Just as Joe riffed on Garciaparra, I'd like to riff a bit on Joe's blog. I think he offers a wonderful (if likely unintentional) metaphor for a student's GRE scores and their GPA. I work with so many students who want to go on to get a Ph.D. Sometimes, the advice is obvious. Kirby wants to be a clinician and has a fine GPA and clinical experience, and he doesn't want to focus too much on research. Great - there are plenty of applied programs that are looking for students like him. Thomasina has already worked with two professors, has presented at a regional conference, and she has a 3.9 GPA. She did well on the SATs, is studying appropriately for the GREs, and expects to do well. Great - it's even for me to give advice, and I can work with her to make sure she gets into a competitive research-oriented program. The problem for me is when there is a disconnect between my vision for the student and the numbers.
In some ways, I'm like a baseball scout - I look for talent. Teaching and researching at a large state school means that my scouting ability is more important. When I was a grad school at Yale, finding a research assistant was easy. If they were there, they were probably good enough. At CSUSB, we have the potential future superstars as well - but they may not know that they are allowed to aim for the big leagues. Many of my students assume that the absolute highest they can hope for is to be a teacher or a nurse. This is NOT intended to disparage these noble professions; when my son goes to school or the hospital, there is no one I respect and need to trust more than teachers and nurses. I'm thrilled when one of my students chooses this path. But some of them end up choosing it by default - they just don't know that you could keep going to school (and get a Ph.D. or MD) or that you could try to get a job in something specialized and seemingly esoteric.
Sometimes the statistics work on all fronts. Last year, Albert Pujols, one of my favorite players, hit a league-leading 47 homers with 135 RBIs and a .327. His OPS was a league-leading 1.055. His statistics reflect exactly what a great player he is. Similarly, I have great students who I know will make it as a scholar, and they have 3.8 GPAs and great GRE scores. The stats work.
But there are some students where there is that disconnect. When I write their letters of recommendation, I turn into Nomar Garciaparra. My arguments vary - some students are the first in their families to go to college, others work full time, others are raising a family, and still others are products of poor high schools that haven't given them a solid understanding of basic mathematics or writing mechanics. But look at these other signs! How do their stats measure their heart?
A scout trying to convince the main club to take a chance on a young player at least has the cold comfort of knowing that he or she is unsuccessful, the would-be rookie still has many other paths to the Bigs. A scout for another ballclub might jump on the bandwagon and convince looser purse strings to make a small investment. If not, some players try out independent leagues, others go the college route, still others might try their hands playing ball in another country. My students aren't always so lucky. Some forge past obstacles and are willing to take another year and conduct research, present their findings, and (hopefully) publish and make their case even better. Others enroll in a master's program aimed at getting them more research experience and providing indicators that they can learn at the big league level. They willfully sacrifice two more years of their life (a Ph.D. program might take 5-6 years; a master's program doesn't actually end up saving any time given that most courses don't transfer).
The most painful situation for me is when I as the scout have convinced a major league "manager" (aka a professor at a Ph.D.-granting institution) to work with one of my charges -- and yet the student's GRE scores aren't high enough to allow entry to that university. This is like having Joe Torre ready to work with a rookie but having the owner not be willing to take a risk and issue a contract. The GREs, for example, are designed to predict how well a student will perform in graduate school. In some cases, a student will have done graduate-level work (i.e., publish papers), but may not have the GRE scores to match... but it doesn't matter.
In an ideal world, the GREs would be scouting reports and the actual accomplishment would be the stats, so that a student with several publications could pick and choose a graduate school, even with low scores. As the system stands now, it's like the Hall of Fame deciding on who gets in based on a player's minor league stats. It's like awarding Stephen Strasburg, the top prospect on the Washington Nationals, the Cy Young award without actually looking at wins and losses.
I think I've killed this baseball analogy. I'm sure that if he is reading, Joe is probably cringing and wishing I'd brainstormed off of a Rob Neyer column instead. But as a complete baseball stat geek, I like believing in numbers. I rely on them to tell the story - on the field and in the classroom.
Sometimes they aren't enough.
Favorite line from the baseball newsgroups: "Derek Jeter dove into the leftfield stands to take the GRE"
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