Education, Features, Must Reads

The Crucible of the Application Process

[Note that this was written in its entirety before hearing any admissions decision on my applications this year]

Over the past two years, I’ve applied for some of the most prestigious academic positions in the world: for numerous scholarships including the Rhodes, Fulbright, and Marshall, as well as for Master’s and PhD positions at Harvard, MIT, Cambridge, and other top universities.

A large part of the application process has been working with applications reviewers, primarily from the university where I studied for my undergraduate degree. In total, I’ve worked with five essay reviewers, a dozen mock interview panellists, and the university’s scholarship advisor. Even though it’s part of their job description to assist students in applying for these positions, it’s extremely clear to me that everyone I worked with went far above what was required of them, and I feel the most appropriate way to start this essay is by expressing my deep and sincere gratitude for their advice and mentorship.

This essay is about my experience with the application process—specifically how I was repeatedly encouraged to alter my applications to conform with far-Left political ideology. These alterations would ostensibly bolster my chances of being accepted to and receiving funds for graduate programs.

It’s worth noting, at this point, that my political ideals tend to lean left. I’ve voted for the Democratic candidate in every national election since age 18, I’m deeply concerned about social issues including women’s rights, LGBT+ issues, and racial discrimination, and I believe that redistributing wealth through government intervention is fundamental to a healthy economy. At the same time, I don’t think the political Left is correct about everything and often find myself disagreeing with the far-Left narrative, especially as it is currently instantiated in the world of academia. Unfortunately, my experience with the applications process convinced me that the viability of my candidacy was largely predicated on hiding these disagreements from applications reviewers.

As a brief disclaimer, none of what I say here should be interpreted as a criticism of my advisors – not of their job performance and especially of their personal predilections. If anything, I think they did their jobs well. Given what I perceive as the entrenched far-Left political ideology in the world of academia, I’m confident that their advice improved my applications in the eyes of review committees. I can honestly say that by the end of the process, I felt as if the only way to be considered a serious candidate – by the Rhodes Trust, Harvard Admissions, etc – was to present myself and my proposed research as conforming entirely to a far-Left political narrative.

Some background on myself and my research: I started my undergraduate as a philosophy major, and in many ways still consider myself a philosopher at heart. My subspecialty within philosophy is the study of ethics and morality.

During my Sophomore year, I attended a talk hosted by the philosophy department on practical ethics, which centered on the notion of using reason and evidence to find the most effective ways to improve the world. I began to realize that not all charities and careers are equal in their ability to improve the lives of others, and decided that I wanted to devote a substantial portion of my time and money to doing as much good as possible.

Since then, I’ve put a lot of effort into figuring out how I can use my life to do the most good for others. From a purely empirical point of view, efforts to alleviate extreme poverty and attendant problems (such as preventable disease) are some of most effective ways to reduce suffering in the world. Compared to most issues we face in the developed world, poverty in the developing world is orders of magnitude more severe and vastly more neglected.

Mosquito nets in Mwanza, Tanzania

And so it’s no coincidence that certain charities working in the developing world are highly effective at improving the quality of people’s lives. These charities include the Against Malaria Foundation and the Schistosomiasis Control Initiative, which combat malaria and neglected tropical diseases respectively. I plan on donating at least 10% of my lifetime income to these and similar organizations.

In addition to asking how I can use my money, I’ve thought a lot about how to use my time – that is, what career will allow me to do the most good. For similar reasons, I concluded that work in development economics was one of the highest-impact careers I could pursue. Almost from the moment I came to this conclusion, I began taking classes in economics with the eventual goal of researching and implementing projects aimed at alleviating global poverty.

This brings me to today, where I’m now studying economics as a graduate student at Cambridge.

Early drafts of my personal statements looked more or less like what you’ve just read. When I would show these drafts to my writing fellows or scholarship advisors, the first question they would ask, almost unanimously, was but why do you care about extreme poverty?

Well, because there’s no single problem on earth responsible for more suffering or needless waste of human life, I would respond.

Yes, but why do you care about extreme poverty?

What on earth did they mean? A number of them followed up by asking if I had witnessed anyone living in extreme poverty. No, I hadn’t. Had I or anyone I know ever contracted malaria or a neglected tropical disease? No. Did I feel I had a responsibility to the developing world as a beneficiary of colonialism? Not particularly. How did my privilege and my identity as a White Westerner contribute to my decision to focus on extreme poverty? It didn’t.

I would have these exchanges over and over again throughout my application process. My essays would state that extreme poverty was the greatest problem in the world and I wanted to help solve it. They would ask why I wanted to help solve it. Because it’s the greatest problem in the world, I would say. And my interlocutor would respond with utter bafflement.

It quickly dawned on me that my advisors were, for the most part, largely incapable of understanding how a wealthy White American could possibly care about impoverished Black Africans, apart perhaps from White guilt or some deeper personal connection to poverty.

In the world of the far-Left, the only sensible explanation for why one person would care about the suffering of another is that they personally identified with them on the basis of culture, ethnicity, race, or gender. Moral universalism has become inconceivable for many academics on the Left, who doubt that it’s possible to care about the suffering of another human being independently of your respective identities. Do I think this problem is exclusive to the political Left? No. But I do think it’s been exacerbated to phenomenal levels by identity politics.

During my teenage years, I attended a Catholic high-school. Not a progressive Catholic high-school, but a right-leaning Catholic high-school. Most of our teachers opposed gay marriage and regularly spoke about abortion as a modern Holocaust.

As a secular liberal, I didn’t fit in with most of my high-school peers (to say the least). But the one positive thing I will say about my high-school community is that no one there would have been even slightly surprised if a White person were to express concern for people in Africa, India, or South-East Asia. Caring about others—regardless of their identity as well as ours—was a core part of Catholic teaching.

That notion of impartial, universal caring has been, if not abandoned, then at least grossly distorted by certain academics on the far-Left. Over the past several centuries, our scope of moral concern has been expanding. Many of us now appreciate the virtue of caring for people of other races, cultures, religions, and gender identities in a way that nearly all of our ancestors didn’t. My worry is that identity politics is morally regressive—encouraging the spread of ideas which will contract the scope of our moral concern. Instead of promoting a notion of caring characterized by universality and impartiality, the far-Left seems to be pushing a localized and deeply partial notion of caring which extends only to those with whom we can personally identify.

But the thing I don’t understand is why do you care? This was the final question of my Rhodes nomination interview. I can’t properly express the frustration I feel whenever this question is put to me. Every time I try to explain the importance of extreme poverty, and every time my answer isn’t good enough.

It was all I could do at that moment to keep my composure. What do you want me to say? I felt like asking. There are 900 million people living on less than $2 a day. That’s why I care. That’s the reason. There is nothing else. It doesn’t matter that I’m White, it doesn’t matter who my ancestors were, it doesn’t matter what country I’m from. All that matters is that people are suffering and I can help them. What more reason do I need?

Throughout my application process, the question of why I care came up so frequently that I decided to make it the main focus of my personal statement. In the precious 1000 words allotted to me, I spent the first 350 talking not about my views on global poverty or my ambitions to reform macroeconomic policy-making or my experience conducting randomized evaluations in India, but simply trying to convince the review committee that I as a White Westerner am psychologically capable of caring about people in developing nations. Whether or not my application was accepted seemed to be predicated almost entirely on my ability to successfully convince the review committee of this fact.

I quickly learned that a more effective way to explain why a White Westerner would be concerned about global poverty was by appealing to a sense of justice rather than a sense of caring, specifically by invoking postcolonial White guilt. If I couldn’t explain that I care about people in developing nations for their own sake, at least I could explain that I as a White Westerner felt a sense of responsibility to formerly colonized regions of the world.

