How a Nobody Got Into an Ivy League Astronomy Program

So I recently got accepted into Cornell Astronomy PhD program. For me, it's a tad surreal. There are times I'm still partly asleep and worry that I've been accepted nowhere (which actually happened to me a year ago).

Yes the same Cornell that Andy from the office went to. I think that's like one of the more popular responses I get when I tell people I got into Cornell. It is quite the scenic place TBH. This is a picture taken from atop their outreach observatory where they give astronomy tours.

An earlier blog goes more into the details of my background, but just to give a quick idea of just how big of a leap I've taken, I started at a place called Utah Valley University in political science. Now, political science isn't even close to Physics and Astronomy. The reason I switched was because I wasn't motivated by the work or by any future prospects I had with Political Science. This lead to me exploring different option. When I was exploring different things on what I wanted to do, I saw on some webpage somewhere (I don't remember exactly where) the word 'astrophysics'. It hit me like a brick, that was what I wanted to do. This is what I needed to do. This is what I was going to do. I love space. I loved space things. I loved to gawk at Hubble photos. I pestered my parents to let me go to space camp when I was little. This is work that would give me the motivation to deal with all the not so fun stuff. So I switched my major to Physics at Utah Valley University.

Oh boy was I in for a ride. 

Since I wanted to do research, I remember setting long term goals to get into a PhD program. I had like around a 2.9 GPA at the time, so to me, the somewhat realistic places I could go to get a physics PhD was Brigham Young University or if I was lucky and worked super hard, maybe I could get into University of Utah (it was ranked higher, had more stringent requirements etc.).

At the time I remember somehow landing on this website which described how to get into the Ivy league (this article has been here since like 2015 at least, they seem to keep on updating the 'when this was published' date). They describe you need to have some metaphorical huge spike, not just be well rounded. In other words have something that makes you special, that makes you stand out, be a prodigy, or something.

This was so foreign to me. I need a big spike? What does that mean? I am nobody special. I come from Utah with a conservative, religious, background to boot. I literally grew up next to a farm. A fence had to be built so horses wouldn't eat the grass I mowed and get sick. I went to church every Sunday. My dad was super conservative, thinking like the world would end if Al Gore beat Bush in the 2000 election. I was trained as clergy, literally being allowed to marry people at one point in my life. Not drinking coffee/tea or doing drugs was way more important in my culture then learning simple introductory, high school physics. This was just my upbringing. It was just the way I was raised. Nothing particularly wrong with it for the most part (as far as I can tell) anymore then any other upbringing in this world.

It was a world far removed from anything considered to be deeply involved in the sciences. One of my grandfathers was an engineer (the other was a farmer lol), engineering as close to the hard sciences as any of my family was at the time. I remember once as a teenager watching a Nova episode which detailed eternal inflation. I thought to myself as I watched it,

"This is so fascinating, but I am not smart enough to ever do that sort of stuff."

In other words, reading about the Ivy League, it seemed a world away to me. It seemed no matter what I did, I would never be able to get into a place like that. I would never be able to get a 'big spike' so to speak. Where would I even get such a spike? Even if I had such a spike, how would I show it off? I would never be a prodigy. The liberal, science oriented world of The Ivy League was beyond my dreams for some random, Utah kid.

All this really didn't bother me or deter me though. There was still plenty I dreamed of doing even if I didn't get into a place like that.

Getting into an Ivy League School

So now that you know my background, how did I do it? How did I come from such a lowly, rural, place and end up accepted at Cornell, an elite university ranked as one of the best physics schools in the world?

Well here is what you have been waiting for! My patented, absolutely guaranteed to work for everyone, five step program
  1. Get lucky
  2. After getting lucky, impress someone important 
  3. Get rejected and spend four months on top of a mountain in isolation
  4. Help reignite a field in Astronomy
  5. Reapply and get accepted
Got it? No? Well son, I'll have you know that if you sign up for my patented "How to get into the Ivy League" for $19.95 per month, annual magazine, I guarantee that nearly nothing in your life will change. That's not all, for signing up today I'll throw in a free copy of "How to pull things out of your ass" monthly inspirational quote.

