Sunday, February 25, 2007

Physics, smarts, and perspective

There's a great post on Cosmic Variance about the "cult of genius" in physics - the myth in our discipline that if you're not supermegabrilliant (Feynman/Einstein/Hawking, as Julianne puts it), you're basically a pedestrian loser. Hand in hand with this is the still-persistent attitude out there that if you get a physics PhD but don't end up a full professor at Harvard, you're a plodder. Read the post and the comments. It's great stuff. It also makes me remember my first real intellectual wake-up call, realizing that I was surrounded by really smart folks and would have to get used to it. First semester, freshman year, taking this class from this fellow, and getting 6 out of 30 on the first exam. The mean was a 9. One real advantage to getting an undergrad degree at a top-tier place is the character-building early realization that there are many people smarter than you. Better to come to that conclusion at 18 than at 22 or 25....

22 comments:

smm said...

correction: i think it was actually julianne.

Anonymous said...

" early realization that there are many people smarter than you. Better to come to that conclusion at 18 than at 22 or 25...."

I don't think you need to worry about that if you are a minority. The only thng you need to realize as a minority is that you can do better than people smarter than you .... just use the system and always pretend that you have achieved everything irrespective of being a minority :)It always helps to play the minority card, and then pretend later to be upset if somebody points it out.
It always works !!

Incoherent Ponderer said...

I felt like hot-shot in high-school, but quickly learned that there were people as smart as me in college.

In grad school I got a feeling that not only there are people smarter than me, but that EVERYONE is way smarter than me. Later on, I heard the same sentiment from a guy who I felt was one of those "way smarter" people. My own self-esteem didn't recover until postdoc years, which I did at another top-10 ranked university, but somehow I could definitely tell the level of motivation and smartness at my own PhD institution was quite a bit higher, at least for students I worked with. At my postdoc university some are smart, but almost everyone is more laid back, while at my PhD department everyone seemed to be super-talented AND a workaholic! But somehow I have a feeling this is my own perspective, rather than a true fact.

Also, I didn't like either way - I didn't particularly like it when everyone worked way harder than me (or so it seemed) in grad school. And I certainly didn't like working with students who were not as motivated (=lazy) compared to the inhuman hours I put in as a postdoc.

poincare said...

The class you point out is introductory freshman physics course. If everybody was so smart, how come the class average was 9 out of 30 in a course like that?? I just fail to grasp how that can happen... Was the grading binary?

Anonymous said...

"Better to come to that conclusion at 18 than at 22 or 25...."

With respect to physics, I didn't come to this conclusion until I was in grad school and starting to do real research in particle/gravity/string theory stuff. My strategy of "winging it" on everything (ie. problems sets, exams, labs, etc ...), was no longer effective.

With respect to mathematics, I came to this conclusion when I was age 18 as a freshman in university. I took the "honors" level courses in real analysis and abstract algebra (both were two-semesters each) during my freshman year, where I found out the hard way that I wasn't the smartest guy in the room anymore and that I was just "average". (I finished all the freshman/sophomore university math courses like calculus, linear algebra, differential equations, etc ... during my high school years). This was when I knew that pure mathematics wasn't my forte. After my freshman year of university, I change my major to engineering physics.



JC

Anonymous said...

Yeah, grad school can be an eye opening experience for US students. The competition they face from East Europeans, Indians, and Chinese is too much to handle (though the last one can't speak proper English). Ask any foreign student in grad school, and they think they are wasting their time with a bunch of phonies (including their advisors), while a US student, in general, can't handle the competition. Not always true, but mostly that's what it is.

Doug Natelson said...

poincare - It was a bad test, given that the mean on the exam was 30%. The class was using Kleppner's mechanics book, and the test was on the first three chapters or so. The first chapter was like immersion training in vector calculus. Tough class! I can still remember chapter seven from that book, on Euler angles and gyroscopic motion, almost 18 years later.

Incoherent Ponderer said...

competition from foreigners is real, but I find that in top schools american students are as good as foreigners. It gets worse for 2nd and 3rd tier schools, where disparity grows greater.

Foreign students often get the short end of the stick on the job market - due to visa issues and accents. But I find they are generally more focused and willing to work a lot harder than american counterparts. However, looking at rumor mills, it would appear that the fraction of foreign-sounding names among candidates is a lot lower than among grad student or postdoc populations.

Doug Natelson said...

When our search is completely over, I'll write more about this subject, but the Ponderer raises an important point. Communication is absolutely key to success on the job market and in the discipline as a whole. It doesn't matter how talented someone is in the lab or doing calculations: if they can't explain their work clearly to a variety of audiences, both orally and in writing, they're at a major disadvantage.

