Experimental Error banner

Read our COVID-19 research and news.

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:

  • Select a user name and password. These will be vital for the next week or two, so make sure to write them on a Post-it note placed strategically on the pile of papers on your desk so that it will be fully buried exactly when you no longer need it—unless you apply for something else 8 years from now that happens to use the same web portal, at which time the site will assume you’ve remembered these perfectly.
  • Create an online profile detailing your full legal name, age, place of birth, credit score, inseam, and precise date of every educational achievement! No one knows why! But it’s required to move to the next step!
  • Answer three security questions, to be used when and if (i.e. when) you forget your password. Don’t use questions with just one possible answer. Instead, from the dropdown menu, select questions that you’ll never again be able to answer with the exact same phrasing, such as “What are the components of your favorite sandwich?”
  • Now that you’re in the system, take a look around. The design, the layout, the technology: This is what 2003 looked like.
  • Note that some boxes have character limits; these were assigned arbitrarily by someone who doesn’t really understand how the internet works. Consequently, you’ll start typing your city of residence in a box that only permits nine characters, and you’ll have no choice but to pretend you live in a magical place called Wilmingto. But don’t worry; you’ll be in good company with the residents of San Franc, Philadelp, and Minneapol. Ah, to be back in Minneapol, home of the Timberwol.
  • Most online submission portals denote required fields with an asterisk (*). (They’ll also put an asterisk in parentheses after the word “asterisk” because they think you’re a simpleton.) They will always mark one field “required” that is, in reality, entirely irrelevant. Yet unless you type arbitrary text into this field, you will be forbidden from proceeding, and you’ll face that maddening red squiggle that means “You forgot something, you dope.” When this happens, consider typing a space, a period, or “THIS SPACE INTENTIONALLY LEFT BLANK.”
  • Beware of applications that require you to upload a Word document. Evil overzealous conversion algorithms can mold these delicate files into tangles of unformatted gibberish, and then you look like the idiot. All hail the mighty immutable PDF.
  • Sometimes the best format for information is a spreadsheet or table. Online submissions absolutely cannot handle such jet-age structures. For a job application, for example, you may be asked to list all your previous jobs—including your exact job title, start date, end date, salary, manager, reason for leaving, and reason for staying as long as you did. You may have several of these. Instead of simply typing them into a table, you’ll have to fill out the information for one job, press “ADD JOB!” then fill out the next, then repeat many times. You may find that it’s easiest to omit a few entries—I guess they don’t need to know about your clearly nonscientific jobs scooping ice cream, or waiting tables, or interning at Theranos.
  • It’s the end of the application! And what glory do we behold here? Why, it’s an “Anything Else” box with an infinite character limit! You could put your whole application into this one box! Well … you could have … if you had known the box existed before you spent hours entering it elsewhere.
  • 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 clicking anything took 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.

Read more Experimental Error stories