Graduate admission dilemma

I was going over this post by Incoherent Ponderer (IP) on the subject of graduate admissions, as well as some others to which he links. I agree with all of the very sensible remarks that IP makes, but I wish to address here one specific issue a bit more concretely. It is a dilemma that graduate admission committees (GACs) often face, when trying to decide to which applicants to extend an offer.

I am talking here about admission into a science graduate program whose main focus is research, and whose culminating point is the completion of an original piece of research work, described in a dissertation written by the student. This is clearly the case for any doctoral program, but applies to some Master’s degree programs as well. Because of the emphasis on research, GACs must obviously base their decisions on the predicted ability of an applicant to excel in research. Graduate course work should be seen as propaedeutic to research, i.e., it is only important to the extent to which it can impact a graduate student’s research performance.

There are, of course, some cases that are clear-cut (one way or another), but generally few of them can be classified as such. More often, one has to make difficult choices, and time and again the GAC finds itself in the situation of having to pick one of two candidates more or less fitting the following profiles:

Candidate A has a strong academic record, high grade point average, good GRE score, but little or no research experience. Candidate’s statement expresses interest for the scientific discipline and enthusiasm for research, perhaps openness toward different areas of inquiry, but fails to mention a specific one in which (s)he wishes to carry out graduate work, much less identify a faculty in the department hosting the program, as a potential supervisor.

Candidate B has an academic record that is good but not stellar, or sometimes even on the weak side, as well as some hands-on research experience as an undergraduate student. (S)he expresses a clear interest for a specific area of research, typically the one in which undergraduate work was carried out, and/or names one or more program faculty as possible supervisor(s) [0].

Which applicant should be given priority, if a choice between one of the two has to be made ?
My experience is that GACs, when facing such a quandary, will typically go for B, the main motivations being:
1) The program is ultimately about research, not course work, and “students who are academically strong do not necessarily make the best researchers”. Previous research experience is almost always taken a reliable indicator of talent and inclination for research work.
2) Why admit into the program a student who is unlikely to find a supervisor, as (s)he has ostensibly no well-defined research interests ? Does such an applicant not obviously lack focus and/or motivation ?

Now, while I do not feel comfortable stating that I would always give preference to A instead, my experience has made me very wary of the above motivations. I regard both of them as dubious, and I have seen how they can lead to the exclusion of strong applicants, to the benefit of others who do not work out in the end. Here is why:

1) That academically strong students do not always make the best researchers is true — but from that to claiming or implying that they never do, there is a bit of a leap. In fact, the contention that academic record has nothing to do with research ability seems bizarre to me.
My own observation is that there is in fact a very strong correlation between excellence in research and a distinguished coursework. That is not to say that bad grades or a low GRE score should end the discussion on a given applicant [1], simply that a weak academic record should raise a red flag.
Also, research experience matured as an undergraduate student should be evaluated with care, and a grain of salt. The scope of the project and/or the real involvement of the student are usually necessarily very limited, given the short time available for the completion of the work (one or two semesters during which the student takes a full load of courses). Having written a routine in C to interface a piece of equipment with a computer, solved a complicated equation of unclear origin using Mathematica, made a bunch of good looking plots, and so on and so forth, are all valuable things to do, but should not be taken too seriously as telltale signs of research excellence.

2) The contention that at the age of 22 one should know whether experimental particle physics or theoretical condensed matter is the place for him/her to be, otherwise (s)he is likely lacking focus or motivation, is just gratuitous. I myself, for example, started out as an experimentalist, then decided that I liked doing calculations better and switched to theory, and have seen countless other students do the same or the opposite. In most cases this was not a traumatic event for the department or for the student — maybe the initial supervisor was disappointed, but for the most part people prefer not to continue to supervise students whose heart and mind are elsewhere.
In fact, precisely because the relationship between a graduate student and the initially chosen supervisor often does not turn out as profitable as the two of them expected at the outset (for a number of possible reasons), it is to the advantage of the program to admit students with broad interests and a strong academic background, enabling them to look for another supervisor, possibly in a different area altogether.
A student who was admitted into the program with the “tag” of a specific academic or group, is often unable to switch and drops out altogether, if things do not work out as originally planned.


[0] It is often the case that this type of applicant has contacted that individual faculty before submitting a formal application to the program, inquiring whether said faculty would be interested in him/her as an advisee. If interested in supervising the applicant, in turn, the faculty will typically requests the GAC that such application be ‘earmarked’, i.e., that special consideration be given to the applicant in the selection process.