This is, of course, not at all how I feel. I believe that holding people accountable for the sins of their ancestors requires a bizarre and Medieval notion of justice, and in fact that there is something fundamentally opprobrious about helping others out of guilt rather than compassion. Though it’s clear that colonialism created a system of inequality which persists through to the present day—a system from which White Westerners have benefited (and arguably continue to benefit) at the expense of formerly colonized territories—I don’t believe this fact should have any bearing on the extent to which we act to help the developing world. In my view, efforts to assist people in developing nations are better motivated by compassion than by guilt. However, the current trend in far-Left academia is to lay blame on former colonial powers and use that blame as the foundational argument for reparations, so this is what I decided to do both in my personal statement and in interviews.

The strategy of playing upon White guilt does, however, come at a cost. When we leverage guilt as our primary motivation for helping the developing world, problems which aren’t obviously related to colonialism, including preventable disease and geographic impediments to trade, almost by definition become unimportant. (By contrast, if we were driven by a sense of universal compassion, then we should care about every problem in the developing world regardless of whether or not it’s a derivative of colonialism).

In other words, the Left’s obsession with structural oppression and social justice has led it to neglect problems like malaria which are, in my view, arguably more critical. When I would mention the problems posed by disease, either in my essays or in mock interviews, my reviewer would often respond with something like, and how do you view malaria as being related to structural oppression?

My honest answer is that I don’t. Structural oppression isn’t the only thing wrong with the world, and many of the major challenges facing developing nations are non-structural in nature. Sometimes our efforts are better spent distributing anti-malarial bednets than trying to restructure society. However, I was explicitly encouraged not to say anything like this in my applications. To many on the far-Left, structural issues almost by definition trump all other concerns, and to think otherwise is something of a heresy. And so, I began to deliberately avoid discussing non-structural issues, omitting any mention of geography and giving only a cursory nod to disease, instead focusing almost exclusively on things like power relations between developing and developed nations.

My view on the relative importance of structural and non-structural issues isn’t the only thing I decided to avoid mentioning to the review committee. Another is my position on free market economies.

Having read over a draft of my personal statement, one essay reviewer asked me how I intended to tackle the ‘root cause’ of poverty. Well, I responded, I knew of several effective interventions which were proven to reduce disease, enhance educational achievement, and increase annual earnings by several hundred dollars.

Yes, but what about the root cause of poverty? She asked again. What did she mean? Weren’t reducing disease, enhancing education, and increasing earnings critical stepping stones on the path towards greater prosperity? When I asked for clarification, she said (as if it were the most obvious thing in the world), Well, I don’t see how we’re going to eradicate poverty without getting rid of capitalism.

I was floored. That’s what she meant when asking about the root cause of poverty? I remember giving her some halfhearted answer about protecting infant industries by adopting certain trade restrictions, which was the most accommodating answer I could give without outright lying about my views on free market capitalism.

Honestly, my position on this is fairly mixed. Free international trade can be and has been tremendously beneficial for developing economies under certain circumstances, whereas centrally planned economies often create more market inefficiencies than they resolve. In fact, capitalism is a large part of what allowed Western society to reach its current state of prosperity. Without going into greater detail, I believe there is an immensely strong case to be made that one of the best things we can do to grow developing economies is to liberalize their markets.

However, I didn’t dare say this to the essay reviewer, who I also knew would be on my nomination interview panel and who was designated to draft my institutional endorsement. Since then, I’ve decided to hide my views on free markets from any potential reviews committees.

But perhaps the most disappointing moments in my applications process occurred when discussing the role of emotion and reason in altruistic decision-making.

In my applications essays and mock interviews, I expressed my opinion that learning to think about altruism more rationally and less emotionally would help change the attitude of apathy and neglect with which developed nations regard those in the developing world.

This opinion was summarily dismissed by my applications advisors. Many of them were skeptical of the notion that reason and rationality could be valid thinking tools at all. Their model of human psychology, it seemed, was one of a blank slate on which culture was free to paint any picture it desired. There was no room in this model for individuals to respond to rational argument and empirical evidence in ways that would compel them to dissent from the edicts of their culture.

I was repeatedly told, for instance, how quixotic it was to expect that I could convince even a single person of the importance of extreme poverty through reason and evidence. Worse yet, I was scolded for ‘presuming’ that there was any rational basis for preferring to work on extreme poverty over other issues.

Initially, I would respond to these criticisms by saying that my convictions regarding extreme poverty were, in fact, the product of having been exposed to evidence. For example, I believe GiveDirectly, which gives unconditional cash transfers directly to people in Uganda and Kenya, is an extraordinarily high-impact program. I believe this because I’ve read randomized evaluations of its work, compared the results to those of numerous other NGOs, and concluded that it’s one of the most effective evidence-backed charities in the world. Now consider that 97% of donors do exactly no research to find the most effective charities. Surely, I would say, I have some basis on which to claim that my decision to donate to GiveDirectly is more rational than average.

I was told that such statements were arrogant and inconsiderate, that which organizations and programs do the most good was merely a matter of opinion, and that I should refrain from speaking as though certain acts of altruism could be more rational than others even in principle.

Like the other criticisms I received, this sort of pushback isn’t exclusive to the political Left. What surprised me, however, was the level of explicit, unapologetic, and profound skepticism that reason and evidence could have any bearing on what we believe and how we behave—at least in the domain of pro-social decision-making.

Moral psychology reveals a level of bias in altruistic decision-making across the political spectrum. Still, many of us aspire to the ideal of reason, even if we don’t always live up to it. Many on the far-Left, by contrast, seem to have discarded the notion of reason as an ideal to which we should aspire at all.

It took some time for my advisors to finally convince me to stop talking about reason, rationality, and evidence in my personal statements and interviews. The last straw came when one of my scholarship advisors told me that my views on reason and emotion were, in fact, sexist. Because ‘rationality’ was associated with masculinity and emotion with femininity, she explained, my preference for rationality over emotion was indicative of my unconscious bias against women.

I realized not only that I was tired of having this argument, but also that I was fighting a losing battle. If the review committees were anything like my advisors expected them to be, they would never take my views on reason and emotion seriously. As a result, I mention ‘evidence’ exactly once in my personal statements. ‘Reason’ and ‘rationality’ make no appearance at all.

These are the most salient examples among many of experiences I had during my application process which convinced me that being forthcoming about my (fairly moderate) political and intellectual beliefs would hurt my candidacy. By the end, I could barely recognize my own voice in my personal statements and interview answers. I hid certain of my beliefs, exaggerated others, expressed tremendous confidence in positions I considered dubious, peppered my language with critical theory jargon, and in many ways molded my application to the far-Left narrative to the greatest extent I could without outright lying.

My grievances with this process extend beyond my personal frustrations. As a result of my experience, I’ve become concerned that the highest echelons of academia may be systematically selecting against any deviation from a particular, narrow conception of far-Left ideology.

To be fair, my concern is largely based on limited interactions with only a handful of individuals. My experience with the applications process may be something of an aberration, and it would be irresponsible of me to suggest that there are any sweeping conclusions to be drawn from the anecdotes I’ve provided.

Still, if my experience was in any way representative of a larger trend, we should be deeply worried that the academic filtration process is stifling inquiry into critical questions in development studies and beyond. To what extent should development interventions focus on structural versus nonstructural issues? Can we use market liberalization to grow developing economies? How can we put aside our emotions to make macroeconomic policy on the basis of reason and evidence?

These are all important and unresolved questions, and getting the answers right could mean the difference between life and death for tens of millions of people around the world. Yet, I as an applicant have to act as though they’ve already been decided. And if academia continues to filter candidates in this way, there may soon be no one left asking these questions at all.

Filed under: Education, Features, Must Reads

by

Dillon Bowen completed his B.S. in cognitive science and philosophy in 2016, and is currently studying economics as a graduate student at Cambridge University. He has several academic publications on topics in practical ethics, evolutionary psychology, and the cognitive foundations of pro-social behavior.

