Re-reading my NSF ratings sheets, I was struck by statements made by two reviewers:
The reviewer who rated my IM “Very Good” began the review: “The applicant’s academic preparation is strong, but not unique.”
One of the reviewers who rated my IM “Fair” started this way: “The applicant’s academic preparation was good, but not unique.”
I want to know what qualifies as “unique” academic preparation. I mean really, unique? Last I heard, that word meant “one of a kind.” But I seriously doubt that the NSF reviewers want someone whose preparation was really unique.
Trying to read between the lines, I assume that what the reviewers were saying was that my academic background was relatively strong but still lacking in some regard. They held some ideal view of academic preparation in their minds (what they considered “unique”) and I fell short. But this vision of theirs is really not unique preparation: it is strong. They don’t really (nor should they really) want a “unique” academic experience, like someone who’d learned everything she knew about meteorology from a hermit living atop a mountaintop.
If I am interpreting them correctly, then rather than making vague statements I want to hear how I was lacking. The second reviewer goes on to do so–saying that if I didn’t have any pubs, I should at least have presented something (at an institutional fair if nothing else). This is valuable info. [I didn’t do this because LocalStateU’s research fair is in January, and I did my research there January to August. By the time the next fair rolled around, I was off at grad school.]
I think “unique” is going to be the next “special”–one of those words that gets overused until it becomes watered down to the point of being meaningless.