Monday, May 04, 2009

The Best Years of Your Life

Last week I went to Howard Burton's talk at the Graduate Student Research Conference at the University of Waterloo, assuming he'd be speaking about his book that I just finished reading. Instead he gave a motivational talk about graduate school, supposedly "The Best Years of Your Life." While I have to say calling my years as a graduate student the "best years of my life" is a somewhat overly romantic memory, what I remember well is that one can always need motivation, thus today a feature for our younger readers.

Howard started with the overarching question "should you be here (in graduate school)" by asking the audience "If you won the lottery and would never have to work for money would you still be here?" and if the answer to that question is not a convincing "yes" then get out. 

I like the approach, though I have my reservations. Fact is, a substantial amount of people make their PhD as a job qualification and not to continue in academia. Just two weeks ago the European Commission released the results of a new survey which (among other things) asked students about the significance of the role of higher education in: ensuring employability; enhancing personal development; and educating people to play an active role in society. They find that all three of these factors were considered to be important by a large majority of respondents: 97% of students believed it was 'very important' or 'rather important' to provide students with the knowledge and skills they needed to be successful in the labour market, 91% agreed that the enhancement of personal development was very important or rather important, and 87% of respondents considered that the education of people to play an active role in society was an important aim of higher education (PDF here). Thus, I'd think it's fine if you'd  leave if you won the lottery but aiming for tenure probably isn't for you.

Howard then continued with listing the five excuses for not to fully use one's potential:
  • I'm not smart enough.
  • I don't want to work on fashionable topics.
  • My supervisor is a(n) $#@&%!
  • I don't have enough time.
  • I don't know enough.
and went on with addressing every one of them. I didn't take many notes, so I will paraphrase what I believe I recall he might have said: 
  • Not being smart enough is not an excuse. We recently discussed the question how important is talent? I believe that talent is generally overrated and hard work underrated. You just do what you can and do it your own pace. 
  • If you don't want to work on fashionable topics, well, then don't.
  • If your supervisor is really unbearable then get a different one, otherwise just grin and bear it. Consider that one day you'll be in his position and can shove around poor graduate students.
  • If you think you don't have enough time, folks, it's not getting better than this. Howard is right on this point. I used to think I never had time to finish anything because constantly somebody wanted me to attend a seminar, or give a seminar, or to write proceedings, or I had to grade student's exercises, or I had to go for a coffee. Especially those coffees took up a lot of time. These days the most quiet time to think I find on planes. And I'm not even teaching! I secretly believe with tenure you get a little time-machine like the one Hermione uses in 'Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban' so you can squeeze in 30 hours into a 24 hour day.

The last point, Howard said, is the only one to be taken really seriously and so he elaborated on it in more detail. Yes, you don't know very much. This feeling of not knowing enough isn't going to vanish. In fact, the more you learn the more you will realize how much more there is to learn. I find this occasionally frustrating, more frequently humiliating, but one has to live with it. As a graduate student however, two factors score in your favor: youth and ignorance. If you are a graduate student, your senior colleagues will be forgiving if you don't yet have a good overview on the literature. They know it takes time to get ones feet on the ground. However, ignorance, Howard pointed out later is generally over-hyped. I agree with him on that. You find plenty of ignorance on the web, it isn't usually helpful and particularly annoying when it ends up in my inbox.

That leaves youth. Howard argues that it endows you with a "rebellious spirit," "time to be sufficiently self-indulgent/monastic," and "flexibility". I think he confused youth with not having responsibilities which isn't necessarily the same thing. That then leaves the "rebellious spirit". Frankly, I find today more rebellious spirit among the fifty-somethings than among the graduate students. 

But the true reason I'm saying that is of course that I'm a grim old lady now, counting my grey hairs and I'm not going to write about the advantages of youth, no way. Indeed, I read recently that creativity peaks both in the arts and sciences in the late thirties to early forties. Thus, the best years of my life are yet to come. I'm waiting.

Having reached the end of my notes on Howard's talk I am pretty sure I have completely garbled up its meaning. Sorry! Let me therefore just add my own advice: You only have this one life. Don't waste your time. Be clear about what you want and don't lie to yourself about your interests, your goals, and your commitment.