91 Comments

  1. “…My experience with the applications process may be something of an aberration…”
    I hope so. God, I hope so…
    This piece should have come with a content warning ( 😉 ), because reading it made me feel ill.

  2. Johnson says

    I’m pretty sure most schools ask that applications be complete without enlisting the help of others.

    I think you are committing academic fraud using application and writing reviewers.

    Unlike you I was brave enough to apply without the help of a team of consultants.

    • Aravind Dileepan says

      Good for you. Meanwhile, the rest of us will practice and refine and rehearse in order to put the best foot forward.

      Also, you’ll note that some of the people the author mentions were from the approval committees. Their job, apparently, to foster an applicant through the process.

    • Arthur says

      As far as I am aware, nothing in your comment is remotely factual. I am not sure why taking advice from undergraduate advisors, who very likely will also be writing your letters of recommendation, could possibly be considered unusual.

    • Dillon Bowen says

      It depends on the application. The Rhodes Trust, for example, doesn’t allow reviews of your personal statement, but the rules differ between institutions. When you’re applying for internships, for example, you’d be silly not to have someone read over your application. Obviously, I followed the rules of each institution to the best of my knowledge.

      • Rupert says

        You should check your privilege. Most applicants don’t have access to teams of writing and application advisers.

        • Joanna G says

          “Check your privilege” is just silly. Did you have breakfast today? Do you have clean clothing? Are people in your family not on drugs? Only one job instead of 2 or more? Then check your privilege when you apply for a job, a degree program, etc, because you most likely have advantages that others do not. The author did nothing wrong.

        • yandoodan says

          @Rupert: How wide is your home? More than fourteen feet? Check your privilege.

    • BarryG says

      Heh, for the same reason I reserved all of mathematics starting with only the concept that you may distinguish one space from another rather than cheat by reading a textbook!

    • DiscoveredJoys says

      But you could argue that part of the pre-application process is to groom the candidates into the mindset that is acceptable. The pre-processing is necessary to ensure that the applicant understands what will be required of him/her and doesn’t waste the time of successful people who have already undergone the process.

      In many other areas people are given practice in mock-exams or mock-interviews – and most of them are ways of ensuring that you are ‘fit’ to undergo the selection process.

      The downside is that when a group-think has taken hold it can be difficult to join the club unless you know the special language – and the group-think can spiral down and down to its eventual destruction because it won’t allow alternative world views.

    • Jeff Dean says

      Bravo, Johnson. You are one ballsy man. Now, if anyone asks me what peak performance sounds like, i shall simply whisper ‘Jooohnssson’ to them.

  3. Richard says

    It’s pretty unacceptable for you to be unable to properly articulate why you want to do something in your application.

    Your politics sound pretty similar to my own. If I was applying, I would say that as somebody who is interested in global politics I want to be active in creating a better world for future generations. If pressed on my own background, I would say that while I am from a reasonably affluent middle class family, I’m firmly in favour of policies which favour intergenerational equity, even if it is against the direct interests of myself and any children I might end up having. I would say that that sort of egalitarian society does far more for my children’s own future than inherited wealth. Elaborate in various directions from there.

    Doesn’t it seem kind of obvious now?

    • David Moss says

      But his application (from the brief description cited above) *did* clearly articulate why he wants to do what he wants to do, namely that there are a billion people in the most extreme poverty and the direst poverty and (inspired by a particular view in practical ethics) he wants to help them a much as he possibly can.

      Why is all of the above not a reason and yet talking about “inter-generational equity” is? That’s the very problem that this essay is highlighting!

  4. Aravind Dileepan says

    To a lesser scale, I recognize this same trend across academia. I get similar “why do you care” questions when writing law school essays, or grant applications, or when rehearsing for job interviews.

    I hadn’t connected the dots like you have, though. So thank you.

  5. The perfect example of how we become what we resist. In this case, academia is transformed into a system of structural oppression–that which it professes should be dismantled. Profoundly sobering. Could not agree more that compassion is a greater motivation than guilt for pitching in to help others, and would add that even better (or with) compassion is respect — which naturally leads to the liberated market discussion. Good luck to you and thanks for pushing through it to be a thinker and voice that can challenge from the inside, eventually, hopefully.

  6. Rudy says

    Thanks for the interesting essay!

    Some thoughts:

    I’m not trying to defend your advisors here, but perhaps one point they were trying to get at (in a very ham-fisted way) was that they wanted something visceral and emotional in your essay. This is politically neither left nor right.

    (By the way, I’m not doubting that most of your advisors were left, given the overall slant of academia.)

    People choose their careers for many reasons, but I think high on the list for everyone are emotional reasons. For example, suppose you absolutely loved writing poetry. Absolutely loved it!

    Now, not a lot of people in the world like to read poetry (to be honest, I’m one of those who doesn’t “get” poetry, usually). One might look at the world in a “rational” way and conclude from a cost-benefit assessment that you should not be a poet but rather go into X or Y.

    But if you really loved poetry enough, you wouldn’t see things that way. And, who knows, you might be right not to see things that way.

    So I suspect one of the things your advisors were getting at was: Why this subject? Other than the rational side of things, why do you like economics? Why do you like developmental issues? There must be personal reasons. Somehow your personality must fit with these subject areas–or you wouldn’t be choosing them.

    I’ve always thought that medical research and agriculture were some of the most important subjects in terms of affecting lives. Yet I’m not doing either one. I just wasn’t a bio person (did fine on paper tests, struggled through labs). And farming–I really don’t know anything about it other than that I appreciate eating. I’m not very practical, not good with my hands (couldn’t fix a diesel tractor for a billion dollars–don’t even know what or where a spark plug is, can’t change my own oil, etc.).

    In short, I found that my personality didn’t fit into the areas that I found most rational to go into in some sense. So I didn’t go into those areas. And think about it: How would I have had the drive to get a doctorate in biomedical engineering if I really, really didn’t like biomedical engineering?

    The “I’m doing this because it’s rational” answer is an answer anyone could give. What we want to see is an answer only you could give. That way we learn a little more about you, the person behind the essay.

    • Rudy says

      Actually, though, when I think about it your answer does tell us something about yourself. If I were on the admissions committee I would have thought it was just fine. Not everyone gives the same answer–or even the same type of answer. Diversity at its best!

      • Dillon Bowen says

        Hi Rudy,

        Thanks for the comments. Yes, I think this is exactly what my advisors were getting at – they wanted something more emotional. The problem I was facing is that the ’emotion’ behind my decision doesn’t fit with the paradigmatic image of what emotion is supposed to look like.

        I disagree with you that the ‘I’m doing it because it’s rational’ answer is something anyone could give. If your goal is to do the most good in the world, working for, say, Homeopaths Without Borders is not a rational decision.

        A more rational approach would be to spend a great deal of time researching which global problems cause the most suffering and what the most tractable methods of solving them are. After engaging in such a process, I found that global poverty was one of the world’s most serious and neglected problems (along with a small handful of others), making it a prime target for my efforts. That’s why I chose this field.

        Is this an emotional decision? On some level, yes, but not in the same way as ‘falling in love’ with creative writing. This was one of the bulwarks faced by my application.

        Best

    • I applaud your efforts to (convincingly) steelman the views Dillon is critiquing here. Even so, I would offer at least some objection to the whole framing that we ought to choose career paths because they are emotionally compelling to us or because we like them.

      It may be ill-advised to pursue careers which you would despise, and I suspect it likely to turn out that people will only perform well in careers which they find at least marginally tolerable if not enjoyable, but we should not move to the other pole and encourage everyone to pursue whichever career they love most and which excites their passions the most.

      I think this encourages lazy idealism. Reason and evidence can step in to guide the emotions towards career paths that can both satisfy one’s interests and satisfy one’s desire to have an actual positive impact.