I further agree that this realization of competitors is not a US vs foreign student phenomenon, in my experience. I've seen my share of brilliant domestic students and pedestrian foreign ones, despite the stereotypes to the contrary. The 1st/2nd/3rd tier transitions are more shocking. I remember a friend who was very demoralized to find that to be competitive with the best (domestic, as it turned out) student in terms of theory and math background, he should've been taking graduate level courses back when he was at his undergrad institution.

JC said...

Doug,

When I was an undergrad, I wanted to take the quantum field theory courses during my junior or senior year, but my undergrad advisor wouldn't let me enroll in it for academic credit. In my junior year, my advisor felt that it wasn't appropriate for me to take the quantum field theory course, considering I had not taken the introductory quantum mechanics course yet for credit. (I studied quantum mechanics on my own during the summers after my freshman and sophomore years, by cranking out tons of problems out of several textbooks like Saxon and Merzbacher. I even worked out many of the simple textbook field theory problems like tree level calculations in QED and phi^4 theory). During my senior year, the professor who normally taught field theory was on sabbatical and nobody else in the department wanted to teach it on such short notice.

What ended up happening was that my advisor agreed to answer any of my field theory questions, and that he would direct me to particular calculations, books, etc ... Though he still wouldn't let me officially register in the quantum field theory course for academic credit. From not knowing any better, I didn't bother mentioning that I studied quantum field theory and general relativity on my own, on any of my graduate school applications. I suspect my application was "wait-listed" at the top universities, considering I got all my offer letters relatively late compared to other friends who received theirs earlier from the same top universities.

JC

Anonymous said...

You could be right about the visa stuff, ponderer. I'm an international student in a top-tier school.

I am willing to take a lower end job due to immigration issues. If I go back, my whole Ph.D. will be meaningless.

Advisors are known to delay students' Ph.D. to maximize research output in the cheapest way, but they should realize that they can mess-up a foreign student's career.

Good advisors are very few, anyways.

poincare said...

Doug, I am not entirely sure so called "communication" plays an important role in getting faculty jobs. There are lots of people in national academy of sciences who are really bad speakers. If you are going for a nonacedemic job like sales and trading where you deal with customers constantly, communication skills are obviously vital.
Like others pointed out before, international students have tougher time in climbing to the top of the academic ladder mainly for nonacademic reasons. I am an international student too and I can write and speak in three different languages very well. That is something if you consider the president of this country speaks broken english. My advisor says I can write better than 90% of the american students. If USA did not have any foreign graduate students, it would be below asia pacific countries right now in science. It is already behind europe.

BhpG said...

I don't want to get into a slugfest over domestic v. foreign training. And I'm a teacher in an American high school, so no one needs to tell me about lazy American students. :) But one has to be careful before drawing too many conclusions about brilliant foreigners versus stupid (or, more usually, lazy) American students. When looking at a cross-section of a typical American university science department, the students from country X that you see are essentially all drawn from the top tier of what country X can produce. The middle-of-the-road students simply don't go abroad. So the students you encounter are statistically biased to be smart, well-trained, and highly motivated. This is not so true of the US students, for whom entry is easier.

To put it more succinctly, the "typical" (say) Russian student you encounter at (say) Stanford may be far sharper than the typical American. But she's also probably far sharper than the typical Russian, too, if you include all Russians (including those in, you know, Russia).

Doug Natelson said...

Bernie is right. Consider the IIT schools in India. The country has a population of 1.2 billion, and the IITs have a total enrollment of around 30000. The IIT graduates that study abroad are the elite of an elite.

Anonymous, I'm glad that you have no communications problems. There are no shortage of foreign students who are not as fortunate in their fluency. I am also regularly appalled by the poor grammar and communications skills of allegedly native speakers of English. While there may be members of the National Academy who do not speak well, I guarantee categorically that overall success in physics academia today is strongly correlated with good communication skills. I don't care how brilliant you are - if you can't explain what you're doing and why it's important, you have a very tough time getting the resources to do it.

Doug Natelson said...

Whoops - that last comment was directed at poincare, not anonymous. See, my own communications skills have betrayed me.

Anonymous said...

Well, I saw previous comments and thought of writing. Doug, do you know any professor who has delayed a good students' Ph.D. either deliberately (although not blatantly) or non-deliberately (but unfairly), just because they can get done some good research in a short time ?

This can really affect an international students' career. I can go on about the immigration rules, etc. but I don't think you will understand. Does not matter whether I'm from IIT or if I'm at Stanford, I feel my career is pretty much messed-up (though in the eyes of the domestic students, I'm still doing very well). I feel I have to take a low-end job only because of my immigration issues, which my advisor used in an unfair way. That after I worked for him for so many years, and wrote so many papers for him .......