The discussion following Howard's talk poked around on the "fashionable topics". Most of the students in the audience seemed to be considerably less idealistic than the speaker and pointed out the need to compromise to be able to continue doing what one really loves. And they are right, it can be difficult. But it's only going to get more difficult from grad school on, so whatever you do, don't give up your dreams too easily.


  1. When presented with a screw and a piece of wood, intelligence is a hammer. No matter how great the power of the impact, it must still be wielded with skill.

    The most remunerative social trajectory is parasitism - skimming a cut of the flow. Who is richer than a charitable organization? Who sees more pornography than a censor?

    If you choose to create civilization rather than suckle it, heed the warning in Watchmen (Chapter II, p. 27): Rorschach, "Man goes to doctor..."

  2. Dear Bee:

    Indeed, I read recently that creativity peaks both in the arts and sciences in the late thirties to early forties. Thus, the best years of my life are yet to come. I'm waiting.You have to rush into them, waiting doesn't work :)


    Funny, the word verification is "waster".

  3. If we were to teach more math and science in high school, students would have more time to persue their interests.

    In today's system, you are not learning much before you go to unversity. If you want to spend a few months studying something topic at research level without having to account to anyone what you are doing, then the only opportunity to do that is when you are a third or fourth year university student.

    Before that time you don't know enough physics and after that time, if you are a Ph.D student, you cannot just do anything you like to do (at least not for a long time).

  4. You didn't say, Bee, whether you had dreams. And if you had, you should have even more now and will have many later on. It never stops and it's the true basis of genuine science, the rest could be done by robots (or Ph.D. students :) ). I think that this is a talent for science, its major part or manifestation determining the rest. And the “best years” that never stop, not even in the worst times. “Scientist” is just another name for “Dreamer”. But marriage without true love can also be “successful” and even tends to dominate, and yet more in research. We should change that. Fantastic dreams to you, children.

  5. Dear Bee,

    thanks for the report! The I don't know enough objection is indeed a hard one. It took me quite a lot of time (and a PhD ;-) to be a bit more relaxed about that one...

    Cheers, Stefan

  6. Hi Bee,

    “ I like the approach, though I have my reservations. Fact is, a substantial amount of people make their PhD as a job qualification and not to continue in academia.”

    Yes this is very true and I find it unfortunate. In looking at the stats you have it also bears this out, where completing a masters or PhD these days being more just another piece of parchment to hang on the wall, rather than reflecting a commitment to expanding what is known. Perhaps the whole of the university structure has been watered down where ones attendance is thought of more as an entitlement, rather than a challenge and/or commitment. Perhaps this in part is what Howard Burton was communicating with his winning the lottery question?

    I often wonder how many all this is wasted on and if the resources better spent in more practical focused training. Also, if one looks at the statistics I think you will find we are pumping out business graduates, economists, lawyers and accountants at an ever increasing rate with engineers and scientists at an ever declining one. This leads me to also wonder whose ideas the first group are going to promote or live off of when the second is in decline. I’m concerned more with the imbalances in education in terms of the skills required to keep moving a world more complex with problems requiring minds of the best quality and utility we can produce. So for me it’s less to consider what they want and more to consider what we need.



  7. Hello Bee,

    It is certainly true that age
    and the number of things one
    believes in are inversely related.

    I am 52 years old, and have
    achieved such a cynicism that
    when I take a drive in the country
    with a friend, and she says
    " What a cute BROWN cow ? ",
    I gaze into the pasture and
    respond. "Yes, ..., on this side."

    I have a PhD in algebra, but
    work as a Mathematical Statistician
    for the USDA - which is NOT any
    kind of a professional position
    despite the name - I am sure I
    would have been financially better
    off not getting the PhD, studying
    algebra, or even studying mathematics at all .... But, call
    it irrationally romantic, but
    I still love reading mathematics
    ( pure and applied ), doing mathematics when I can, and
    BIT! In a world which is often
    ugly and dull, and for someone like
    me, very lonely, mathematics is
    a shining, true beauty : as much
    a cultural triumph as a Shakespearena sonnet, or a Bach
    concerto -

    Old guys sometimes have surprising
    feelings, I guess.