    • DiscoveredJoys says

      “By the way, I’m not doubting that most of your advisors were left, given the overall slant of academia.”

      The Left have captured the flag, or the academic high ground, and they are not going to allow anyone to displace them by reason or logic.

  7. Another reason that liberal arts programs in public universities, the ones that can be defunded, likely will and should be in years to come, if attrition doesn’t kill them first. Also why, sadly, regressives are handing over power to Republicans for at least the next generation.

  8. a6z says

    In the time left to me I shall watch your future career with great interest, Dillon Bowen. You will come under great pressure over a long time to conform your views to those to which you wisely react in horror. The smart wager is that you will, in fact, eventually do so; but you might not.

    I am torn as to whether I would even wish you to. If you refused to conform, it would be a moving tribute to the human mind and spirit. I should like that. It might even do some good. But I caution you that, if you do not conform your views, you will lose many friends, some opportunities, and possibly your livelihood and/or spouse, and be expelled from your community of belief and feeling. I do not want you to suffer, and it may do no good at all.

  9. “It’s worth noting, at this point, that my political ideals tend to lean left. I’ve voted for the Democratic candidate in every national election since age 18, I’m deeply concerned about social issues including women’s rights, LGBT+ issues, and racial discrimination, and I believe that …”

    I know why you put that in there — the essay itself is a justification for that paragraph — but I still hate that a pressure exists to make you feel like you do.

    If at all possible, we should refuse to attach qualifiers like “just to be clear I am [position that agrees with you]” to our writing because the endgame of adhering to this bullshit is some enormous ritual where 1/3 of your whole argument is sucking your interlocutor’s dick, and even then you risk it being immediately shot down anyway if it’s not good enough. It’s absolutely not the direction dialogue or truthseeking needs to go. (And I know “Truthseeking” sounds pretentious, but it’s the best word to describe what we’re doing.)

    • (my name is Alfred MacDonald, not Admin; my default WordPress name was set to this when commenting, sorry.)

      • Dillon Bowen says

        Hi Alfred,

        Yes, when I wrote this last October, I remember agonizing over whether to include that paragraph for exactly this reason. Ultimately, I thought it was the right move, but I’m still unsure.

  10. Gary says

    I share Rudy’s thoughts on his partial, possible explanation. When I help students write cover letters or get ready for interviews, I help them come up with personal stories to demonstrate their skills, passion, and experience. Stories are essential because they help the reader/interviewer form a personal connection with the material/you. Further, if you do it right, you can tell a story about anything (like, say, how you came to understand how essential evidence and rationality was to virtually everything–or you can tell a story about a circumstance in which your gut empathy led you to an obviously worse result than a dispassionate, compassionate approach).

    Still, as someone acquiring my PhD, I sympathize with every single part of this essay. And I understand your decision to tailor your essay according to these other people’s feedback.

    But the decision I’ve come to is never to do that. There are several reasons for this. First, I am confident that every other essay that comes across these committee members’ desks will read pretty similarly to yours. And you’ll lose that battle every time if you’re up against minorities or women, regardless of writing skill or qualifications. Second, even if you do get accepted, how much do you want to go to a program that would accept such an essay? Ultimately, I’ve decided that it’s way better to be honest on such things, so that if I do get accepted somewhere, it will be to a place that I want to go to, a place that might actually appreciate my viewpoints.

    If you’re insistent upon going to the “best” schools, then this approach will definitely doom you; the wealthiest schools are the most extreme, politically speaking. But I’m very happy to work at mid tier or smaller schools. At some point, you’ll likely have to decide whether the prestige is worth that kind of compromise.

    Regardless, I wish you luck. Grad school is a nearly impossible place to maintain your sanity, much less your rationality.

  11. FitzFitzgerald says

    … I once heard of a concept of Altruism… even Christian Altruism …

  12. Zeke says

    I’ve just completed applying to MBA schools. The ‘why’ and developing your ‘story’ were critical components to a successful application. I believe had I written a better narrative, I would have been accepted to more schools.

  13. George says

    Is this article a hoax? When something confirms everything I suspect is wrong with the stalinistic academic left it just seems a little to perfect. I call BS.

    • Hi George. I don’t know how Dillon feels about me commenting on this, but I know Dillon, saw early versions of the draft, and attended the same university. If this were a hoax, it would be a bizarrely elaborate one that involved enormous amounts of private and seemingly sincere communication.

    • Dillon Bowen says

      Hi George,

      Yes, it’s true, but it shouldn’t confirm everything you suspect is wrong with the academic Left.

      As I said, but which is worth emphasizing once more, this was written based on my interactions with only a handful of individuals at my undergraduate institution. While most of them showed at least a hint of political bias, some were scrupulous in avoiding it, and the amount of political bias demonstrated varied on an individual basis.

      It’s also worth noting (as I say in the beginning) that the anecdotes I mention may not have reflected my advisors’ actual views so much as their perception of the views of reviews committees. If this is the case, my experience may be more the product of confusion and misperception than an entrenched problem with the academic Left.

      So yes, it’s true, but there are several important caveats which warrant caution in the interpretation of this piece.

      Best

      • Luke Reeshus says

        It’s also worth noting (as I say in the beginning) that the anecdotes I mention may not have reflected my advisors’ actual views so much as their perception of the views of reviews committees. If this is the case, my experience may be more the product of confusion and misperception than an entrenched problem with the academic Left.

        So one of two possibilities is probable. Either your advisors were confused, to a Kafkaesque extent, about how to do their jobs, or… Academia is systematically given over to a morally retrograde political ideology based on the ‘blank slate’ theory of human nature. I think I know which one it is.

        And I would not call it “stalinistic” as George did, but it is certainly disturbing. And your essay is one of the most disturbing things I have ever read about it.

  14. Article author, if you are reading this, I suggest you immediately seek legal consultation about what you experienced during this process. From your account, it seems that you were treated differently merely on account of your race, which may be a violation of federal civil rights laws. If your rights were violated, you will be able to file a civil rights complaint against every institution that discriminated against you because of your race. To help you, I will quote a small amount of information found on the Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights website.

    1. “Did an official or representative (agent or employee) of a recipient treat someone differently in a way that interfered with or limited the ability of a student to participate in or benefit from a program or activity of the recipient?”
    2. “Did the different treatment occur in the course of authorized or assigned duties or responsibilities of the agent or employee?”
    3. “Was the different treatment based on race color, or national origin?”
    4. “Did the context or circumstances of the incident provide a legitimate, non-discriminatory, non-pretextual basis for the different treatment?”

    Review what you experienced during these proceedings and determine (in consultation with legal counsel) if your rights were violated. If they were, then you NEED to take action.

    Here is a link to the Office for Civil Rights website to get you started:
    https://www2.ed.gov/about/offices/list/ocr/docs/race394.html

    For anyone else being treated differently on account of their race, I implore you to also make use of these resources.

  15. Dillon Bowen says

    Dear readers,

    I received a very kind email from the editor of Quillette this morning informing me that one of you decided to pass this on to the Rhodes trust. Needless to say, I’m flattered.

    To whomever decided to send this along, I’d appreciate if you passed along the following as well: It’s worth noting that I never interacted with anyone from the Rhodes trust. I only received a nomination interview with my undergraduate institution. I’d rather give the trust itself the benefit of the doubt and assume they rejected my application for reasons unrelated to those I mention in my article. I certainly don’t want this to come off as an indictment of an institution I know almost nothing about. The candidates who won the scholarship this year were at least (and probably more) qualified than I.