Doug Natelson said...

Anonymous - There is definitely anecdotal evidence for that kind of bad advisor behavior. There's a(n) (in)famous story about a math grad student at Stanford and a hammer.... I have never witnessed it first-hand, and my sense is that it's relatively uncommon. Indeed, my own adviser would start to push pretty hard on people to graduate if they had been around more than 5.5 years or so (assuming that they were productive). While I understand on some level the temptation to hang on to talented, highly trained students, it's definitely unethical to keep someone from graduating just to use them as cheap labor. Taking advantage of immigration restrictions (basically holding visa status hostage) deliberately is abusive. Unfortunately, something like that is difficult to prove. I don't want to meddle, but have you had a frank discussion with your adviser about this? It could be awkward, so you'd need to approach it carefully, but it's possible that adviser cluelessness is at work here rather than adviser selfishness.

That being said, there are big cultural variations in "normal" times to PhD. In general it seems like theorists get out faster than experimentalists, for example. AMO folks seem to take longer than many condensed matter types. Precision measurement experiments almost always take a long time, while chemists often can get out in less than five years.

Anonymous said...

Well, I gave him the benefit of doubt thinking that he was clueless, and that's why I told him all the details. I just didn't realize that he would use the same info to delay everything.

Basically, a foreign student has to maintain a legal status at all times. It's not like we have time to look for a good job after the defense. If we can't find a good job before the defense, then after the defense there is no option but to take whatever is available. It's more complicated because of the visa cap, but this is the simplest way to put it.

So when I started looking for postdocs ~6-7 months before the planned defense, he said it's too early. As if research was going to be affected in any way. So I told him how I wouldn't be left with too many options to pursue a good career. He still didn't want me to look for anything since the research could be affected. And if he doesn't write the recommendation letter, then I can't apply for any postdocs.

Now he says that his funding source is such that he can only pay for doctoral students. So if I defend on the planned date, and get a Ph.D., he wouldn't be able to pay my stipend during the time I'm looking for a postdoc. According to him, the best option for me, if I want to find a good postdoc, is to delay my defense date by a couple of months. He figured it out really well. He knows now that if he stops my stipend, I wouldn't be able to go on for too long, and what he is suggesting is actually the best possible option (if I want a good postdoc). In other words, what he is suggesting is that he would write a letter for me only if I delay my defense, or he can make the situation very complicated, affecting my immigration status and ultimately, my career. Meanwhile, he has a new project for me, which he thinks I can finish in those 3 months of extension. Sickest part is that he pretends he is trying to help me with a situation that is out of his control and can't be helped.

I have a very high paying job offer from the industry (which didn't require his letter). But I could have got similar high paying jobs 5 years ago, without even coming to the US for Ph.D. I'm just so sick of all this drama that I think I'm going to defend on time, take the industry job, and forget about postdoc/research for good. A good postdoc is simply not worth the hassale. Who knows what he can come up with three months later ......

hermanweyl said...

Doug and anonymous,
I am international student too (at Rice for the records) and I have no idea what anonymous is talking about.
First, postdoc visas are not subject to any visa cap unlike nonacademic jobs
Second, I do not understand why three months is a problem for anonymous. If my advisor gave me a project which had a good chance of producing a paper in three months, I would stay. If you can wait for 5-6 years for PhD, you can wait for another 3 to 6 months, right?
Third, you do not need to leave the country right after you defend your PhD. You can stay here leagally for another 14 months after that and look for any job you want.
I do not think this is the place to discuss this issue. Doug, I suggest you ignore this person since he is writing b.s. He seems to have personal problems with his advisor rather than scientific.

Anonymous said...

The American graduate students and/or postdocs that I encountered at the University of Wisconsin-Madison in the field of biochemistry or genetics were equal to, if not at least better than the foreign students. While both populations of student were equivalent experimentally, the American students were better writers and communicators. In addition, foreign students from China or India are often clueless about politics, soft-diplomacy, and team skills. Americans play a LOT of sports as kids while foreigners often study their entire childhood away. I find that Americans work much better in team settings than foreigners. It's ironic given that people often view the US as individualistic and asian countries as collectives. This difference is even reflected in business: American businesses are often large or multinational whereas Asian or foreign businesses tend to be small and only family-oriented. Another thing to think about is that many of the best and brightest Americans do not even become scientists. The money in America is in law and business. I knew several American geniuses who majored in math or physics and that I would put up against the very best of Asia, who ended up becoming lawyers. Just my take

Reputation Managers said...

I don't think you need to worry about that if you are a minority.

Honda Crx parts said...

I'm glad that you have no communications problems. There are no shortage of foreign students who are not as fortunate in their fluency.