    Tim Keller -

  8. Tim said: “Old guys sometimes have surprising feelings, I guess.”

    Rather, Tim, they have right feelings, not obscured any more by those vain ambitions that dominate too often through younger years and mainstream careers of this label society. There is probably more to it because those who are 52 now were young together with the world that had something very “special” and “creative” at that time, with all those “spiritual” and other “searches” on the foreground that have become so weak and “invisible” today. Maybe today is just another and the last chance to succeed with it, for us and for their small world?

  9. Ahh, bee,

    but would he , or you , for that matter, be having jot and teach and lescture if you had millions of $ ;)


  10. Well, I don't teach and don't lecture, and I never aspired to become a lecturer for that matter. I would certainly continue with my research no matter what amount of money flew my way, though I would change some aspects of my life.

  11. Oh,
    I thought you got a new position as a lecturer (in Sweden?) ?

    Well, it's nice to see the spirit of research lives.


  12. Huh? The assistant prof is not a lecturer position. In fact, it doesn't even have teaching duties, though I don't mind teaching. I just don't want it to be my prime occupation.

  13. hmm,

    I do find it unusual that prof. doesnt have teaching duties.

    I thought being prof. is about teaching?


  14. Do you at least have consultation duties?

  15. Depends on what sort of institution you're at and what position you have. Research institutions (like eg PI or SFI) often don't have teaching duties, people are however in most cases offered possibilities to teach so everybody can do what their schedule allows (either at the institution itself or at a nearby university, in PI's case the University of Waterloo). In other cases positions can be explicitly lecturer positions. Not sure why you assumed my new job is a lecturer position, it isn't. Faculty positions at public universities generally have teaching duties. Not sure what you mean with consultation. In case you mean mentoring students, same as with teaching. No duties, but the possibility to, and I intend to use that possibility.

  16. “No duties”: indeed, that's a very exact definition of how it actually works, this entire unitary science establishment because “no duties” actually concerns not only teaching duties but also those to have any meaningful results in the form of existing physical or other real-world (rather than purely mathematical, artificially generated) problem solutions. They just determine themselves how “great” they are “in principle”, by their “calculation talents” (estimated always by themselves) and what luxurious conditions they need in exchange for the exquisite pleasure they accord to this world already by their divine presence on its perishable landscapes. These “scientists” have already spent many decades of their luxurious life and working conditions in order to leave only piles of useless, spoiled paper and wasted gigabits behind them (nature and nurture destroyed in vain) and what is yet much worse than this, they have spoiled and continue to spoil younger generations of potential creators by transforming them into stupid machines of useless “calculations” within absurd “models” having nothing to do with reality and its really interesting and now also dangerously pressing problems. This is their real “duty” as measured by real results.

    And this is also the answer, Anonymous, to your ironic contraposition of their “hard work” and some presumably “given” millions. Any real millionaire does have real duties of either generating those millions or making them working efficiently or at least finding a purpose for their application. But these “researchers” and “professors” only take their luxurious gifts and realise their absolutely perverted, vain-ambition-driven pleasures of absolutely abstract exercises (which are completely corrupt, subjectively estimated and evidently inconsistent even as such!) without any creative duty at all because according to them (and all “official” information), they are already extremely “great” like that, with ever growing additional royal “prizes”, honours, remunerations and other divine pleasures (e.g. remunerated luxurious tourism called “conferences”) their acquire without any real progress.

    So millionaires, you “happy lazy” guys, you cannot even dream about their level of fare niente! You will give and they will take and you should be happy that they take and don't even try to ask anything about results which are “great” by definition and inaccessible to your limited abilities, irrespective of (absent) real problem solutions and (present) generation of new, often absolutely artificial problems. See now who's the boss, your fooled and abused crowd of so called “rulers of the world”? Because this now visibly, inevitably degrading world (it is already explicitly, physically destroyed at its dominating miserable “outskirts”) will blame you, not them, for its sad destiny.

    So captains, if some of you want anything better than this, any real progress and (fundamental and practical) problem solution, any human, intellectual and social progress, there are other, realistic possibilities for it based on provably new knowledge development, without vain ambitions, misleading imitations, useless abstractions and selfish frauds, and your first duty (and pleasure!), captains, is to apply your otherwise inevitably destructive millions and billions to this new, well-specified initiative open to a wide public participation, far beyond traditional tricky “popularisation” of non-existing “achievements” of that fraudulent official “research”. It will also give rise to the intrinsically unified “new spirituality” qualitatively exceeding both dying traditional, blind “cults” and equally blind official science doctrine (that cannot, including all its “advanced” and “novel” imitative “models”, properly clarify anything, starting already from a single electron, but seriously modifies now the full depth of individual and planetary life by its zero-efficiency, destructive “trial-and-error” approach). Details are available but real practical possibilities and motivation for their realisation are needed to start any activity. Knowledge itself is power, that's true, and it is the only power that can “save the world” (that does need it!), but it should be clear that such power is far beyond the possibilities of the perverted establishment doctrine (and the self-interested establishment knows it, to be sure!). Nice pleasures to everybody, in all the years of your life!

