The Good Thing About a Bad Grade

The Good Thing About a Bad GradeThe subject of “bad” grades has been on my mind lately. With many university semesters drawing to a close, I’m watching my friends who teach at the college level cope with the by now routine requests from students to elevate their grades, whether through extra credit, re-grading an assignment, or just because. Based on stories from my friends, students can be quite aggressive in their pursuit to enhance a grade.

This is maddening for professors, for multiple reasons. I don’t think I need to elaborate on the reasons why it’s also a bad thing for students when their classmates find ways to raise their grades post-hoc. What I want to talk about is why getting some bad grades can actually be helpful on your road to choosing a career and shaping your professional life.

When I was in college, I earned a couple of grades below what I’d wanted. Specifically, I was required to take an intro statistics course for the psychology major, and really struggled through it. I ended up with a C-, which was not high enough to count toward my major, and had to retake it a second time. I finally eked out a B- (and then went on to discover I’d be taking advanced undergraduate stats, graduate stats, etc.). Believe me, I was not happy about my stats grades. However, the experience of struggling with those classes gave me a few valuable insights about myself and my working style:

I do best with statistics-in-context. I’m not good at holding theoretical statistical concepts in mind and memorizing formulas. However, if I understand the setup of a study and the goals of an analysis, I can choose the right statistical tools and interpret the results. I try to always do my data problem solving with context because I know my brain does better that way.

If a study I’m working on has complex analyses, I want a data geek as a collaborator. I have my talents, and they aren’t setting up path analyses or complicated mediation models. I love my quantitatively-minded colleagues and want them on my study teams whenever possible. The end result is so much better for it, I learn something, and someone gets to be my hero.

I can get better at things if I work really hard at it. I remember feeling despair about statistics when I was in that first class and doubt about whether I should even pursue psychology. For me the big breakthrough was doing research where I could see how stats were used in context, but I also wanted to prove to myself that I could do better. I ended up TAing two semesters of undergraduate research methods in grad school, which I’m proud of as it shows the progress I made.

I will not be my best professional self if my job is primarily statistics-based. Statistics are not my strongest skill set, and trying to pretend they are not only sets me up to underperform at work, it distracts me from focusing my talents where they are strongest and bring me the most pleasure. I can remember just after grad school looking at a job posting for a really quantitative position and thinking, I could probably do an adequate job . . . but I don’t want to.

Don't make Jean Luc mad.
Don’t make Jean Luc mad.

A bad grade can help with career decisions, both for the student and for prospective employers or graduate schools. In addition to being a student, I’ve served on undergraduate and graduate admissions committees and been a hiring manager. I have never lost interest in an applicant because of a single or even a handful of poor grades, provided those grades are balanced with strong marks elsewhere and other indicators that the person is an overall good candidate. I have used the patterns of low grades to learn about an applicant: This person wasn’t engaged in his liberal arts courses. This person wasn’t strong at foreign languages but probably had to take them for a graduation requirement.

Students, if your report card isn’t as strong across the board as you want, take heart. You may not have an A average, but you do have a clue as to what will help you be a happier and more productive person in your future career.