[1] Too late. I can already hear keyboards clicking of commenters who are eager to attribute to me that very statement ūüėČ

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7 Responses to “Graduate admission dilemma”

  1. Sophia Says:

    Couldn’t agree more. I’d go one step further and say that 4yrs of undergraduate studies is not enough time to develop both a deep understanding of the physics learned and to perform research (to whatever extent). I’d prefer someone who has a solid foundation and intuition and less hands-on experience.

  2. Professor in Training Says:

    While I agree that a weak academic record can sometimes be a red flag, I would be a little wary of applicants who have spent so much time and effort on achieving straight A’s in their undergrad coursework but who didn’t take the time to at least experience research as they would have little/no idea of what they were getting themselves into with grad school.

    • Massimo Says:

      PIT, first of all, to state that “they did not take the time” seems a bit ungenerous, considering that in many cases the institution where the undergraduate studies were carried out simply did not offer that possibility. Moreover, I respectfully insist that often times what they are exposed to, in that semester or two, while taking a full load of classes, cannot be called “research experience” by any stretch of imagination.
      You know, this is one of those circumstances where it is way easier at an undergraduate institution, where you are expected to involve your students in some research project, regardless of its importance. At a R1 university, you want to be really careful before committing a Summer term to work with an undergraduate student on a project that may not even be worth a publication.

    • Professor in Training Says:

      Agree that I was probably not generous in my statement. However, there are a number of schools and professional organizations that offer summer research programs for undergraduates so even those students who don’t have access to research opportunities at their own school still have a chance to try it.

  3. Schlupp Says:

    The IP and you are just whiners…. In the system in which I am currently looking for graduate students, the PhD starts with research right away, and there are fewer ways to change an adviser. And no GAC, just me and whoever consents to listen to my questions. Shiiiiiiit……. it is like looking for a postdoc, but with FAR less data to base my judgment on.

    OK, they are supposed to have done a Master’s thesis, but what if it is of a middling quality? Can mean a not-so-good student. Or it can mean a not-so good adviser. Or bad luck. Or whatever.

  4. Charro Says:

    considering that in many cases the institution where the undergraduate studies were carried out simply did not offer that possibility

    There are, of course, many places where research is non-existent and some of their students will pursue a PhD degree at an R1 institution but I just can’t see the number of these type of students being so large as to be a cause of concern or worry. There are some universities that publish online their incoming graduate class (name, name of undergrad studies place, etc) and usually you don’t see many students from small places that do not have active research programs (maybe they did apply and just didn’t get accepted because of their lack of research experience but that info is not available to me so I have to go without it). Now, what to do when you are looking at one of these applications and have to make a decision, which I guess is the main point of your post? Maybe interviewing can help on this. Biology and (some) chemistry departments bring in a large group of prospective students and interview them, this is where you can really tell if their research experience is meaningful or not (more on this below), or if their grades reflect their knowledge or are due to grade inflation or what not.

    I respectfully insist that often times what they are exposed to, in that semester or two, while taking a full load of classes, cannot be called ‚Äúresearch experience‚ÄĚ by any stretch of imagination

    I am not sure of what you are looking for as far as research experience being meaningful. Do they have to have given a presentation of their work? write a paper? win a prize? As far as I can tell, the most useful part of having worked in a lab as an undergrad is that this exposes you to the lives of grad students. Here is where you find out how they live, what they do on a regular basis (always fixing the setup for experimentalists, or debugging the code for computational scientists, he). The undergrad student should use this “data” to assess whether or not grad school is for them. Whether they have it in themselves to spend hours trying to get something to work. It probably also helps them identify their working attitude and makes them aware of the type of advisor they’d have a healthy relationship with.

    I understand this doesn’t help the GAC to make a decision, but I do see why even those experiences that you are extremely careful about calling research can be useful in grad school. Maybe the way to select the applicants is by giving them an “exam”. You give every applicant a paper (in one of their stated areas of interest) and you give them 2-3 weeks to write up a summary of their understanding of the paper. It’s ok if they ask other people about it (after all, not asking for help in understanding something that is critical to your project but you are not necessarily the expert in the field when you are doing your PhD is probably the biggest sign that you were/are not ready for grad school IMO).

  5. cmt Says:

    The research experience issue depends very much on the type of institution where the student got their undergraduate degree. At a research university, however, I’d say that failure to get involved in a research group should raise a red flag as well. Our best undergraduates tend to get involved in research and do REUs, and are advised to do so by many of the faculty. There may be a good reason for them not to be doing research but for someone to be in a place with the opportunity and *not* take it makes me suspicious that graduate school is not the best place for them. Judging how meaningful that research experience was from the letters of recommendation is a bit trickier of course and has to factor into the equation as well.

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