    Best

  16. asd says

    Perhaps they asked you so much “why do YOU care” because they wanted you to give evidence that you truly care, and are not just a cheap-talker…

      • Violet says

        Examples of evidence from people who walked the walk:
        1. Delayed own graduation for what they considered urgent and important (i.e., responding to a natural hazard event that needed their skills).
        2. Worked extra and donated the entire profit from that work because they considered it as optimal at the given time
        3. Committed for a long period to something difficult and unpleasant based on the conclusions of their rational decision-making (e.g., transportation mode, life-style changes etc)

  17. interloper says

    Interesting read but not surprising. The aid world is coming around to the fact that their intentions-over-results is not enough — even while academia hardens. Some good podcasts on Econtalk you might enjoy are interviews with the director of ‘Poverty Inc’; and Nina Munk on Jeffrey Sachs’ idealism and its limitations.
    http://www.econtalk.org/archives/2015/11/michael_matheso.html

    It’s not just humanities blinkering and weakening themselves. Ex-string-theorist laments the politicization and relativism of physics depts in same sad way in ‘Not Even Wrong’.

    Best wishes with your helping desperately poor strangers!

  18. Angel says

    This disease & lack of education your worried about sits right in front of you in every university. If we dont fix this disease thats crippling free thought. & speech poverty on every level never seen before will be the destruction of our world, not bombs or food shortages. If we cant fix whats in front of we are no use.

  19. Ben says

    I don’t know anything about applying for the Rhodes or Fulbright scholarships, but I have a certain amount of background in graduate school in economics. What’s particularly surprising about this story to me is the lack of knowledge all your advisers and interviewers showed if graduate school in economics was your goal. The personal statement is widely considered the least important feature of your application other than, perhaps, the verbal GRE.

    Moreover, even if the admissions committee chose to read the statement, learning about experience conducting randomized evaluations in India is exactly the sort of thing they would want to see. What economics admissions committees want is an acknowledgement that you know what you’re getting yourself into – a heavily technical course of study for a research degree.

    Shortly before I did my applications around 10 years ago, I had the good fortune to talk to a very noteworthy macroeconomist about the applications process. I was specifically instructed to exclude discussions of “saving the world,” especially in the context of working for international organizations (not that either of those were my goal). His reasoning was that their worst students usually ended up at these big NGOs; by telling him you want to be there, you tell him you aspire to be his worst student.

    I believe you received all of this mistaken advice. But boy was it bad advice given your aspirations for grad school.

  20. I badly wanna argue – this isn’t the Left, this is authoritarianism. You know what else? It’s science and biology supporting it, your selfish genes, right? I know that’s not what it means, but you also know that biology does say it’s about our organism, our genes and our relatives, that indeed it’s easy for science to explain that but longer and vaguer in the way it explains a universal morality. But you get this from both sides, the right wing politicians who famously play on just these attitudes in their hoped for voters, why care about the other? Just because your bully was a Lefty, hate bullies, not Lefties. The next bully you encounter will be a Righty, likely as not.

    .

    Also again, it’s the democracy/confirmation bias problem: your mentors and coaches helped you by playing into these ideologues’ prejudices, thus reinforcing their positions, right?

  21. One angle to look at the “why do YOU care” question is – do you have skin in the game? You want to help, that’s admirable. How can you be sure that your “helping” is actually going to make things better for them, rather than cause more problems (reducing mortality creates overpopulation, which needs to be solved by increasing food supply, and can often result in increasing warfare… All sort of consequences you may have not considered).
    You can read this bit to get an idea of counter-intuitive effects of such “improving people’s situation”: http://quillette.com/2015/11/02/the-paradox-of-female-happiness-2/ (I believe that the potential negative consequences for people whose culture is entirely unlike what you’re familiar with are likely far greater, this is just a proof of concept).

    Anyway, it would have probably been better had you just applied as yourself, with your reasons being whatever they really are and judged or their own merit, rather than going through the process of tailoring your application to pretend to be someone/something you’re not. Had you applied as yourself, your focus would have been on finding an institution that’s a good fit for YOU, rather than trying to fit which ever institutions you deem “best” (and then spending your grad school years surrounded by people who all try to sound the way you tried to sound in your application). Just my 2 cents…

  22. Now I’ll support you instead. I’m pretty obsessed with solving the world’s troubles too (although I’m less likely to have any success with my plan and my resources) and this appears to my counselors as unhealthy, they think I should be concentrating on my social well being. Psychology too, seems to consider universal morality to be a disorder of some sort. Same sort of conversation: me: “It’s not about me; everyone has these problems, the world needs to change!” Counselor: “Yes, but what do you get out of it?” What’s personally hurtful is that things like the human condition and starvation – I feel those. You do too, right? They’re not theoretical. Mortality? The difficulty in making connections with people? I have that sure, we all do, and I feel mine – but damnit, I feel yours too. The fact that everyone I know and love and everyone I only know about have all these problems too, and most of them in a greater measure than I do, this doesn’t make me happy and it it shouldn’t. Your answer, of course, is for them, for Them, for THEM, FOR THEM (for THEM, you sociopaths!), how is that not an answer?

    I can see you know you’re right about it, and that’s good!

  23. OK, back to the argument. They are not coming from a place of no morality, of course, but it’s not communist morality either. What you are up against is the only kind of morality most humans have so far, the old us and them. You are up against that there really is no language, no aboriginal basis for a morality that assumes no out-group. It’s what’s in the bible for morality, and we evolved in a competitive group situation: it’s the built-in version of morality, and Lefties are as subject to that human limitation just like Righties are. That’s the crux of it, right?

  24. OxDoc says

    For clarity, were all of these experiences with people at your undergraduate institution? Could it be that it’s just your undergrad institution that has a culture where people hold biases against your way of thinking? Have you noticed any differences at Cambridge? People at the universities of Oxford and Cambridge in the UK seem to have done quite well academically arguing views similar to yours, and also Peter Singer at Princeton of course.

  25. Tommy says

    It seems like some very intelligent and very helpful people tried to give you advice and you ignored it, and are still resisting it.

    For example, you insist that solving disease is a good way of addressing global inequality without acknowledging the reality that diseases like malaria are a cultural construct. Malaria strikes colonized people but not the colonial powers. To ignore the role of colonialism in the social construction of malaria is a tragedy. Why would we apply the band-aid solution of providing oppressed people with bed-nets when we could work towards a more radical cultural transformation which would eliminate the need for bed-nets altogether?

  26. Killer Marmot says

    But the thing I don’t understand is why do you care?

    I suppose the answer is, why do you not?

  27. I’m sorry to say that this attitude doesn’t seem restricted to academia. I was going for a job in the energy industry 3 years ago and made it to the final round interviews (2 available jobs out of 6 remaining candidates).

    To that point, I had been asked a range of technical and aptitude questions, but also questions about my motivation. This was before I discovered anything like effective altruism, but I was already broadly aligned with the views that you highlight here.

    The answers I gave were pretty similar to yours. My motivation to combat poverty and climate change came not from a personal connection to the issues, but of believing they were the most pressing issues, and he beat opportunities for me to do good.

    In the final interview, they asked me a question that stumped me. “What makes you wake up and want to be a geologist each day?” I was confused, because I thought I had answered that. I told them again about my reason for choosing the oil and gas industry. I believed the industry had a big role to play in both poverty and climate change, and I wanted to be a part of that. I wanted to change the industry from the inside to become even better.

    They weren’t satisfied. I paraphrase the second question, but it was something to the effect of “But what specifically motivates you?”

    Was it so incomprehensible that I would want to do a job because of extrinsic reasons? I told them I woke up every morning and watched the news to remind myself of the horrors in the real world, to motivate myself to work harder and try to stop them.

    Finally, I told them that my father was in the oil and gas industry too, and from a young age my family and I had gone camping and collected fossils and rocks. They seemed happy with that. I didn’t get the job.

  28. Pingback: Response to: 'The Crucible of the Application Process' by Dillon Bowen - Michael Dello-Iacovo

  29. Santoculto says

    Ad eternum the dumb controlling the human world and the malignant clever behind the scene.