Here's a breakdown of my 'guaranteed to work for everyone' plan.

Get Lucky

For me when I started, I knew that my low GPA and unknown (but awesome) University would get me nowhere special on their own. I have to get lucky if I was going to get anywhere. While I was working on getting lucky, because I had to work up through math perquisites, I had plenty of time to get a Computer Programming Certification. Maybe if I wasn't a math genius someone could use my programming skills at the very least.

I then applied to a bunch of REU's and got rejected. The next year however, I googled 'astronomy REU'. Cornell was literally the first result to pop up and I was like

"Hey, why not?"

It turns out that I fit a cosmology professors criteria perfectly. They wanted REU students from Universities that had less research opportunity in physics, which my university fit. She needed a student who was into cosmology, which I am. Most importantly, she needed someone who was good at coding, a requirement I also met. It was such a good fit, that I got accepted. I literally replied to the offer with an email starting with

"WHOA! I accept!"

Which is what you will literally need to do as well, cause Let's be honest, if you said no, you definitely wouldn't be able to attend.

Impress Someone important

Once you get to a REU at an elite university, you have to impress them or they won't let you come back. I was working for one of the Astronomy departments Deans. She's won more physics prizes then anyone I currently know. She is the big cheese in her field. She also needed someone to redo her theoretical cosmology code.

Using my ultimate "Even though I don't know what the Hell I'm doing, I'll pull something out of my ass anyway" skill, I took the entire program, replicated it in python, and even made it an order of magnitude faster then the FORTRAN 90 code. She was so impressed she would love to have me back, thereby fulfilling the requirement of 'impress someone important'.

Get Rejected and live on a mountain in Arizona

You know, this step sucks. For me, it was comical how many opportunities suddenly evaporated after getting rejected from grad school. Technically I got wait listed at Cornell, not rejected, so really you just have to sit on the wait list for a year.

Regardless of your despair, you should go find work in Arizona as an observational observer working for the University of Utah. Why that specific? I don't know, it's what I did so it must be the only way. Then literally spend like, 4 months on top of Mt. Hopkins helping run astronomy equipment being managed by the Smithsonian.

While doing this you will see bears, mountain lions, skunks, small scorpions, you might even almost step on something that looks like a coral snake. Often you will have to drive up this cliff that is literally a drop off for hundreds of meters if you make a wrong turn. It will be nuts. Almost like being the crocodile hunter but trying to avoid all the animals.

This is a picture of the view from the mountain top you must stay on if you want to get into an Ivy. You can't stay on any other, it must be this one.


Help Reignite a Field

During your time in Arizona, start taking measurements of the diameters of stars with Nolan Matthews. It turns out that these measurements will be breaking current records using a technique called Stellar Intensity Inteferometry, a technique long thought to be dead. Also make sure your name is Jonathan Davis so that people will get you confused with the OG John Davis who founded Stellar Intensity Interferometry.

Also build observational software which can correctly predict which stars you should point the telescope at and write a paper on it. Because of this you and Nolan will be able to make measurements which get close to current records in a fraction of the time it used to take using this technique.

As a bonus you should be able to find a really neat automation technique that can be used to help measure distances to galaxies, which you can subsequently publish another paper on with a professor from Utah Valley University.

Reapply again

So once you have spent a year reigniting a field in astronomy, with your name on multiple publications (one of them being a nature astronomy paper),  simply reapply again and whammo! You're IN baby! That's all there is to it.

In all honesty though

I think this joke has gone on long enough. To be honest, I don't have a clue how I ended up doing half the stuff I did. Apparently I'm way better then I thought I was. I've also been quite lucky. However, I was only lucky because I was resourceful and 'rolled the dice' so to speak, meaning I only got the opportunities I did by applying and asking those around me. If I didn't try, I would have never have gotten anywhere in the first place.  

