Tuesday, August 25, 2015

Advice to boy and girl wonders

At every institution occasionally an absolutely brilliant young student comes on the scene. A number of colleagues have pointed out to me that it seems that often these students are in a "race". They [or their parents] have some goal like:

Get an undergraduate degree before most people graduate from high school.

Be the youngest person ever to get a Ph.D from university X.

Become a faculty member before they are 23.

Be the youngest person to ever to get tenure at university Y.

Sheldon Cooper from the Big Bang Theory embodies this. He endlessly reminds his friends that he graduated from college when he was 14 and was the youngest person at the time to receive the Stevenson award.

This big rush is a mistake on several grounds. Overall it reduces enjoyment, deep learning, and substantial achievement. It also increases stress. Furthermore, promising students slow down as they go up the academic ladder. In most countries, the clock really does start clicking at the Ph.D award date. i.e. eligibility for certain awards is determined by years since the Ph.D. Don't rush to get there.

This cautionary view is supported by a great child prodigy, the mathematician Terry Tao. In a recent profile piece in the New York Times Magazine, it says
Tao now believes that his younger self, the prodigy who wowed the math world, wasn’t truly doing math at all. ‘‘It’s as if your only experience with music were practicing scales or learning music theory,’’ .....  ‘‘I didn’t learn the deeper meaning of the subject until much later.’’
Aside: this is very nice article that is worth reading. It is really encouraging to see a substantial article about a scientist or academic in the popular press that really engages with content of their work and does not sensationalise the person.

No comments:

Post a Comment