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Screenshot - 12012015 - 10:22:42 PM

The above is from an article in Nature, A test that fails. Two stories first. One of my good friends who went to grad school at MIT got a good ribbing from his roommates because he was the only one who didn’t get a perfect score on the math portion of the GRE. Luckily for him, he was a chemist, so they let him into the program. It is a truth universally acknowledged among the quantitatively ept that the quantitative GRE is just way too easy, and is compressed at the top scale and does not allow for differentiation of the good from the great. That is, there are a wide range of competencies which are bracketed among those who score a “perfect” 800 on the quantitative GRE. And there are many people in fields like physics who score 800; the average score on quantitative reasoning for those who intend to study physics in graduate school (not those who get accepted!) is in the 740s. Second, a friend of mine was complaining about the lack of underrepresented minorities in the biological sciences at my graduate school. To her surprise and irritation I just pointed out that all the underrepresented minorities within the range of GRE scores that our program takes would be going to Stanford or Berkeley. There weren’t enough of them that we’d be competitive. Data like the above is just not well known.

Another point is that the article above is very anti-GRE. They claim that the GRE score is not very predictive of ultimate outcome. One of my professors pointed to a study at University of California San Francisco (UCSF) where they tracked future successes (e.g., tenured position in academia x years out), and correlated them with GPA and GRE. Neither were very strong predictors. Rather, their Ph.D. research productivity was highly predictive. This isn’t that surprising, because GPA and GRE are just proxies to get at whether one can be a productive researcher, and being productive in graduate school is probably the best guide as to whether you’ll be productive later. But, one thing I want to point out is that UCSF is a very selective school. The range of GRE scores in particular is likely to be narrow, because they’re going to simply not even look at applicants with low scores. Whenever people point out that MCAT or GRE is poorly correlated with professional outcomes, remember that you’ve already compressed the distribution toward the higher end. If schools allowed a much wider range of applicants in, then these aptitude tests would be much more predictive.

Screenshot - 12012015 - 11:12:23 PM In fact, the reality is that there is variation in outcomes according to general intelligence among graduate students. As I stated above, the maximum score of the GRE, especially the quantitative reasoning section, is too low to get at that. But Camilla Benbow’s group has been tracking mathematically precocious children for decades. As the data to the left shows, the smartest-of-the-smart are more likely to become scientists, and much more likely to attain tenure. The cut-off was scoring in the top 1% of their age group on the mathematical SAT test, a 390 score. You can see how much better those very rare students who score 700 or more at age 13 are doing later in life.

Finally, obviously these tests are very robust and predictive, but they’re population statistics. There are people who do not do well on the GRE who do well in academia, and vice versa. But, the reality is that these tests are not useless, and just how “not useless” they are will become more obvious if no one made recourse to them.

Addendum: My physicist friends always enjoy a chuckle whenever I honestly state that physicists are smarter than biologists, as I am a biologist. There are rare cases, such as Ed Witten, of people entering physics from other fields, but in general it’s the physicists who are the imperialists. And that’s because they’re smart, able to decompose general problems rapidly and decisively. In contrast, biologists are somewhat narrow in their focus, and plodding in their reasoning. These are generalizations, but I think they’re roughly correct (I had a friend at a prominent non-profit who was irritated with how difficult it was to find Ph.D. biologists who were flexible thinkers in interviews). And standardized tests bear out my generalization (though honestly, it is a pleasure talking to physicists and mathematicians about out of topic fields compared to biologists partly because they’re so mentally acute; you don’t need GRE stats to get this).

But, another implication of this logic is that some minority groups are also not too bright. If you don’t think these tests are accurately reflecting real intellectual skills that groups have though you don’t have to go there. And my experience is that this is a common belief, including among physicists. But then I suppose they shouldn’t get so full of themselves about their GRE scores in relation to biologists?

• Category: Science • Tags: Academia, GRE, Psychometrics 
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Over at Slate there is a piece out which is being shared on Facebook a fair amount, Thesis Hatement: Getting a literature Ph.D. will turn you into an emotional trainwreck, not a professor. As a contrast I think it is useful to read this other piece in Slate, Is a Science Ph.D. a Waste of Time? Don’t feel too sorry for graduate students. It’s worth it. But I want to focus on one aspect of the Slate rant:

Well, what if I told you that by “five hours” I mean “80 hours,” and by “summers off” I mean “two months of unpaid research sequestration and curriculum planning”? What if you’ll never have time to read books, and when you talk about them, you’ll mostly be using made-up words like “deterritorialization” and “Othering”—because, as Ron Rosenbaum pointed out recently, the “dusty seminar rooms” of academia have the chief aim of theorizing every great book to death? And I can’t even tell you what kind of ass you have to kiss these days to get tenure—largely because, like most professors, I’m not on the tenure track, so I don’t know.

