How to get an impossible job – tips from a spy

This is an open letter to my son.  He is brilliant.  He also just got turned down for every graduate program he wanted to attend this fall.  This deals precisely with job hunting.

So you didn’t get into any of the schools.  Good thing we had a spy to tell us what NONE of the professors would. 

Yes, I know your professors say that your major is different.  They told you admission is based on logic.  The schools use a magical system of weights and balances that tell them which are the top students.

That is a bunch of hogwash, codswallop, and honey bucket leavings.

Our spy, the stinking department secretary in the Engineering College, was absolutely right.  If the Engineering College ONLY allows graduate students that have a professor request them, what makes you think your major is different?  Come on.  Engineers are more into systems, processes, and repeatable human interactions than any mathematician.

That spy was right.  No one will tell you the REAL reason you didn’t get chosen. You have to get a reputation.  You have to be a known quantity.

Your first big mistake was believing your professors, your old bosses.  They said they make logical decisions.  Baloney. Our spy said they always say that, they probably believe it, and they always lie. Okay, not lie, they make a mistake and mis-state the truth.

If there are 100 applicants for 10 openings, at least 30 of those applicants would do very well.  And if you ranked everyone logically, I would wager our house against a steak dinner that 2 of the 10 best applicants will be in the bottom half of the logically sorted pool.

Einstein was one of those guys who sorted below the 50% mark.  He only got to where he was because he studied outside the university system.

Oppenheimer, the guy who ran the Manhattan Project, only got where he was in life by influence.  Wikipedia says “In his first year as an undergraduate at Harvard, Oppenheimer was admitted to graduate standing in physics on the basis of independent study. As an undergraduate he never took a class in physics.” He was clumsy in the laboratory. In grad school he seriously tried to kill a professor, but was caught and failed.  He stayed in grad school anyway because of personal influence.  And now he is revered.  Funny thing.

Seriously.  I think you are brilliant.  I think you will be phenomenal in your chosen field.  So here is a plan for the coming year.

Like Oppenheimer and Einstein, use the coming year for independent study.  Slow down.  Do not graduate if it will get you away from your professors.  Finish all the courses but say you want to complete a minor or second major, so if a great opportunity comes up you can just file the right papers and graduate while you are living at MIT or Stanford.  

Ask your professors to help you pick an area of study that 2 or 3 of your most coveted professors specialize in.  Then act like you are a professor already.  Spend the year reading, studying, interacting with the best in your field.  As a matter of fact, if you want to get into the top program in the country, you might want to plan on 2-3 years of study.  You can get a PhD level of education without ever attending graduate classes.

Okay that last sentence demands an example.  Dinosaur Jim at the BYU geology department.  No university education.  High school graduate. He got a job cooking and camp bossing for the geology department at Harvard.  He picked the brains of the students and professors when they came in from the field after he fed them and cleaned up.  He was out in the field at the most intriguing fossil sites in the world.  So he went out and helped.  He discovered the first reptile fossils in Antarctica.  Year after year he made new significant discoveries.  Finally he was awarded an honorary doctorate.  BYU built him his own building to work in.  He was the only geology professor at BYU that did not regularly teach classes.

Oh yes, another story.  I knew a guy who wanted to be in vertebrate paleontology, Dinosaur Jim’s specialty. Graduate admittance is incredibly competitive because the only jobs are as professors.  So this guy spent a year as Dinosaur Jim’s lab assistant for free, boiling the meat off the bones of dead animals. It worked.

Haunt the forums and conferences.  If you can’t afford to go to the conferences, get someone to record them.  Send comments to the presenters BEFORE the conference as well as after.  Act like the colleague of the guys you want to study with.  That is what Einstein did.

Don’t just focus on your small target.  Correspond with others who are influential in the field.  Offer to help with papers, etc.  Be prepared to move to a university to help out a professor if he accepts your offer.  Figure out how to help and get no credit.  Believe me, you’ll get plenty of credit eventually.

There is no flattery as deeply penetrating as rapt attention.  Send questions.  Champion the work of the guys you want to work with.  Get deeply involved over the coming year or two.  Become a professor sans portfolio.

Put that overachieving brain of yours to work.  Go and read the book “Outliers”.  Re-read “Carry On, Mr. Bowditch”. And if you have some free time, read “Einstein” by Walter Isaacson.

Love you,


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