December 23, 2011

Questions From a Student #2

Unfortunately, this is just my second blog entry in the series of questions from a student in more than one year (read #1), but looking back at all the developments since fall 2010, it has been getting really difficult to actually spend time on the basic questions in every student's life. I still have them, but they have taken a back seat. However, I have come across a central question time and time again in the last few weeks, which has prompted me to write this blog entry and share it with even more people than just the ones I have given advice to.

How important are grades for your academic studies and your career?
Grades certainly gained importance with the implementation of the new bachelor's and master's degrees, which replaced the beloved diploma some years ago here in Germany. They play a central role in the mind of most students because grades usually do (or sometimes don't) value your commitment to and preparational work for an exam, a field report or any other university project. Without a doubt, they are a good indicator of your performance, but they don't tell much about how well you have understood the actual content and whether you will be able to apply it in different settings in future. I have met really clever students, who knew so much about specific topics, but they were just not able to focus their outstanding knowledge for the 90 minutes of an exam and transfer it into excellent grades. Still, these students could easily outperform anybody who is just really good in memorizing exam questions.

The general idea behind grades is to find a better and faster way to compare people's skills, but the transfer of this idea into the code of practice completely fails in detail because grades are highly subjective. Everybody who praises the comparability of grades in centrally-organized testing and grading schemes, even relative ones, doesn't know much about what is going on in the real world. I attended courses in which a perfect grade was worthless because everyone got it for almost nothing. And I attended courses in which even a good grade was hard to get due to the totally unrealistic requirements of the lecturer. Documents say that I was worse in the latter, but that tells absolutely nothing about my performance in the different courses. And that is not a phenomenon of my university or my lecturers. It is the same all over the world.

I consider it quite helpful for students to work hard for good grades because it supports them in developing the right working habbits in order to finish their academic studies without any major setbacks and prepare themselves for greater challenges in their careers. Still, there is another side of the coin. The ambitious students usually don't want to listen to the following advice but in later career stages absolutely nobodoy cares about the difference between good and very good grades in your undergraduate courses. It is only about the different levels of commitment you have showed over time. However, unfortunately people's reverance for grades and their comparability can have pretty desolate consequences even in later career stages. I have talked to PhD students who are afraid to get a final grade of cum laude or worse because these grades are considered almost worthless. They told me they wouldn't have any chance to get a good postdoc position because of the many students who receive summa cum laude or magna cum lauda. A system based on such expectations and worries is indifferent to the actual qualities of the individual, but sadly it is still supported by a majority of its members.

Of course we have to be clear in our minds that it becomes a totally different ball game if you actually have to fight for passing each exam and collect only sufficient or satisfactory grades on a regular basis, but we still have to differentiate two cases. In either case, your grades are just a symptom and not the cause of your problems. They never are. If your mediocre grades are the result of laziness and a lack of interest in and commitment to your field of study, you are pretty much lost on your career track anyway and really should think about major changes in your life. However, if your mediocre grades are rather the result of a lack of talent and quality in your field of study, nothing is lost for good. You can still overcome your weaknesses with a higher level of general commitment, but in this case it is even more important to find ways to develop other qualities and present them to other people so that your grades come second.

You might say that it is pretty easy to talk about grades like that with an GPA like mine. Fair enough. You are certainly right, and to be honest, I cared about grades just like most students do (or maybe even more) when I was an undergraduate, but I really don't care anymore. I appreciate to have them as an assurance, as a safety net, but grades almost lose all their relevance once you develop other qualities of higher value. I share this view as often as I can because developing these qualities is much easier than many students think. It only takes passion for your science and its people...and guts to break the chains of the system.

We always meet people with better/worse grades, but that doesn't make them better/worse persons and definitely shouldn't make them feel superior/ inferior to anybody else. Grades only hold importance if we credit them with importance, but it is our choice to either do so or refuse. The important questions in our careers are not answered by numbers, percentages or letters, but by the decisions that we make and the pathways that we walk in consequence of these decisions.

3 comments:

phil said...

nicely written... reminds me of our little conversation the other day. eventually, the right people will understand what you want to share here and what it means, I'm pretty sure about that.
Regards

Ruby Claire said...

I would prefer Excellence rather than Grades, i do agree with phil's comment as well.

Career questionnaire

Anthony Peterson PE said...

In life we are judged, not by what we are currently doing, but by what we have most recently accomplished. For new graduates this is grades. Later in life a long history of hard work and success will trump any grades that were achieved in University but for now this is the bar that students are measured against.
Students should realize that, right or wrong, grades are what is being used as the benchmark of good work. Whether you are good at taking tests or not, you need to find a way to earn good grades.