Recently I was in an elevator at an engineering conference where another attendee made the comment "If you get C's in graduate school you don't belong in graduate school." The other professor in the elevator muttered in agreement. And I stood there debating whether to say something. My gut instinct was to say nothing, but I was at an engineering education conference and, well... I disagreed with what they were saying. Why? Because if they were right, I didn't deserve to be in that elevator. There I was, a tenured engineering professor, who had gotten some C's in grad school.
The best response I could offer at that moment though was "It depends on where you went." I was asked to name a school where this could be so, and mumbled my alma mater's name. I got a "C's are F's for grad students" reply. I let it drop. But... as we walked to the conference dinner he turned to me, with what I perceived to be a smirk, and asked me "What major did they allow you to graduate with C's in." He didn't reply when I answered "Mechanical Engineering, working in the robotics lab, at Caltech," and frankly I was glad the conversation ended because I felt myself falling into the pit of self doubt that I had repeatedly been in as a graduate student.
Did I get C's in grad school? Yes. I also got A's and B's. Typically if the class asked me to do a self-directed project, I got an A. (Software to calculate the Denavit-Hartenberg paramaters for different robotic hand configurations? I'm on it!) Asking me to take a three-to-four hour long test on theory? Well, typically I'd panic and it didn't go well... hello C's. Stand alone in a classroom for an hour at a time in front of a panel of professors who could ask me whatever they wanted about Control Theory, Mechanical Design, and Complex Analysis, for my doctoral qualifying exams? Scary... but I passed. (Interestingly, you don't get grades on those. You pass or you don't. Which makes a lot of sense. If you know enough to do the research you need to do, who cares if you know it at Professor X's A level or B level?)
Yet, I've heard this elevator conversation and its variants repeatedly in academic circles. Do A's make you a better engineer, or do they mean you were able to pass that test? Keep in mind that few universities have absolute bars for what makes an "A" or a "B". Additionally, I know very few Engineering professors who have ever studied learning pedagogy or education. Yet they get to give those grades. If it is agreed upon by some profs that "grad students who get C's don't belong in grad school" who do we lose? Should we only take the classes we'll get A's in?
Do I wish I had gotten more A's? Sure, that would have been nice. But I didn't give up. I worked hard in lab, I went to office hours,and I picked classes based on what I was interested in and what I needed for a PhD... not on what would have been an "easy" A for me. At a time when we are looking for new perspectives on major problems facing society, I worry about the not-rare sentiment that the only ones who "should be" Engineering PhDs are those who get A's in classes taught by people who aren't necessarily taught how to teach. Some of the best students who've worked in my research group were (undergraduate) students with mixed grades, others were straight A students. I haven't found that the grade itself is what determines how a student will function in a real-life engineering situation. Persistence, that means a lot. Also a curiosity about the world, coupled with a willingness to try things that they may not be an "A student" at.