Scientists’ two most feared words: ‘Submit online’


When I applied to grad school, applications were just starting to move online. The year was 2000, and we thought we were living in a digital Space Age because we could chat on ICQ and listen to MP3s with Winamp. Yes, I know that to most of you young-uns that sounds like banging rocks together. The point is that it was a different time, when we were still reluctant to buy textbooks on Amazon because, really, how safe can it be to buy something you can’t see in real life?

Online grad school applications were clearly still in their infancy as well. They seemed like a good idea in theory, but it was clear that no one had truly troubleshot the process. I’d begin an online application without any overview of the required sections, so I’d have no idea whether I was writing essay one of one or one of 20. Sometimes I’d click “SAVE,” and the website would be like, “NO.” It was not unusual for me to call a school’s department administrator and say, “Hi, I’m applying to your program online, and I have 17 questions.” The whole process took more time than it would have taken to write the essays longhand, physically mail the application, and cultivate and grow to maturity a small redwood tree.

I remember finishing one application right before leaving on a long trip (and remember, kids, “mobile” internet wasn’t a thing back then) and clicking “SUBMIT” before running out the door. But instead of saying “Congratulations!” or “Thank you!” the site said I’d now need to print everything, get my references’ signatures, and snail-mail it. Surprise!

Somehow, I survived that technological gauntlet and breathed a sigh of relief, assuming I’d never again have to muddle through such a spectacularly inefficient use of technology. Little did any of us know that someday we’d also apply for grants and fellowships and even submit manuscripts online—and it would be easier than doing it on paper, yet we’d still kind of hate it.

I mean, it’s definitely better than it was when I applied to college in 1996, when the internet was AOL chatrooms, GeoCities pages, and unhelpful WebCrawler results. (Yes, again with the rock banging—someday ask Old Grandpa to tell you about laserdiscs.) Back then, we wrote our college applications with pen, paper, and White-Out—except when we wanted to appear computer-savvy and typed our essays into WordPerfect 5.1, printed them on a dot matrix printer, and Scotch taped them onto the applications.

Admittedly, in many ways online submissions have made our lives easier. But it’s hard to appreciate how far we’ve come when it’s 4:59 p.m., you click the button to upload your grant application due in 1 minute, and all you get is the little swirly Microsoft hula hoop reminding you that, oh yeah, everyone else in the universe is trying to upload their grant applications at 4:59 p.m., too, and you’re screwed.

Yet, here we are, with various online submission systems now a standard part of a scientist’s career. Next time you find yourself the victim of an online submission process, follow these steps to help make sure your application gets through:

  1. When you click “SUBMIT,” the next step is often that nothing happens for 5 minutes, and you’ll spend that time wondering whether to click “SUBMIT” again. Be patient. If it helps, pretend that you’re back in 1996, when waiting for a response after clickingtook at least 5 minutes. If, after 5 minutes, the results are still inconclusive, consider clicking harder.   

Best of luck! Now, to track the status of your application, simply—oh God. Create an account.

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