Is there fear that this website isn't in our best interest?

  • Imagine you are sipping tea or coffee while discussing various issues with a broad and diverse network of students, colleagues, and friends brought together by the common bond of physics, graduate school, and the physics GRE.

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WontonBurritoMeals
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Is there fear that this website isn't in our best interest?

Postby WontonBurritoMeals » Sat Mar 08, 2008 7:26 pm

Think about it: How fair is it for students who haven't even taken courses in E&M to have made fundamental contributions to human knowledge? Or to conform their education to a standerdized test?

We all know that this was not the case 50 years ago when the U.S.'s outlook was optimistic and physics was making great fundamental advances.

I think that we can also agree that the primary thing measured by the Physics GRE is the ability to study and prepare for the Physics GRE. Advanced topics and interests have no place there. The dizzying and painful problems that you deal with in upper division classes don't help you that much.

I really have nothing against this per say, except that looking at these profiles (and more importatnly my own profile) shows a trend to spend college years struggling to impress spectre-like commitees instead of the unreproached investment in your own interests, projects, and creative outlook.

But my question is: Does this website to serve only to help this mentality by giving people (like me) who will sacrafice their own life and potential to do well, more information and help towards this goal.

GRE score averages are increasing every year and since people aren't getting smarter it's either do to access to information from places like this or the increased number of applications from international students. Even 25 years ago, requiring first-author publications at even top-schools would be considered rediculous. Is there a way out of this? Does this site have some higher purpose?

I'm just asking a question, one that I think is important and necessary.

May the wind be always at your back,
-Wonton Burrito Meals

excel
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Re: Is there fear that this website isn't in our best interest?

Postby excel » Sat Mar 08, 2008 9:01 pm

But my question is: Does this website ... more information and help towards this goal.

This website, as far as I can see, provides a support in times of the stressful process of applying to graduate school.

Real life is competitive. Winning is almost a pre-condition to success. I think we should accept this, and do what it takes to win. In this particular case, excelling in GREs may be something we need do in order to win. Unless this scenario changes, we have to do ur best in the GREs. I do not think the importance of the GREs in predicting success etc. is at all relevant to the seriousness with which we should take it--simply because we need to win at it in order to succeed in our graduate school applications...does not matter what the GREs measure or whatever. And, this site can only help during the stressful times of the GREs and the admission process.

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WontonBurritoMeals
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Re: Is there fear that this website isn't in our best interest?

Postby WontonBurritoMeals » Sat Mar 08, 2008 9:36 pm

Real life is competitive. Winning is almost a pre-condition to success. I think we should accept this, and do what it takes to win.


Right. I agree completely. We should each strive to win as individuals. But as a group? I don't know.

Say there are 1000 students who study for the GRE. The scores vary in a standerd gaussian curve with an average of 600. The average student studys the subjects that they are interested in generally, etc. and studys for the GRE very hard on the weekends for 2 months.

Now, people discover sites like this and now the average person now studys very hard on weekends but also durring the week for 5 months. The average goes up to 700 and it's still a standerd gaussian curve.

What have the students gained? All I can think of is that this site evens the playing field, helps students from schools that aren't as competitive, tells people not to waste time studying the purple book, etc...

May the wind be always at your back,
-Wonton Burrito Meals

400nm
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Re: Is there fear that this website isn't in our best interest?

Postby 400nm » Sun Mar 09, 2008 12:23 am

I have tried to bring down this site, but to no avail. Eventually you will be sucked in and made to feed the monster as I have been. Maybe you already have...

excel
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Re: Is there fear that this website isn't in our best interest?

Postby excel » Sun Mar 09, 2008 12:32 am

Aha, I now see what you meant. Well, as you observed, this site probably levels the playing field somewhat regarding the GREs. I personally think that helps the purpose of the GREs--after all, that is what tests like GRE try to achieve...a level field...equity in education etc.

Setting aside good or bad, do you think this is a strong effect though? Most of the students are probably already all worked up about the GREs from months in advance...thanks to their profs and predecessors. I am not sure how much difference this site will make in terms of stimulus to study for the GREs.

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zxcv
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Re: Is there fear that this website isn't in our best interest?

Postby zxcv » Sun Mar 09, 2008 12:58 am

Let me just note that a quick look through the profiles thread should disabuse you of the notion that publications are necessary to get into top 5 school (ahem).

400nm
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Re: Is there fear that this website isn't in our best interest?

Postby 400nm » Sun Mar 09, 2008 12:59 am

excel wrote:Setting aside good or bad, do you think this is a strong effect though? Most of the students are probably already all worked up about the GREs from months in advance...thanks to their profs and predecessors. I am not sure how much difference this site will make in terms of stimulus to study for the GREs.

I agree. I don't think people will spend more time studying, but I do think this site helps people direct their studying and focus on the important things. That will raise some people's scores if they have the information AND they put in the time, but there will still be some people who don't or don't have a strong background to begin with, so overall how much will it raise the average score?

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WontonBurritoMeals
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Re: Is there fear that this website isn't in our best interest?

Postby WontonBurritoMeals » Sun Mar 09, 2008 2:18 am

I have tried to bring down this site, but to no avail. Eventually you will be sucked in and made to feed the monster as I have been. Maybe you already have...


This by itself has justified myself in my own eyes for making this thread.

I'm not really talking about this site. With my first post, I immidietly got some really fantastic help and direction. But if I'm not mistaken, there is a very strong trend for more competition in physics and science. Although we can all agree that competition is good for the field (and therefore for us), it's still important to ask "Is it the right kind of competition?"

Clearly average GRE scores are increasing every year. You can even see it in the graduate school profile handbooks from year to year. As I said originally, there could easilly be more than one source for this.

Let me just note that a quick look through the profiles thread should disabuse you of the notion that publications are necessary to get into top 5 school (ahem).


But if these trends keep up (and they most assuredly will), it may become bad. But thanks for the hope. =) I am not an activist and have little or no interest in changing how *** works, but I am curious about others' thoughts.

May the wind be always at your backs,
-Wonton Burrito Meals

400nm
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Re: Is there fear that this website isn't in our best interest?

Postby 400nm » Sun Mar 09, 2008 12:28 pm

WBM, I didn't mean to dismiss you comments. There are definitely other reasons why GRE scores are going up, and I don't think this site has much to do with it.

