The Rhodes and
Derek: "As a Reed candidate for one of these scholarships you have an extraordinary opportunity for success."
(Rhodes scholar, 1999)
In preparing this document, I have been forced to choose between creating a brief but finely crafted piece of writing, and a complete but more rough hewn work. I have chosen the latter, for the sake of relating as much of my experience as is possible. Consequently, there are doubtlessly many examples of spelling errors, split infinitives, dangling participles, mangled modifiers and quantum tunnels present throughout the work. Please excuse any such unfelicitious aspects of the prose as a worthy sacrifice for completeness of information.
General Thoughts on the Application Process
As I’m sure anyone who has ever applied for a Rhodes or Marshall scholarship would agree, the application process for either of these awards is something that one will always remember. It is a unique opportunity to review what you have done thus far with your life, to rigorously define your post-college goals, and to think long and hard about what it is that makes you you. Regardless of later outcomes, this process of self-examination is a luxury, an exercise that I feel carries its own intrinsic rewards. It is a luxury, however, that will inevitably involve some blood, sweat, and tears on the part of the applicant; the amount of effort involved in preparing an application is not trivial. Indeed, making a competitive application for either of these scholarships is an undertaking that will require a considerable and sustained investment of your time and energies, both intellectual and emotional. While the intellectual challenge of the process is obvious, I think the emotional aspects probably take most people by surprise. Specifically, one has to find a means for balancing the requisite drive for preparing the application with the knowledge that, at least mathematically, actually winning a scholarship is unlikely. The upshot of all this is that the process has to be approached on its own terms, as an exercise that you are willing to pursue regardless of its daunting uncertainties. This may sound rather glib at the outset, but I must say that I do believe that the enrichment the application process provided for me did indeed outweigh the work, even without the benefit of the scholarship itself. It is, after all, a fun process to go through, in its own odd sort of way.
I don’t want to spend much time discussing the initial paper phase of the application, but some mention is probably merited. First, and this can’t be emphasized enough, START EARLY! My Rhodes and Marshall personal statements went through a combined total of three-dozen individual drafts between my first rough sketches and the final product. While the statements are only around 1,000 words long, they must be some of the most polished and succinct 1,000 words you will ever generate in your life in order to receive a favorable reception. Personally, I think it is basically impossible to carry out this level of refinement if you don’t start writing until you arrive back at school for your senior year. It is advisable, therefore, to make the preparation of high-quality working drafts a priority during the proceeding summer.
In addition to the work of the writing itself, preparing your paper application involves following bizarre and arcane document handling instructions as though they were holy writ. The Rhodes in particular is fond of giving its applicants instructions such as, "Staple an unmounted head and shoulders photograph of yourself wearing a shirt and/or blouse consisting of not greater than 12% polyester to the top of the application packet, such that the left boundary of the photograph is normal to the line defined by the perpendicular bisection of the personal information sheets bottom margin, which should be signed in black ink on the third page of the seventh copy in the set of nine." Fortunately, Jo Cannon has years of experience interpreting the cryptic pronouncements of the application form deities, and can help prevent you from being driven completely insane while you assemble your application packets. And once you mail your forms off, you can look back at how stressful it all was and have yourself a hearty laugh. I haven’t been able to do this yet mind you, but I am confident that it will all seem very humorous within the month or so. The good news is that all of this activity is compressed into a very short length of time at the start of the fall semester, allowing you several weeks around fall break to catch up on the other aspects of your life after mailing the applications. With luck, you will begin hearing about interviews around the middle of November.
The first thing that will happen if you are selected for a Rhodes or Marshall interview is that Steve Koblik will invite you to his house for a mock cocktail party. Unless you have a complete mastery of the full catalogue of social graces, you should definitely avail yourself of this opportunity. Basically Steve Koblik, the members of the Fellowships and Awards Committee, and an assortment of professors and staff will all join you and a very small number of other students for an evening of hors d'oevres and conversation. It is an excellent opportunity to make sure your new suit or skirt fits properly, and practice your mingling skills in a reasonably relaxed environment with friendly people that already know. I took this evening very seriously, and treated it as a full-dress rehearsal for my upcoming Rhodes interview. Since I do not regularly attend cocktail parties or have people offer me dainty finger foods on little trays, I was very thankful for the opportunity to shake some of cobwebs off of my formal social interaction skills. I highly recommend this valuable practice opportunity, and can tell you that I left feeling significantly more comfortable about my upcoming interview than when I arrived.
In addition to this formal event, you will also want to avail yourself of every opportunity for a mock interview that you can find. Ask your professors, your friends, and the members of the F&A committee to help grill you on your application. The more grueling these mock sessions are the better, as suffering in mock interviews will make the real thing much easier. Ken Brashier seems to be particularly good at making one squirm during mock interviews, so utilize his expertise as much as possible. In addition to the interviews themselves, you will also want to listen nondefensively to the advice your interviewers have for you after the fact. It is particularly important to be non-defensive when being critiqued by your friends, who will generally be less hesitant than faculty members in their use of brutal honesty.
