On being wary of bringing straight-A students into the lab


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:

  1. Academic ability, or smarts (whatever that really is, I have no idea).
  2. The academic savvy required to negotiate through a class to get high grades.
  3. 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:

  1. Experience with asking questions without answers and exercising the freedom to explore down mysterious academic rabbit holes.
  2. 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.
  3. 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.)

18 thoughts on “On being wary of bringing straight-A students into the lab

  1. Huh. Interesting. As an undergrad I had a 4.0 in biology (at a fairly fancy university), though definitely not a 4.0 overall, thanks upper-level math and creative writing courses. I feel like I never really freaked out about grades — I just tried to do my best and got really lucky? Certainly I managed to balance coursework, undergrad research, and part-time jobs reasonably well, except for the semester I was trying to complete my senior thesis in mathematics, which was both an unequivocal disaster and a fairly decent indication of my ability to persevere in the face of everything going wrong. I think I agree with everything in this blog post, but I think the message should be “always look beyond the grades” rather than the fairly controversial “straight A’s are a red flag.”

  2. My undergrad GPA was 2.9 but I rounded it up to 3.0 for grad applications. I knew I would never get into a PhD program with such a low GPA (although my GREs were good). So, I got Masters degree at my undergrad institution where I had developed a great relationship with a professor who was willing to give me a chance. Even then, I was accepted to only 1 of the PhD programs I applied to. I agree that we put way too much weight on scores (GPA / GRE) that are not good predictors of success. I much prefer writing experience and strong letters from someone I know.

  3. I have done a lot of thinking about this over the years and I agree with you. I am not wary of students with high grades (I had the equivalent of a 4.0), but I do want to figure out their motivations. A good friend teaches a research course in a private high school and she has a lot of issues with “perfect A” students, they are terrified of failing and will only choose very easy and straightforward projects, while the students with lower grades will tend to be much more risky and ambitious. This is a huge problem educators are discussing, because the constant praise culture is making sure that high achieving students become so scared of blemishes in their curricula that become completely risk-averse, which stunts innovative thinking.
    I ran a undergraduate student exchange program for years and while we first selected students based on a GPA cut-off, we then forgot about grades for the final interviews. In general the lower GPA students did better than the perfect GPA students because they tend to be more well rounded. Every year I got a very angry letter from a 4.0er who demanded to know why a student in his class who has lower grades had been selected, this only strengthened our resolve as a committee. Students who have been underdogs are more adaptable and more importantly are “hungry”. Given a chance they can really blossom.
    In general I really don’t think GPA has anything to do with research abilities. There are tons of reasons why a GPA can be low, so I would actually recommend you write to the lab who is putting the 3.5 limit and put forward your student anyways telling them how awesome s/he is.

  4. My anecdotal experience is that it’s not high GPA per se that’s a warning sign. One of the best undergrads ever to work in my lab was a straight A student. The warning sign is a high GPA in a student who’s very focused on getting a high GPA, as opposed to a student who has a high GPA as a side effect of being bright, excited about science, etc. In my experience, GPA-focused students often are premed, and they often see working in a prof’s lab as just a way to pad their resumes. I avoid taking on such students (having learned a lesson on that the hard way several years ago…).

  5. One of the things that concerns me greatly about focusing on GPA is that, as you say, GPA is in part a reflection of savvy about the system and access to other resources – like not needing to work 30 hours a week to support yourself through school or being a first-gen college student who has no idea they can request a tutor or apply for a Pell Grant instead of student loans. So, focusing so heavily on GPA is just one more structural inequality that we put in the way of many talented students who come from groups underrepresented in STEM.

  6. Might the problem be coming from an admissions (administrative) standpoint? I suspect that the school that requires a GPA of 3.5 merely wants to advertise their high GPA standards as something that is quantifiable. It is hard to develop a high-impact tweet or line on a brochure that quantifies how good their incoming graduate students are at research, but it is easy to give an average GPA value. This likely reflects the ongoing struggle between academics and administration on college campuses.

