On Eric's Advice to his son (David)

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Published by Anonymous (not verified) on Fri, 17/01/2020 - 5:49am in

Today my son David leaves for Oxford, where he'll spend Hilary and Trinity terms as an exchange student in psychology. He is in his third year as a Cognitive Science major at Vassar College, soaring toward grad school in cognitive science or psychology. He is already beginning to think like a graduate student. Here's some advice I offer him and others around the transition from undergraduate to graduate study:

(1.) Do fewer things better. I lead with this advice because it was a lesson I had to learn and relearn and that I still struggle with. In your classes, three A pluses are better than five As. It's better to have two professors who say you are the most impressive student they've seen in several years than to have four professors who say you are one of the three best students this year. It's better to have one project that approaches publishable quality than three projects that earn an ordinary A. Whether it's admission to top PhD programs, winning a grant, or winning a job, academia is generally about standing out for unusual excellence in one or two endeavors. Similarly for publishing research articles: No one is interested to hear what the world's 100th-best expert on X has to say about X. Find a topic narrow enough, and command it so thoroughly, that you can be among the world's five top experts on X. The earlier in your career you are, the narrower the X has to be for such expertise to be achievable. But even as an advanced undergrad or early grad student, it's not impossible to find interesting but very narrow X's. Find that X, then kill it.--Eric Schwitzebel "How to Be an Awesome First-Year Graduate Student (or a Very Advanced Undergrad)" [HT Dailynous]

First, let me start by wishing David a wonderful time at Oxford! 

Schwitzgebel's letter was widely circulated approvingly by my academic friends on social media. And most of his advice (2-6) struck me as quite sensible, even wise--so go read the whole thing first. But I am ambivalent about (1.) [That's the the one I quoted above.] The reason I am ambivalent is that I recognize the hard truths underlying Eric's advice: there are plenty of smart folk. Specialization is the key to be noticed. To professionalize early ("have one project that approaches publishable quality") gives you a leg up in the academic rat race. It is now no rarity anymore to find MA students trying (and succeeding) to publish journal articles. As Nathan Ballantyne puts it in a charming review (of a recent book by Bill Lycan) "younger [professional] philosophers all know that reading outside of your field does not get you a career. It just doesn't pay the bills." (Read the whole review.)

But here is another hard truth: time is a scarce good. Time for research is, perhaps, the scarcest good. Pretty the much the only time of our life when we are free to read and explore is during our undergraduate and graduate (or as the English say: post-graduate) periods. Perhaps, during a generous post-doc, too. Yes, as we know from Eric's blog, he keeps up a regular habit of reading and ranging widely so it's possible. But among administrative, teaching, grant-making, and family duties there is very little time for curiosity. (Oh, and let's not get started on networking.) Our whole professional lives are oriented toward managing our times in effective ways so we can produce 'high quality' publications. I suspect, but haven't asked Eric, that he is like me and uses the development of new courses as means to keep educating himself on new topics. Perhaps -- but now I am projecting -- his excellent blog is also a means to find good excuses to keep his interests broad.

The bottom line is that we have near limitless freedom to explore intellectual avenues during our education: seminars, speakers, reading groups, etc. This is the period of our lives where we can create very solid foundations for our future intellectual habits; when we can learn different academic vocabulary and methods, and also quietly mull connections some of which invisible to our brilliant teachers. We learn to talk with folk from wide variety of academic disciplines and orientations. Most importantly, we learn to ask fruitful questions--perhaps the most important and underappreciated academic skill. This is especially important when we encounter intellectual obstacles not amenable to easy resolution.

As an aside, some of this academic learning and curiosity driven intellectual development can happen in relaxation time. I say this not to reject Eric's suggestion (6): "Draw bright lines between work time and relaxation time." This is sound, even existentially important advice. But when I was a graduate student I had (recall) a dog. I met folks from all walks of life in dog-park. But this also included quite a number of other academics. This has generated not just life-long friendships -- dogs > cats! --, but also exposed me to brilliant minds doing fascinating stuff. This has generated life-long conversations, including ones that have shaped my research trajectory.

Okay, to return my ambivalence. And I am not quite sure how to put it. In part because I am sure Eric's advice to David may well be right for David. But I worry there is such a thing, even a rather solid entity, as premature specialization. Lots of very bright and exciting minds on the cutting edge become dull academics with little to say of interest and so end up saying the same thing over and over again. (Please fill in your own favorite examples!) To experience this first hand is one of the few advantages of age. I even suspect that early intellectual hyper-specialization has something to do with the phenomenon of the diminishing rate of return from basic science that economists have been puzzling about. For, the focus on killing the narrow X can also end up killing off curiosity.