So what was I supposed to do, exactly?

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…


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12 Responses to So what was I supposed to do, exactly?

  1. Jude says:

    Wow. This puts my approaching you at a concert in Aspen in an entirely different light. 🙂 This is downright Ted Kaczynski-ish. My daughter is trying to get into a master’s program; one of my best friends (who’s her age) is trying to get into a doctoral program. They’re both frustrated with the effort. I understand the frustration, but each is also doing concrete things to improve the odds. For example, my friend applied to a neuroscience boot camp this summer to improve his background knowledge and we started a research blog together which requires him to read extensively in the field so he’ll be more knowledgeable at his next interview. He’s also trying to polish some articles for publication. My daughter is completing a research project during her off-season from a seasonal park service job. She’s going to attempt to get the results published. For both of them, getting into grad school is proving to be a highly competitive, difficult process, much more so than my effort of 30 years ago. I’ve sent both of them every negative YouTube video & article I’ve found about what grad school gets you, but I also try to help them succeed. For this guy to show up in your class, then ambush you afterwards, then seem to not listen to what you’re saying, even though the advice is useful–well, perhaps this disconnect from appropriate behavior on his part is indicative of why he refused to accept or understand being rejected in the first place.

  2. Having dealt with a few mentally disturbed students in my time, I’d just say that yes, you would do well to call the attention of the campus police to this person…give his name, etc., and a heads up, maybe see if they can keep an eye on him. This is indeed odd and obsessive behavior, especially his recollection of a four-year-old phone call, etc. It could be totally innocuous, but there are a lot fo red flags in your story.

  3. Blake Stacey says:

    Yikes! Note to self: don’t be that guy.

    (Oh, the GRE. I see the value of a standardized test, particularly for international applicants — I know firsthand that schools in different countries don’t necessarily have a clue how work done abroad matches up with their curricula. It wasn’t that arduous to prepare for, either. But why do the scores expire after five years? I did decently well when I took the Physics GRE as an undergrad, but I’ve been bouncing around doing odd jobs on the fringes of academia for long enough that if I try to go for my PhD, I’ll have to take it again. Is there any reason for this, other than corporate greed on the part of ETS? I mean, I can still get my university transcript after more than five years. Why can’t I order an extra score report from ETS, then? I don’t think the first two years of a physics curriculum have changed significantly in that time. Heck, the material probably hasn’t changed too much in the past fifty. Like they put the Zamolodchikov c-theorem, ADE classification of conformal field theories and gravity duals of the Navier-Stokes equation on the Physics GRE, right? OK, OK, I think I’m turning into That Guy now, so I should close this parenthesis before I get worse.)

  4. candace says:

    Our gut instincts are usually right about these things: if this rattled your cage enough to post about it and also to wonder if you should alert security, then you probably should follow up and do just that. Speaking as a previous victim of stalking, sometimes the best thing to do is to build a case, just in case.

    So not what you needed right now. Sorry. It was at the very least extremely rude of him.

  5. Ele Munjeli says:

    What you’re supposed to do is… Don’t take it personally.

    It’s sad that he’s coming up on a blank wall of bureaucracy in his application process, and needs the advice. It really helps to have some feedback on your rejection if the criteria for admittance isn’t hard and fast, or for that matter, clearly listed. Of course, anyone really serious about their studies wouldn’t apply to just one school and let it slide for three years if they weren’t accepted. There’s piles of grad schools available, and ultimately, the education of a student (especially in grad school) is dependent more on his own motivation than the institution he’s in.

  6. Carl Brannen says:

    As a 53-year-old amateur, long out of academia, I decided to consider grad school next fall in physics. So I took the physics GRE and maxed it out to a 990. (See link.) So far it hasn’t gotten me into grad school but there’s still a few schools I’ve not heard from.

    The test covers standard undergraduate material. You’ve got nearly three hours to answer 100 multiple choice questions. I fail to see how it is that only 5% of the people who take that test max it out. I mean really, just what are undergraduate physics majors learning?

    The really hilarious part of all this is that I don’t believe in general relativity, or special relativity, I think that most of the foundations of quantum mechanics are wrong, and that quantum field theory is a bad joke. (Shhhh! Don’t Tell!)