The Marshall Interview
The Marshall interview process is much more straightforward than that of the Rhodes. If you are selected for interview, you will be contacted by the British Consulate in early November, and asked to fly down to meet with the selection committee within the space of a week or so. The Marshall does not have the elaborate rituals of cocktail parties and candidate waiting rooms that the Rhodes does, so in that sense it seems a much more manageable sort of process. Essentially, you will fly into San Francisco on a weekday evening, stay in a hotel near downtown, and be interviewed the following morning at the home of the British Consul. You are free to leave immediately after the interview is completed, so you’ll be back to Reed in no time at all. In fact, the thing that struck me most about my Marshall interview was just how fast it all happened! I spent several days being very nervous and preparing myself, one long night in a San Francisco hotel room pressing shirts and practicing my answers to commonly asked questions, and before I knew it I was in a taxi speeding back towards the airport, the entire process completed.
Because there isn’t so much ritual surrounding the interview itself, I think it is easy for the Marshall interview to "sneak up on you" in a way that the Rhodes does not. I spoke with several candidates at my Rhodes interviews who had feelings to this effect, and said that they felt they hadn’t done as well at the Marshall interview as they would have liked because of this factor. That is, the Marshall interview is a very independent kind of process, so you really need to depend on yourself alone to be psychologically ready to hit the ground running the moment you step into the room with the interviewers. In retrospect, I think spending the night before the interview in my hotel room practicing my answers to questions and generally pumping myself up was a very valuable thing to have done, and really helped me to enter the interview with appropriate energy. In this sense, it is perhaps a good thing to be somewhat nervous before your Marshall interview; it will help to give you that competitive edge and positive intensity when you interview.
When you arrive at the consul’s home on the day of your interview, you will be greeted at the door by a secretarial type person who will usher you into a waiting room and spend some time accounting for all of your airline receipts etc. You will be offered tea and cookies and other forms of British hospitality, and then wait for a short amount of time before being called in to the actual interview room itself. The interview room in San Francisco was a large, airy, living room sort of place, with chair arranged in a rough circle in the middle of the room. There was no central conference table, as in the Rhodes interviews. One small note, because there is no central table, one should take care not to slouch. The following are the questions I was asked at my Marshall interview:
Mr. Mike Frost, H.M. Consul General: Last time I was up near Portland, I remember reading a good deal about biocybernetics. What do you think about biocybernetics? How does it relate to Artificial Life?
This was a very bizarre question that really didn’t make much sense to me. I tried to answer it quickly and move on to the next question.
Prof. Geoffrey Pullum, Professor of Linguistics at UCSC: Derek, I’ve read what you’ve written about Artificial Life, and frankly, it all sounds like a video game to me. I just don’t see the real science here. What is the real value of your project proposal?
GP: How much computer experience have you had? What programming languages do you know?
Ms. Marilyn Solomon, CEO of consulting firm: Given
the strength of your record, you could probably get into any number of graduate
programs here in the
Dr. Peggy Norton, Professor at the University of Oregon Medical School: Derek, I’m struck by the amount of success you appear to have had during your time at Reed. Is there anything about your college years that you regret? Anything you would do differently?
Mr. Bob Gray, Committee Chair and Marshall
Scholar: Could you talk for a moment about your second choice school on the
academic proposal? What would you do if you didn’t end up at
BG: Derek, you have applied for the Rhodes as well, correct?
BG: Have you been offered an interview?
BG: If you were to be offered both the Rhodes and Marshall simultaneously, which would you pick?
Note! Be VERY CAREFUL answering this question! You obviously can’t lie, but you should equally not say something that is going to shoot you in the foot. If you are applying for both scholarships, it is an excellent idea to know how you would answer this question before you go to the interview.
MF: Derek, before we conclude, is there anything else you would like to add?
At the conclusion of my Marshall interview, as I sped away towards the airport, I was struck by how short and relatively unchallenging it seemed. I have the suspicion that the Marshall interview may be used in some instances simply to meet the candidates which the committee has already fairly well decided to endorse. It didn’t seem as though they were pushing very hard [. . . ].
The Rhodes State Interview
If you are successful in the first round of the Rhodes competition, you will be invited by the state secretary in late November to attend statewide interviews during the first week of December. This interview is a rather involved affair, with an opening dinner/cocktail party on one evening leading into a full day of interviews the following morning. When the appointed day for the first phase of my state interview arrived, I took the afternoon off from the usual bustle of classes, homework, and deadlines. I used the time instead for some reflective relaxation: reading the New York Times for the days major headlines, listening to music, and visualizing myself being friendly and confident at the dinner. All of this may sound a bit hokey to some, but I have repeatedly found that this kind of premeditative relaxation is incredibly valuable for calming my nerves prior to interviews and other similarly terrifying sorts of events. Pick whatever it is that helps to relax and center you, and spend the afternoon before your state interview focusing on that.