    Dumb**

    But ALMOST of this people have HIGHER IQs**

    They are smarter!!1

    ….

  30. I can only hope, if your experience is indicative of a larger trend across academia, that academia will simply contort itself out of relevance. The loss will be far easier to bear than a world bereft of reason and devoid of empathy and compassion. This is not a foundation upon which one can build anything worthwhile.

  31. I’m nearly as shocked by some of the comments as I am your written experience. It’s clear some people simply will not accept any questioning of that influence (ironically, a sort of example of it already); it can’t be wrong so you must be.

    The idea that you should be able to explain why you have an interest in helping resolve the biggest problem in the world is itself the same aberration. Do you think people now ask Elon Musk, yes but WHY do you want to make the world a better place? Some people are inspired by single events; some people are simply optimistic troubleshooters by nature. I walk into a company, and I solve problems, often that have nothing to do with my position or even dept. — nobody grills me about the ‘why’ or implies there’s something wrong with me if I don’t have some “because I feel guilty for NOT working the mailroom, hence my desire to help improve it” to provide. Decent human beings have compassion and empathy inherent. It doesn’t have to be triggered by suffering or inspiration, stick or carrot — it simply IS.

    This reminds me of an experience I had watching a press conference of a current political leader. After saying ‘generally in passing’ something a bit off the cuff, the reporters went crazy on their electronics, looking up the historical details of every instance of something, to see if his generalization was correct. It was not; there were 2-3 instances (out of over 40). So this was brought up and the guy says ok. (It just wasn’t a big deal… it was a sort of factoid trivia.) The reporter says something like, well if we can’t trust you about THAT, how can we trust you about ANYTHING? And I just looked at this guy on my screen like he was insane. As if the moral integrity or intent of an individual can ever be compared with factoid trivia. And then it occurred to me that maybe this guy had no experience with the difference. Maybe in his edu and city life and job, it’s always follow the money, there isn’t really any integrity except to who’s funding you, and so not only does he openly disbelieve this could exist in the guy on stage, but he also doesn’t even know the difference between genuine integrity when you “can’t be trusted” to be honest about your intent, vs. the integrity of factoids, such as when some people tend to be casual in reference to something and sometimes they’re partly or fully wrong on the detail when exactingly reviewed. My grandfather was infamous for hand-waving incongruity and being wrong in it in conversation, but was utterly a man of his word on commitment and things that mattered. These two things are not comparable. Anyway my point (sorry it’s long) is that I think we are gradually creating, breeding, environments in our culture where people can make it all the way to adulthood and never, actually, understand genuine character, genuine integrity, because it’s always a trade, a cost, a motive, for them. Since they haven’t got it in themselves, they cannot possibly fathom it in anybody else. I think the lack of people understanding your drive is not that you are an anomaly (except in modern culture perhaps) but the lack of depth of character their own life experience has allowed for them. Either that or they simply knew that these are the questions people would have for you, that you needed a good story/narrative to ‘sell’ yourself with, so were simply helping you by pointing it out.

    • Palyne, I fear you’re onto something here.

      There’s a cliche that people who are constantly in fear of being cheated are most likely to themselves cheat, given the chance.

      People tend to assume that other people’s psychology mirrors their own. Honest people don’t worry a great deal about cheaters.

      I constantly hear those on the extreme left accusing anyone they disagree with of corrupt self-interest – in your words, “it’s always follow the money, there isn’t really any integrity except to who’s funding you”.

      Perhaps they’re telling us something about their own mentality.

  32. Brianna says

    “I was told that such statements were arrogant and inconsiderate, that which organizations and programs do the most good was merely a matter of opinion”

    To quote a quote Dillon, don’t bother to examine an obvious folly when trying to understand the inexplicable; instead, ask yourself what it accomplishes.

    For example, if someone tells you that using reason and evidence to evaluate results, then chances are the reason they don’t like reason is because reason has shown that their own particular efforts have in fact been ineffective. After all, if evidence had shown their efforts to be effective at achieving their stated goals, wouldn’t they *want* you to examine the evidence? People who are provably good at what they are doing are never shy about the validity of the evidence that proves it, only people who are provably bad at their jobs are. There are countries in this world without capitalism, and they are to a polity extremely poor; you think the woman who told you that getting rid of capitalism is the route to eliminating extreme poverty wants you to bring up North Korea or Venezuela?

    P.S. As a female engineer, I promise you I do not think the use of reason and evidence in forming arguments is sexist. The alternative is to think my entire career is sexist and that my life has been devoted to sexist pursuits… something I’m sure you’ll agree is ludicrous. Incidentally, you really have to wonder at the logic of people who wish to push more women into the sciences and engineering, considering that by their logic, the utter reliance of these fields on reason and evidence would make them utterly sexist.

    • Brianna says

      “For example, if someone tells you that using reason and evidence to evaluate results is arrogant and inconsiderate,”

      Sorry about the grammatical non-sequitur.

  33. Louella says

    Great essay. The obsession with structural oppression, and the association of rationality with masculinity which is implied to indicate an unconscious bias against women are just two of many shake-my-head moments.

  34. John says

    Dillon, you state that you felt compelled to lie and hide your true opinions in the application process for these academic positions.

    With that in mind, have you considered that these positions may turn out to be intellectually or emotionally unsuitable for you, and perhaps you are looking in the wrong places?

  35. Hey, just a thought, in case we’re all off on a tangent here – was evolution one of the “hard left” positions you felt pressured to adopt?

    😉

    just saying, a lot of folks classify things that way. This might be about the evil authoritarian Left, or it might be about an enabled and emboldened new Right bunch of mentors, right?

  36. Mary says

    You have just revealed to every institution involved that your application is dishonest and does not provide a clear picture of who you are and what they can expect of you. You went to so much trouble only to sink yourself here?

    The real challenge you were given was to convey your views honestly and in a compelling way, to actually REACH them…or at least provide the type of academic diversity of thought that they can respect. Look, I don’t agree with the reign of the academic left, but what leaves me disgusted here is that you are interested in ethics on a global scale but don’t seem to understand ethics on a personal one. Please try harder. The world needs honesty AND reason.

    • Dillon Bowen says

      Hi Mary,

      Thanks for the comment. And yes, I agree. I never lied, but I also wasn’t entirely forthcoming on my applications either. My dishonesty last year caused me a great deal of guilt, and took a severe toll on my mental and emotional health.

      It’s interesting to note how many people have criticized me for not being *more* accommodating to the advice I received – for not swallowing my pride (even more so than I did) and just telling the admissions committees whatever they wanted to hear.

      If anything, I find myself agreeing with your criticism to a much greater extent. I wish I had ‘stuck to my guns’ and expressed my views honestly and openly, even if it hurt my chances of acceptance. That’s the stance I intend to take going forward.

      The one thing I’ll say in my defense is that the ‘challenge of conveying my views honestly and in a compelling way’ to the archetypal far-left person I expected would be reviewing my application is an impossible one. Imagine trying to communicate a philosophical motivation for doing good to someone for whom your worldview flies in the face of some of their most entrenched emotions and beliefs in a maximum of 1,000 words. As far as I’m concerned, anyone who can complete this Herculean feat deserves a Nobel prize in literature.

      Best

      • Dillon Bowen says

        PS And for what it’s worth, I don’t think a day has passed since I submitted my Rhodes application last October in which I haven’t felt disgusted with myself. I assure you, I am and will continue to try harder.

      • Anne says

        “If anything, I find myself agreeing with your criticism to a much greater extent. I wish I had ‘stuck to my guns’ and expressed my views honestly and openly, even if it hurt my chances of acceptance. That’s the stance I intend to take going forward.”

