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Other Intelligence necessary for graduate school?

  1. Oct 28, 2016 #1
    Hey all,

    This is a really embarrassing question, but one that I feel is necessary. I am not too intelligent, but feel as though for most of my life it could be made up for by work ethic. My senior year, when having an honest discussion with my advisors about my capability for grad school, I was "rated" as a 3/2/9 for knowledge/intelligence/work ethic - completely meaningless, but it's well-agreed that I'm not the most intelligent is the point.

    So I have been working really hard my first semester in grad school as a result. I'm taking one core class (QM) and have been doing everything right - extra problems, preparing for lectures well, and I felt like my understanding of the material was exceptional. The day of the exam (yesterday) I sat down and did the previous year's exam that was posted online, and flew through it scoring a 100%.

    I got less than a 40% on last night's exam, which no one else considered to be difficult. I don't have testing anxiety (at least, no more than anyone else). I was told by previous TAs for the course that exams in graduate school require intelligence beyond what was tested in class or on the homeworks - not just understanding of the material.

    I'm going to discuss this with the professor and see where my misunderstandings lie (you don't fail that spectacularly without a fundamental misunderstanding) and take the usual steps to perform better on the final exam, but in the meantime I'm wondering if I'm really cut out for graduate school if it requires intelligence that I simply don't have.

    On a very practical level, the program I'm in does not fail out students for poor GPA's so I'm not in danger of being kicked out (although I will have problems passing the preliminary exam), but I don't imagine that my GPA will look great when I'm applying for positions in industry/academia (probably the former).

    I know that this sounds like just another "I failed an exam, should I drop out" post to throw in that pile, but in undergrad the solution is generally "work harder". I'm just wondering if graduate school requires a little something more.
  2. jcsd
  3. Oct 28, 2016 #2
    I think it's a waste of time to seek advice about something nobody has a theoretical understanding of that is grounded in empirical reality (intelligence), since no one can give you a reasonable answer, other than see why you did so poorly, change your strategy, work harder etc. If you're spending 80 hours a week following all of the advice given by the professors and you can't get a reasonable score, it's probably more likely that you have something like an anxiety problem, possibly caused by the dimwits who opined that your intelligence is a 2 on a 10 point scale.

    Also bear in mind that test taking is only partly about learning the material and understanding it. It's also about strategy before and during the exam regarding such petty things as "which questions will the professor likely put on the exam?" This is probably the only problem involving actual intelligence; are you smart enough to figure out that taking a test isn't only about doing extra practice problems? I sure wasn't during the early part of my college career.
  4. Oct 28, 2016 #3
    I don't think it's unreasonable to expect an answer. There are many professors here who have not only gone through graduate school at top universities, but also teach students in my situation. Perhaps they've dealt with a student and simply told them they aren't cut out for the coursework.
  5. Oct 28, 2016 #4


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    Am I correct that you have taken one (1) test at the graduate level? Basing possibly far-reaching conclusions on your experiences so far is unwarranted. You did not get into graduate school by being a monkey. I think the only fair answer at this point is that you should give it time and see how the future unfolds. Please do find out where it went wrong with this particular test, evaluate carefully and try to do better next round. Also, keep in mind that (at least in my country) the ultimate goal of graduate school is to learn how to do independent research, not to take tests.
  6. Oct 28, 2016 #5
    You seem to be putting some credence in this "meaningless" rating.. How did they assess intelligence? ( they can't) Why is the knowledge rating so low. (they can assess this presumably) and Krylov is correct one test does not prove anything unless you have not clue as to why you failed. Was it a fair test in your estimation? Having been in an underperformance situation a few times and recognizing that was unacceptable I did not question my ability but doubled down on my efforts. Faith in ones ability is most important don't loss it. However you must be able to assess your abilities to correct any issues.
  7. Oct 28, 2016 #6


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    It's very possible that your undergrad didn't prepare you as well as some of the other students. If that's the case it may just take some time getting used to everything.
  8. Oct 28, 2016 #7
    Yes, the test was fair, and yes I am going to do everything I can to improve, that goes without saying. However, even outside of the context of this one exam (which, although it prohibits me from passing the class, is ONLY one exam) I think it's still a question worth discussing.
  9. Oct 28, 2016 #8


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    It sounds to me like this is one low data point. Without knowing much else about you, you were accepted into graduate school, which means you were at least reasonably successful as an undergraduate, you did well enough to get into graduate school in the first place. This means that multiple people, in positions to make this kind of assessment, believed that you could be successful as a graduate student. On top of that, it sounds like you felt well-prepared for the exam, and feel like you did well on the practice exam.

    So rather than jumping to the conclusion that this has something to do with innate intelligence, it's important to explore more probable reasons for a low data point. This is where a conversation with the professor may play an important role.
  10. Oct 28, 2016 #9


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    How did they rate you? Pick up a number out of a hat? There's no quantification of intelligence. All they could have possibly done would be to look at your grades, versus how much time you spent in office hours. If your grades were low, despite effort, I don't think you should have gotten into graduate school to begin with.

    That doesn't sound like it's the case.

    Your TA??? sounds dumb. Ignore them. Require intelligence beyond the course? What does that even mean? Translation: TA "I have no idea what I'm talking about, so here's some gibberish."

    You did poorly, assuming there wasn't some drastic curve which isn't as common as it was in undergrad. You don't need "intelligence beyond the course" you obviously need to make connections from the material that you might have missed.

    Your post is exactly what you fear it sounds like. "I failed one exam all is lost." You can't extrapolate any meaning from one exam.

    Your approach to correct the problem that does exist is sound though.

    Grad GPA is meaningless beyond showing sufficient progress. I'm surprised you won't lose funding after x amount of courses/time with a failing GPA though. You might want to check on that.

    Hardly anyone is going to be asking for your transcript when you apply to any sort of postdoc position. (Or so I'm told, this is second hand information though, I haven't personally made it that far) In fact, we're told constantly that if you're getting A's you're spending too much on courses and not enough on stuff that actually matters (research). I aim for B's.

    It requires: passing courses with a B, passing qualifying exams, and doing novel research. That's it. Not some kind arbitrary un-measurable "intelligence."

    Really, the only hard part seems to be qualifying exams. The quintessential gate-keeper.
  11. Oct 28, 2016 #10
    Intelligence is not static.

    I've seen lots of students get smarter by working harder - just like athletes can build strength and skill by weightlifting and practice and working out.

    Keep working. You got this.
  12. Oct 28, 2016 #11


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    Ask two people about intelligence and you will get at least three different definitions. My preferred one is by the way "the average length of free association chains".

    All tests, including the ones you took, are often a matter of specific training. Who is faster: Usain Bolt or Haile Gebrselassie? What may be expected if they'd change the disciplines? The tests in question often (however, not always) reveal a pattern depending on who created them: e.g. the way essential parameters are provided, and what is ballast information, which tricks are preferred and so on. So the best is often the one who has succeeded in adopting those patterns. The standard counterexample is normally: ask a mathematician how the sequence ##1,4,9## has to be continued and you probably won't get ##16## as an answer, but instead a complaint about the insufficient data given.

    Then come personal likes into play. Some are pretty good at solving riddles, others by applying algorithms and others again might have an extraordinary memory. Three completely different skills. To improve the only way out is training. Nevertheless, Bolt won't win a Marathon and Gebrselassie no ##100 m## run. That's life. However, training usually helps a little.
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