However, no matter how well prepared you are in the abstract, you should expect to feel intimidated when you actually arrive for the event itself. Twelve candidates may not sound like a large number of people for the state interviews, but as the other Rhodes-hopefuls slowly congregated in the foyer area while waiting for the interviewers, I felt lost in a sea of better qualified people. When my mind wandered to the fact that only two of us could be picked to continue on after the state interviews, I felt like slinking quietly away and saving myself the trauma. The other candidates all seemed self-assured and terrifyingly well qualified, and the odds appeared to be hopelessly long. The most important decision I made early in that evening, therefore, was simply not to think about the competitive aspect of the proceedings. If you spend the entire dinner party thinking about who you think is going to "beat" who, you will make yourself a nervous wreck. I told myself that I was only going to get to do this once, and that I might as well concentrate on just enjoying the process. Of course, this is impossible advice to heed completely, but by reminding myself of it all evening I generally avoided psyching myself out.
After we had all been mingling for several minutes, the interviewers arrived en masse and began to introduce themselves. It seems to me that this was a rather important turning point in the evening, where the candidates began to separate themselves into two distinct groups. Specifically, as the judges began to talk with people, a sub-group of the candidates seemed to turn into ravening social piranhas, flashing their confident grins in every direction and homing in on the interviewers with lightning speed. These were the "shmoozers" that I had so dreaded, and now they were making it rather difficult to get a word in edgewise with the interviewers. It is an intimidating thing to watch, because you begin to feel that perhaps you should be leaping into the fray, sidling up to interviewers and attempting to hijack conversations with a heartfelt laugh and personal anecdote. The temptation is especially great when in one instant an interviewer is talking to you, and in the next another candidate is beside you saying, "Oh really? How interesting! Say, that reminds me of a story from my sophomore year at Harvard!" You should be prepared for this, especially at the state interview. More importantly, you must never ever succumb to the temptation to shmooze, even in self-defense. Remember, the interviewers are not stupid people, and they have done this many times before. It does not go unnoticed when candidates attempt to outmaneuver others in order to dominate conversations. Take heart in the knowledge that it is the interviewer’s job to meet you. While it is important to be friendly and outgoing, do not make the mistake of thinking that if you don’t fight to be the center of the conversation, you won’t be noticed.
After mingling for about ten or fifteen minutes, the interviewers ushered us into a large dining room, where we engaged in formal introductions. The interviewers first introduced themselves, giving a short description of what they do when not choosing Rhodes candidates. At my state interview there were five interviewers, three of whom were themselves Rhodes Scholars. The chair of the committee is always a non-scholar (to prevent "inbreeding" as one panel member explained to me), and there is always at least one scientist. You will find that all of them are extremely nice, approachable people. After making their own introductions, the interviewers asked the candidates to introduce ourselves, indicating where we were from and what we hoped to study at Oxford. Again, don’t feel that you have to turn your personal introduction into an epic oration. Just smile, say who you are, and what you want to study. I’ll always remember one of my fellow candidates, an individual who had come all the way from Oxford (where he was studying as an exchange student) for the interview. This person had previously distinguished himself as a heavyweight shmoozer, and sported a faux-English accent and penchant for rubbing his chin thoughtfully while he spoke. When the introductions turned to this individual, he mentioned that he was from Oxford at least half a dozen times over the course of his short speech. He then concluded by saying, "and at the successful conclusion of these proceedings, I will be returning to Oxford as a Rhodes Scholar…" I nearly dropped my water glass in an attempt to prevent my jaw from hitting the ground after this little comment. Let me say that I firmly believe that this person effectively eliminated himself from consideration with this introduction, shattering the line between confidence and arrogance with nary a backward glance. Again, it is important to be confident, but remember that humility is an equal virtue.
After introductions come dinner. We did not have place cards, so candidates were left to choose their own seats at one of three small tables. The interviewers split into two pairs and one individual, and each group joined a table for one course, usually lasting about thirty to forty minutes. It’s during the dinner that you really get to meet the interviewers, as they all make a conscious effort to spend time talking to each person at the table. Indeed, I found that the interviewers each seemed to have specific things they were interested in asking the various different candidates, so everyone at the table generally has an opportunity to lead a portion of the conversation during each course. With this in mind, don’t worry if you are not the most prolific conversationalist at your table! Of course, this is much harder advice to take than it is to give. I have to admit that I was left feeling fairly disheartened at the end of one course in which I hadn’t really talked much at all, thinking I’d missed my opportunity with the two interviewers present at the time. Try not to do this to yourself. Trite as it may sound, the best advice is to just be yourself, even if yourself has precious little to say about nineteenth century Latin American politics or whatever topic is the current focus of conversation. I would argue that it probably reflects far better on a candidate to participate in discussions that are somewhat removed from their own experience or expertise rather than to spend an entire course talking about themselves. Remember that the judges already know more about you than you do from reading your application and letters of recommendation, so you needn’t rehash your CV during the meal.