        Then please stop for a moment and appreciate the value of the lesson you learned. I don’t know how old you are, but I’m assuming you’re under 30. Some people go well into the middle age or beyond without figuring out the inestimable value of integrity. Congratulate yourself and move on.

        By the way, it’s a riveting essay. I give money on a regular basis to a small charity begun by a couple in my Midwestern city (http://dignityperiod.org/) which provides menstrual supplies to girls from impoverished families in Ethiopia so they can go to school during their menstruation. Keeping the girls in school seems like an obvious way to improve the lives of their communities. Fortunately, whether I do it out of compassion, empathy, privilege, common sense or because I’m white, the girls still go to school.

        For that reason, I hope you don’t let the bastards get you down. You have the opportunity make a difference. Don’t lose sight of that.

    • Nobody knows how he’d have done if he had not modified his application in response to the remarks he discusses in the article, so we don’t know if he sunk himself in that instance. I see no reason to think being forthcoming about what he’s said here will ‘sink’ him. How will it do that? That seems like a fair bit hyperbolic, as does your remark that you’re “disgusted” with his complying with some of the remarks and shaping his statement accordingly. I am unconvinced there’s anything deeply unethical and you haven’t really made the case that it is.

  37. Alan says

    After reading this, I just wanted to address aspiring academics who are NOT nuts: please don’t presume that the current stranglehold on academia by the irrational left will hold. Obviously there are a lot of people waking up to what has been happening in academia, and some of these people have money. They are not going to let civilization fall to a cadre of educated idiots who have absolutely zero knowledge of how the world works. Whichever educational institutions cannot be reclaimed will be bypassed. If it gets bad enough, in 20 years a degree from Harvard will have less prestige than an Associate’s Degree from the local community college. Do your part, and don’t allow these co-opted institutions to drag you down. If you have to, study on your own. We are moving towards a world in which degrees are not nearly as important or prestigious as results. Your personal networks and accomplishments will be far more important: develop those.

    • way to make the totalitarian stranglehold on academics by the left sound like the better option, which it is. Perspective people. You want this guy running your department?

  38. Edward Teach says

    Dillon (and others), although I’m sure you’re intelligent enough to respond to many of the absurd claims yourself, I’ve found these resources handy to have in my corner in similar situations to the one’s you’ve described.

    The first is Nussbaum, I’d really recommend checking out many of her replies to various authors in Philosophical Interventions: Reviews 1986-2011 (particularly A Mind of One’s Own, which itself may be worth checking out – papers by many other feminists who are very pro-Reason). She argues forcefully and with very simple examples how feminists / people concerned about social justice really should embrace Reason as helping the exact things they care about. Her reply to Butler is particularly entertaining.

    If you’re up to it, Sally Haslanger’s Resisting Reality also deals with that claim that Reason is masculine very methodically and also has some great counter-examples to help persuade people on the far Left that they may be committed to things they don’t want to commit to. I interpret most of her book as ‘here’s some things people in sociology/gender studies have made before, let’s try to sort out what they get right and what they get wrong’ that is also worth a read.

    I find people are likely to take you more seriously if you can throw in an appeal to authority to one of the above ‘Well I totally agree with Nussbaum/Haslanger’s argument about x, reason has been so important in and it would be worse to dispense with that entirely and I think we should extend their reasoning to .’

    Hope some people find this as useful as I have.

  39. This frustrates the hell out of me for all the same reasons. And I wish you didn’t have to do any of this.

    But politics aside, I think you can sell the EA position to the academic-left much better: Instead of framing it as colonialism guilt, talk about privilege guilt. Open with something like “I just wake up sometimes and think about how easy my life is, how I’m not going to get malaria, I have clean drinking water and plenty of food. I feel guilty that everyone on earth doesn’t have what I have. I know I can’t fix that problem alone, but I feel responsible to try and do as much good as I can”.

    And now you’ve aligned EA feelings to privilege guilt, so then what you actually want to achieve should be mostly free sailing. If need be, you can invoke that again for each criticism. “You seem awfully rational and analytical in how you think about giving money to charity” “Well I have all the power and privilege here, and its important I use that wisely.” Or, “I would just feel so guilty if I gave aid money and it turned out to be funnelled into the pockets of a rapist warlord.” Or, “I feel smart, but I don’t pretend to be smart enough to know more than the people who study this stuff professionally (at givewell).”

    That last one works on 3 levels – its true, its a nod to authority (which the administrators will like), and a bow to academics (which any academics on the panel will love).

  40. Joan says

    Regarding rationality vs personal reasons, I think any view of what is causing the most suffering in the World is tainted by personal experiences. Because ethics don’t have the baseline axioms of hard sciences.

    For example I could make a point that animals are capable of suffering, and thus, to really limit the amount of suffering in the World the most important problem to tackle should be to limit the use of animals for human activities like food and entertainment wherever there exists alternatives and develop these alternatives where they don’t. Some philosophers have this view, and some even go so far as considering how we may limit or end the suffering of wild animals.

    Another example could be to make a point about how dying is the worst thing that can happen to a human being and thus the most important cause of all should be the fight against death and age-related diseases. Again several philosophers have this view. It just involves the inclusion of all future mortal humans in the total number of death, thus making it the top priority.

    These are extreme views, but they are also very rational. In this framework selecting poverty of human beings as the worst offender can be considered a choice between several options and thus the idea of requiring the production of arguments to explain why this choice in particular is not so far fetched.

    Effective altruism is very dependent on what an individual can indeed have an effect on. So the choice *is* dependent on what one think he/she can have an effect on.

    To be clear, on the other side of the spectrum other people will think that more mundane issues are the actual worst offender, not viewing World poverty as particularly critical, for example because they don’t view its victims as part of the group of entities that need the utmost protection, or because they don’t think they can have any sort of effect on it and the best way for them to help is somewhere else. Just like most people think about animals or future humans, and there is probably no ground truth here as ethics is culturally relative.

  41. 8SM says

    What if people in developing countries don’t want you to care about them? What if they don’t care about malaria nets? What if they just care about structural oppression? As rational as your view might be, it doesn’t mean anyone in a developing country is obliged to listen to you.

    I know your interaction was with the academic community but the lack of articulation over what the views of people actually suffering from extreme poverty may be is fairly odd. Maybe, as a member of a developing nation, I want to know about your emotional connect, because I can find plenty citizens, foreigners (White and others) who are as qualified and capable as you, if not more and feel that emotional connect is important so that you don’t come off as patronizing to my community. Maybe the academic community noticed that and hence, is asking those questions.

    Maybe, members of these developing nations you speak of, don’t want to hand their biggest problems to someone who thinks of them as an intellectual challenge. This is not to say you don’t care or empathize but if a marginalised community is looking for those particular experiences, because that would mean they are more comfortable working with that professional, I don’t think anyone can cry foul. Maybe, that is all your academic community is trying to drive home when asking ‘But why do you care?’

    • Is this a joke? Organizations that are providing medical care, clean water, or bed nets are not forcing them on populations that ‘don’t want them.’ They’re helping save people who desperately need help. You think children dying of malaria are more concerned about structural oppression than dying of malaria? Fine. Go do a survey of them and find out. In the meantime, I favor keeping them not dead.

  42. What kind of PhD programs were you applying for? I always thought that Economics PhD candidates at top universities were chosen mainly based on math skill. If that has changed, it is very bad.

  43. Nick Hay says

    My advice would be to ‘jump ship’ – leave all your would be colleagues and collaborators to shew in the own juices and seek out a potentially useful outlet for you efforts.

  44. Nick Hay says

    My fingers were too swift and perhaps too flippant!

    My advice would be to ‘jump ship’ – leave all your would-be colleagues and collaborators to stew in their own juices and seek out a potentially useful outlet for your efforts.

