Triage at the student stage

E. Wijsman wijsman at
Mon Sep 1 15:46:34 EST 1997

The trouble with triage only at the admission's stage is that it is so
hard to predict how well a student will do in grad school on the basis of
undergrad performance because what a student does as an undergrad vs. 
grad student is so different.  We have had students which were the first
of the pick who did not do well in grad students, and others who were
barely accepted who turned out to be top-notch researchers.  The final
triage really needs to happen after there has been opportunity to evaluate
the ability of students to think independently.

I agree, however, that I don't think there is enough triaging going on
during the qualification stage, and I think that is a change.  We fail
typically only 1 or 2 students out of 12-15 as a result of the written
comprehensive exams, and I am unaware of ANY failures in the general exam
in my department in the 10 years I have been at this institution.  I have
been on a couple of student committees where I thought the student should
fail in the general exam, but the problem is that the general exam seems
to happen so late here in the departments with which I have contact that
the faculty are loath to fail students at that stage.  The written exams,
which do some triaging, occur typically at the end of year 2 (and/or 3 -
there are 2 stages), but the general occurs typically at least a year (or
sometimes much more) after the written exams.

For "historical" perspective, I entered grad school in 1975, in a program
which at the time was considered to be one of the top 2 in the country.
In a typical year there were ~300 applicants for grad school, of which
10-12 were admitted.  Not surprisingly, the admitted students were
excellent.  But for the several years surrounding the year I took my
comps, the failure rate on the written exams was 50% (although the faculty
were unhappy with such a high rate, given the stringent admissions
criteria - 20% failure was considered about right on the first try), and
the failure rate on the oral exam (the thesis proposal) was typically
around 20-30% on the first try.  Approximately 20% of the students who
attempted both parts of the exam never made it through (ignoring those who
dropped out earlier).

Ellen M. Wijsman			Express mail address:
Research Professor			1914 N 34th St., suite 209
Div. of Medical Genetics and		Seattle, WA   98103
Dept. Biostatistics 			(Note:  do not mention the
BOX 357720, University of Washington 	 Univ. of Washington, and
Seattle, WA   98195-7720		 use this address only for	
phone:  (206) 543-8987			 express mail)
fax:    (206) 616-1973			email:  wijsman at

On Mon, 18 Aug 1997, S. Boomer wrote:

> Hi Peg and others,
> 	Our big triage rate goes in definite waves.  One year 50% of the
> students failed their qualifying exams (5/10) or dropped out after
> mediocre exams. This was followed by a backlash year of low student morale
> and no one was failed (I fell into this year) - although eventually one
> guy did leave after the project crashed and burned (about a year after the
> qualifying exams). This kind of morale wave pattern is one I feel has been
> ongoing for the eight years I've watched the system.  In general, 1/5-6 of
> our students leave each year... although, on average, few are outright
> booted by the exam process. Most of the time, people are "not passed" and
> then, over the course of a usually painful year, "encouraged to leave."
> Problematically, there has been a trend of late, in my opinion, to
> "encourage students to leave"  significantly (1-3 years) beyond the
> qualifying exams - and this trend seems to correlate with PIs losing
> funding, a fairly new phenomenon in our dept.  Students, of course, are
> given the "doorprize"  masters degree.
> Anyway - students two years ago attempted to boycott recruitment if less
> students were not accepted.  The feeling of late seems to be that exam
> triage is not appropriate (or working effectively) and that acceptance
> rates must be adjusted.  This little movement was seemingly lead by a lot
> of newer students who literally came here with a specific PI in mind to
> work for - and then found that EVERYONE wanted to work for that PI, or
> that the lab was full, of that that PI had no money.  I don't know if
> other depts. are feeling this kind of competition among "rotons" (our word
> for rotating first years) or not but it seems to me that more older and
> savvy students are being accepted into the program.  As such, they come in
> with some pedigree or idea of the pedigree they want to hone (because,
> unlike me, they KNOW the job market and they KNOW that every step counts
> if they want to make the academic track) - and there isn't this sense of
> wanting to rotate and experience different settings.  There is much more
> goal-orientation and competition - and this is what is driving a fair bit
> of strife and unhappiness - not to mention people leaving before qual. 
> exams.
> Sarah

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