Day: December 21, 2015

On Chasing Dreams, or Not: A Post Devoid of Coherence

So here I am, watching Dinosaur Train with my 4-year-old. He’s sitting with me, or, more precisely, on as well as around me, in a big armchair. He keeps moving around and poking me with his elbow, as he repositions and props himself up.

I learn about new dinosaur species. Scott the Paleontologist — who reminds me of one of my former students, and appears to be dying his hair these days — ends every episode by prompting the viewers to go into nature and make their own discoveries. In this episode, he tells the kids about what  paleontologists do. He says that maybe they will become the next generation of paleontologists.

My first thought is, “Yeah, right. Like you can actually get a job working as a paleontologist. How many jobs are out there?”

Eldest’s high-school swim season is in full swing. There was an alumni meet recently, some former graduates came back and swam against the team. One of the most impressive alumni swims in college. During his high-school time, he was not only a state record holder in multiple swimming events, but was also a decorated track-and-field athlete. Some people are just born for sports; there is no amount of hard work or grit can make someone with no natural ability become comparable to a guy like this one. And he’s probably not even elite-level, Olympics material. But it sure was amazing to see how he cuts through water like a knife. A very fast knife.

We seem to believe that elite-level sports and arts are the province of only the supremely talented, who can then become great with proper training and hard work. But when it comes to academic pursuits, it seems to be a very bad idea to suggest that some people just don’t have enough talent to pursue certain fields of study.

I am not saying that everyone can’t learn some basic algebra, but let’s face it, you may have done OK as far as high school math goes, but that might be your limitation; maybe you should not be majoring in a field that requires a lot of math. Yet, it seems nobody is allowed to suggest that. As that student of whom Scott the Paleontologist reminds me said once upon a time, it’s very un-American to imply that someone cannot do something. It’s totally fine to say that, as long as professional sports are concerned and I suppose the arts, but math and physics are inherently learnable, arbitrarily well, by everyone? Puh-leez.

Being middle-aged is apparently a universally grumpy age. I hear Scott the Paleontologist calling out to young bone excavators, and the first thing I think about is how there are no jobs. On the one hand, that is true. There are no jobs. On the other hand, the world would be a crappy, crappy place if everyone played it safe and became hospice nurses, as that’s a pretty sure bet as far as jobs go, with all the aging boomers.

We spend a lot of time in the blogosphere lamenting how PIs don’t discourage their students and postdocs enough away from pursuing PI-dom. But here’s the deal: some people can and will become PIs. They mostly come from top schools, but there are good and successful people everywhere.

I am vacillating between wanting to be responsible, discouraging people from pursing what is for many an unattainable station, and not wanting to be condescending, not pretending to know what people want and are able to do better than even themselves.

But let’s face it. There are folks who don’t have what it takes to make it in a competitive and selective career. Sometimes, what they lack is talent. Other times, it’s the things that is attained by privilege or luck. Let’s at least tell them that it will be very, very hard.

There is a young faculty member in my department who came with a ridiculously fancy pedigree. He’s a great guy, smart and creative, and quite funny. The other day he was musing on how students should all TA (I agree!) so that they would see if they like teaching (I agree! Also, to become better at presenting in front of an audience!), and if they do like teaching, then they might want to become professors. I almost peed myself with laughter, metaphorically of course; I poker face held and I said nothing. What I wanted to say is that he thinks the only thing that stands between someone and a faculty position is the love of teaching because he came from the upper echelons of academia, recommended highly by the leading lights in the field. His own graduate students will not have such a pedigree. It is not impossible, but is certainly not a given that, just because his student likes teaching, they will become faculty. And let’s not bullshit ourselves; this is a research university, whether or not you can develop an independent research program and raise money is nearly all that matters. Whether or not someone enjoys teaching is an afterthought. It shouldn’t be, but it is.

Competitive endeavors are competitive. Professional trajectories are described by highly nonlinear differential equations; initial conditions matter a lot.

But talent matters in everything. Let’s please not trivialize intellectual pursuits as something that can be mastered with enough grit.

I remember a friend from college, who spoke several languages fluently. Initially, the friend majored in theoretical physics (same as me), but left the program after the second year, “Every A in the major takes me so much effort, while the languages and the writing are so effortless.” The friend went on to learn several more languages and is a freelance journalist living abroad.

Very few people succeed at anything competitive. They have the combination of talent, training, mental toughness, and luck. If holds for sports, it holds for the sciences. Please, please let’s not encourage the people who don’t have much talent to major in the areas in which their talents don’t reside.

But we have to have people pursuing dreams.

Perhaps the worst disappointments come when you are almost elite, but not quite. When you are better and more talented than so many, and everyone thinks you will make it to the top, and you give it your all, but you fall just a little bit short of the golden ring. Many kids swim in high school and happily so, knowing there is no competitive future for them beyond the team. My son is among these kids, and enjoys every second of his time on the team. He gets physical fitness and great memories. It’s the kids who win golds in high school but are never offered swimming scholarships, or those who start swimming in college but realize they are now out of their league and quit, or those who go to the Olympic tryouts but never quite make it.

The endeavor needs enough people starting out, so that enough good ones could almost make it and enough great ones do.

Chances of not succeeding at anything competitive are much greater than of succeeding. It’s heartbreaking to fail. But is it always the best idea to discourage the people from even trying? Should we as PIs at good but non-elite schools actively try to stomp out every inclination of all our progeny to even dream of a professorship because the chances are really slim? I try to let my students know as much as I can about what the job is; for most, that’s enough to turn them off. But there are some in whom I see the fire and the combination of skills and determination, and I think they could, with coaching and some luck, make it. Should I tell them to forget it just because, even for them, the odds of not succeeding are high?

Maybe grumpy disillusioned farts like me should not be in the business of squandering dreams. ‘Cause if no one has dreams and aspirations, we are all screwed.