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Character Traits, Not Test Scores, Predict PhD Success of STEM Students

Character Traits, Not Test Scores, Predict Success of Science, Engineering MajorsIf schools were to choose graduate students for science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) programs based on each student’s character rather than  standardized test scores, they would drastically improve the success of admitted students, and also boost the participation of women and minorities.

This is according to a new essay titled “A test that fails,” published in the journal Nature.

According to the authors — Dr. Casey Miller, an associate professor of physics at the University of South Florida, and Dr. Keivan Stassun, professor of physics and astronomy at Vanderbilt University and Fisk University — the main reason that half of all American Ph.D. students fail to graduate, and the key barrier holding back women and minority students, is our education system’s overreliance on the graduate record examination (GRE).

This standardized test was introduced in 1949 and is what most U.S. graduate schools require for entrance.

According to the authors, the problem is the exam’s quantitative score (the part measuring math ability) because it is not a good predictor of student success, and especially so in the STEM fields.

For example, females, on average, score 80 points lower in the physical sciences than males, and African-Americans score 200 points below whites. However, research conducted by ETS, the company that administers the test, has shown that the test’s predictive ability is only applicable to first-year graduate course grades, and even that is questionable in STEM fields.

“In simple terms, the GRE is a better indicator of sex and skin color than of ability and ultimate success,” wrote the authors.

As of now, the typical procedure is to reject the application of any candidate scoring less than 700 on the 800-point math section, even though this practice goes against ETS guidelines.

“The misuse of GRE scores to select applicants may be a strong driver of the continuing underrepresentation of women and minorities in graduate school. Indeed, women earn hardly 20 percent of U.S. physical sciences Ph.D.s and underrepresented minorities — who account for 33 percent of U.S.  university-age population — earn just 6 percent. These percentages are striking in their similarity to the percentage of students who score above 700 on the GRE Quantitative Measure,” wrote the authors.

The authors have proposed an alternative approach to the selection process, which has proven successful in the bridge programs with which they are involved: Using a 30 minute face-to-face interview that explores a student’s college and research experiences, key relationships, leadership experience, service to the community, and life goals.

This gives committee members a good indication not only of the person’s academic training and skills but also of the other factors that point to potential success in graduate school and a STEM career.

The proof that this approach works is shown in the track record of students enrolled in the authors’ programs. For example, at the Fisk-Vanderbilt bridge program, 85 percent of the students would have been rejected by the 700-point GRE cutoff. However, 81 percent of the 67 students in the program,  including 56 underrepresented minorities and 35 women, have earned or are making good progress toward their Ph.D.s.

Furthermore, all the students who have received their doctorates have found jobs in the STEM workforce, as postdoctoral students, university faculty members, or staff scientists in national labs or industry. This 81 percent success rate is far better than the 50 percent national average.

Source: Vanderbilt University


Standardized exam photo by shutterstock.

Character Traits, Not Test Scores, Predict PhD Success of STEM Students

Traci Pedersen

Traci Pedersen is a professional writer with over a decade of experience. Her work consists of writing for both print and online publishers in a variety of genres including science chapter books, college and career articles, and elementary school curriculum.

APA Reference
Pedersen, T. (2018). Character Traits, Not Test Scores, Predict PhD Success of STEM Students. Psych Central. Retrieved on October 27, 2020, from
Scientifically Reviewed
Last updated: 8 Aug 2018 (Originally: 15 Jun 2014)
Last reviewed: By a member of our scientific advisory board on 8 Aug 2018
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