Confused at a higher level

The view from Carleton College's physics department

You can’t judge research potential by classroom performance

Posted by Melissa on January 14, 2009

It’s that time of year when physics students are beginning to consider their options for summer research. As usual, I will be hiring 2-3 undergraduates to work with me this summer, and as always, I find it difficult to judge a student’s research potential. FemaleScienceProfessor’s recent post “In Praise of B Students” addresses just this issue.  She has two key claims:

“Doing well in classes, even really difficult ones, does not mean that someone has the skills necessary to do research.”

and

“Doing research as a student typically means you have to be willing to interact with at least one other person…Some people can do this well and some people can’t, even with experience, no matter how high their GPA.”

I have found that some personality traits are more effective predictors than transcripts of students who will have a rewarding research experience, but sometimes it can be hard to identify these traits until after you have worked with a student. When I advertise for summer research assistants, I include some variation of the following statement in my project description:

“Being an experimentalist is, in part, about being creative, patient, detail-oriented, self-motivated, and able to solve real-life, messy (quite literally!) problems, and these characteristics are more important in the lab than the number of physics classes you have taken or the grades you have received.”

Nevertheless, it’s always a challenge to convince some students that I am really interested in more than just their grades.

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