Wednesday, November 14, 2007

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.

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At 4:50 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Wow, this post makes me annoyed, because basically it says you wouldn't take me into grad school.

a)Well, I got "low" - B's and C's in my bio and chemistry courses. Even in grad school, I got a mix of A's and B's, and we all know grad school courses are A-centered. Why? Well, I went to a hard school... but there's more to life than doing homework and studying - and in truth, I learn way better in lab than in classes. And I did rock the GRE's. :)

b) I was a "tech" at a company for 2 years. That's not because I was interested in industry, or money. It was because I didn't get in to the grad program I expected to for a different degree.

I mean, I would have scored well on some of your other metrics - I had all 3 references from people I did lab work with, I did research every summer, and so forth. But I think your generalizations are overly broad.

At 5:27 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

"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 also think having a bad adviser can leave a motivated student unmotivated. I feel like the more time I spend in grad school the less motivated I've become. I wouldn't call my adviser bad, per say, just slow with feedback-which makes me feel behind in my progress at at time lacking in things to do.
When I feel like I don't have things to do-the waiting for feedback stage-I think a "smart" person would find something to do. And I mean something besides reading blogs.

At 6:01 PM, Blogger Ms.PhD said...

Anonymous 1,

Of course they're generalizations and as such they're broad.

But depending on what you need, you have to weight your priorities.

I'd much rather have someone who is hard working, creative, passionate about research and got Bs and Cs in school than someone who got As and is none of those three things. But that's just me.

On the other hand, grades do tell you whether a person can follow directions, cross their t's and dot their i's.

As much as we'd like to think research is all fun and experimental glory, a lot of academia at the upper levels is about bureaucracy and navigating requirements.

If that means you have to work harder to get As and Bs instead of Bs and Cs, then you should. It's like funding- you don't have a choice. Your grants have to be good. There are no two ways about it. Everyone else has good grants (or grades) so you better do the same if you want to stay in the game.

I'm glad that you're in grad school and that you learn better in lab and know that about yourself.

But think hard about it as a career, because writing grants is a lot like doing homework. If you hated classes, you're probably going to hate that -and a lot of other parts of academia- too.

Anonymous 2,

Blogs are very motivational to me. So hey, whatever works for you.

When I say bad advisor I don't mean someone who doesn't give feedback per se, although it sucks for students, I think there are lots of well-meaning advisors who don't give enough feedback. And it's true that it's pretty much impossible to be a superstar with a lack of support.

No, when I say bad, I mean people who won't help you, or worse, let you, publish, or graduate, or get a job. Or all three.

I've seen several of these now, who refuse to help train their own grad students how to write papers.

And refuse to edit.

And refuse to submit.

And call the journal to revoke the paper if the student or postdoc submits it on their own.

And refuse to write recommendation letters because the student has no publications.

That last one is so bad it makes me laugh.

I mean, this stuff is so bad, you couldn't make it up in your wildest dreams.

At 7:08 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

refusing to write letters is not as bad as getting a lukewarm and/or less than enthusiastic letter. letter writers would save themselves some time if they weren't sabotaging fledgling careers grr

At 10:34 AM, Blogger The Woman of Science said...

Actually, grades are fairly meaningless if there's a significant jump in rigor between the undergraduate and graduate institutions. I'm discovering that first-hand right now and will probably exit my first semester of grad school "in the hole" because I didn't realize that my A-level work back home is just C-level work here.

By that same token, it's difficult for students in certain fields at lower-ranking universities to get publications as an undergrad. I knew several very bright and hardworking individuals with undergraduate research projects who graduated with no publications. I have no idea why that was, but I have a suspicion that it was related to attending a 2.5-rate university.

And before snide comments emerge about 2nd rate schools and 2nd rate students, my undergrad institution was by far the best engineering school in the state. Right now I really wish that I had taken on the debt that would have been necessary for me to go to a tougher school, but it didn't seem reasonable at the time and my parents were insistent that home was "good enough".

At 1:40 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Ah, YFS. The information in your blog posts falls neatly into two categories.
1. Stuff we already know, but you are telling it to is like it is some great revelation that will change the way Science Is Done
2. Stuff that is just bat-sh*t crazy

At 6:44 PM, Blogger Ms.PhD said...


Your comment would be more instructive if you listed which things about these last couple of posts were batshit crazy to you. No one else commented that.

And you might keep in mind that the 'we' you refer to, as in "we who read my blog", is not only you. Although it sounds like it's an interesting planet that revolves around you as its star.

Maybe you know all of this stuff already. That's great. Since I don't know where your head is, I don't hold a gun to it and make you read my blog.

But I have a lot of readers who do not know all this stuff already, and they find it useful.

At 8:34 AM, Blogger Joolya said...

If their grades are good but their GREs are bad

Or, in my case, GREs are mediocre (I'm not so good at doing math when the clock is ticking) because I felt that for my PhD application they were a ridiculous waste of my time and money and I refused to spend time studying for them or, god forbid, taking a class.

Fortunately for me, none of the programs I applied to (all top tier) seemed to mind. (I had one interviewer ask me about my sub-par math score and I told her I considered the GRE a waste of my time and money and had not spent any time preparing for it. Still got in.)

Stupid GREs!!!


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