So today, five minutes before the end of my class, someone came in and sat down. This is fine. My first thought was they they were early for the next class, or perhaps were curious about my class and decided to sit in at the end, or… fine. I finished up the lecture (on supersymmetry and world-volume actions and D-branes, including various tips for how to count and organize supercharges when you’ve got extended supersymmetries…. fun stuff) and left the classroom. I went to the nearby men’s room and washed the chalk off my hands, and so forth, and re-emerged. There were ten or so minutes left before the colloquium of Nobel Prize winner Anthony Leggett was to begin, and I had just enough time to go and get some coffee to help me off the low I was going through (presumably due to tiredness and eight-hour jetlag – I landed back in LA just about 24 hours ago).
Emerging from the men’s room, the same guy who had arrived at my class was standing waiting for me and walked up and said, “I sent you that email, remember?”. I replied “Which one?” He’d not told me his name or anything, so I had nothing to go on here. He seemed very put out that I did not know what he was talking about and said “The one a couple of weeks ago.”
“Who are you?”
“X” (He gives me a one-word name, which rings no bells. I’m using X here as a placeholder. He continued: “I wanted to meet with you and you wanted to know what it was about. So I spoke to another professor, the one from France, and he told me to talk to you. It was about the graduate program. Are you on the admissions committee or something?”
Now, I found this odd. First, I’m not happy about being stalked outside a men’s room, and second, how on earth was I supposed to know what email he was talking about out of the blue, and third, he seemed to be saying that somehow my asking him to explain what it was he wanted a meeting about was somehow unreasonable. I recalled the email after a few moments and remember thinking that it was quite strange that someone emailed me out of the blue asking for a time to meet me, and then declined to tell me what it was about, so that I might, quite reasonably, prepare for the meeting and schedule appropriately. He’d never replied after that, so I forgot all about the issue, figuring he’d found answers to whatever it was he wanted to discuss. Now it seems that he’d interpreted my request to know what the meeting was for as somehow evasive. Not so. Even the Provost or the President of USC, if calling for a meeting (or rather, their staff member who would set up such a meeting) would not be surprised to get the question “what is this meeting about?”. Anyway, I stuck with my default position -politeness- and carried on talking, while walking to get the coffee. He continued talking about my not wanting to meet with him (not true – I just want to know what it is about, etc…) and so I pointed out that we were meeting that very moment it seemed, and asked what he wanted to talk about.
He wanted to know why his application to graduate school to do theoretical physics – in 2007 – had been rejected, and what he should do to get into graduate school. I pointed out that even if I was on the admissions committee, I’d be unlikely to remember his application from 2007, but asked if he could let me know what his credentials were like…. for example, what was his physics GRE score. He mentioned it was N. (N here is a placeholder for a number… a number about 250 points – at least – below the standard of student that we usually come even close to admitting. A perfect score is 990.) I pointed out that such a score was probably a major contributor to the fact that we did not take his application further. My advice was to consider taking the GRE again, and improving that score, as it is difficult to avoid the conclusion that it rings warning bells that he cannot do the physics needed to do well in a physics program, regardless of specialization area.
He continued walking with me, talking about why the score was low (he says he does not like taking written exams) and how he re-took the exam one time and got an even lower score, etc., etc. He pointed out that he’d done other advanced classes and did pretty well in them and perhaps those could be used as evidence that he can be admitted (he mentioned that his transcript would show a lot of “W” grades for some classes – W=withdrawn – and asked if this would be a problem. I said it did not look good). I sympathized, but tried to explain that it was difficult to see what else to do at this point. I tried to explain why programs use the subject GRE as at least a rough indicator of a student’s subject knowledge, and that it is difficult to see how anyone can admit special cases on the basis of their simply saying that they are good at physics, knowing that this is the opening of the usual well-worn discussion about why “The System” is “rigged” to favour people who can do exams, and so on and so forth. I was not really looking forward to having a conversation about how the education system should be remade to somehow accommodate talented people who do not show up on the usual radar, especially when finding myself unexpectedly ambushed into playing the role of Unyielding Gatekeeper.
He continued pressing the issue. I explained as best I could that the GRE is just the start. If he were to get on the program, there’d be classes to take and minimum requirements in the qualifier exams at the end of the first year or two, etc. He should be prepared for that. This seemed to give him pause. But then he continued asking again what to do, mentioning, incidentally, that I’d spoken to him on the phone back in 2007 and that I’d gotten annoyed with him, and do I remember that. I said, quite truthfully, I was sorry but I do not remember many phone conversations from 2007 in any detail, and the same goes for applications to graduate programs, since I get hundreds of both each year. He seemed a bit surprised by this. (If I did get annoyed with him on the phone back then – and I don’t recall a conversation anyway – I was beginning to see why…)
I repeated as firmly and as sympathetically as I could that he ought to reapply, perhaps after first improving his GRE. I explained that it is a competitive area, and what he’d typically have to add to the score N to get something that would be competitive. I explained that even students with a perfect score of 990 are not guaranteed admission to a program. I explained that maybe in addition to improving his score, he should do a careful re-writing of his personal statement to include his reflections on why his score and transcript do not show the whole picture, and we could look at it then. Next year. We’d already made our offers for this year, and so this cycle is probably too late… I also mentioned that he should apply to several programs. Not all have the same requirements that we do, and he could well find a home at some other institution and have a great time doing a Ph.D. in physics. He explained that he really wants to come to USC, because he has been in VeryColdState (a placeholder for where he mentioned) for a long time, and the weather here is much better and more like his home country and so this will mean that he does better work. He asked if this would be worth mentioning on the application. I told him no, that it probably won’t help to cite the weather in VeryColdState in support of his application.
Eventually (after I explained that I was now 15 minutes late for the thing I wanted to go to after class) he withdraws. Since he kept saying how much he loved physics, I feel a bit bad, but what else can I do, reasonably? I’ve nothing to go on. As we parted, after wishing him good luck, I mentioned (on reflection, a poor attempt to be helpful, really) that in future when suggesting a meeting out of the blue to someone about an important matter it would not be unreasonable to state in advance what the matter was. That way they could prepare and find a time that was mutually convenient, and so on and so forth. As it is, I pointed out, I was now late for a meeting, and was probably not so helpful since I did not have his details to hand to work from. He seemed to think this was somehow unaccommodating of me… I don’t understand.
I feel that this whole situation is a bit odd, frankly. Including the lurking, and so forth. Given that we (like many physics programs, I understand) seem to attract some very odd characters from time to time (but relatively rarely), who sometimes turn out to be disturbed and potentially dangerous to themselves or others (and no I am not equating odd or eccentric with being problematic in some way at the outset), I do wonder if I ought to be putting campus security’s number onto speed-dial on my phone….
I went into the cafe we’d been standing in front of and got my coffee and an apple turnover, went to sit for a minute and eat the turnover, then wandered wearily over to the talk. There was not a seat left in the theatre, and things were in full swing. Feeling not up to sitting on the steps and listening to 3/4 of a talk in some weary discomfort while trying to catch up on what I missed, and feeling utterly defeated by the whole conversation, I just turned around and went home…