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.


  1. I think that what matters is that someone tells them it’s not a given, it’s not easy.

    Trying for something hard and unlikely and not getting it is noble, is reasonable, is a human thing to do. Believing something is easy and yours if you choose it, then getting rejected for years and years and years, is painful and demoralising.

    My own PhD supervisor, at a very elite place, said to us when we started “the probability of you getting an academic job is not zero, but it’s so close to zero right now that you can’t easily see the difference. If you are doing the PhD in order to be an academic, not for it’s own sake, you should drop out now.” And he repeated the message – not in a discouraging way, and usually coupled with pointing out things we could do to make the probability ‘less zero’ such as, say, attending a workshop, or ways we could explore other options or develop skills – throughout our time with him. I try to replicate that; the conversation actually fired me up, made me think ‘well, I’m going to enjoy the heck out of my three years of PhD in case this IS it, and I’m going to try to beat those odds’. (I had what was probably my first major depressive episode during my PhD, but also had a lot of fun doing great science and could easily have been MORE depressed in a job I didn’t want to go to, and… I am an academic. A middle aged unhappy one, but an academic, and there are many pluses to that).

    As you point out, though, most of MY students are starting off with that probability closer to zero than I did – they’re not doing their PhD at InternationallyRenownedAncientUniversity with a supervisor who is a Rising Star (he isn’t now an Established Senior Star – his personality got in the way, not because he’s difficult but because he refused to do anything he didn’t actually want to do – and I respect him for that), for a start. Most, because LikesMaths comes from an overseas country where any PhD from an anglo country gives the student a huge step up, is on a national scholarship which has a guaranteed return programme, their project has been carefully planned by me and their MSc advisor (who is at one of the top universities in that country) to make the most of our joint expertise and send them back to their home country for fieldwork, giving them opportunities to build on their network, and every student I know of who has come to NorthernUni through this programme who graduated wanted to be an academic has an academic job of some sort in their home country. So LikesMaths has good odds! LikesMaths is also clearly an elite student – for a start, they Like Maths and are good at it at the level required (Not Physics), outstandingly so for the typical student entering my field

  2. Now starting my fourth year on the tenure track, I hear you much more than I would have three years ago. While I don’t want to discourage anyone from majoring in my field (our bachelor’s degree makes them pretty employable, I think), I do find it more tempting to discourage many of them from grad school — and even a major, in some cases. This semester I had a student who was super-excited about my science, but couldn’t calculate his way out of a paper bag. In my calculus-based intro course, he was canceling exponents (like, a^2/b^2 = a/b) and was completely flummoxed when I asked them to draw a plot of a line on a homework assignment (him: “but… I don’t get it… there are two unknowns! How can I figure out the value of one if I don’t know the value of the other?” etc). I was chatting with him at office hours once and asked what he was thinking of majoring in, and he said, “Well, I was thinking about this subject…” and I just politely expressed happiness that he was enjoying it and inquired about his plans for taking more math courses. But I just didn’t have the heart, the way I would have my first year, to encourage him and offer to help him catch up. It’s just such a long shot that what’s the point?

  3. See, I went into Econ instead of math partly because being good but not the best defines what kind of tenured professor I am, not whether or not I’m a professor. And if not a professor, then making 2x Econ professor level money in industry.

    Hospice doesn’t pay very well despite demand. I blame the patriarchy.

    Re paleontology, we only know one, with a Ph.D. From a top school. Definitely not employed as a professor even though that was a life dream.

  4. In the humanities the academic job situation is even more depressing. I don’t discourage students from graduate school, but I do think I’m frank about odds of employment and such. My own story is probably a combo of hard work, a reasonable amount of ‘talent’ or innate ability, and luck. That’s probably true for most academics in the tenure system. Any one of the three will only get you so far…

  5. The problem is that so much of the “drive” for that kind of success is cultural. I think of it as the arrogance of class. I see second-rate talent coming from elite histories (ok, first-rate talent, but not stellar talent) making it to that elite level of professor, and first-rate (and I mean stellar) talent coming from non-elite histories that don’t, and all because they don’t BELIEVE. In my opinion, we need to figure out how to get the kids from those non-elite backgrounds who have the stellar level talent to believe enough that they can take on (and surpass) the mediocre kids from elite backgrounds.