Overall, I found the dinner very enjoyable. After all, being served a three-course catered dinner should be an enjoyable activity! I think the best advice is to choose to forget why you’re eating dinner with these people and just enjoy getting to know them. An interesting side note for Reed candidates regards Dean Marvin Henberg from Linfield College, who was one of the more senior interviewers on the panel and the state secretary for Oregon. Dean Henberg spent a good deal of time while he was at our table talking to me about Reed. He was particularly interested in why I chose Reed, and how I liked its unique social and pedagogical environment. It is clear that Dean Henberg holds Reed in extremely high regard academically, and enjoys talking about it with Reedies. Actually, I would strongly advise future candidates to be prepared to discuss Reed at any of their interviews. In addition to my conversation with Dean Henberg, I spent some time talking about Reed at the district interview with an interviewer who said he was considering sending his son here! Reed is a unique college in the landscape of higher education, and being able to discuss its good and bad points intelligently seems to be worthwhile.
Before moving on, I should probably also spend some time discussing a few practical concerns about the dinner. First of all, if you are a person who looks forward to eating on a regular basis as I do, don’t go to the dinner feeling particularly hungry. Remember you are there to talk, not eat, and these are mutually incompatible activities. Also, the portions tend to be somewhat on the decorative side in terms of size, so you won’t want to be ravenously hungry at the outset. Second, don’t drink alcohol, even if it is offered to you. You can avoid the appearance of being overly nervous while mingling by just getting yourself a glass of juice or ice-water. Drinking alcohol around the interviewers just looks unprofessional. Lastly, it can’t hurt to have one of your more cultured friends or professors (read: Ken Brashier) refresh your memory about all the various manners you have forgotten while eating in commons, e.g. don’t eat until everyone is served, put your napkin in your lap when you sit, etc. This will also help you to not be intimidated by the presence of multiple forks and spoons (when in doubt, wait for the interviewer to start eating and use the same kind of utensil that they pick up).
After returning home from the dinner, you may be confident that you will experience a sudden and profound revelation to the effect that you don't have a prayer of being selected on the following day. Ken warned me that this occurred for him during his interviewing process, and I found that I was struck by similar knowledge. I dealt with this problem by concentrating on ironing every last microscopic wrinkle out of my suit and then going to bed early. Besides, interviews begin bright and early (8 AM) so an early bedtime helps ensure your bright-eyed and bushy tailed state on the following morning.
Now, I experienced a bit of confusion at this point regarding when exactly I was expected to show up for my interview. On the previous evening, all of the candidates were given the randomly determined order of interviews, so we all knew when we would be called in ahead of time. I, however, was under the impression that we were all expected to arrive at 8 AM, which I did, only to find that my only company was a large decanter of orange juice in a very empty conference room. The rest of the candidates all showed up around half an hour before their specific time slot, and many left immediately following their interview. This is obviously a matter of personal preference, but I think there is something to be said for sticking out the day in the candidate waiting room rather than stopping by for half and hour and then going about your business. Basically, I believe that leaving the interview site for extended periods during the day would tend to make one appear less serious about the whole process, and therefore less desirable as a candidate. Interviewers are in and out of the waiting room all day, and it seems to me that they would have to notice if they only see a certain candidate when it is time for his or her specific interview. To me, that would just seem unfriendly. Obviously, one does not need to be fanatical about this. It's not necessary to spend your day composing learned epistles on napkins or attempting to subsist on the complimentary orange juice and muffins alone. However, it is probably a good idea to spend a good part of your day in the waiting room, getting to know your fellow candidates rather than sleeping in or attempting to attend your classes. Besides, the majority of your fellow candidates at the state level are incredible, interesting and friendly people that are fun to talk to.
At some point in the day it will occur to you that your interview is imminent. For me this realization was marked by a sudden spasm of my adrenal gland, such that I found it necessary to pace about the waiting room like a caged tiger, nervously pouring myself several glasses of orange juice with shaking hands. In the final minutes I finally calmed myself down enough to don my jacket and sit still. Do not be alarmed in this situation if you can't seem to think straight, or if it suddenly becomes impossible to imagine yourself giving a coherent answer to simple questions. Personally, I spent my final minutes before the interview just focusing on my breathing, blocking out the room around me and simply becoming calm. Within a couple of minutes, I heard my name and looked up to see a smiling interviewer waiting in the door for me.
When your turn comes, you will be fetched by an interviewer and lead down the hall to the separate room in which interviews are conducted. There will be a large conference table, with a seat at the head for you to sit in. When you walk into the room, don't be in a hurry to sit. In fact, don't do so until you are specifically instructed. Focus on smiling, making eye contact, and greeting your interviewers. When they are ready, you will be asked to take a seat and the interview will begin. The following are the questions from my state interview. I am paraphrasing slightly, but they are presented in as close to the original format as I can recall. I'm not attempting to include my answers, but information that is pertinent to the continuing line of questioning is included in italics.
Prof. Paulette Bearzachudek, molecular biologist from Lewis and Clark College: I'd like to start out by asking you about your research at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory. Can you explain to me exactly what you were doing there?