Most people (at least the ones I've talked to) agree that the GRE is not a very good measure of scientific ability. Maybe a little bit for theorists, but not experimentalists. The Physics GRE should either be done away with or change to a more useful format. But in the mean time, we have to do the best we can.

On the one hand, research experience may be a better indicator of success; however, undergraduates should be concentrating on getting a solid foundation, rather than doing groundbreaking research. It's possible that a standardized test could measure academic ability, I just don't think the current version of the GRE is. What are your thoughts on how admission committees should make their decisions?

You should be an activist. There are things in the field of science that need to change, and they never will unless the scientists do something about it. Maybe our generation will change the way the Physics GRE is handled.

excel
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Re: Is there fear that this website isn't in our best interest?

Postby excel » Sun Mar 09, 2008 12:44 pm

I would like to pose the following question:

Engineering and engineering sciences Ph.D. programs get along fine without any subject GRE exam...why is the physics GRE considered so indispensable for admission to physics Ph.D. programs?

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WontonBurritoMeals
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Re: Is there fear that this website isn't in our best interest?

Postby WontonBurritoMeals » Sun Mar 09, 2008 1:34 pm

Let me back up just a tiny bit. This question had been at the back of my mind for a while when I discovered one thing: The literature GRE.

For some reason, I found this funny: They constructed a standerdized test to assess HOW MUCH A PERSON KNOWS AND LOVES LITERATURE.

So basically, it's a system for determining how close to the standerd your education has been. It's for English literature so it focuses on the normal sources, yadda yadda yadda. But certainly there's enough english literature that you could have a very full education and still have only read say one or two books by Emily Bronte or Shaw or whatever.

Why do we want everyone in English literature with the same background?!

400nm, I totally didn't mean to imply that you dismissed my comments. I'm not totally against the GRE. In fact, in my case, it's probably my only chance to compensate for my totally unknown institution.

I'm not that crazy either. It could me much worse. I'm told that all they want, generally, is for you to be good enough to pass quals or some equivalent, and then stick you in a lab so they can lock the door.

My beef isn't with what they consider, as people really be able to take on the challenge of something like the pGRE, should have research experience (otherwise why would you go to grad school?!), and have some recommendations.

But people should also have read some *** books, have some computer skills, have lived on their own, participated in a bicycle race, and all of those other things that give us diverse and unique backgrounds that we should have.

And quality of research should be stressed over quanity. Even if it's not what they're going to persue in Grad. school. (People need more than 1-2 years to decide which field they are going into!)

But I'll just whimp out. I'll be an activist if I'm ever on an admissions commitee.

May the wind be always @ your back,
-Wonton Burrito Meals

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will
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Re: Is there fear that this website isn't in our best interest?

Postby will » Fri Mar 14, 2008 1:02 am

GRE score averages are increasing every year and since people aren't getting smarter it's either do to access to information from places like this or the increased number of applications from international students. Even 25 years ago, requiring first-author publications at even top-schools would be considered rediculous...


Why is it that it's always safe to assume "people aren't getting smarter?" This is a valid question. Physics is getting deeper into standard curricula at least across the US... Very very few would have even thought of teaching quantum mechanics rigorously to undergrads not even 50 years ago, and it's now expected! Old ideas become more intuitive with each generation that studies them- this is called "progress." Anyone here would outscore Isaac Newton on the PGRE without a doubt, so why doesn't anyone ever consider that maybe people are getting better at teaching and learning physics faster than ETS can write a good test?

As for the first author thing, that's already been cleared up... But there's never been a point in the history of science where someone had to learn everything there already was to know before they could make a serious contribution. If anything, we are converging to that point, so if it's fair to scope for first authored publications now, it certainly was in the past (which is true; this practice has never been seen as ridiculous.)

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WontonBurritoMeals
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Re: Is there fear that this website isn't in our best interest?

Postby WontonBurritoMeals » Fri Mar 14, 2008 6:19 am

Will,

Maybe we are getting smarter! That would be happy. :D

But maybe we're a generation that sold out our creativity and dynamic potential so that we could kick ass on some tests???

I'm more concerned about the DIRECTION that we're headed in, than how things are now.

Also, I don't want to frame things in terms of "fairness" at all. I mean, it's all fair to us. We can do whatever we want with our lives! But is it a good idea to frame our lives in this way?

May the wind be always at your back,
-Wonton Burrito Meals

Grant
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Re: Is there fear that this website isn't in our best interest?

Postby Grant » Fri Mar 14, 2008 10:40 am

WontonBurritoMeals wrote:Does this website to serve only to help this mentality by giving people (like me) who will sacrafice their own life and potential to do well, more information and help towards this goal.

Is there a way out of this? Does this site have some higher purpose?

The average goes up to 700 and it's still a standard Gaussian curve.

What have the students gained? All I can think of is that this site evens the playing field

Although we can all agree that competition is good for the field (and therefore for us), it's still important to ask "Is it the right kind of competition?"

But maybe we're a generation that sold out our creativity and dynamic potential so that we could kick ass on some tests???

For me the physics GRE was a level playing field opportunity that I needed, and I was going to study for the test to the point of diminishing returns regardless of the time I had to spend. I wanted to find all the resources that existed and I spent lots of time making sure I found them. I wasted money on books that had identical problems to books I already owned. I wasted time struggling with certain problems in the purple book. I discovered some things too late and wished I had discovered them earlier in my preparation efforts. I wish I had a site like PhysicsGRE.com available to me. I am one example of the type of person who can benefit from this site.

Some students have people available to them such as parents, teachers, and friends who can provide valuable insight into the level of importance of the physics GRE and can provide meaningful guidance in their preparation efforts. Because the physics GRE scores are on a curve, these students are probably slightly hurt by other students having access to similar valuable information. However, students like this are very fortunate so I don't mind if my site levels the playing field at their expense. They will do fine. Besides, they have this site too.