    Don’t forget a kid from a poor background with perfect grades has the same probability of going to college as a kid with C’s and D’s does from a rich background. I see the same occurring at the cultural level, where kids don’t know how to fight for it, or even that they have to. (Or that the ones who succeeded were also knocked down, but got up again.)

  6. I wonder how much the idea that if you just work hard at math/physics/school problems you will be good at it, is mostly because otherwise people wouldn’t even try. There is no prestige in being good at math/physics. These people are not rock stars, don’t have a lot of visibility, no cool role models.

    Whereas for sports, whether you are good or not, they are good for your health. The stars are very visible, they are considered a way out of poverty (scholarship). So you push yourself, your parents push you. Then there is even in the individual sports the camaraderie, so even those less talented will push themselves for the team.

    I don’t see that happen for things that require a brain. So we fool the kids into thinking that if they just work hard enough, they will achieve whatever they want. I told my graduate student point blank after he had been 2 years with me, that he would never make it to academic and that he would even struggle in a post-doc position at a prestigious institution. I told him his strengths were in doing what he was told, but he constantly needed somebody to supervise his work (research is not a homework problem, where I have the solution and where I will grade on a scale. The analysis you did/code you wrote/derivation you made is right or wrong, you can’t get an B+, it’s A or F. Also not my job to check your code for errors). On the other hand, I have encouraged an undergraduate student to go to grad school, she was creative and did seem to have that intrinsic drive to do research. I don’t know whether she will make it as an academic, but that wasn’t the point. I wanted her in an environment where she could full fill that curiosity.

  7. Of course we need people chasing foolish dreams. Otherwise the world would suck. The good news is that youth naturally provides the world with a steady supply of people chasing foolish dreams. As long as there are babies there will be (with a 20 year time lag) young guns chasing unlikely careers

    Since nature guarantees us a steady supply of people chasing foolish dreams, our job is to provide balance, and tell them the hard facts of life. Some of them will take our advice and be saved from near-certain failure and material deprivation. Others will ignore us and supply the world with foolish dreamers who keep life interesting and dynamic.

    Where it becomes a problem is when old people (like some of my colleagues) tell their chosen students that they have an excellent shot at those foolish dreams. Especially when they say that to people from economically vulnerable backgrounds. And they say it because they are funded to say it (pipeline and bridge programs and whatnot). That is unethical.

    Also, I agree with you that talent matters. Yes, grit or whatever matters. I saw enough classmates in college who squandered talent for lack of grit. But I also see people who say that grit is what matters and then they downplay the harder foundational parts of the subject. If you aren’t using your grit to work on mastering the foundations you are not on your way to success.

  8. welp. thanks for this motivation. really makes me want to throw in the towel of this current post-doc and professorial pursuit

  9. anon, I am just a Grinch on the Internet, please calibrate accordingly. You should press your academic elders to give you their honest assessment of the odds of success that are specific to you.

  10. There may not be many jobs for paleontologists who specialize on dinosaurs, but geology majors are highly employable. Fossil fuels are, after all, from fossils!

    I remember trying to make the point about innate talent at a women-in-science event back in grad school, and everyone piled on me because they thought I was claiming that women are no good at math. In fact, I was thinking about the years and years of music lessons and all the opportunities I had to play multiple instruments, and how I could plow through any piece of music, etc. But jesus no one in their right mind would ever want to listen to me, because I just didn’t have it. Math, in comparison, is easy.

  11. As someone who got a PhD and didn’t pursue the academic track at all, I confess I struggle to understand the “if they can’t be professors, they shouldn’t get a PhD!” attitude I run into sometimes on the internet (not here, of course). I am very glad I went to graduate school and got a PhD.

