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Bribes, lies, and Photoshop: What science should learn from the college admissions scandal

You’ve probably heard about the college admissions scandal that came to light last month. Wealthy parents allegedly had their kids’ SAT answers revised, doled out cash bribes, and debated which sport to pretend their children excelled at—all with the goal of purchasing admission into colleges unlikely to welcome them otherwise. Scratch one more item off of the list of things that money can’t buy.

As the scandal unfolded, I kept thinking about whether something like this would ever happen in the world of science training. It seemed ludicrous: Who would pay a ringer to expertly dissect their frog? Who would think they could get away with pretending to be an astrophysics wunderkind without any training or, you know, understanding of astrophysics? Who would sneak into a postdoc? I pictured someone’s wealthy parent slipping a check into a graduate school admission committee’s coffer, only to have their child end up working 12 hours a day in the lab for a meager stipend, saying, “Hey … waaaaait a minute … .”

Thinking that science is above this sort of thing gave me, and maybe you, an obnoxious feeling of superiority. You can’t slip your bacteria a dollar to encourage them to grow faster—believe me, I’ve tried, and all you get is a soggy dollar that smells like yeast extract. You can’t financially entice a colleague to perform experiments for you because there’s no way you have a colleague with that much free time. And you can’t pay a journal to accept your paper. (Well—you can, but you probably don’t want to publish in that journal anyway.) The scientific community, the thinking goes, is a true meritocracy—not perfect, but at least rooted in reason.

But, soon the conversation around the college admissions scandal shifted to all of the “softer” ways that money buys education—SAT prep courses, tutors, admissions consultants. Even when massive wealth isn’t used to buy Photoshop jobs of your child’s face on the body of a crew coxswain (which is one of the actual accusations), it still stacks the odds of admission to a prestigious school severely in your favor.

And that’s where the distinction between “us” and “them” started to fade. Even if you can’t buy your way into grad school, it certainly helps to have attended a prestigious undergraduate school—and as we’ve seen, you can sometimes buy your way into those. We all take the same GRE, but those who can afford tutoring and test prep have an advantage. It’s a lot easier to add research experience to your CV if you have the financial security to offer yourself to a professor as an unpaid researcher. If you don’t have to work to support yourself, you have more time to study.

And then, of course, there’s the all-important reference letter, where you get to show off the fanciest people you know. I once had a student, preparing her graduate school application, who wanted to meet with me. She felt conflicted: Her father was good friends with the president of a certain rather large Pacific nation, and he really wanted to procure a recommendation letter for her from the president. She felt uncomfortable because she had never met this president and would rather submit recommendations from professors. But she also knew that a letter from this president could help her get into a good school.

I didn’t know what to tell her. I gathered that she was under pressure to accept and use the letter. I suggested that if she really felt she had to, maybe she should write her entrance essay about how conflicted she felt—own up to the fact that she’d never met the letter’s author and discuss the reasons it gave her pause.

I don’t know if this was good advice. But she took it—and got into the school she wanted. Maybe the misgivings she described in her essay showed the admissions committee her humanity. Or maybe it was a superficially ethical way to absolve a rich kid of guilt while still letting her play her trump card to get into graduate school. Some of us aren’t even classy enough to eat Président brand brie.

I don’t think we’ll be seeing any indictments for a similar scheme to get into science Ph.D. programs. In my experience, the students most motivated by economics tended to major in something like economics. A wholly unqualified student might still find a way to coast through college but wouldn’t likely survive grad school. And I’d like to think that anyone foolish enough to buy their way into a career in science would suffer and fail—or at least hate it and drop out.

But that doesn’t make science blind to socioeconomic status. Throughout scientific training and careers, the scales are tipped in favor of those who can afford tutoring, who don’t need to worry about the trade-off between time earning a paycheck and time studying, who can front the funds for travel without stressing about when they will be reimbursed.

Beyond socioeconomic status, too, science is not as meritocratic as we may like to believe. Publications and grants can be intensely political. Underrepresented minority groups remain underrepresented. Faculty hiring can be an elitist clusterfudge. Prestige begets prestige.

It would be easier if academic science had a single corrupt scheme that we could root out. At least then we could direct our righteous indignation toward someone we can all agree to despise. Instead, we have nebulous, unwieldy systemic inequalities that defy easy solutions. But the more we acknowledge them and face them, the closer we get to addressing them. So, maybe that’s a silver lining to a bunch of rich parents brazenly cheating to get their kids into college.

I’d write more, but it’s late and I have to get up at 5 a.m. tomorrow to go to work.

Hey … waaaaait a minute … .

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