At JPL, I worked on devising a scheme for sterilizing a robot that was being built to search for life on Europa, one of Jupiter's moons.
PB: Your work reminds me of a book called The Andromeda Strain. What do you think about NASA returning samples that could potentially contain extraterrestrial life to earth?
PB: What would extraterrestrial life look like?
I asked for clarification here.
PB: Do you think it would be carbon based? How would we recognize it?
Prof. Marvin Henberg, philosopher from Linfield College and state secretary for the Rhodes selection committee: What is life?
I was a bit stumped here. I attempted to give a classic science textbook formulation.
MH: (interrupting) Okay, but what do you think life is? What, to you, makes something alive?
I started this answer by saying "I don't know." I then discussed some of the philosophical problems that I saw underlying the question, and offered my own opinions on them.
Dr. Javed Sidiqqi, Neurosurgeon from the Bay Area and Rhodes Scholar: Have you been following the Presidential election process?
JS: Could you briefly describe for us the major candidates, and how they differ on some specific issues?
I tried to steer this question in my own direction by focusing on the issue of personal character rather than specific policy issues, arguing that it was this issue that seemed most important to voters this election.
JS: What does it mean to impeach the President?
I tried to answer this in excruciating detail, then realized I wasn't going to be able to and had to excuse my ignorance of the specific procedural details. I then briefly discussed the proceedings that surrounded Clinton's impeachment.
Pam Jacklin, Portland Lawyer and committee chair: As I look at your transcript, I'm struck by how successful you've been at Reed. I'm curious though....what, if anything, do you regret most?
Note! Be prepared for this question! DO NOT say "nothing." This is a great opportunity to really open yourself up to the committee in a very personal way.
Jeff Julum, Army National Guard coordinator for Oregon and Rhodes Scholar: Who is your hero?
Be prepared for this as well. I answered that my Mom was my hero, and elaborated at some length as to why.
JJ: It's obvious that your Mother sacrificed a good deal to raise you. Does it make you sad when you think that she doesn't have the opportunity to share in your success?
PJ : It looks like we are about out of time. Is there anything else about you that you would like us to know? Anything final thoughts you wish to add?
DON"T say "no"! Be prepared to take advantage of this opportunity.
Once you have completed your interview, resist the temptation to either sing victory songs aloud or weep profusely in the candidate waiting room; don’t make life hard on your fellow candidates who have not yet gone in. Along those lines, you should also avoid the temptation to play psych-out games with the odd candidate or so who wishes to engage in such an activity after their interview. At my state interview there were at least two different candidates who wanted to regale us all with the story of how they had actually brought tears to the eyes of the interviewers with their insightful and compassionate answers, saved an interviewer from choking on a muffin in mid-interview, performed faith-healings or had a similarly miraculous encounter. I don’t know why some people do things like this, but don’t let it bother you. It’s just a bizarre way of covering up the same nervousness you will be feeling.
All candidates will be asked to return to the waiting room around 3:30 or 4 p.m., by which time everyone will have had their initial interview. You are all then obliged to wait while deliberations proceed, and be available at any time for second interviews if needed. Second interviews apparently don’t mean much of anything in terms of their predictive value. I never had a second interview, and only one other candidate did during my entire Rhodes process. On the other hand, you will feel much more at ease during this final waiting period if you have thought about the questions you weren’t satisfied with during your initial go-around, and come up with some thoughts on how you would answer them better if called in for a second attempt. I personally spent some time before the 3:30 callback thinking about how I would better answer the question "What is life?", as it had caused me to become mildly tongue-tied during my interview earlier in the day. Second interviews aside, this portion of the day is long and nerve-wracking, and can continue for many hours while deliberations proceed.
In my case, we all waited for approximately four hours while the interviewers discussed and debated. Then, just as I was becoming convinced that I absolutely, positively couldn’t wait any more, the interviewers all entered the waiting room, and a deafening silence fell over my assembled peers. The chair of the committee and the state secretary both spoke at this point for several minutes about the rigor of the selection process, and offered encouragement regarding applying again in a subsequent year (something that does not in any way disadvantage a candidate —- in fact, 2 of the 3 Rhodes scholars on the selection committee were not picked in their first year of application for the award). I can’t give much specific detail about what was said, because I was trying very hard at the time to slow my hammering heart-beat and avoid passing out. Finally, the chair of the committee simply said, "With that, we’d like to invite the following candidates to represent Oregon at the District interview…" Two names were read, sighs were exhaled, and is quickly as it had begun, it was over.
If you are lucky enough to have your name be one of the two read off at the conclusion of the state interview, don’t think you can relax. The district interview begins less than 48 hours after the state interview concludes. This means that after stumbling home for an exhausted night’s sleep, you will have a grand total of one day to make your travel arrangements, press your nice clothes, and pack your bags for the flight to San Francisco where the whole process will begin again. I should mention something about the psychological aspects of this short turn-around time between interviews: it stinks. The whole thing seems calculated to test the emotional and physical endurance of the candidates, as the successful conclusion of the emotional rollercoaster that is the state interview is punctuated immediately with the dread knowledge that you have to do it all again; only this time, it’s for real.
