Saturday, May 10, 2014

Basketball and graduate admissions

Graduate school admissions season is over, and now for the big question: which of these kids is going to pan out? Everyone knows the kid who looked great on paper but was a complete dud at the bench, and conversely the kid who had super mediocre grades but was just a straight up monster in the lab. If only we knew ahead of time! What are we missing?

Meanwhile, I've been watching the NBA (basketball) playoffs, and I've been thinking that talent evaluators there are faced with exactly the same sorts of issues. There are many more infamous busts than stars, and it's startlingly hard to predict who will be what. It also occurs to me that deciding who to admit based on grades or "IQ" (I won’t even dignify the GRE with a mention) is like admitting players into the NBA based just on their height. Yes, basketball players are definitely taller than average people, just like our graduate student pool is probably smarter than average. But just being tall doesn't guarantee that you will be a good basketball player at the highest level of the sport. Michael Jordan certainly wasn't the tallest player in the league. Similarly, most of the best scientists I know aren't necessarily the smartest people I’ve met. They're just smart enough, then it depends on other factors.

Another crazy fact I heard is that of all the people in the world over 7 feet tall, 1 in 6 plays on the NBA! Wow. This brings up the question. Other than their height, are all these people really suited for being a professional athlete? How can such a high percentage be strong and fast on top of being so tall? The p-value on that would seem infinitesimal. I think the answer is training–a professional athletic program can build up your other abilities to complement your intrinsic advantage of height. Continuing the analogy, in science, these kids are coming into graduate SCHOOL, and as the word school implies, that means they too are entering a period of training. When they come out, they will have hopefully developed their science muscles so that they are wise and knowledgeable and all those other things you learn in graduate school that go beyond just being smart. They will be trained to be a professional scientist, just like a professional athlete.

Of course the question you're asking yourself is whether it's wise to train all of these people to be professional scientists when many of them won't continue in that role. Just like professional athletes, our time as professional scientists is limited. Some folks like me get really lucky and end up being coaches. Some of us end up doing other things related to “the game”, and some go on to do other things. But I think that the training you get sticks with you and will influence you for the better for the rest of your life. Marshall (my first graduate student) told me that when he was working at this one company, he said he could easily tell which people had PhDs and which people didn’t. And I think he meant that in a good way… :)

Back to graduate admissions, what are the right criteria to judge, then? Hehe, well, if I knew, I certainly wouldn’t say! Which is just another way of saying I don’t know. But I remember reading a article once about some scientist who found a gene variant vaguely associated with athletic ability. The journalist clearly wanted something like “if you have this gene, you will be an athlete”, but the scientist, to his credit, said something like “Look, if you want to know which kid will run the fastest, put them all in a line and say ‘Go!’” I guess the same is true of graduate school. I think this is why good postdocs are such hot commodities–at that point, there is a track record to point to that says “This person runs fast”, which is why they typically have their choice of opportunities in the biggest and fanciest labs. Again, sort of like in basketball: small market teams must build through the draft because only the big market teams can attract the free agents.

Oh, and here’s one scary thing about this analogy: when the team starts losing, the first person they fire is the coach!

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