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ROBERT NEUBECKER

I bombed the GRE—but I’m thriving as a Ph.D. student

The third time I took the Graduate Record Examination (GRE) was going to be my last, regardless of how I scored. I had long harbored dreams of pursuing a Ph.D., and I wanted to do well because the exam is key for admission to many U.S. graduate programs. But I couldn’t afford to retake it, emotionally or financially. I was unemployed at the time and my partner and I were trying to get by on his postdoc salary. I’d taken the exam 7 years earlier, but my scores were so low I didn’t even bother applying to Ph.D. programs. Now, I was giving it one more shot.

I didn’t know what standardized tests were until high school, when I immigrated from Colombia to the United States. I wanted to attend college so I took the American College Testing exam. Fortunately, my high school offered a free prep course and I managed to achieve good enough scores to get into college with financial aid. During my first year, I told my biology professor I was passionate about studying and protecting nature. He offered me a position in his lab, which taught me how to conduct research and what a career in academia looks like. Then, in my third year I was selected for a program that prepares undergraduate students from underrepresented groups for doctoral studies. As I neared graduation, applying to grad school felt like a natural next step.

But then I took the GRE and bombed, testing below average in all sections. I couldn’t afford to enroll in a prep course, which cost upward of $3000. Instead, I had studied using a $40 test prep book. As a native Spanish speaker, I found the verbal section demoralizing. But what was even more daunting was the way the test was administered: Correct answers were followed by harder questions. That affected me psychologically: When easier questions appeared, I assumed I’d gotten the previous question wrong.

Convinced I would perform better and manage my test anxiety with more preparation, I took time off after graduation to study full time. But my scores didn’t improve on my second try. My hopes of becoming a scientist vanished.

Over the next few years, I took a series of temporary jobs. I worked in a molecular biology lab troubleshooting protocols. Then I moved to Brazil—a place I’d always wanted to live—and found jobs studying birds in the Amazon rainforest and curating specimens in a natural history museum. That connected me with professors in Brazil, where I was accepted into a master’s program.

After I defended my master’s thesis, a paper on which I was the lead author—my first—was accepted for publication. Slowly, I began to see myself as a scientist. I wanted to continue down the academic path. So after my partner and I moved to Boston for his postdoc, I summoned the courage to give the GRE one last try. I studied for weeks and paid $205 to book an appointment.

I remember how anxious I was as I walked into the windowless, dimly lit exam center, aware my performance that day could make or break my dream of pursuing a Ph.D. As the test proceeded, I thought it was going OK. But when my score appeared on screen immediately afterward, my stomach dropped. I’d scored even lower than my first two attempts. I felt defeated.

I wonder what I’d be doing if the admissions committee had not overlooked my GRE scores.

Afterward, I reached out to a professor who I’d been in contact with before my exam appointment. I felt insecure and embarrassed about my scores, but our conversation left me reassured. He told me about research suggesting the GRE is a better measure of race, ethnicity, and income than academic ability, and he ended by saying, “I will go to battle for you in front of the admissions committee.” His confidence in my potential encouraged me to continue applying.

Weeks later, when I received an offer from his university, I felt a mixture of excitement and disbelief. I was filled with joy, but I also couldn’t believe how much time, energy, and expense it had taken to get into a Ph.D. program.

Now in my third year, I have no doubt I am where I need to be. Still, I wonder what I’d be doing if the admissions committee had not overlooked my GRE scores. It pains me to think how many people are kept out of science not for a lack of talent, but because they didn’t excel at a standardized test. Many graduate programs, including my own, have decided to drop the GRE requirement in recent years—and I hope many others will follow.

Do you have an interesting career story? Send it to SciCareerEditor@aaas.org. Read the general guidelines here.

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