The Rhodes District Interview
The absolute smartest thing I did in preparing for the District interview was to schedule my flight to San Francisco such that I arrived about ten hours early for the cocktail party that was to begin during the evening. The Rhodes Trust pays for your flight and accommodation in a very nice hotel in the Financial District, so take advantage of the opportunity and arrive as early as possible. I can’t tell you how glad I was that I had so much time to spare after I arrived. It gave me a chance to unpack, press my shirts (for the fifth time in as many days), take a much needed nap in my hotel room, and still have time to walk around downtown San Francisco for several hours, eating a light dinner and finding the two buildings in which the cocktail party and interview would be occurring over the next 24 hours. While I had felt extremely harried and tired when I stepped off the plane in the morning, by late that afternoon I felt refreshed and excited as I luxuriated about in my hotel room.
Things were structured a bit differently at the District interview, as the cocktail party the evening before the interviews themselves was exactly that; no dinner was served. I arrived for the cocktail party that evening at a large skyscraper type building several blocks from the hotel, where we were being received in the offices of the venture capital firm headed by one of the interviewers. I must say that as a person who was born and raised in a small university town in the middle of eastern Washington’s rolling wheatfields, finding myself being served salmon puffs and Perrier on the 38th floor of a skyscraper in downtown San Francisco was an extremely exciting experience. The whole evening had a very open, friendly atmosphere, with none of the tension or competitive vibes I had been expecting. It seems that all of the previously mentioned schmoozing type candidates had been culled at the state interviews, leaving a group of twelve extremely genuine and personable young people for the final round of interviews. The candidates all arrived in the reception area over the course of ten minutes or so, along with the associated interviewers (all nine of them!). With the exception of the committee chair, the interviewers were all Rhodes scholars. As at the state interview, all of the interviewers were incredibly friendly, open people, and conversation was very free and informal.
Once everyone had arrived, we were ushered into a large conference room. The interviewers all introduced themselves and said a few brief words about the next day, and we were each then given a slip of paper with the name of one of the other candidates. Over the next half-hour as we talked and mingled, we were charged with finding out enough about the person whose name appeared on our piece of paper to introduce them to the group. Now, I don’t consider myself an overwhelmingly gregarious kind of person in situations where I don’t know anyone, but I found the atmosphere at the cocktail party to be wonderfully conducive to friendly conversation and really getting to know the other people present in a genuine way. Consequently, this little introduction game didn’t seem at all stilted or silly, but was in fact a lot of fun. Best of all, no one was speaking with a faux English accent or attempting to regale the other candidates with their contrived stories about saving a Nobel Laureate from being hit by a car in Harvard Square or some such nonsense. I can’t emphasize enough how different this whole evening was from my expectations. There was none of the expected jockeying for position around the interviewers or thinly disguised attempts at self-aggrandizement on the part of the candidates. It was just a truly enjoyable evening, with people that were all quite easy to make friends with. All of the interviewers made it a point to speak to each of the candidates, something which they did in a very personal and flattering manner. For example, when Dr. Ramona Doyle, a doctor from Stanford serving on the selection committee, noticed that I hadn’t eaten very much, she pulled me aside, loaded up my plate with dozens of hors devours, and invited me to sit down and talk with her for a few minutes. This gave us both a much needed opportunity to rest our legs and consume some calories, and I was struck by the kindness and informality of the gesture. In sum, rather than being relieved when the committee chair announced that he was going to make his concluding announcements, I found myself disappointed to see the evening ending.
Prof. Edward Blakely, the committee chair, concluded the cocktail party by congratulating us on having been selected by our respective states, and offering some general advice on the next day. Essentially he told us that chemistry was very important (I was extremely pleased to hear this), so we should be sure we all brought our chemistry to the interview the following day. We then drew numbers out of a hat to establish interview times, and with that the cocktail party ended. While the interviewers went off to have a final preparatory meeting, the candidates all decided to go out to dinner together before returning to the hotel. We all had a very pleasant dinner, from which I unfortunately had to excuse myself early in order to get some sleep before my interview. I was number two on the list, which meant I had to be ready to go by 8:30 am the following day. Unlike the state interview, I found it very hard to sleep the night before the district interview. My thoughts were racing regarding the next day, and I was full of excited, nervous energy.
I arrived bright and early the next morning at a second very imposing looking skyscraper type building which housed the law firm of one of the interviewers, and was to be the site of the interviews. No other candidates were around in the waiting room at that early hour, so I had some time to relax and compose myself in solitude. Actually, I was surprised at how manageable my nervousness seemed. I think the cocktail party the prior evening had left me with a good feeling about the proceedings in general; I was really just more excited to begin than anything else. At around 8:30, one of the interviewers arrived at the door of the waiting room to lead me to the interview.