  17. Andrei:

    "these “researchers” and “professors” only take their luxurious gifts and realise their absolutely perverted, vain-ambition-driven pleasures of absolutely abstract exercises (which are completely corrupt, subjectively estimated and evidently inconsistent even as such!) without any creative duty at all because according to them "

    etc etc

    Once again you show nothing but a complete lack of knowledge how the worklife of the average faculty member does look like in practice. You have demonstrated here and many times previously nothing but ill-informed rants about what you for whatever reasons believe the 'ivory tower' looks like from the inside, and how you dislike what you've constructed. The blogosphere offers plenty of opportunity for you to find out what reality looks like. Why don't you start with that and meanwhile spare us your elaborations on how you have verified we are all evil, useless, self-centered losers.



  18. I am a professional of the same profession, Bee, although with an experience twice as long as yours (thus remembering, in particular, its much better times), coming from various, including “developed” countries, their universities, top-level conferences and all the rest. So I am not more “ill-informed” than you as you state just like that, “par excellence”. All professionals need not agree in their estimates and you can specify your vision of how and why things are different. But you just state that I am wrong, unconditionally, and you are right, unconditionally, because you “know the truth” that you do not even specify. This is but another example of how it really works, official science, in which kind of “democratic discussion”.

    In general, however, there are even too many statements today from science professionals, even in “central” establishment sources about very serious problems in science practice and results (you used to produce many of them here too). I only summarise them and try to inform the world about an important possibility to realise a constructive, well substantiated problem solution instead of infinitely repeating the same problems accompanied with repeated vain promises of the style “we shall try better now” (or “change without change”), after decades of vain “attempts”! I do not even propose to replace the obviously useless and now obviously dangerous official “research” (can't really count on such elementary honesty with a system as corrupt as that!), but only to try reasonably, in parallel and on an infinitely smaller quantitative scale, something else, truly different and provably efficient, just for the case where this decades-old degradation of science will be recognised as such yet before the resulting catastrophe will become irreversible. Have a look also at the last post of John Horgan's blog for a truly professional and well-informed opinion from the Big Brother (and don't forget to re-read your own comment there!). John does provide a very good advice there, doesn't he?

  19. Andrei: In contrast to you, I have not provided an absolute judgment on what the academic life allegedly looks like in all generality, because I don't know it, and I don't generally extend my personal opinions to apply to everybody and the whole world. You are wrong simply because any exception to your statement renders your statement wrong. Incidentally, you are the one who has 'unconditionally' extended his personal opinion to encompass all and everybody, so your accusation that instead I am the one who is providing an 'absolute truth' is quite ironic. It's also called projection.

  20. You are wrong: in my statements I always emphasise that I am talking about official, officially dominating science state, rather than about science "in general" and in particular I do explicitly propose another kind of professional science, which should make absolutely clear that I am just talking about the differences in science. I simply denounce the absolute, subjectively promoted and unmerited domination of only one, very special and very limited scientific doctrine (rigorous proof available and mentioned many times here) indeed in the entire official science establishment. It's also strange that you consider science in that patchwork way: in reality it always tends to a sort of universality, by its very origin and within any, including officially dominating and qualitatively deficient version. If you don't really know how modern science really is in all its major places, in the epoch of internet and very intense international experience (yours including), then you're a strangely poor professional, and what are we talking about then if you do not master the subject at all? Or if you want to say that you know nothing about the world but everything is always OK just there where you now are (just because of that :) ), then say it openly, so that everybody can have a fun!

  21. Right... the 'officially dominating science state'. Wonder who exactly has decided what that is supposed to be.

    "If you don't really know how modern science really is in all its major places, in the epoch of internet and very intense international experience (yours including), then you're a strangely poor professional"

    No, I don't 'really know' how 'modern science really is in all its major places'. I'm a 'poor professional' for not equating a place with a website or a blogger?

