April 19, 2019
Confidence: highly likely

A few days ago I got rejected from a PhD program at Imperial College London — a program I was invited to apply for by a member of their faculty who wanted to supervise me. The experience left a sour taste in my mouth.

The official reason for the rejection is that my undergraduate GPA is too low. 0.86% too low, in fact. Missed it by a hair!

In my eyes, I’m a pretty outstanding candidate. In the last two years I’ve solved two major problems in my field — both of which people frequently said I should stop wasting time on, because they fundamentally couldn’t be solved. I didn’t work on the problems to publish them or for the fame or anything; I was just annoyed that I couldn’t do something that seemed so obviously possible.

My professional experience is characterized by doing extracurricular tasks to solve technical debt that nobody else wanted to touch, and by knocking assigned tasks out of the park: I single-handedly made Facebook $60M in four months while I was an intern, and I successfully tackled design work at Google that people said I needed five years more experience in order to have any chance at.

The point is not to toot my own horn here, but merely to point out that I have a proven track record of self-directed study, of hard work, of executing on what I say I’m going to do, and of excelling at it.

But no. My average grade is 0.86% too low to qualify. Looking at average grades strikes me as a particularly stupid strategy for assessing PhD work. PhDs aren’t supposed to be well-rounded; they’re experts in narrow fields. Looking at average grades equally weighs my 68% in a mandated, irrelevant-to-my-degree, automatically-get-15%-for-putting-your-name-on-the-final class on “The Role of Technology In Society” against my 92% in a voluntarily taken, relevant-to-my-degree (and PhD topic) class on compilers — widely regarded as one of the hardest three classes in the most challenging technical university in the country.

“The Role of Technology in Society” was clearly a waste of my time, so I did only as much as I needed to in order to pass, and no more (I was actually aiming for 51%, but that blasted extra 15% blindsided me). Compilers, on the other hand, are a subject very close to my heart, and are something I’d like to dedicate my life to thinking more about.

If your goal really is, as Imperial College London claims, “to deliver world class research in engineering” — then weighing “The Role of Technology in Society” equally against actual technical topics is profoundly stupid. If we take them at their word that my low marks are the problem1 then this decision is elitist gate-keeping at its worst, rather than any honest attempt at producing good research. It’s a reactionary strategy to willingly accept false-negatives in order to maintain its prestigious name, rather than willingly accept false-positives and actually try to do more of what built its name in the first place.

I sound saltier than I actually am. Seven days ago I’d never even considered applying to Imperial College London; so not being there in September is exactly the same state of affairs that my life was already in. Their decision hasn’t dashed my plans or anything. Despite the fact that I’m apparently not worthy of attending ICL, I’m pretty sure this is a bigger problem for them than me.

For my part, I’m just going to keep doing my own research. To quote Feynman:

I’m appreciative for the work that I did, and for the people who appreciate it. And I notice that other physicists use my work. I don’t need anything else. I don’t see that it makes any point that somebody … decides that this work is noble enough to receive a prize. I’ve already got the prize! The prize is the pleasure of finding the thing out. The kick is the discovery, the observation that other people use it. Those are the real things. The honors are unreal to me.

 When I became a member of the National Academy of Science I had ultimately to resign. Because there was another organization, most of whose time was spent in choosing who was “illustrious” to be allowed to join us in our organization… the whole thing was rotten.

Yeah, that sums up my feelings pretty well. Maybe it’s sour grapes, but if Imperial College London really and truly believes I’m not good enough for them, well, good riddance! It’s their loss, really!

In conclusion, I’d like to extend an open invitation. If you, like me, believe that effect systems and free monads are what programming is going to look like in 30 years, please get in touch. I’d love to talk with you. Regardless of your academic or industrial affiliation, regardless of your skill level, and especially regardless of your GPA. Get in touch.

Ideas like these are the ones that change the world, and I’m willing to dedicate my life to it. If you are too, then why the hell aren’t we already collaborating?

  1. As opposed to my being caught in the middle of some political game they’re playing with my would-be advisor, for example.↩︎