  7. robert says:

    It’s all too like unrequited love, be it a schoolboy/girl crush or full on de Clerambault’s, for comfort. So I can feel sorry for your visitor, and slightly concerned for your safety. All the usual cliches will doubtless apply (still be friends etc.); let’s just hope the poor fellow meets someone new (not that stalkers ever do). Sad to see love is blind, and so are the absolute standards of academe.

  8. This really is very frightening, and we all can only hope that you don’t meet up with this guy in future. In my 32 years in a pretty-good mathematics department, I had to deal with a handful of students with one mental illness or another, but with them, I never had to deal with anything as serious as this. Nor any situation like this, being accosted by a potential student who was apparently not in full grasp of reality. I think that by all means you should alert the security services of the university.

  9. Clifford says:

    Hi Everyone,

    Thanks for your thoughts, and continue sharing them, but I’d like it if people would focus less on the issue of whether this guy is a threat to people’s safety or not and more at the rest of the issue. I’ve no real evidence that this guy is any more or less unsafe than any other student on campus, and he gave me no strong reason to think that he was a problem in that regard. I mentioned in passing the issue of campus security mostly with regards the general issue of there being a lot of odd characters that show up in physics departments from time to time, not because I feel that this particular guy is violent.

    I am always reasonably vigilant about my personal safety with regards strangers or other sorts, especially since I (for what its worth) write a widely read public blog and show up on a number of TV shows that lots of people regularly recognize me from. But I don’t want to be paranoid, and nor do I want to over-interpret things on the strength of little evidence. So I appreciate your concern for my safety a great deal, but let’s not turn the guy into a monster here, not the least because we may in fact unwittingly contribute to it in reality. I’ve already had to delete (and I hate to do so under any circumstances) a well-meaning comment that I felt went too far.

    Feel free to email me me if you have specific concerns or suggestions about safety issues that you want to share, but let’s not overly focus on that here in the comments with regards this particular guy. Thanks!



  10. Carl Brannen says:

    I think I have some insight into the mindset of the people who do this. From personal experience, I know that (believing you are) discovering new physics ideas is one of the most pleasurable experiences possible for a human. So it should not be surprising that when people go a little off, a few will gravitate in this direction.

    When I’ve been contacted by people with really crazy ideas, I respond by encouraging them to continue their research. I might point out any obvious flaw, but I always tell them that physics is a tough problem and that I’ve found it satisfying to work on it, and that I’m sure they’ll find it a lot of fun as well. Sometimes I point out an easier problem that is worth attacking before they take on the whole shooting match.

    A not uncommon thread is that they will say something like “I’ve got this idea but I don’t have the math to work it out. Can you do the math for me? (and sit in the audience while I am awarded the Nobel prize)” I think the correct thing to do is to tell them the truth. Any working physicist has far more ideas than they’ve got time to calculate. And far more papers to write than they’ve got the inclination to tex. No one needs any new ideas or has time to write papers.

    Another thing they complain about is the difficulty in getting published. But this is something that also afflicts “real” physicists. Tell them the truth; getting published is extremely difficult. If a journal rejects your manuscript, improve it and send it to a lower ranked journal. (By the way, I had a paper rejected by a journal after positive refereeing with the comment “too mathematical for this journal, try Jour. Math. Phys.)

    And it’s probably worth telling them that they can joint the APS and give 10 minute talks, providing they’ve got a fairly small amount of cash. Then you’ve turned him into someone who is supporting physics with cash (though most people pay taxes that support physics).

    In short, what I’m saying is that if you treat cranks as if they were respectable human beings, your relationships with them are unlikely to involve violence.

  11. Clifford says:

    Hi carl,

    I do and say all those things, since I deal with hobby-physicists and their theories of the world almost every other day. I do it not because of fear of violence but because I try to treat people with respect by default. So I find myself in agreement with you entirely. I note, by the way, that the subject of the post has not so much to do with what you discuss… But thanks for bringing that up as it is certainly not unrelated.


  12. David Brown says:

    People with severe personality disorders or mental disease such as schizophrenia tend to be about as physically dangerous as the average member of the general public — although they (we?) probably are considerably more irritating or disruptive to deal with. I say that M-theory predicts the Rañada-Milgrom effect, which is that the -1/2 in the standard form of Einstein’s field equations needs to be replaced by -1/2 + sqrt(15) * 10**-5 and that the Gravity Probe B team members were not justified in ignoring Milgrom’s Law when they calibrated their gyroscopes.