The interview room was a giant glass-walled conference room ala L.A. Law, arranged in a fashion virtually identical to that of the state interview albeit on a larger scale. Seeing all nine interviewers waiting for me, all arrayed about the long conference table was a bit intimidating, but it was also tremendously exciting. The thing that stands out most in my mind about the interview as a whole was how energized I felt throughout. I had a wonderful sense of excitement and enthusiasm as I walked into the room, and the huge grin I had on my face at the outset seemed to be contagious. After the first question or so, as I started to pick up on the very positive response I was getting from the interviewers, my biggest challenge was preventing myself from bouncing around in my chair with excitement. It was a tremendous experience, and something I’ll always remember. By the time I finished, I had to go back to the hotel to collect myself because I felt I was a bit too happy and bouncy to be welcome in the interview waiting room with my nervously waiting candidates. I really didn’t have any idea whether I would win or not, but it honestly didn’t much matter to me at that moment. What was important to me was that I had felt so comfortable and effusive during the interview that I knew the interviewers had all really seen me. I hadn’t ever succeeded in being so completely "myself" in an interview before, and the feeling was tremendous. Whatever might happen later, I was at peace with the fact that I had really just been Derek in that interview room. The following are the questions I was asked, as best I can remember them:
Prof. Richard Tsien, Molecular Biologist from Stanford and Rhodes Scholar: I see you've done a good deal of teaching. Let me pose a hypothetical situation for you. Suppose you had a group of students that just was not interested in learning science. They didn't care about it at all. But, these students did love Pokemon. How would you go about trying to teach science to these kids?
I gave a general answer regarding the evolutionary biology that can be derived from the Pokemon game.
RT: (interrupting) Okay, that's a good general answer, which you seem to be very good at. I want specifics, though. What, specifically, would you do?
Maria Murphy, San Francisco Real Estate Lawyer and Rhodes Scholar: What's the best science lesson you ever taught?
Prof. William Handley, English professor from USC and Rhodes Scholar: Children are spending an increasing amount of time on-line. Often they spend more time surfing the web and playing video games than they do reading. Do you think this is a problem? If so, how would you fix it?
RT: Have you seen the movie Blade Runner?
Yes, although I am fairly certain this is not a pre-requisite for being a Rhodes Scholar.
RT: Why don’t you give us a movie review?
Prof. Edward Blakely, Dean of the Business School at the New School in New York and chair of the selection committee: Derek, you've done alot of moving around through the scientific disciplines. Now you claim you want to study Artificial Life and AI. Is this really what you want to do or is it something you are going to switch away from in another couple of years?
MM: Is there a specific person or event that got you interested in artificial intelligence?
Prof. Gaines Post, Professor Emeritus of European History at Claremont McKenna College and Rhodes Scholar: Derek I'd like you to pretend now that you aren't interviewing for the Rhodes, but instead that we are a group of venture capitalists that you need funding from to start your AI research company. Tell us why we should support you.
GP: Okay, now pretend we're a Congressional Committee responsible for allocating federal research funding. Why is what you want to do going to be beneficial to society?
At some point in this answer I said something to the effect of, "This is a field whose possibilities are really only limited by our imagination."
GP (interrupting): Derek, pretend we don't have any imagination. Give me some specific examples of what you would do.
Prof. Maria Marritt, Professor of Philosophy at Berkeley and Rhodes Scholar: I'm curious about something you just said, that scientists should be aware of their social responsibilities. Do you think we should make it mandatory for scientists to receive training in this area?
I said no, then proceeded to discuss ways in which we could encourage scientists to pursue practical research in a non-compulsory fashion.
EB (interrupting): Don't you think that if we encourage scientists to focus on practical research, the quality of science will suffer? I had an uncle who worked at Bell Labs, and he believed that one of the reasons that institution was so successful was because there was not restriction on the "practicality" of research. Isn't basic science just as important as practical research?
GP: I'm curious about a course here on your transcript. This may be a bit far back for you, but its your Early Modern Europe class Sophomore year. What time period did that class cover?
GP: What in that time period struck you as particularly relevant to your own life?
I discussed Galileo and the Scientific Revolution. Also, the text The Cheese and the Worms by Carlos Ginzburg.
GP: Wasn't Galileo ultimately a coward? He did ultimately recant his views didn't he?
Daniel Case, CEO of a venture capital firm in San Francisco and Rhodes Scholar: Derek I see you did some excellent research last summer for Pfizer pharmaceuticals. Could you comment for us on the proposed merger between Pfizer and Warner Lambert?
I said I hadn't heard of the merger and was unable to comment.
Dr. Ramona Doyle, surgeon and professor in the medical school at Stanford, Rhodes Scholar: I'd like to turn for a moment away from academic issues. What has the greatest challenge in your life been, outside of school and academics?
Bonnie St. John Deane, motivational speaker and Rhodes Scholar: Is there anything you regret about your life so far?
There's that regret question again...
EB: I'm afraid we're going to have to wrap this up now. Is there anything else you'd like to say to us?