There are some students who are very gifted in their ability to learn and understand physics without much studying at all. They can barely prepare for a test like the physics GRE and do much better than their peers especially if their peers haven't prepared extensively. These types of students are probably frustrated by sites like PhysicsGRE.com because now their performance with minimal studying is compared to other students who study a lot and with worthwhile resources and meaningful preparation advice. An ideal situation for students who don't want to spend time preparing would be to have other people not have any help with physics GRE preparation. These students may resent having to spend time preparing for a multiple choice test in physics. I am able to feel the pain of students like this. To these students all I can say is that I have come to believe that my ability to be a free spirited and creative thinker is greatly enhanced by utilizing a decent portion of my time figuring out how to navigate within the systems that are interconnected with my goals. I am not suggesting people become "sellouts" but rather suggesting people solve an optimization problem that includes the realities of life and the realities of the systems that exists in life. I found it worthwhile to study for the physics GRE.

The system that WontonBurritoMeals is addressing is the criteria used by graduate admissions committees. The graduate admissions committees place importance on a test that one is able to study for with reasonable success. Naturally, a test preparation vacuum will be filled by various people and companies offering help. The physics GRE test prep market is very small compared to big tests like the GMAT, LSAT, and MCAT. However, the phenomenon is the same where admissions committees create vacuums and the vacuums get filled. Other test prep markets charge hundreds and sometimes thousands of dollars for test prep courses. Fortunately, PhysicsGRE.com and other sites exists that can help students study for the physics GRE test in an efficient manner both in terms of time and money spent.

Since I am shifting the critique of people wasting time preparing for the physics GRE towards the admissions committees, I should add a bit about why they might consider the physics GRE of some importance. For starters, it is very difficult to score below a certain score on the physics GRE with a solid foundation of the fundamentals of physics. If your command of the fundamentals is grossly underrepresented by your physics GRE score then with minimal preparation efforts you can significantly improve your score. I believe many physics departments use the physics GRE score as a lower bounds. Secondly, it is very difficult to receive an exceptionally high physics GRE score without a solid foundation with the fundamentals. If a student gets a very high score then you know they have firm command of the fundamentals and can draw from that knowledge rapidly and under pressure without making mistakes.

It would be interesting to discuss the various criteria used by the various admissions committees such as grades, physics GRE, general GRE, personal statement, research experience, letters of reference, etc. The emphases they place on these criteria are probably very representative of what they want from their graduate students.

I actually learned a lot preparing for the physics GRE. It was the first time I intensely studied all the various fundamentals of physics all at the same time. It wasn't a classical mechanics final or an E&M final but it was a final covering the fundamentals of physics. It helped me to see connections between the different subject areas and solidified my understanding.

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WontonBurritoMeals
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Re: Is there fear that this website isn't in our best interest?

Postby WontonBurritoMeals » Fri Mar 14, 2008 11:18 pm

Now that's an answer! :D

You're right. By offering the content for free, you are leveling the playing field. And studying for the pGRE can be valuable.

Mostly, it's just good to know that people here will at least consider some of my questions.

May the wind be always at your back,
-Wonton Burrito Meals

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Re: Is there fear that this website isn't in our best interest?

Postby cfgauss » Thu Mar 20, 2008 7:53 am

If it makes you feel any better, not only do the GREs measure nothing, they're counterproductive!

David Morin, a physics graduate student at Harvard, conducted his own study last year of the correlation between GRE scores and performance in graduate school, focusing on Harvard students. He found that while there was a very slight correlation between GRE scores and graduate course grades, there was no correlation with other measures of success in graduate school, including oral exam scores and overall completion time for the Ph.D. degree.


Foreign students, especially those from China, also do well on the GRE subject test, although their performance in graduate school isn't any better or worse than their American colleagues. "That suggests to me that the physics subject test measures some specific skill that can be taught, and it is taught very effectively in China, but it is not at all clear how much this skill has to do with what we want to know about potential physics students," said Howard Georgi, who has been involved with graduate admissions at Harvard University for more than 20 years. Jennifer Siders, a recent physics Ph.D. from the University of Texas who is now at Los Alamos National Laboratory, took the GRE subject test four times to meet her department's minimum requirement of 700. She finally managed to raise her score 200 points, not by learning more physics, but by learning how to take standardized tests, often at the expense of her actual coursework.


The standardized test format also seems to favor students Georgi describes as "idiot savants": those with strong mathematical skills who are very good at manipulating symbols without learning any of the real physics behind them, but who nevertheless tend to perform exceptionally well on the GREs.


"As presently constituted, it's quite possible that the GRE physics subject test does more harm than good, and we should either fix it, or seriously consider getting rid of it altogether,"


http://www.aps.org/publications/apsnews ... gender.cfm

This article was more than 10 years ago, so, you can see that clearly no one is paying attention. The GRE isn't any better (physics or general), it costs hundreds of dollars, and it doesn't measure a real skill we use to do physics with! But it's so much easier to plug numbers into formulas to determine rankings than actually do any work (thus the ~500-800 word limitations lots of grad schools have to describe everything you've ever done!)

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twistor
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Re: Is there fear that this website isn't in our best interest?

Postby twistor » Thu Mar 20, 2008 10:28 am

Great article. I've been saying those things for a long time. The GRE measures nothing useful!

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Re: Is there fear that this website isn't in our best interest?

Postby Grant » Fri Mar 21, 2008 9:36 am

Georgi favors a modified version of the GRE physics subject test, reducing the number of questions by half to give students time to think through the answers and eliminate time pressures, focusing instead on basic skills and knowledge.

The article was written in 1996. PhysicsGRE.com has been around since 2003 and over the history of this site I have read numerous posts about how people thought the actual test they took was easier than the published practice tests from 1986, 1992, and 1996. Perhaps the test has evolved since the time of this article.

"The test scores are only one piece of information about a student," she said. "They may help contribute to your decision, but they are never designed to be the sole indicator."

While Harvard's graduate admissions committee requires both the GRE general and physics subject test, its members rely more heavily on letters of recommendation, the personal essay, and undergraduate records when deciding whom to admit.

I wouldn't rely too heavily on the personal essay or letters of recommendation as these things can be very subjective. Undergraduate records can provide valuable insight but without in depth knowledge about the programs and professors at all the various schools these numbers are at best a rough guide. At the same school I took classes where you could be in the upper 35% and get a C+. I took classes where you could be in the lower 50% and get an A-. Also, having a 3.2 GPA at some schools is "arguably" better than having a 3.7 at other schools.

I think the undergraduate grades could significantly more useful if more data was shared. For example, knowing that a person received a B in a class is not very helpful if you don't know anything else about the other grades given or the other students. It makes a big difference if there were 3 A's, 5 B's and 1 C or if there were 1 A, 2 B's, 6 C's, 2 D's, and 1 F. Also, aside from wanting more information on relative performance, it would be good to measure the competition level like, for example, if the class in question was made up of the "A" students or "C" students.

