Response to comments on last post
This got to be pretty long and I think it's important so I'm putting it here.
I think you're mostly right. It's sad but true. I'm definitely taking the hard, unrealistic road.
FSP and Dr. J,
Perhaps I misunderstood your post. I thought you said you had more than one bad experience where you'd had someone in your lab (or maybe you meant in class?) as an undergrad and then took them on as grad students only to find out they didn't have the right stuff.
I guess I think rotations are good for this if the students have already arrived.
If you have to judge them in writing, here's what I think.
I think you can tell a lot from the authenticity of written statements of research interests.
I had already been a co-author on two papers by the time I applied to grad school. I think this is a good way to tell if the students are really getting into the lab in college, they won't be able to get on publications without the passion, the street smarts, the work ethic, the communication skills. They should be writing about their research experience to date, and their future interests. At least one letter of reference should be from someone they worked with in a lab. To me, letters from people who taught them lectures are usually not informative, unless the main quality that stands out is, "They asked a lot of great questions." Anything other than that is not going to speak to their potential in research.
If the student can't say why they're interested in certain areas of research and convey a unique, thoughtful perspective, then they don't know why they're applying to grad school and you don't want them.
While definitely more important than GREs, I'd take anyone with a B+ average and above. Grades are more important because it's the best reflection of work ethic in learning.
I'd also look at what they took. Did they take the default pathway to a major, or did they go out of their way to take relevant courses that fit in with their stated research interests? Did they pick challenging upper level courses and get lower grades in them, or did they pick easy courses and get straight A's? I'll always take the ones who are looking for the challenge, not the grade.
If their grades are crappy but their GRE scores were overly good, you have someone who's smart but lazy. Then you go back to the research statement and the letters. Does this person have the drive to do research? Probably not. I would avoid these students.
If their grades are good but their GREs are bad, either they went to a school with extreme grade inflation (should be well known if that's the case) or they have test anxiety. Test anxiety is not an obstacle to doing well in research, so I would ignore bad GREs if that's the case. Otherwise it doesn't tell you much since most people do okay on the GRE. You're not going to differentiate good or bad researchers from those numbers.
If you're really having a hard time choosing, and you don't get any applicants who did undergraduate research, look at what they did in the summers. You want the ones who had jobs or did volunteer charity work. Even better are the ones who worked all year, even while taking classes.
Another variation are the people who worked as technicians or in industry before they applied to grad school. Usually they really have the drive to get the PhD, but don't want to stay in academia. Most of the ones I've known have toyed with the idea for a while, maybe even did a postdoc, but ultimately ended up back in industry.
As ivory tower as academia is, the best researchers I know are not just smart, they're hard workers. They can definitely handle the commitment, they clearly have the drive, they're willing to make the sacrifices and take the risks. But also make sure they're aware of their future salary prospects. You don't want to bring them in for grad school and then have them leave because they can't stomach the low wages long term.
I have this blog because I think advising is generally inadequate in the world.
If you read back through my posts, I've written quite extensively on the things I had to figure out the hard way because nobody told me.
I think I'd be a great advisor because I know what not to do.
So yes, I think advising is incredibly important and I take it very seriously.
Having said that, you can have all permutations.
Bad advisors whose students do pretty well anyway.
Fantastic advisors who get lazy, stupid students who don't take all the good advice they're offered. I think that's less common, but it happens.
Personally I think that with a bad advisor, it's impossible for even the best, brightest, most hard-working students to be superstars. Just impossible.
I think that with a good advisor, even mediocre students can do very well.
Take that as you may. Nobody's perfect, and it's very subjective. Some people like hands-on advising, some people like hands-off. What works well for me might be horrible for the guy at the bench next to me, or vice-versa.