Context is everything

When you were in high school, you were consistently getting As. Those grades got you into a good undergraduate program, possibly one that was hard to get into. You got scholarships. Prizes.

You applied for post-graduate programmes. The minimum grades required were high but you had them. You applied for funding.

This might be where you first met the possibility that you might not get that fellowship. You start to wonder whether you aren’t as smart as you thought. With maybe a side of ranting about how unfair the system is that doesn’t award scholarships to bright people like you.

You finish your PhD and start applying for jobs. … You get an academic job and start applying for grants …

It’s not you

Every year, the National Hockey League has an All-Star break: a break in the regular season during which an exhibition All-Star game is played.

Here’s how the All Star teams are chosen. There are 2 captains. They pick teams.

If you’re anything like me that brings up lots of bad memories. Memories of being picked last. Of no one really wanting you on their team.

The thing is these guys were NEVER the guy picked last. Ever. They were much better hockey players than other kids at school. They went on to play professional hockey. They went on to play in the top professional league.

Just like you with the scholarships and getting that coveted (and rare) academic job, they won all those hard contests. They were that good.

And every year, they sit there waiting for someone to pick teams knowing that they might not get picked. Or maybe not really clicking that they might not get picked and then being upset (questioning their skills) or angry (at the idiots who didn’t pick them).

The competition gets harder

You are intelligent. You have important and interesting things to contribute. You may be an excellent teacher, or researcher, or both.

You may not get the fellowship, the academic job, or the research grant.

It’s not because you aren’t bright enough.

It’s not because the system is unfair or rigged or the adjudicators are idiots.

It’s because you are competing with other people who are similarly intelligent with similarly strong contributions to make.

The guys who didn’t get picked for the All Star team shouldn’t give up playing professional hockey. They aren’t the same as those of us whose strengths lie somewhere else and who were forced to play sports as kids.

Go out there and play your best game.

And if you don’t make it into the big leagues, figure out how to use your intelligence and your ideas to make a strong contribution in another way.

This post was edited July 14, 2015.



  1. Angel Collins says

    Thanks! I think I needed that read for my bestfriend. She’s a nursing graduate and she was a consistent dean’s lister during college but until now, she’s still not able to practice her profession even after taking all other exams for her license. They say that it’s all about the demand of employment but she’s having sad thoughts on why she took nursing. I hope she’ll be enlightened with your article. Thanks!
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