  45. John says

    Maybe what they were trying to say was just that you came across as a brilliant applicant but not as a caring applicant, despite the fact that you kept repeating that you cared a lot about extreme poverty? Or that you said extreme poverty is the most important problem there is without explaining why. You had an answer in italics that you thought about giving in an interview which sounded like exactly the answer that would have worked well. They could then ask something along the lines of: but there are all types of suffering, why do you think that focusing directly on extreme poverty is the best way to alleviate suffering?

    I guess I just think you might have extrapolated a bit quickly. Maybe being in favour of free markets is taboo in economics circles, I don’t know, but saying can you give a personal story about why you care about your research is just standard applications advice – not so that they can screen out any non-lefties, just so that your application stands out and is memorable.

  46. Concerned Classicist says

    Honestly, this strikes me as a silly article and an exercise in the sort of performative victimhood people tend to attribute to the left. Everyone writing application essays knows that you’re supposed to include personal stories – not as some great statement of privilege or white guilt or SJW-dom, but simply as a way to demonstrate your character and personality as an applicant.

    I also applied for the Rhodes, Marshall, Fulbright, etc. from my institution, and I’ll be going to Oxford next year. Just like you, my advisers encouraged me to find a personal narrative to personalize my passion for my subject and detailed research agenda. However, unlike you, I didn’t assume that they were making some sort of broad statement about White identity or implementing a far left agenda. I study Classics; my mom is a Greek immigrant (for the record, I consider this one of the least relevant aspects of my personal journey to becoming an aspiring Classicist; indeed, my mom would far prefer I become a doctor or something more lucrative!). As a Greek American, I’m obviously connected, in terms of identity, to the subjects I study. Additionally, given that Classics is often stereotyped as the study of Dead White Men, demonstrating the personal motivation behind my research had nothing to do with performing the sort of far left political ideology you seem to be suggesting motivated your advisers’ recommendations. Nevertheless, administrators at my institution suggested that I should articulate more clearly why I’m so drawn to the study of Greek drama.

    At first, I resisted their advice; I even joked with the professor supervising my thesis research about being annoyed that they wanted me to demonstrate more of my personality in my application – couldn’t they see that, as is true for both of us and for most people who study Classics, my intense love for Classics *is* an integral part of who I am as a person? I also felt that my very academic discussion of the philosophers and social scientists whose books on the importance of studying the humanities should already provide an interesting and rigorous theoretical case for why I wanted to study Classics. Reading those works had been what inspired me to pursue Classics in the first place!

    However, I eventually realized that what they wanted was something more humanizing and personal – something that would help me stand out as an applicant and demonstrate something of my character to readers. I certainly didn’t construe myself as a martyr and dedicate 350 words of my essay to some bullshit political narrative I didn’t even agree with or a story about how my mom’s cooking/music/whatever had inspired me to learn more about Greece as a kid. Instead, I wrote about discussing the Trojan Women with a child I tutor, whose parents were refugees, which let me transition into writing about all the philosophy stuff I love about the relevance and importance of Classics today. This (actually true) story was authentic to me: it let me reveal a funnier, warmer side of my personality (try figuring out how to gloss the Trojan Women for an eight year-old!) while also illustrating the real reasons I plan on dedicating my life to Classics.

    Your transcripts, letters of recommendation (if you asked your professors/recommenders the right way), and, for some of the applications, your additional essays are the appropriate place for detailed descriptions or evidence of your particular academic interests. Furthermore, when you apply to the actual institutions themselves, you’ll certainly have a chance to lay out your program in depth – and have it evaluated by a qualified and interested body, the actual academics you’ll be working with, who are best placed to determine the legitimacy of your “views on global poverty or … ambitions to reform macroeconomic policy-making or … experience conducting randomized evaluations in India.” For these scholarships, however, you’re not just supposed to be demonstrating that you’re brainy and your work is important; you’re also supposed to be indicating that you deserve the scholarship, on the basis of the scholarship criteria. In the case of the Rhodes, their site even explicitly notes that “Rhodes Scholars are chosen not only for their outstanding scholarly achievements, but for their character, commitment to others and to the common good, and for their potential for leadership in whatever domains their careers may lead.”

    I understand your frustration, because the application process is definitely grueling and often disappointing, but your immediate assumption that you failed because you were discriminated against for not being far left enough, not because your application was failed to articulate a compelling personal narrative and therefore likely came off as boring, is professional victimhood of the worst sort. Your advisers asked you to write a personal story not because they wanted you to provide evidence of your political convictions but because they were strategically and quite correcting trying to help you show off your personal character. Indeed, it seems to me that you may have shot yourself in the foot by immediately assuming the Far Left Academia Cabal wanted to you write a certain political narrative, and therefore failing to *actually* tell a story about your personality that shed light on the content of your application. I’m sympathetic to your disappointment, but you should take a hard look at the real facts of the application process before concluding that the far left is out to get you or whatever.

  47. John says

    Oi, Concerned Classicist, that’s my comment! How dare you take it and put your own personal story on it!

  48. John says

    Concerned Classicist: Having had a day to think about this, it seems to me that whilst you are pretending to use a personal story in order to make your comment stand out more than mine and thus be more memorable and have readers select you for their very prestigious comments-giving course whilst making exactly the same point that the author of this article has clearly failed to realise that a lot of the advice he has been given is good but also standard, generic and has nothing to do with politics, IN FACT, you are clearly following advice given to you by left-leaning comments-writing advisers to make your comment fit the far-left narrative of identity politics (no wait, *and* identity politics, or *or* identity politics, or what was it, well you get the drift..). We won’t be taken in by your clearly fabricated far-left narrative of tutoring 8 year olds in classics. That can only be being a leftie sheepie and definitely have nothing to do with the fact that points are more easily made by giving stories or that in academia they kind of love that gold standard of actually having at least some articulated reason for making a claim… No! You are just perpetutating the far-left narrative. Next time, be a man and just say: you’re wrong and I agree with the previous comment. Leave your memorable personal stories out of it.

    On a more serious note, that sounds like a cracking application 🙂

  49. AtrociousHuxley says

    Pssst! Dillon, you should have simply written “black lives matter” one-hundred times and been done with it. I understand this approach is successful with elite institutions.

  50. Dillon – this article was terrific. I’m a first-year English PhD student at Cambridge currently, hoping to set up an interdisciplinary reading group for graduate students on the influence of postmodernism and critical theory on the arts, humanities and social sciences. Would love to meet you. Email me?

  51. Slee says

    I suspect I would never get into one of these schools, had I ever cared enough to apply.

    I suspect my answer would be something like:

    Why do I want to help? What business is it of yours? And, does it matter? Does a starving person who recieves a meal care if the meal giver is doing it because ‘intergenerational equity’ or ‘starving people are the biggest problem on earth’ or ‘Because I tell women I feed the poor and then I get laid’?

    The left and the right, though it seems to be a to a lesser degree on the right in an odd twist, both seem to care more about idelogical purity than results these days. The left, the ideolgical purity test is ‘Are you guilty and do you admit it???’. The right is much more straightforward in a ‘Abortion: Yes or No’ kind of way.

    Luckily, I set myself up so I don’t have to play these silly games.

    • Slee says

      Egads, I think I can type in suspect a few more times…..

  52. Pingback: Things Glen Found Interesting, Volume 98 – Glen Davis

  53. Kazi Siddiqui says

    Thank you for speaking out. We could have a better world if more people thought like you do.

  54. RBLan says

    The irony is that Adam Smith was right: if Dillon were to pursue his own productive self interest instead of groveling to the collectivist apparatchiks of academia, the liberty of the market would amplify his work to generate better outcomes for the impoverished (and everyone else) than would all the compassion in the world.

  55. Brooke W says

    Im agreeing with RBlan’s comment above, the major irony is Adam Smith being right! I’ve been researching a lot of Crucible essays but I really like your outlook on the story.

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