

Granted, there is always someone better out there. But this is isn’t a head-to-head competition in which you lose to a particular person. It’s a competition for the hearts and minds of reviewers, and they can always add one person to the winners list if they want to.

Obviously, people who can’t demonstrate that they deserve the award will lose. They might just be too green, lacking the research experience and skills their peers have acquired; or they may not be able to articulate a coherent research project. Their essays may be poorly written, or their motivation isn’t clear. There’s plenty of ways to lose.

But what if you’re not one of those folks? You’re a superstar – you have all the research experience, you lay out a great project – in short, you do everything the advisors recommend, and in spades. Superstars lose differently – they receive an honorable mention. And the biggest reason is that the reviewers don’t love them. Two aspects of reviewer psychology come into play.

First, reviewers are volunteers who want to do their job with the least amount of effort. This doesn’t mean they’re lazy – if anything, they are committed and conscientious – but they are pressed for time and the fastest way to review applicants is to exclude rather than include. Rather than rank ordering 10 applications, they’ll reduce that to three before making their recommendations. It’s easy to exclude weak applications, but reviewers can cite a variety of reasons to exclude the superstars.  (One of the most common is that the proposed research project is too close to the advisor’s work.)

Second, academic culture is predicated on critique. Look in the book review section of any scholarly journal and find a review that is positively glowing – even there you’ll probably find at least one small reproach. Many reviewers cite an error of omission; for all we know, the original author may have thought about that but chosen to ignore it! When GRFP reviewers don’t want to fund a superstar, they often mention something the application didn’t include as their reason.   Nobody is perfect, and some reviewers feel dishonest unless they point out some failing. Thankfully – and largely because the GRFP program aims to encourage students – few reviewers are this harsh, but just one might tip the scales.

You can minimize these psychological biases by making them love you.  If reviewers love you, they will stifle the urge to exclude. Or, if their academic “honesty” compels them to take that one small dig, they’re more likely to call this a minor issue that ought not disqualify you.

So how do you do that? We talk in the webinars about the importance of plot . You need to tell your story in a way that creates shared meaning between you and reviewer, and makes them see themselves in you.   Most superstars use an “action” plot to relate their journey from one success to the next; even if there is some emotion in there, it’s all yours and not a shared feeling. The reviewer approaches your application from a purely intellectual perspective, and you lose the love that might prevent them from nitpicking.

There are two ways for superstars to create the love: If you do use the action plot, introduce (and resolve) some emotional tension that allows the reviewers to see themselves in you. Or use an entirely different plot.

Even without the love, superstars win most of the time.

Let’s face it, they are so supremely awesome that the reviewer’s intellect drives them toward the rational choice. But to avoid the honorable mention, you should anticipate likely reviewer knocks and vaccinate yourself proactively. For example:

  • If your project is indeed close to what others in your lab are doing, mention exactly how it extends the ideas, or addresses one part of the problem.
  • If your proposed research includes activities new to you, explain exactly how you will acquire the skill or get access to the specialized equipment.

Honestly, it’s much better to be a superstar and face these nuanced problems than to be a weak candidate and have to sell yourself on pure potential. But losing is still losing – and it hurts more when you were so close.

Topics: NSF Graduate Research Fellowship, GRFP

[gravityform id=”4″ title=”true” description=”true”]