  22. Hi bee,
    well, I understand Andrei,
    the current climate in academia doesn't look very fertile, to put it that way. it's easy to get frustrated with the whole busineess of it, and around it.


    I didn't know about practice there, around here there is somewhat different position name for lecturers and nonlecturers (btw. I am not employed in acade3mia)

    And, yes, by consultation I meant mentoring students.

    Btw, I'm curious, were you offered possibility to teach? Will you?


  23. A: Well, I never said all is great. Anybody who reads this blog knows that I am critic of many things in academia. On the other hand one has to put things into perspective. It's neither that the academic system completely dysfunctional, nor is it homogeneously good or bad. And while I am sometimes blame my colleagues for not being rebellious enough and accepting a system many of them consider suboptimal too, I know the reason for that is certainly not that they are lazy or don't have responsibilities, but on the contrary. The vast majority of scientists in academia I have met are extremely hard working despite their work, as you say, being often frustrating. Regarding teaching, as I said above, I do have the possibility to and I intend to use it. Don't know details yet.

  24. Hey Bee,

    I think the thing I got most out of that talk was his point about if you won the lottery would you continue doing what you are doing. That's the most out of it that I got.


  25. Beyond any subjective attitudes on the subject, I think there is an involved objective novelty that keeps being under-estimated despite formal “talks” in that direction. It's in the fact of growing importance that today what is called “academia” cannot and should not be and is not as separated from “their” non-academic, “ordinary” world as it always used to before. It's a part of those unifying “globalisation” processes (not only geographical ones) and would be long to describe in all aspects, but it's here and it's new and important. At the same time, that traditional, “officially dominating” academia keeps behaving basically as always: they should pay us and we shall try to “find” something “interesting”, maybe, and then will try to explain them something, maybe, but they should keep paying us, always and the more and more. It's not only and not really about money, it's about civilisation development, including its major, intellectual components. Instead of progress, we have degradation there, even in science itself, let alone the “general” level (which is related because when science is not progressing, there is no real interest, etc.). On the other hand, there are very serious and catastrophically growing real-life problems that would need “exact-science” level of approach, but this dominating abstract-modelling breed is intrinsically unable to be useful for it (cf. “gauge invariance” or “Gödel incompleteness” or “quantum games” as approaches to economic problem solution). This is the point: the problem is not subjective “insufficient wish” to be useful in important applications or amplify “understandable” research development, but real, objective inability to approach real-life problems, interests and “attitude” itself while remaining within the same “math-physical” (and in general “positivistic”) doctrine that resembles the more and more another religious, blind belief system (“mathematical reality”, etc.)

    It means again that if one wants to progress, one should find a possibility, somewhere, to give a serious attention and development possibility for an intrinsically realistic, reality-based kind of knowledge once it can be properly specified (which is the case but in any case should be the case). It is very important, of course, for science development itself after its current the more and more frustrating “end” (much more frustrating than in the original Horgan's version of “too complete” science), but it's also important for the world that maintains that science that should maintain the world, etc. It's all quite differently interconnected and involved now, but “old good” academia bosses in their “self-organised” company continue their usual “internal” games and do not want to accept any reality-based novelty (actually, any serious novelty at all, considered as a “threat” to their “authority”). There is the more and more “appeals” from many scientific “oligarchs” themselves for promotion of novelties (e.g. Dyson, and others), but it's only words as in real actions everybody and everything remains at a usual level of submodels of submodels of submodels... of basically wrong (but unconditionally dominating) models! If that fruitless academic “science” can support it “infinitely”, the real world and its real human intelligence can not any more, and it's not in a state where such critical contrast and rupture can be further ignored without catastrophic consequences.

  26. Andrei Kirilyuk's last post - I hope he is not confusing the somewhat dire state of particle physics with science as a whole. Plenty of real-life problems are being tackled.

  27. The part about winning the lottery is a good example to me too.

    What stronger test of your motivations to really see one in interested in your science, if you did not have that added pressure to make money to survive, to still do it, because you wanted too? Because you are obsessed with it?:)

    Also, while working outside of your science education, to pursue your interest in your specialization, while surviving?

    Quite honourable in my books as well.



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