Also, don't think too much of my accomplishments either. The 'reigniting an entire field' was an exaggeration. If anyone deserves to say that, it is Nolan Matthews. If you were to use a metaphor to describe my contribution, It was more like I helped throw gasoline soaked wood on top of some coals. I didn't light the coals or build the pit, but I found and helped throw some good, gasoline soaked, firewood on top of some hot coals. 

Seriously, this post is a parody of stupid "How to Get Into the Ivy League" articles. Stop buying into such Bullshit.

The above post is a joke, just like the article that re-publishes itself on a regular basis talking how big your spike needs to be in order to get into the Ivy League, which honestly sounds more like phallic symbolism then it does good advice. That article was literally part of the reason I thought I wasn't good enough. It was part of the reason I didn't bother to try at the start. These articles can have some bits of good advice in them, but the stuff is mostly trash. It gives little useful information (Why is "be a prodigy" useful advice?) while purveying a feeling of hopelessness. Seriously, don't take articles like this seriously.

A big reason for my success, and this is probably the most important part of it all, is not because of some inordinately big 'spike' I have, it's because I made the best of every opportunity that I found, no matter how small or where it came from. This lead to meeting some really cool people and to a lot of cool opportunities.

For various reasons I'm officially not super religious now and I apologize if I sound somewhat preachy, but cut me some slack! It was literally my job to preach to people at some point. One good thing that came from my religious upbringing is that it gave me quite a bit of discipline (just try living with a bunch of religious zealots and crazy amounts of arbitrary rules for years on end. You will develop patience. Or lose your mind, whichever comes first). This discipline helped when it came to pursuing my goals. I never gave up, regardless of the difficulties that were constantly being presented. This is something you will have to keep in mind when life doesn't just hand you lemons, it hands you rocks. You have to take those rocks and go out and find a bunch of lemons and then make lemonade using the rocks life hands you. 

When I got rejected from grad school last year, I talked to people, networked, and found work at the University of Utah. I would be pretty happy to continue working here at the University of Utah. I don't think that satisfaction comes from the prestige of the University. It came because I have learned to enjoy the opportunities I have had thus far and do the best that I can.

I made the mistake of thinking that a name mattered when I applied to grad schools last year. This mistake caused me a lot of grief when I was rejected from the places I applied. I fully applied to Cornell this year not really expecting to get in. Surprising to me, I got in, with one of the reasons being that not only did I not give up, I did some pretty crazy shit over the past year. 

I will likely be attending Cornell partly because I get to do really cool cosmology research, partly cause the grad students there are pretty happy, partly cause I want to live somewhere new, partly because New York pizza is frickin amazing (I already loved pizza to begin with), partly cause the pay is good, and Cornell overall being a great school for astronomy. It has nothing to do with the sports conference it's part of. Even if I wasn't going to attend Cornell, I've learned to be happy at the University of Utah. 

In conclusion

Do the most with what you have wherever you are. That's literally what I've been doing since I made the goal to get into astrophysics and it's the best advice I can give you. It's why I've been able to see success in spite of where I come from, in spite of the failures I've had.

Prestige doesn't matter if you are happy so don't base your happiness on something like a sports conference or how big your 'spike' is. In fact, even if you have prestige, even if you have fame, fortune, and success, it all becomes completely meaningless if you are unhappy. So, instead of worrying whether or not you will get into an Ivy, it's better to worry about what will make you happy in the future. Attending an Ivy can definitely lead you to things that can make you happy, but it isn't what makes someone happy.

Utah Valley University, the school I did my undergraduate education, is a school so unknown, so not competitive, it's not even ranked with a 100% admissions acceptance rate. It's a school that can never have an admissions scandal because they literally accept everyone who applies, even felons (which is admirable by the way)! I actually find I kind of miss the place some and was able to find happiness when I attended. I also saved a ton of money with my tuition literally being one tenth the price of the average undergrad Ivy tuition.

Don't try to do what I did if you can help it. It was miserable! It was worth it for me in the end, since I was pursuing my dream, but don't let your dream be limited to a name. If I had let a name stop me I wouldn't have been accepted into a school that is far beyond what I ever dreamed I was capable of getting accepted into (partly due to that stupid article), which is pretty neat. 

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