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twistor
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Re: Is there fear that this website isn't in our best interest?

Postby twistor » Fri Mar 21, 2008 11:12 am

This information is already available. See pickaprof.com, for example.

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twistor
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Re: Is there fear that this website isn't in our best interest?

Postby twistor » Fri Mar 21, 2008 11:17 am

Grant,

Why doesn't Mrs.Grant have the same operating priveleges as you? Why isn't 400nm complaining about this?

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Re: Is there fear that this website isn't in our best interest?

Postby Grant » Fri Mar 21, 2008 12:15 pm

The data on pickaprof.com is pretty interesting and helpful for students. However, the data that I had I mind was the following:

School ID
Student ID
Course ID (including year)
Grade Received
Note: It would also be worth the effort to have the professor ID as well.

If you had this information for every student in every class in every school that went back in time 10 years then algorithms could easily be developed to greatly assist graduate admissions committees. For example a particular graduate school might try various algorithms and eventually find one algorithm showed strong correlations with students that historically have "succeeded" in their graduate program. They could then use the same algorithm to help them select future students.

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twistor
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Re: Is there fear that this website isn't in our best interest?

Postby twistor » Fri Mar 21, 2008 12:27 pm

Why do we want to help graduate committees? I for one would rather have them not know.

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Re: Is there fear that this website isn't in our best interest?

Postby quizivex » Sat Mar 22, 2008 2:13 am

Back to the original post:

WontonBurritoMeals wrote:Think about it: How fair is it for students who haven't even taken courses in E&M to have made fundamental contributions to human knowledge? Or to conform their education to a standerdized test?


Expecting students who are learning the fundamentals of physics to produce and publish their own cutting edge research is ludicrous, I agree. But expecting them to understand how a basic DC circuit works and take a test on similarly basic knowledge is not.

My education was not conformed to the test but I still did well on the test. I spent a lot of time reviewing undergraduate physics material, stuff I should have known anwyay, and students who had a more productive undergrad experience than mine could have spent less time. About 80-90% of my studying for the test was studying PHYSICS, not studying the GRE. I did not spend years learning test tricks, reading blogs such as "5 magic methods crack the physics GRE," "How to get GRE questions correct without knowing anything," "How to memorize your way to a 990" etc... Only the last 1.5 weeks or so before the exam did I focus much on the practice tests and compile a list of equations to memorize. I came up with a few special time-saving strategies. For instance, since so many relativity problems involve manipulations with the gamma factor, I committed it to memory that v = c*sqrt(1-1/gamma^2), knowing it would probably save me from deriving it 3 times during the test. I also decided that the mass of an electron was 10^-30 etc...

I understand it's scary that so much of our career depends on a 2.5 hour test. I was so stressed leading upto the exam in October and when I was distracted by a noise in the exam room I nearly melted down and canceled the test to retake it in November. It took me like 2 minutes to gain my focus and finish the first problem which was a very easy problem. I thought it was going to be a disaster. But luckily I recovered, started getting into a rhythm and got through it. Even then, are we all forgetting that our whole grad school career relies on one big test called the "qualifier." I don't think that's going to change. To be successful in academics, one needs to perform on big tests. I think graduate committees would be afraid to admit a student who, otehrwise strong, claims he scored poorly on the GRE just because he can't do big tests... How will he pass the qualifier? Fortunately, now that the GRE is offered in October and November, savvy students can take the October test and have a backup plan in case something goes wrong.

All of us should be glad that the standardized test for physics admissions is far more sensible than, for instance, the SAT. A test full of vocab questions and middle school math problems can't do much for a smart HS student who wants to prove himself. But for those of us physics undergrads from humble backgrounds (lousy schools), a high physics GRE score really is significant as it either suggesets that we understand the fundamentals of physics very well, or else that we're expert test takers, both of which are useful in graduate school.

This website is great. It's not simply adding 100 points to everyone's score at the expense of 100 hours of extra preparation. In fact, the vast majority of GRE discussions on the forum are just students giving opinions/philosophies on the legitimacy of the test or debating its importance in the admissions process. The useful advice given, in terms of special GRE techniques such as dimensional analysis, or solutions to the practice problems, or warnings to avoid the purple book, are available in nearly any department, since there are always a group of students preparing for the test, a group of undergrads and grads who took the test before, and a clan of old profs who need to know enough about the test to make their department's admission decisions. There are no magic tricks for acing the GRE. It boils down to the test taker's physics skill, physics knowledge, problem solving ability, testing stamina, and the specific bag of questions he happens to face that dark November Saturday morning.

WontonBurritoMeals wrote:Let me back up just a tiny bit. This question had been at the back of my mind for a while when I discovered one thing: The literature GRE.

For some reason, I found this funny: They constructed a standerdized test to assess HOW MUCH A PERSON KNOWS AND LOVES LITERATURE.


Haha yes! Literature GRE!! lol! I believe that not all ETS tests are created equally. Some are more useful/relevant/fair than others. The SAT, general GRE and probably the literature GRE, are examples of bad ones.


David Morin, a physics graduate student at Harvard, conducted his own study last year of the correlation between GRE scores and performance in graduate school, focusing on Harvard students. He found that while there was a very slight correlation between GRE scores and graduate course grades, there was no correlation with other measures of success in graduate school, including oral exam scores and overall completion time for the Ph.D. degree.


The fact that the GRE doesn't correlate perfectly with grad school success is not the fault of the test. Since Harvard or any school (hopefully) admits students based on a "holistic" review of their applicants, it makes sense that in general, admitted students with a lower GRE score probably had stronger research accomplishments than ones with higher scores. Since all grad students in a school typically spend the same amout of time taking courses and then proceed to research, completion time relies on the research time, and it makes sense that the strong researchers were just as successful as those who may have a slightly stronger grasp of physics as an undergrad. (Of course, many students kicked ass in everything but they wouldn't affect the correlation.)

The test measures our mastery of the fundamentals of the field, which is just one of the qualities looked for in grad school applicants. There should be a slight correlation with course grades, since they too measure physics ability, but not too high a correlation because course problems are much more complicated. Undergrad research is a completely different ballgame, since successful ugrad research probably relies more on effort/stamina interpersonal skills and luck, as cutting edge research, is by definition nearly impossible for an undergrad, regadless of his talent, to do. So no wonder grad schools use everything, grades, research and the GRE together, holistically... They're all different.