  7. When undergraduate students express an interest in doing a thesis in my lab I first book a 15 minute appointment with them. At that meeting I’m trying to gauge if they are enthusiastic about science, proactive (have they looked up what we study in the lab), and if their personality will be a good fit for my lab culture. If they are still interested after our initial meeting I ask them to send me a CV/resume (I like to know what they do outside of courses, e.g. are they balancing their course load with a part-time job or volunteering), unofficial transcript records (so I can see what courses they’ve taken and whether something is a particular challenge for them), a one page statement of interest (why do they want to work with me?), and a short scientific writing sample (so that I can see how they put together thoughts and ideas in written format). Students who aren’t really interested disappear at this point and I find that these materials give me a good sense of whether a particular student will work out or not. The few times that I’ve ignored my gut feeling are the times when things went sideways.

  8. This sounds just like my experience, including the gut instinct part. (I don’t ask for a writing sample though, but I do ask them to pick a recent paper or two from the lab to read and come back to talk about it)

  9. I think you have a good point, but I really agree strongly with Jeremy Fox’s comments above, quoted here:
    ” The warning sign is a high GPA in a student who’s very focused on getting a high GPA, as opposed to a student who has a high GPA as a side effect of being bright, excited about science, etc. ”
    I don’t want to penalize the latter student. I was one of those ones, I think. I still remember, decades later, applying for a technician job after finishing my undergrad and having this concern expressed to me during the interview. It seemed very unfair at the time to be penalized for having grades that were too good, and it still does today. I don’t think the GPA should be so important in either direction, as a minimum or a maximum. I agree that a statement of interest and a brief interview would be much more informative.

  10. Passion for a field of study, determination and a reasonable worth ethic seem to be a winning combination. A student’s GPA may or may not reflect this. Other measures such as a relaxed discussion or for those keen students who communicate better with the written word, a paper about their interest and knowledge in the field may certainly help to choose students.
    I wouldn’t have liked my straight A son to have been discriminated against (red flagged) because of his high grades though. He worked very hard to get those results for many reasons. He wanted to get a scholarship to help our family financially. He was interested in his subjects and he also believed in always doing his best. He is now part-way way through a Phd in cognitive neuroscience. Just as we can’t label all students with a low GPA as being incapable of doing research, we can’t label those high GPA students as being the wrong fit either.
    My daughter has dyslexia. Her spelling is poor and yet she topped first year anatomy and physiology classes at uni. Her passion, determination and natural talent for the area help her achieve. Students come with histories and a GPA rarely gives us a complete picture of their suitability for a research position. I certainly agree with you that we need other methods beyond focusing on one number.

  11. Hi PIs/future PIs,

    What’s a good method (if there are any) to try to engage a prospective advisor’s interest in accepting you into their lab if you have a less-than-stellar GPA? All the ecology/wildlife assistantships posted on forums everywhere require a high minimum GPA, and it is very discouraging because I feel like I look bad on paper compared to other prospective students. I do my due diligence and pick out advisors who’s research interests align with mine, and I do have confidence that my field/research experience and letters of rec will be great… but when the GPA shows up, I feel like it’ll scare PIs away. Are there any strategic ways to tell the PI why the GPA is low, or should you not even bother bringing it up?

    I do believe the route that Andrew Suarez posted is the best way to go, but I feel like obtaining an MS adds a few extra years when I already know I would like to obtain a PhD eventually.

    Great post Dr. M! (Long time reader, first time commenter).

  12. I’ve shared your hesitation as well. I always thought I was crazy. Nice post.

  13. I had a relatively low undergrad GPA (~3.3) and terrible GREs. I loved biology and research and had similar problems as your are anticipating, including emails from PIs who told me that they wanted to take me on but my scores simply weren’t competitive for a TA. I did a MS, kicked ass, got 4 papers out of it, and haven’t looked back. Do what you need to do to get into a program and work as hard as you can.

