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NIGMS Logo NIGMS > Minority Programs Update > Winter 2003 > Taking the Risk Out of Taking Risks

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   Taking the Risk Out of Taking Risks

Directors of training grants or other student development programs want to have superior outcomes to show for their efforts, especially when the time comes to submit a grant renewal application. The obvious, “risk-averse” approach is to select students who appear to be the most likely to succeed. However, by doing so, we reduce the size and diversity of the pool by not accepting students with different credentials who may be capable of making major contributions to science.What strategy would minimize the risk and optimize the success of a program that is willing to accept the latter type of student?

abstract drawing with text: 'GRE', 'GPA', and a question mark

As a scientist whose career started when a professor was willing to take a risk on me as a graduate student, I have a bias in favor of thinking broadly and boldly when considering students for admission to graduate programs. My undergraduate grade point average was just that—average. I am fortunate that a program took a risk in admitting me (and supporting me on an NIH training grant). Years later, I asked my graduate advisor why he had taken a chance on me. His response was that I had earned 98th and 99th percentiles on the GRE and As in organic chemistry and genetics. He figured that my being a football player as an undergraduate might have impacted my grades. He also saw that I was successfully completing a master’s degree with no scholarship support (I took out loans).

The notion of risk is very subjective. It involves an interplay between the probability that an adverse event will occur and the severity of its perceived consequences. There are high financial stakes when funds are committed to supporting a student for multiple years, which must be weighed against the risk of accepting a student who might not complete the course of study. Perhaps more important, the failure of a student is often traumatic and demoralizing, not only to the student and his or her advisor, but to the whole department. The risk of that trauma is reason enough for some to err on the side of selecting only those students who are likely to succeed. In such a case, the value of giving someone a chance is outweighed by the value of avoiding failure.

Assuming that we want to reap the potential benefits of accepting into our programs students who have unorthodox credentials, are there ways to minimize the risk of taking risks? I believe so, provided that three elements are in place:

  • a plan to provide assistance;
  • a clear measure of accomplishments; and
  • a set of alternatives if satisfactory progress is not being made.

In order to provide the most effective assistance, it is necessary to determine the initial skill levels of the applicant and develop a plan for guiding needed improvements. Is the applicant a self-learner and a self-starter? Does he or she possess good critical-thinking skills? Is the applicant’s background knowledge well-rounded? Does he or she have good communication skills? These and similar questions will help identify a student’s relevant strengths and weaknesses and guide the development of an individually tailored course of study.

In order to ensure that progress is being made, take periodic measures of the student’s skills to provide individualized, constructive feedback and reinforcement.

If a program takes risks, there will be a certain amount of fallout. Conscientious career guidance can help mitigate the trauma of failure and the distress this causes to the entire program.When students have multiple options before them, they will see that many paths can lead to success as long as they utilize their energy and talents. I knew that with my master’s degree I could become a high school science teacher, which was a whole lot better than some other jobs I could imagine. One of the great skills of my advisor/mentor was his enthusiastic support that instilled self-confidence. He helped people see where they could make the best match between their dreams and realities. He did this for everyone—from students to technicians to postdocs—without passing judgment, guiding individuals to their own decisions. He was taking risks, but calculated ones—he was admitting students of varying background levels and variable career trajectories, then helping them to become successful.

How can programs look beyond the “risk-free” student pool and take calculated risks with some students who have unconventional, but potentially valuable backgrounds? Should the quality of our training programs be judged on more than the high credentials of the incoming class and the high credentials of the graduating class? I invite your comments and suggestions on how the “value-added” aspects of a program could be evaluated and how risk-taking could be addressed in review and award criteria.

Dr. Clifton Poodry,, Director, MORE Division, NIGMS, Room 2AS.37, 45 Center Drive MSC 6200, Bethesda, MD 20892-6200, 301-594-3900

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