There are also plenty of confounding factors between the variables mentioned that would reduce correlation. For ex, students with (strong/weak) grades, or (strong/weak) research are (less/more) likely to feel the need to score high on the GRE or have the free time to review for it, and their preparation, and thus performance, may reflect that.

O damn what a long post, my eyes hurt!

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butsurigakusha
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Re: Is there fear that this website isn't in our best interest?

Postby butsurigakusha » Sat Mar 22, 2008 4:03 am

Whenever people ask me how long I prepared for the PGRE, I tell them that I spent the last three years preparing. All my physics courses and time spent as a tutor were my preparation. The best preparation is to have a sound understanding of the basic concepts taught in the standard undergraduate physics courses.

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Re: Is there fear that this website isn't in our best interest?

Postby cfgauss » Sat Mar 22, 2008 8:32 pm

quizivex wrote:The fact that the GRE doesn't correlate perfectly with grad school success is not the fault of the test.


The fact that it doesn't correlate AT ALL with success in grad school is the fault of the test! I mean, by definition, you could not have worse than 0% correlation. This test is not only bad, it's as bad as is possible.

Since Harvard or any school (hopefully) admits students based on a "holistic" review of their applicants, it makes sense that in general, admitted students with a lower GRE score probably had stronger research accomplishments than ones with higher scores.


Sadly, untrue. Most schools use something like "k*grade + pGRE" to rank everyone, and everything else is only looked at as a tie-breaker. You can find lots of people on the internet from physics admissions committees talking about how the process worked at their school, and a lot worked just like this.

The test measures our mastery of the fundamentals of the field


It absolutely does not!!! I've never read any study that claims this, and have read several to the contrary. The fact is, if you gave this test to people who'd taken a year's worth of intro physics, and let them use texts and as much time as they wanted, I'm absolutely sure you'd have an average >700.

From my personal experience, the people I know who scored high on the pGRE are the ones who tended to memorize their way through classes. E.g., I would be reading through some physics book / paper that looked interesting, would ask them a question, and our conversation would go:
what do you think about what this says?
"well, Griffiths says..."
Yes, I know what griffiths says, I read it too! I want to know what you think about it!
"well, according to what griffiths says I think...."
*sigh*
where many of the people who did not do as well worked more on understanding, not memorizing. And I could talk extensively about random topics with them, and they'd have insightful things to say! Yeah, if they write down Schrodinger's equation, they may get factors of h-bar wrong, but they can tell me what it means! And where it comes from! And they could probably derive it from some principles, not because they memorized the derivation from a textbook, but because they understand what's going on! And sadly, the pGRE heavily penalizes people who do stuff like this with its time limit and large number of questions.

A test like this is not appropriate for testing ability in physics. There is no real life / grad school situation where someone will say "my god, I need to know the charge of the electron to three significant digits in the next 45 seconds!"--but that's exactly what the whole pGRE is!

This whole test, even in principle, fails. Undergrad grades are much better indicators, but still not good (although, while they do not fail in principle, they fail in practice since there are no uniform standards, etc, etc, this could be a whole new, very long, post...)

So, the metric for getting into many schools ends up being k*(number that has very little meaning) + (number that has no meaning) = rank. And that's very discouraging! And, I've seen a number of extremely bright people not get into grad schools because of this, and a lot of people who have no business near a grad school easily get in to very good schools.

Research is the only really good way to estimate how well you'll do in grad school. It not only tells you how well they'll do, but how well their interests fit in with faculty there! It does two things at once! Unfortunately, lots of schools don't offer research to undergrads, or don't offer very good research, or don't give you a choice as to what research you do (the math dept. at my undergrad school claimed that there was no research possible for undergrads except combinatorics). And carefully reviewing a student's research is "too much work" for grad admissions people (which I think is a bunch of crap). Some grad admissions limit your statement of purpose to like 500 words. That's barely anything. I'd have trouble briefly listing what I did as an undergrad in 3 pages, let alone a few paragraphs! (What I've typed in this post is nearly 600 words.)

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Re: Is there fear that this website isn't in our best interest?

Postby butsurigakusha » Sat Mar 22, 2008 9:42 pm

I can assure you that I am not a person who memorized my way through my physics courses. I actually find it ridiculous that some would entertain the notion that the test doesn't measure understanding of physics concepts. Did I memorize in order to study for the pgre? A little, about a dozen equations or so, ones that I could probably derive or recall using limits and dimensional analysis, but since there was a good chance that they would be on the test, I figured I could save my a little time by memorizing a few. It turns out, I don't think I actually needed to know any of those equations I memorized when I took the actual test.

You are definitely wrong that zero correlation is the worst it can get. In fact, your argument would predict negative correlation. Think about it. If it is true that pgre score is a major factor in admissions, and it is true that pgre measures nothing of value, then presumably those students who are admitted with high pgre would be able to get accepted without having as much strength in the areas that do matter. So those with high pgre scores will on average be less qualified in terms of things that do matter, and thus we should see a negative correlation between pgre score and grad school "success", which by the way, is something I think would be pretty difficult to operationalize.

You claim that you have seen several studies that show that pgre does not measure understanding of fundamental physics. Interesting. In order to do such a study, one would have to have some other way to measure understanding in order to make a comparison. So how was fundamental understanding measured? Physics GPA? Qualifying exams? Self-evaluation? I do not know of any methods that are a priori any better than than the pgre at measuring fundamental understanding. One could use a test similar to qualifying exams, where we are given more time to solve a more involved problem. However, since such a test would of necessity cover a fewer concepts, success on the test would become dependent on the specifics of the test taken and what material is covered.

If there were an undeniably better method available, and one were to do an extensive study showing that there is no correlation between pgre score and actual understanding as measured by this improved method, then I would be convinced, assuming the experiment was done properly with the proper statistical analysis. However, I would be willing to bet my stipend that the correlation would, in fact, not be zero.

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Re: Is there fear that this website isn't in our best interest?

Postby cfgauss » Sun Mar 23, 2008 4:27 am

butsurigakusha wrote:You are definitely wrong that zero correlation is the worst it can get.