Unlike professional degrees Ph.D. programs aren’t necessarily there to teach you practical skills. But, if you get a Ph.D. in the natural sciences usually you do gain skills which can position you for a job in “industry” (the term within academia for what everyone else considers a normal job at a private corporation or firm). Learning complex mathematics, programming, or laboratory skills transcend academic signalling (I think math and programming are probably the most helpful, as many laboratory techniques are being commodified and automated). They’re actually necessary for the project of understanding the world. The same factor of secondary returns to skills gained is at work in fields like economics where the notional topic at hand is also the exterior world. Though I think excessive formal mathematical modeling within economics is in large part signalling (i.e., it exists to a great extent not because it is necessary for the modeling, but to indicate the modeler’s intellectual credentials to their peers), it turns out that mathematical skills are very useful in a general sense at decomposing the world around us. By analogy, there are individuals who work on their physical appearance and health for the purposes of gaining the attraction of others. But a fit physique is useful for other reasons.

I believe part of the specific rage of humanities doctorate holders is that their current skills gained receive little validation outside of academia. The empire of Theory within humanities strikes many as totally irrelevant to the world outside of humanity’s departments, and perhaps even detrimental to the project of edifying and appreciating literature and the arts. Combine this with the reality that humanity’s Ph.D.’s tend to take longer to finish and accrue more debt, and you have a very combustible mixture in the hands of individual’s whose cognitive gifts are such that they perceive themselves to be part of the cultural elite.

My own bottom line in regard to Ph.D.s is that people need to not get caught in the sunk cost fallacy, and they need to be there for the “right reasons.” If you’re taking ten years then something has gone very wrong. If you aren’t interested in the classes that you are getting paid to take, and aren’t passionate about the research you’re doing, than something has gone very wrong. If you can’t handle the reality that academia is rife with politics, back-stabbing, and an operational Social Darwinism due to finite funds, then obviously it isn’t for you. Real jobs in the real world have many of the same issues, but are not burdened with the same idealistic presumptions. The academic pipeline is a difficult and brutal sieve. But we shouldn’t get melodramatic, we’re not gladiators, death is not the other option. Nor are we 58 year old factory workers. If the working and laboring classes were more verbally articulate we’d be hearing a lot more about them. As it is they wither and suffer in silence, unless a journalist takes an interest in them and speaks up for them.

• Category: Science • Tags: Academia, Culture 
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If you haven’t, you should check out The Shadow Scholar, The man who writes your students’ papers tells his story. This is the conclusion:

“Thanx u so much for the chapter is going very good the porfesser likes it but wants the folloing suggestions please what do you thing?:

“‘The hypothesis is interesting but I’d like to see it a bit more focused. Choose a specific connection and try to prove it.’

“What shoudwe say?”

This happens a lot. I get paid per assignment. But with longer papers, the student starts to think of me as a personal educational counselor. She paid me to write a one-page response to her professor, and then she paid me to revise her paper. I completed each of these assignments, sustaining the voice that the student had established and maintaining the front of competence from some invisible location far beneath the ivory tower.

The 75-page paper on business ethics ultimately expanded into a 160-page graduate thesis, every word of which was written by me. I can’t remember the name of my client, but it’s her name on my work. We collaborated for months. As with so many other topics I tackle, the connection between unethical business practices and trade liberalization became a subtext to my everyday life.

So, of course, you can imagine my excitement when I received the good news:

“thanx so much for uhelp ican going to graduate to now”.

The author claims that his three primary customer demographics are “English-as-second-language student; the hopelessly deficient student; and the lazy rich kid.” In the above case it looks like the first category. But what are the proportions? I assume that the lazy rich kids are mostly undergraduates or MBA students.

• Category: History, Science • Tags: Academia 
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John Hawks pointed me to this really strange article, Just Because We’re Not Publishing Doesn’t Mean We’re Not Working:

We have no concise term to describe what we spend much of our time doing. Our colleges are focused on scholarly products that can be peer-reviewed and published, but the reality is that many of us spend much of our time on being scholarly, not on producing scholarship. We are, and should be, consuming the scholarship of others. Consuming scholarship includes preparatory time for teaching but is much broader. We need a name for this ubiquitous activity. I offer “consumatory scholarship.”

I suppose the arguments is that by consuming the production of others you become a better teacher and communicator. But is this good bang-for-the-buck? One could argue that argue that I’m a “consumatory scholar,” but at least I have 10 years of a huge amount of text production of commentary which is widely circulated (e.g., I’ve been cited in a few books, just query “Razib Khan”).

Obviously there is some truth to the charge that publish-or-perish leads to a surfeit of crap. Quantity over quality. But this seems to take it to the extreme level. Publications do end up being a way to maintain careers, but the reason publishing is important is that you become part of the record of scholarship. Consumatory scholarship has much more individualized and evanescent outcomes.

• Category: Science • Tags: Academia, Education 
Razib Khan
About Razib Khan

"I have degrees in biology and biochemistry, a passion for genetics, history, and philosophy, and shrimp is my favorite food. If you want to know more, see the links at"