  14. We had a saying in grad school: if you’re getting straight As, then you’re not spending enough time in the lab.

    This post hits home for me. I had a 3.7 science GPA in undergrad, but only 2.9 cumulative. Despite the latter, I had little trouble getting into a PhD program because I did a lot of undergrad research and my advisers, who made it clear that science is about research not grades, wrote glowing letters. The first year or two were rough, but still at least one prof hung in there with me. In the end, I produced more than 20 publications as a grad student and graduated with honors. Now I work at one of the most prestigious universities in the US. Thank God no one took my overall grades too seriously. I was very fortunate to work with the right people early on – profs who had the courage to take me on and train me when I probably didn’t look like a great investment on paper.

  15. @Prospective Ecology Grad Student:

    You haven’t said exactly what your marks are (and I wouldn’t expect you do, so don’t feel you have to share on this blog), but based on what you’ve said they might not be as bad as you think. You may be damning yourself for failing to meet an unreasonably high standard. For instance, here at Calgary my department requires a minimum 3.2 for admission, and if your prospective supervisor wants to bring you in he or she can write a letter to get that threshold waived. I believe we have some students whose undergrad GPAs were around 3.0.

    If your marks were low to begin with but got better as you went along, many prospective supervisors will recognize you as a “late bloomer” and not hold it against you. And if your marks were good in ecology courses but low in other courses that are less relevant for grad school (e.g., literature courses or whatever), again that’s something that many prospective supervisors will understand. You can’t avoid bringing up your GPA entirely. You can try explaining it or putting it in context, for instance if there were a few specific courses you struggled with or there was one term where external circumstances caused you to struggle or you were a late bloomer or etc. But I’m afraid that 4 years of consistently shaky marks (say, below 3.0) won’t be something you can really explain away.

    If you take the GRE (general, and maybe Biology too) and do well, that can help cover for a low GPA.

    It really helps to have compensating strengths. In particular, if you have a lot of research experience, that will count for a great deal with prospective supervisors, and compensate for a low GPA. Note that things like “enthusiasm”, “willingness to work hard”, “passion for ecology”, etc. will not be seen as compensating strengths. Everybody who applies to go to grad school in ecology is enthusiastic, passionate, and hard-working. Those are the bare minimum requirements, you’re not going to impress anyone or cause them to overlook a low GPA by talking about how hard working and passionate you are. Not that you were planning to do this, but emphasizing their “passion” and other personality traits is a common mistake prospective grad students make, so I just wanted to toss that advice out there.

    Doing an MSc first doesn’t necessarily greatly prolong the time to a PhD, because you get your coursework out of the way. And depending on how shaky your marks are, you may not have much choice but to do an MSc first. Many supervisors who wouldn’t take you on for a PhD will take you on for the lower risk and smaller commitment (for them and you) of an MSc. Then once you’ve shown you can handle grad school by doing an MSc, most prospective supervisors will no longer care about your undergraduate marks.

    Yes, it will help to seek out a supervisor who closely matches your own interests and experience. It may help even more to seek out a very junior supervisor who is just starting up his or her lab. Junior people need to bring in grad students quickly to get their labs up and running, and because they’re not yet well-known they tend to have difficulty attracting applicants and so can’t afford to be too picky about things like GPA.

    If you’ve been out of school and working in the “real world” for a while, that will count as a positive in the eyes of many prospective supervisors, and will make your undergrad marks less relevant in the eyes of some. Especially if your job has had some sort of relevance to the sorts of things ecology grad students do (e.g., you’ve been working as a programmer and learning programming skills, you’ve been working as a lab tech, you’ve had a job that obliges you to write a lot and meet short deadlines, etc.)

  16. ^ Thanks for the insight, Jeremy. As far as the passionate spiel, would it be wise to send a message to a PI along the lines of, “well, you’re an expert on occupancy modeling and I would like to be an expert in that same area because I am passionate about occupancy modelling?”

    I am a student similar to Mark’s profile–low undergrad cum. GPA, decent major GPA with grades trending upward each year

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