Reading is FUNdamental! :D
cfgauss wrote:by definition, you could not have worse than 0% correlation

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Coefficien ... ermination
Wikipedia wrote:An interior value such as R^2 = 0.7 may be interpreted as follows: "Approximately seventy percent of the variation in the response variable can be explained by the explanatory variable.


In fact, your argument would predict negative correlation. Think about it. If it is true that pgre score is a major factor in admissions, and it is true that pgre measures nothing of value, then presumably those students who are admitted with high pgre would be able to get accepted without having as much strength in the areas that do matter. So those with high pgre scores will on average be less qualified in terms of things that do matter, and thus we should see a negative correlation between pgre score and grad school "success", which by the way, is something I think would be pretty difficult to operationalize.


No, because admissions is mostly based on GRE scores and grades. There is no metric they use for primary determinations which isn't affected by this. Many schools use letters and research only as "tie-breaker" stuff, or rule people out if they want to do something totally different than what goes on at the school. Not all schools do this, but many/most do.

You claim that you have seen several studies that show that pgre does not measure understanding of fundamental physics. Interesting. In order to do such a study, one would have to have some other way to measure understanding in order to make a comparison. So how was fundamental understanding measured? Physics GPA? Qualifying exams? Self-evaluation?


If you read the paper the article I cited talked about, you can learn how!

If there were an undeniably better method available, and one were to do an extensive study showing that there is no correlation between pgre score and actual understanding as measured by this improved method, then I would be convinced, assuming the experiment was done properly with the proper statistical analysis. However, I would be willing to bet my stipend that the correlation would, in fact, not be zero.


It has been done. In the paper I cited.

In fact, by your arguments, the Chinese are awesome at physics,
the article wrote:Foreign students, especially those from China, also do well on the GRE subject test

although the next part of that sentence is
although their performance in graduate school isn't any better or worse than their American colleagues.


Also,
Jennifer Siders, a recent physics Ph.D. from the University of Texas who is now at Los Alamos National Laboratory, took the GRE subject test four times to meet her department's minimum requirement of 700. She finally managed to raise her score 200 points, not by learning more physics, but by learning how to take standardized tests, often at the expense of her actual coursework.

I guess Los Alamos is where they send all the stupid people who keep getting 500s on their pGREs?

And girls are stupid, too!
Female students are twice as likely as males to be disqualified by minimum cutoff score requirements, even though their overall academic performance tends to be higher.


and let's not forget,
Zolandz emphasized that ETS policy dictates that test scores should never be the sole basis for an admissions decision or rejection, and also discourages the use of cut-off scores below which applicants are summarily rejected. "The test scores are only one piece of information about a student," she said. "They may help contribute to your decision, but they are never designed to be the sole indicator." However, institutions often ignore this dictum, as in the case of Siders' experiences with the University of Texas graduate admissions committee.


read it: http://www.aps.org/publications/apsnews ... gender.cfm
read the associated paper if you want to argue about the paper's methodology!

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Re: Is there fear that this website isn't in our best interest?

Postby butsurigakusha » Sun Mar 23, 2008 5:33 am

I did read the article, and all I found were a few quotes by apparently bitter people who probably didn't score too well on the test themselves and a few stories that really do not present any sort of convincing argument.

In fact, by your arguments, the Chinese are awesome at physics


I would have to say that they are. I have lived in Asia, and even after living there for years, it was still difficult to communicate. The Chinese students who come here presumably have the same difficulty. The Chinese students are for that reason not on equal footing with American students, and thus the fact that they perform neither better nor worse does not mean that they are neither better nor worse at physics. I really believe they make up for these difficulties by being exceptionally good at physics.

Let me simplify this argument a bit:

My claim: There is some correlation between pgre score and physics understanding.

Your claim: There is no correlation between pgre score and physics understanding.

Please correct me if I have misunderstood your stance.

Your points about Chinese students, Jennifer Siders, girls, and the ETS statement do nothing to invalidate my claim or prove yours. All they do is show that there are other factors besides physics understanding that can have an effect on the score.

And if we perform a simple thought experiment, we can quickly see how absurd your claim really is.

Imagine two identical twins, who for all intents and purposes are of equal intelligence and have identical academic records when they enter college, at which point, one decides to study biology, and the other physics, both with the end goal of studying patent law, and neither one of them plans to take the GRE, and so does not prepare for it in any way. However, they both are top students in their majors, and really understand what they learned, but did not take any classes or learn anything regarding the other's major. Now imagine immediately upon graduating, they suddenly decide to take the PGRE, just to see how they would do. Now, according to your theory, we cannot predict which of the two will do better on the test, since the thing that it takes to do well is something besides understanding of physics, and given the circumstances, we have no way knowing which of the two possesses this skill more than the other. Of course, such a conclusion is preposterous. The physics major will, with almost 100% certainty, score higher than the biology major. Why? Because he has a basic understanding of physics concepts, and the pgre is a test of exactly that.

It has been done. In the paper I cited.


Perhaps I am just dense, but I was unable to find where the article cited a study that shows that there is no correlation between pgre score and physics understanding. I guess maybe I'm one of those idiot savants that are plaguing physics departments by scoring 990 without knowing any physics, and apparently also unable to understand words in an article.

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Re: Is there fear that this website isn't in our best interest?

Postby will » Mon Mar 24, 2008 4:09 pm

I do not know of any methods that are a priori any better than than the pgre at measuring fundamental understanding.


That does not, however, make it good.

Disclaimer: I had a weak PGRE (I was ill-prepared, and cramming isn't an option for me), a moderate GPA (top for my major, mediocre for the college), and I come from a school that's largely unheard of except for one small subset of applied physics, which is not what I was interested in.

That said, I think that letters of recommendation are an exceedingly better a priori method for measuring future success (fundamental understanding should be a given at this point). There are very few schools that don't have any respected professors in their program. If you go to one, you probably aren't getting an adequate undergraduate education anyway. Getting to know one is a sign that you are socially capable of collaboration, and getting one to hitch their reputation on you shows you have potential. I certainly wouldn't put my name near someone else's work (assuming I had more to lose) if I didn't think it was up to my own spec.

The physics GRE should only serve as an "equalizer" for foreign students who don't have the benefit of well-known professors, but unfortunately the glut of high scores ends up hurting their case more than helping it.

