Grades don’t matter. I’ve beaten around this bush before in my prior NYU CS rants by saying that students are overly obsessed with school, that they should care less about grades. Lemme go the whole way. Grades do not matter. More specifically, they don’t matter in two ways:
Way 1: You Want A PhD
Do you want a PhD? I.e. do you plan on spending 4-6 years on a singular research project? Do you plan on going into academia or a research career?
When I ask my fellow students this question, they usually give a non-committal “well maybe”. This means no 99% of the time. Grad school is not something that you can just waltz into. If you seriously plan on applying to a PhD, you should have a plan of attack involving research experience, talking to professors and finding areas of interest. There’s a whole host of great grad school advice out there.
For some reason, a lot of students view grad school as just another accolade to get. Good high school students go to good colleges; good college students go to good grad schools. Remove that notion from your head. Graduate school is like law school or medical school. Would you go to medical school just cause you did really well in college and wanted to learn more? No! You go because you want to be a doctor. Unless you want to be a researcher, do not go to grad school.
If you’re on the fence, and I mean truly on the fence, then follow Philip Guo’s advice. Go to CSRankings.org, select a subfield you might be interested in, and see which schools are highly ranked in that area. Click on a few professors and check out their research. Does this research sound interesting to you? Can you stand to read a few paragraphs1 of a research paper? Great! Maybe you should talk to your professors about grad school.
However, I will make the case that if you do want a PhD, you shouldn’t care about grades. This doesn’t mean you should get bad grades. A decent CS GPA does factor into your admissions. But as outlined in the wonderful Applying to PhD Programs in Computer Science guide, it doesn’t matter that much:
When applying to a Ph.D. program in CS, you’d like your grades in CS and Math and Engineering classes to be about 3.5 out of 4.0, as a rough guideline. It does not help you, in my opinion, to be closer to 4.0 as opposed to 3.5. It’s a much better idea to spend your time on research than on optimizing your GPA. At CMU the mean GPA of students admitted is over 3.8 (even though we don’t use grades as a criterion), however students have also been admitted with GPAs below 3.3, since research is what matters, not grades. A GPA of 4.0 alone with no research experience will not get you into any top CS program. Keep in mind that GPAs are evaluated in the context of the undergraduate program. A 3.4 GPA from a top-ranked CS undergraduate program like CMU counts the same as a 3.8 or 3.9 GPA from a less well-known CS undergraduate program
“But Nick!”, you exclaim, “I should care about grades then! I need to get at least a 3.5 GPA.” Sure, but I said you shouldn’t care about grades, not that you should get bad grades. If you’re planning on going to grad school, you should like computer science. Computer science should be a hobby of yours. You should enjoy going to class or reading the textbook or talking to professors. Yes, there may be a course or two that stretches your interest; I didn’t exactly enjoy Theory of Computation. But it should still be easy to get decent grades in computer science without caring too much.
And in the areas that you really enjoy, that you might even consider as a PhD subject, it shouldn’t be close. You should enjoy the material enough that you happily read ahead, that you bug your professor, that you could practically teach the course yourself.
As I’ve already explained in the Intellectual Ambition post, the causality relation here should be that genuine interest implies good grades. Not the other way around.
Way 2: You Don’t Want A PhD
If you do not want a PhD, then grades are worth little to nothing. Passing is worth something, certainly. A CS degree is worth something. But your GPA? Not worth much at all. Oh sure, grades might help get you that first internship or job. Y’know what also would help? Projects, networking, cold emails, etc. If I had to bet on what would give a better return on investment, I’d certainly say projects. Companies care a lot more about whether you can write and deploy code versus your grade in algorithms.
There are an elite few places that care about grades, such as hedge funds and other financial institutions. However, they too put a lot of emphasis on prior work experience and technical ability. I suppose some effort put into grades would be worthwhile in that case, but the grades are still meaningless unless you have work experience. Truth be told, it’s probably not your grades that prevent you from getting that Jane Street internship.
You may notice that I’m omitting masters. That’s cause you probably do not need to get a masters.
Does this mean you should slack off in courses and do the bare minimum and not learn anything? God no. Seriously, please don’t do that. You should keep learning, but approach it as a genuine interest. The problem I see with so many NYU students is that they focus too much on the grades and not on the learning.
If you’re a CS major, I’d hope that you like CS. If that is the case, then you should learn because you enjoy it, and coincidentally get decent grades. If you don’t like CS, well grades can be a decent indicator of whether you’re putting in enough work, but they’re not a sufficient indicator of whether you’ll be an employable CS graduate. Either way, you shouldn’t use grades as your metric for success. I suppose that’s a more accurate way of phrasing this post, but hey, it isn’t as eyecatching.
Research papers are pretty hard to read and require a lot of knowledge. It’s totally fine if you can’t finish a paper or understand more than a few paragraphs. ↩