Following the interview I returned briefly to the hotel for breakfast, then wandered back over to the interview waiting room to spend time with the other candidates. Around noon a group of six of us that had all been interviewed decided we would pass the afternoon by walking to Fisherman’s Wharf, which was a lot of fun and a good idea. It made the time pass much more quickly not to be sitting in the interview waiting room and staring at the clock. Besides, we had plenty of time to do exactly that when we all returned at 3:30 for the interminable, mandatory waiting period.
After all the candidates had been waiting for about 45 minutes, one of the interviewers came out to announce that we should expect to be waiting for a very long time. We were given permission to leave for an hour in order to get food and stretch our legs. I seem to respond to the stress of waiting by becoming ravenously hungry, so I immediately walked down the street to the nearest Jamba Juice and purchased their six-gallon size smoothie along with half a dozen cookie bars to nervously munch on while I waited. I also found a bookstore that was open and bought a copy of Business Week, which had a long story on the Warner-Lambert — Pfizer merger that I had been asked about during my interview. I felt more comfortable during the long waiting period after I had read this article and knew I could answer the question if I was invited to attempt to do so again during a second interview. Of course this never actually happened, but as long as one has hours and hours to wait, it doesn’t hurt to have all the bases covered. After returning from our furlough, we all had to wait for approximately four and a half hours. And let me tell you, I felt every minute of it. We passed the time by talking and joking around, but the stress at that point was really palpable. One girl was called in for a second interview, and returned to us several minutes later practically in tears. It was a brutal wait.
Finally, the chair of the committee appeared at the door, announced that it was "all over" and invited us all back into the main conference room. Words were not minced — there was a minute or so of talk, and then the chairman simply said, "The committee would like to invite the following people to travel to Oxford next year as Rhodes Scholars, in alphabetical order…" My name was read second, and I remember exhaling a shaky breath and wobbling a bit on my feet. I don’t remember hearing the last two names. As soon as all the names had been read, the room was rapidly cleared out accept for the district secretary and the four scholars elect, and several giant FedEx boxes worth of paperwork emerged. Ramona Doyle, the district secretary, explained that she was obliged to attempt to give us much important information at that point, but that everything was written down so we didn’t really need to pay attention. This was good, because all four of us basically sat at the table alternating between staring at each other wide-eyed and giggling hysterically. It was an amazing moment. After being loaded down with prospectuses, information forms, and important phone numbers, we were all ushered into offices for our respective phone calling frenzies. I of course couldn’t remember the phone numbers for the people I had told I would call, couldn’t remember how to dial information, and definitely couldn’t figure out how to dial for an outside line. So I basically spent fifteen minutes punching numbers on the dial pad with a big silly grin on my face, only actually managing to get through to my parents. I think I said something to the effect of "Hi Mom! Uh, so I’m a Rhodes scholar now" (e.g. don’t expect to be seized by an immediate fit of eloquence if you win one of these scholarships!).
The evening was concluded by the interview panel taking the scholars-elect out for a very nice dinner at one of those restaurants that does not actually print the prices on the menu. Needless to say I was very excited about this, as my giant smoothie and cookie bars were beginning to wear off by this point. It was a very surreal sort of experience, as we all took an elevator to a private dining room and were then immediately plied with gourmet entrees and fine wine. The interviewers did most of the talking as I recall, with the scholars-elect mostly ready to slump over in our chairs and go to sleep. Despite the fact that we were all dead tired, it was a wonderful way to end a very long and exhausting day, and a very personable introduction into the community of Rhodes scholars.
Final Thoughts on the Process:
I was planning on having some very wise and insightful things to say to conclude this little essay, but unfortunately it has ceased to be little some time ago and I am in danger of terminal carpal tunnel syndrome if I continue typing much longer. I would like to emphasize, however, that as a Reed candidate for one of these scholarships you have an extraordinary opportunity for success. The institutional support provided by the Fellowships and Awards committee, by people like Jo Canon and Ken Brashier, and by your professors in general is a luxury that few students at other schools enjoy. I suppose the message then is to remember how lucky you are, and be thankful. Equally important, take advantage of the resources at your disposal. When committee members offer you a mock interview, an opportunity to have someone else review your personal statement, or any other potentially beneficial activity, don’t say no. This means you will be very busy while you are preparing your application, but the potential rewards are well worth several weeks worth of harried schedules. And let me tell you, if at the end of the day you end up with a Rhodes or Marshall scholarship, every single moment of frustration and angst along the way will pale into insignificance. These are truly life changing awards, and well worth many times the sacrifice that they demand.
Despite the unwieldy length of this document, you will no doubt have questions that remain unanswered. I would therefore like to extend a very sincere invitation to any potential Reed candidate to contact me directly. I would be absolutely delighted to discuss the process further, offer what little sage wisdom I have at my disposal, or provide general moral support. Either this year at Reed or during my tenure at Oxford, I would truly love to offer all the help I can, and perhaps return some of the considerable assistance that I received during my application. Please don’t hesitate to contact me.
Christ Church, Oxford