Tuesday, April 12, 2011

More on recruiting: grades and research

Recruiting season is winding down, and I have been thinking about GMP's post on the topic from a week or so ago. As I said in my comment, I find prior research experience to be the most important consideration for me. Students with no exposure to research have no real idea what it is like, and can therefore easily not understand what they are getting into in grad school. Also, sometimes people just have really bad hands in the lab, and would be better served with a less hands on group than mine.

In my experience, grades are actually a poor predictor of success (once above a certain minimum threshold of competence). I need to know my students can pass our grad level courses required for their program, and grades are a good predictor for this. I've found that many students with high GPAs are not necessarily good at research. Some of them are profoundly disturbed that there may not be a "correct" answer to their research problem (happened to a friend of mine). Others are good at schoolwork, but not so good at applying that knowledge to the real world. Some are brilliant at everything including research, and these are the ones I want! High GPA does make it easier to get fellowships, so I am happy to attract 4.0 students, of course, but I don't accept students on GPA alone, nor do I use GPA as a filter. My best students right now were closer to 3.0 then 4.0 as undergrads.

I do look for a GPA trending up with time if the GPA is on the low end of our admitted pool. This is often a sign that a student has put it together in terms of figuring out how to work/learn/understand some key concept that eluded them the first time around, but may disqualify them from "better" programs. I don't consider students with a significantly downward trending GPA unless they are super excited about my research and have kick ass research experience and letters. I don't look at GRE scores that much either, other than to make sure they are adequate. I prefer students with good verbal scores, since writing is a big part of what we do, and this is harder to probe in a meeting.


xombie said...

Truly love your posts, PA. Seems like you're going through a journey that some of us have recently been on the other side of. And it brings a smile reading your trials and tribulations (even if only a fraction of those can be expressed here).

In my case, I 'knew' that my mentors could somehow stand my less than great GPA.

GMP said...

I must say that I only look at the verbal scores for domestic (US) students, not for foreigners. Actually, there is a history of students from a certain country coming in with 500-600 verbal scores and then not being able to string two sentences together in English. I rely on TOEFL scores for foreigners, and look at the GRE quantitative (math). I lament that the GRE analytical part is now "analytic writing." I think it's BS (and I don't mean the degree); I much preferred the old format, with brain-twist questions. A high score on the analytic part used to be quite telling of the student's potential for the type of work I do.

prodigal academic said...

Thanks for the comments!

GMP, for non-native English speaking students, I don't trust either verbal GRE or TOEFL scores, though TOEFL seems a bit better. And I agree with you on the old format--I don't really understand what the new analytic part is supposed to demonstrate.

Anonymous said...

I finally got around to catching up on blog reading after traveling, so I'm commenting a little late.

While I think your standards are perfectly reasonable, I have a hard time digesting them. I had no research experience prior to grad school, and I ended up being a natural in the lab. My verbal GRE score was extremely low, but I'm a fairly good writer; my math and analytical scores were through the roof. My GPA was alright, but not stellar...the chemistry courses I took killed it. But I did very well in my graduate courses.

Bottom line - I didn't know what I wanted to do as an undergrad after deciding pre-med wasn't for me, so my focus was all over the place. I only got into one grad school, and I succeeded beyond anyone's expectations. I know it's hard to judge from a face-to-face meeting, but sometimes just seeing how a young scientist responds to you talking about your research might be enough. After all, I wouldn't be here if my grad program and mentor hadn't taken a chance on me.

Just some food for thought...

prodigal academic said...

Thanks for the comment, Micro Dr. O. I freely admit that choosing grad students is not an exact science. As a TT prof, I am betting my tenure on my choices, so I have to be picky. I do interview every student who expresses an interest, but I only ask for interviews with people who meet my criteria. The way Prodigal U works, students must meet with any prof who asks for an interview.