Wednesday, April 3, 2013

Breaking stereotypes

One of the things I had to do over Thanksgiving break was write letters for my students. My partner's family had a big reunion last year, so much of this writing happened in the moments when most people were out doing fun things, leaving only the losers with laptops lounging around the fireplace.

One of the letters I had to write was a recommendation for an NSF grant application. One of my fellow losers was an uncle-in-law who is also a professor at an MRU. He was more than happy to look over my letter of recommendation for me, since he had sat on the other side of these NSF grant processes, though in a very different field. One of the comments he made was that I had not emphasized my student's stellar grades. I explained that this was because my student did not have stellar grades, but I had other reasons for believing that this person was an excellent candidate. He paused, gave me some other useful feedback, and then said that he thought it was unlikely that someone without stellar grades would get such a grant, the competition being what it is. He went a step further to posit that he doubted it was possible to be a successful academic without stellar grades as an undergrad.

It was so tempting for me to point out that my undergraduate grades were far from stellar, but I seem to be successful. I forbore on this impulse for reasons of family politics, and because I'm not actually sure if bouncing from postdoc to postdoc, however prestigious  in my mid thirties counts as successful in his book.

Last weekend, I found out that my student got the NSF grant. I am incredibly proud and happy for her. I also really want to call up my uncle-in-law and give him an "in your face" moment. It won't do any good. I must forbear again.


  1. I cant believe there are people who still believe that having stellar grades are indication of a future successful academic..especially since he is an academic himself...

  2. It really is about self belief, not grades. I had terrible grades as an undergrad, I never believed in myself and I am an unsuccessful academic today. I remember a joint meeting with my adviser and another grad student. While I was all confused, this other person was confidently telling my adviser about how she would need to take of her mathematician's hat and put on her physicist's hat. While I was struggling to see myself as borderline decent in math, this other person had already become an expert in 2 different fields! Such are the habits of successful people.