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Re: Is there fear that this website isn't in our best interest?

Postby butsurigakusha » Mon Mar 24, 2008 5:46 pm

I agree that pgre is far from perfect, and I also agree that research experience, as shown through letters of recommendation, should be given more weight. But I still think the letters are quite subjective and have other issues, and thus cannot be given excessive weight. I personally don't think that a letter from a well-known professor should have significantly more impact than an unknown, but I am sure it does, and understandably so. I also don't think that too much weight should be placed on publications.

I also agree that perhaps a different sort of test could be devised that would be a better method for measuring someones knowledge and ability of basic physics. Of course, there would be some who score high on the pgre but not as well on this hypothetical exam, and vice verse. But I think there would still be a pretty strong correlation between the two scores. I am certain there would be at least a weak correlation.

I also (just speculating here) think that the pgre probably help a lot more students get into grad school than you think. The pgre is the only thing on the application that puts all students, regardless of where they come from or who they know, on equal footing. Of course, I am sure someone will show some statistic showing group A scores lower than group B, so therefore the test does not put students on equal footing. I don't buy this. We are all given the same test, the same time limit, and the same access to information about the test with which to prepare. So a student from some unknown school has just as good a chance to score well as one from a top school.

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Re: Is there fear that this website isn't in our best interest?

Postby will » Mon Mar 24, 2008 9:54 pm

It probably does help - but again there is plenty of empirical evidence that there are subgroups who tend to score lower, just because someone has an equal chance does not mean they have a fair chance. I know, I know, electrons don't discriminate, but it's a lot more subtle than that, and pretending like it's fine because there "isn't anything better" doesn't work. I know plenty of professors who would be glad to see the test go, and I think that's a good sign.

Also regarding equality, I got where I wanted to go with a 730... But a student from an unknown school in China has little hope of getting into a top program without a perfect score. That's not right, and it's a problem with the methodology of the PGRE.

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Re: Is there fear that this website isn't in our best interest?

Postby butsurigakusha » Mon Mar 24, 2008 10:17 pm

I may be opening up a can of worms here, but I don't necessarily think that students from some unknown school in China should be put on equal footing with domestic students. Now, I have nothing against Chinese students or students from any country, and I think we should bring the most talented people from around the world to our country. But I don't think our schools have any obligation to educate students from other countries, and if a graduate school is going to accept a student from a China and consequently reject a student from America, I thin it is fair to expect that the Chinese student is the undeniably better choice. Especially at schools where it is more expensive to fund foreign student than domestic, I think this is reasonable. Domestic students can usually get in to top schools without a top PGRE score by doing well in research and classes. Foreign students don't necessarily have that option, so they should adjust their preparation appropriately. If they are serious about studying physics in the US, they should do what it takes, which may include spending many, many hours studying and practicing for the pgre. You said earlier that you were ill-prepared for the PGRE, but it didn't matter so much in your case. However, if you had been told well in advance that your admissions would depend almost entirely on your PGRE score, I bet you would have approached it differently, and probably would have gotten a better score.

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Re: Is there fear that this website isn't in our best interest?

Postby zxcv » Mon Mar 24, 2008 10:29 pm

I was told PGRE score is probably more important than grades. I'm not sure if I believe it, but their significance is probably of the same order at least.

Aside from contentious issues of foreign vs domestic funding, the physics GRE assures warped dynamics for admissions of Chinese vs other foreign nationals, too. I agree with Will that the expectations of such high GRE scores from China are not right, but I'm not sure that the problem is (directly) due to the shortcomings of the physics GRE.

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Re: Is there fear that this website isn't in our best interest?

Postby will » Tue Mar 25, 2008 8:18 am

Butsu, the reason it's a problem isn't because Chinese students have to do better, but because they can't do better than a certain point. When the test is the only thing they have going for them, how do you choose between 5 perfect-score students who all express the same interests? How about the fact that it's also very difficult to trust the legitimacy of those scores for schools that have gotten burned in the past?

I'm also under no illusion that we have some obligation to educate foreign scientists; what we have is the opportunity to assure the world's best and brightest are under our umbrella. Since I, myself, see the score as pretty worthless, I've no qualms with a lower scoring domestic student getting in above a high scoring foreign student; the lower scoring one could be provably more experienced. Then again the foreign student might be orders of magnitude better, but only ETS will ever know for sure.

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Re: Is there fear that this website isn't in our best interest?

Postby twistor » Tue Mar 25, 2008 10:33 am

The test measures our mastery of the fundamentals of the field, which is just one of the qualities looked for in grad school applicants.


I just love how all the people with 990 scores love to make that claim.

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Re: Is there fear that this website isn't in our best interest?

Postby butsurigakusha » Tue Mar 25, 2008 10:37 pm

Just for the record, I do not think that my score on the PGRE means that I am exceptionally brilliant. I have plenty of other reasons besides the PGRE to believe that. I have had a god complex for at least a decade and a half. I had to get a 990 to maintain my (delusional?) feelings of superiority, but it did nothing to increase them.

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Re: Is there fear that this website isn't in our best interest?

Postby twistor » Tue Mar 25, 2008 11:24 pm

But were you rejected from any schools? If the answer is yes then your 990 is worthless.

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Re: Is there fear that this website isn't in our best interest?

Postby butsurigakusha » Tue Mar 25, 2008 11:44 pm

I don't know if it's worthless. If I had scored 700, I doubt I would have been accepted to Berkeley and UIUC. Either way, it doesn't matter to me, because I am neither more nor less in love with myself now than I was before the test.

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Re: Is there fear that this website isn't in our best interest?

Postby WontonBurritoMeals » Wed Mar 26, 2008 12:09 am

Just for the record, I do not think that my score on the PGRE means that I am exceptionally brilliant.


*nods to self* A humble, fair, and balanced perspective.

[quote]I have plenty of other reasons besides the PGRE to believe that.[quote]

ROTFLOL.

On a side note, you guys have completely derailed my thread. Thank you very much.

May the wind be always at your back,
-Wonton Burrito Meals

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Re: Is there fear that this website isn't in our best interest?

Postby quizivex » Sun Aug 31, 2008 4:58 am

Months after this thread died, I wanted to come back and debunk once and for all the ridiculous assertion that "the physics GRE is worthless and inaccurate because there is very low correlation between student scores and their success in grad school." The student cited (edit: mentioned) a study by a Harvard grad student of the students in his program.

