Betting on people

In the comments on my GPA post, David points out some data supporting the non-predictive nature of GPA with regard to grad school performance. I responded, but in light of the #tookachanceonme hashtag going around on twitter today, I thought I’d pull it up as a post.

And, for what it’s worth, I much prefer Dr. Isis’ formulation: #gavemeanopportunity

Here’s my comment in response to David, and as close to a PI mission statement as I ever hope to get:

That’s interesting, thanks… particularly interesting that only GRE subject test has any predicitve value. Famously, Google thinks school performance is irrelevant toohttp://www.slate.com/blogs/business_insider/2014/02/24/google_hiring_practices.html

I am torn, because as I mentioned, objective criteria help eliminate bias. The problem is there are few if any objective criteria… bias and privilege are so deeply woven into our society and institutions.

I have decided that, for trainees coming to my lab, a disadvantage is a requirement. I am not particular about what precisely it is, and I interpret it broadly, but there it is. This came about when I was first reviewing grad student applications. For my own life, I had no real disadvantages except a fairly mild academia-specific one (an unusual career/education path). Reviewing applicants, I already found myself somewhat averse to anyone with something unusual or inexplicable in their CV that suggested… I dunno… dilettantism or a lack of seriousness. What I was screening out, I realized, was me. (Maybe I should have been screened out, I dunno.) But from then on, I really made an effort to examine who was standing out to me (good or bad) and why, and trying to determine whether these gut reactions were meaningful or not. (Answer: impossible to tell.) It is hard. I need to publish papers to get tenure, and I want people who will produce good work. There is a strong instinct to go for trainees that seem “safe.”

But in the end, I have no ambitions to be a big shot or win admiration within a peer/prestige system that I think is horse shit…having spent the last 5 years in a place where that seemed to be the motivation of most of the PIs, I never want to be around it again. I don’t want to calculate lowest-hanging fruit / highest JIF-potential payoff ratios. I want a lab that does solid work we can be proud of, and I want it to be a place where students like working, are happy, and can figure out what they want to do next. I work in a place where steady non-glam productivity and good citizenship seems to be enough for tenure, so in that I’m lucky and hopeful that this plan will pan out, and as the link David shared suggests, there is no evidence to suggest superficially “safe” students are any better anyway.

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3 Comments on “Betting on people”

  1. Alex says:

    How do you screen for the requirement of a disadvantage? Oftentimes disadvantage is not immediately obvious to those who don’t know the person well, especially to those who don’t share the disadvantage. Lots of people will, as a self-defense mechanism, be reluctant to air things about their history and disadvantages.

  2. rxnm says:

    That’s a good question. I can only skype/meet with a limited number of prospective students. There are relatively straightforward categories of people who are disadvantaged, of course…. things like socioeconomic status can be harder, but students tend to talk about themselves in ways that give you a lot of this information.

    Again, I don’t really know what I am doing, and it won’t be perfect, but I want to give opportunities to people where it seems possible/likely that they might be looked over for some reason. If your application materials don’t make you fall into this category, then the chances are someone besides me is going to give you the chance. This seems to be the case judging from the dynamics in our admissions database.

  3. DJMH says:

    Perhaps relevant, Drugmonkey always talks about how one of his interview questions is, “describe a major hurdle or setback in your career/science and how you handled it.” Gets at some of the same qualities, I think.


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