I had a conversation a couple months ago about the fact that I’m a bit wary of taking Straight-A students into my lab as research students. Here’s an explanation.
A couple weeks ago, I saw and linked to an article about the predictors of success in grad school. Among those who were accepted to a fancy school, college GPA didn’t predict research success. That comes as no surprise, but can college grades tell us anything about potential for research? Maybe, I don’t know. I don’t think it’s a useful measure, though I think both very low grades and very high grades might signal a reason to look more carefully and proceed with caution.
How do you get Straight As in college? I suggest there are three things that matter:
- Academic ability, or smarts (whatever that really is, I have no idea).
- The academic savvy required to negotiate through a class to get high grades.
- The motivation to prioritize straight As over other things by focusing work to earn high grades.
(I’m entirely open to other opinions. I’m not wedded to these ideas at all.)
Straight-A students don’t have to max out for all three parameters. But this much is clear: people with insanely high college GPAs are outliers (at least outside the grade-inflated Ivy League), in terms of smarts, savvy and/or motivation to get good grades.
Smarts and savvy are fine, though those aren’t the things that I’m really looking for when it comes to research students. Students that excel are those who are intensely curious, enthusiastic about science, and learn for fun. Some of the best research students I know have gotten not-so-great grades because they were so excited about the material that they didn’t focus on jumping through the right hoops to get a good grade. They were so stoked about the biology in the class that they let the grades in the class slide.
I’m not saying there is a causal relationship between research potential and not caring about your grades, but I’ve noticed that an intense focus on straight-As might be caused by more interest in academic success than in learning. Is this always the case? No. Do I refuse to take straight-A students into my lab? Not at all. But I see a 4.0 GPA as big of a warning as a 2.0 GPA.
Then, what is it that makes a great researcher? Well, lots of things. Some things, I suggest, are:
- Experience with asking questions without answers and exercising the freedom to explore down mysterious academic rabbit holes.
- The ability to cope with things not working out and being accustomed to recovering from failure, and to persist even when things aren’t working out well.
- An open disposition towards one’s future; a lack of confidence that one is headed in the best professional direction.
I posit that those traits might be less frequent in Straight-A students. They might have them, though, you never know. That’s why people need to be evaluated as individuals, not by numbers. And that is especially true for 4.0 students.
Also, I’ve noticed that some undergrads who are focused really heavily on their grades are prone to disappearing for weeks at a time because of coursework. Even if they’re signed up to earn units doing research in the lab. From a pragmatic lab management perspective, well-balanced students who manage time well are assets.
I got really bummed the other day when I saw a notice recruiting applicants to do their PhD in a particular lab. I knew the perfect person to apply, in terms of ability, experience, and motivation. But the ad specifically said that a 3.5 GPA was required. The student I had in mind was well below that mark. Oh well. That’s I guess what we can call a lose-lose situation.
(Postscript: For what it’s worth, as I recall, my college GPA was about 3.1. I tried hard but not my hardest, and definitely
was am lacking in savvy , and I’d never claim or even think that I’m the sharpest tool in the shed. I don’t think that I have greater curiosity or research ability than my colleagues who might have higher grades in college, but gosh knows I’m used to rejection and failing like pretty much everybody in science. The only colleague of mine who I know must have had high grades in college was the one who was consistently hoity-toity about Phi Beta Kappa. As for everyone else, I have no idea. We’re more prone to recycling Monty Python quotes than discussing college grades.)