The fact is that there SHOULD be no correlation in this study, because students are admitted into a school by a holistic evaluation of their potential for success in grad school. Once you consider students that were already accepted into a program, it necessarily follows that their potential for success would NOT correlate with their GRE scores because they all have, on average, roughly the same overall merit. (Obviously, the level of merit of the students at any school, even a top one, is not the same, but if you compare all of the accepted students with GRE range A and the students with GRE range B, their overall merits as a group will on average be similar.)

It's an irresponsible study if that was the claim the grad student was trying to make. If you want to prove the GREs do not predict success, you need to consider a sample of UNDERGRADS, compare their GRE scores to their success in grad school, wherever they go.

Here's an analogous experiment:

Suppose you take all the toddlers in the world and count the amount of money they have in their piggy banks. Each piggy bank has some random combination of quarters, dimes, nickles and pennies, and you ask, should there be a correlation between the number of dimes in a bank and the total amount of money? The answer is obviously yes. For instance, if you consider all the toddlers with 100 dimes and all the toddlers with 200 dimes, the ones with 200 will have $10 more from the dimes alone, and since the worth of the other coins will balance out on average (we weren't told anything about the Qs, Ns and Ps), we have that the ones with 200 dimes will have more money most of the time, hence we have a correlation.

Suppose now you put the toddlers in groups corresponding to the total amount of money they have, for some amount of money, X
Group 1: All toddlers with 0 to $X
Group 2: All toddlers with $X to $2X
Group 3: All toddlers with $2X to $3X
Group 4: All toddlers with $3X to $4X
etc...

Now suppose you take a particular group of toddlers and measure the correlation between the number of dimes and the total amount of money.

Will there be a correlation?

The answer is that there will be a smaller correlation, depending on the value of X, and as X -> 0, the correlation will also approach zero. That's because as X approaches zero, each "group" consists of toddlers with the exact same amount of money, so there won't be a correlation between any particular coin and total $, since the total $ is constant. More dimes will necessarily imply correspondingly fewer pennies, quarters and nickels.

So let's see how this relates to the PGRE experiment.

I say the PGRE is a decent metric of merit and a decent predictor of success in grad school, and so are one's GPA, research background, recs, ugrad school quality etc...

You claim the PGRE sucks based on the fact that particular schools have found that their students' PGRE scores did not correlate with success in their program.

But the students accepted into the program were judged by overall merit, that is, the total amount of $ in the bank example. Their PGRE scores (the number of dimes), will not correlate much with their overall merit because the students of a particular program form a "group" of roughly similar level students, or similar relative to the very wide spectrum of talents in the whole population of students... (the value of X is small).

Note that I'm using the term "overall merit" in place of "success in grad school" because someone's overall merit should translate to success in grad school, and that's what the application process (and us) is trying to measure... whereas measurements of "success in grad school" were never explained by anyone on this thread who bashed the GRE.

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Re: Is there fear that this website isn't in our best interest?

Postby cato88 » Tue Oct 21, 2008 10:38 pm

will wrote:
GRE score averages are increasing every year and since people aren't getting smarter it's either do to access to information from places like this or the increased number of applications from international students. Even 25 years ago, requiring first-author publications at even top-schools would be considered rediculous...


Why is it that it's always safe to assume "people aren't getting smarter?" This is a valid question. Physics is getting deeper into standard curricula at least across the US... Very very few would have even thought of teaching quantum mechanics rigorously to undergrads not even 50 years ago, and it's now expected!


The physics also gets watered down to teach to undergrads. The quantum they were teaching 50 years ago is more like the quantum in first year grad school than the stuff taught to undergrads. The best example of this is mechanics were Lagrangian mechanics are not really taught till junior year in most programs and the topics which are omitted. Courses that have the same name are not necessarily equivalent some linear algebra courses emphasize more applications and gloss over spectral theorem.

The biggest qualm with the PGRE is that calculators are not allowed. It is not so for AP Physics/SAT II physics which are also administered by ETS. It is a weird way to create a scoring curve.

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Re: Is there fear that this website isn't in our best interest?

Postby dlenmn » Wed Oct 22, 2008 8:39 pm

cato88 wrote:physics also gets watered down to teach to undergrads. The quantum they were teaching 50 years ago is more like the quantum in first year grad school than the stuff taught to undergrads. The best example of this is mechanics were Lagrangian mechanics are not really taught till junior year in most programs and the topics which are omitted.


I recall reading a article (by Feynman?) which mentioned that caltech got rid of their original graduate quantum class (in the 70's? 80's?) because it was redundant -- all the students had already seen it in their undergrad. I think the author mentioned that was happening elsewhere as well. Unless you have evidence that trend has reversed, I don't think you're right.

What topics were omitted from mechanics that used not to be? Might some have been replaced with newer topics? We did chaos at the end of my mechanics class (which I'm guessing they didn't do 50 years ago).

Physics (like most science) has always been taught by starting with simple (approximations, "watered down") and working your way up. I've talked with old physics profs -- all the evidence I've seen suggests that things have been moving forwards, not backwards. (E.g. How many freshman had taken calc in HS 50 years ago? You think it's more than today?)

EDIT: It's in a speech by Feynman from April 1966. That's longer ago than I would have liked, but it's still less than 50 years ago and so it still contradicts your claim. It's available on google books.

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Re: Is there fear that this website isn't in our best interest?

Postby cato88 » Thu Oct 23, 2008 1:49 am

I find it a bit harder to compare the undergrad curriculum of the two tech schools to the standard quantum curriculum since I wouldnt say they are the norm. Most schools dont teach quantum mechanics as extensively as those schools otherwise there would be more quantum questions in the PGRE.
Compare UCLA BS requirements to Caltech/MIT BS requirements (in one two years of quantum are forced on you in the other you have more freedom) and thats between UCLA and Caltech.
Caltech doesnt have a graduate nonrelativistic QM course but MIT/Harvard/Princeton do therefore Caltech isnt exactly a norm in terms of graduate education.

I also think newer topic doesnt equate a more rigorous topic. I mean there is a lack of rigor and things are glossed over when I say "watered down".

I still think Classical Mechanics is a good example. I also think calculus is a good example. What used to be calculus before seems closer to Real Analysis than what is taught at high school.




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