Graduate School: Where Grades Don't Matter

Yesterday I received a disheartening 44/50 on a homework assignment. Okay okay, I know. 88% isn't bad, but I had turned in my solutions with so much confidence that admittedly, my heart dropped a little (okay, a lot!) when I received the grade. But I quickly had to remind myself, Hey! Grades don't matter.

The six points were deducted from two problems. (Okay, fine. It was three. But in the third I simply made an air-brained mistake.) In the first, apparently my answer wasn't explicit enough. How stingy! I thought. Doesn't our professor know that this is a standard example from the book? I could solve it in my sleep! But after the prof went over his solution in class, I realized that in all my smugness I never actually understood the nuances of the problem. Oops. You bet I'll be reviewing his solution again. Lesson learned.

In the second, I had written down my solution in the days before and had checked with a classmate and (yes) the internet to see if I was correct. Unfortunately, the odds were against me two-to-one as both sources agreed with each other but not with me. But I just couldn't see how I could possibly be wrong! Confident that my errors were truths, I submitted my solution anyway, hoping there would be no consequences. But alas, points were taken off.

Honestly though, is a lower grade such a bad thing? I think not. In both cases, I learned exactly where my understanding of the material went awry. And that's great! It means that my comprehension of the math is clearer now than it was before (and that the chances of passing my third qualifying exam have just increased. Woo!) And that's precisely why I'm (still, heh...) in school. 

So yes, contrary to what the comic above says, grades do exist in grad school, but - and this is what I think the comic is hinting at - they don't matter. Your thesis committee members aren't going to say, "Look, your defense was great, but we can't grant you your PhD. Remember that one homework/midterm/final grade from three years ago?" (They may not use the word "great" either, but that's another matter.) Of course, we students should still work hard and put in maximum effort! But the emphasis should not be on how well we perform, but rather how much we learn. Focus on the latter and the former will take care of itself. This is true in both graduate school and college, but the lack of emphasis on grades in grad school really brings it home. And personally, I'm very grateful for it because my brain is freed up to focus on other things like, I don't know, learning math!

So to all my future imperfect homework scores out there: bring it on.

That's a 50/50 in my view.