    I think we should give people an honest assessment of their chances, and then let them decide how long to chase their dream. I think the “honest assessment” part doesn’t happen as much as it should, both on a global “here’s what the job market is like” scale (although that seems to be changing) and on an individual “here are your strengths and weaknesses, and how they relate to your career plans” scale. PIs should try to learn how to give good mentoring feedback, but that is a skill like any other, and so of course some will be better at it than others. If you’re a student or postdoc whose PI doesn’t do mentoring feedback well, it is in your interest to try to find someone else who can give you that honest assessment.

    On the broader question of talent vs. hard work- I think it is really hard to say, because a lot of what seems like talent is just practice that started earlier. But then, sometimes the practice happens earlier because there is a spark of interest/skill in one area and not another. Humans are weird and amazing. I guess I think that everyone can get to a decent level of skill in just about anything if they just work hard enough at it, but that not everything warrants that work for everyone.

    And getting to elite level skills may be easier for some people than others, but some people want something badly enough to put in extraordinary amounts of effort to get to elite levels even when it is harder for them than it is for others. When I mentor more junior team members, I try to focus on the gap between what they know/can do now and what they need to know/be able to do to get to where they want to be. I might mention some other possibilities that seem like a good match to their skills and interests, too. And then I leave it up to them to figure out what they want to do with their life, because I really, truly believe that this sort of decision has to come from the person who has to live with the consequences.

  12. Well, as a long tenured prof at a research univ, who has spent her career doing research and mentoring students—I disagree. At least in my area of the biological sciences, grit goes a very long way. Ive seen students succeed who were really not in the top echelon, and Ive seen a lot of talented people fail and bail because they expected it to all be easier.

    However (and a big however), there are now people starting in these fields who just do not have sufficient intellectual firepower. With a lot of help, they can make it through grad school and get a PhD, but there’s no way they can head a lab or work independently. We try not to accept these students into our PhD programs in the first place.

    Re jobs: there are not lot of positions available, but fortunately, it is not a lottery and not all job seekers are equivalent. The truth is that there are not that many truly qualified applicants for these positions—if you show some hustle and develop yourself, you have a very good chance of landing a job.

    There are a ton of things you can do to make yourself a far better candidate for an academic research faculty position than most applicants. Some of the biggest things that make a difference are to publish aggressively and really market yourself.

    I see too many postdocs who sleepwalk through their job, who just do the bare minimum, they refuse to take the time to really become skilled public speakers, they dont want to develop their writing skills, they neglect to publish for years, they dont want to consider practical grantsmanship or take advice, they shy away or refuse to do anything they feel slightly uncomfortable doing such as going to meetings and getting to know other faculty and leaders in their fields. They refuse to use their own funds or time to attend meetings, buy a computer, maintain a membership in a professional society, or even learn a new software program. They dont want to consider any faculty position outside of their hometown. They dont read the literature.

    I have served on several faculty search committees. Sometimes we have sorted though a hundred applications and given up, since not a single one has any of the skills needed for the position. Only minor publications, no first author publications, no funding record and never even applied for a grant before, cant teach, cant write, cant express a coherent research plan…..of course, we’re not going to make you a job offer.

  13. The truth is that there are not that many truly qualified applicants for these positions—if you show some hustle and develop yourself, you have a very good chance of landing a job.

    I think this is what many tenured faculty tell themselves to justify their combination of skills and good fortune. In my field (astrophysics) there are most certainly excellent people not getting TT positions. The last job search I saw close-up had 365 applicants, a long list of 20, and a shortlist of 7. The 7 out of the 20 depended almost entirely on who was on the search committee that year and who was the better horse-trader on said committee.

    I also think hustle is too often confused with pedigree and relentless self-promotion.

  14. I see the same issue even in the high school system. For example, I had a student recently who wanted to go into medical school, but had issues with even the simplest math concepts (fractions, integers, etc). Knowing what is needed in order to even apply to med school, let alone get in, it’s hard to encourage such choices. At least at that level, students have lots of time to figure out what they’re good at, what the want to do, and hopefully find an intersection of the two.

    But, I totally agree, not everyone can do what they want or achieve their dreams. Not everyone can be a doctor (like so many high school and first year university students want to). I do think it’s the job of an educator to show the huge range of options out there.

  15. I am on a search committee. We got a surprisingly low number of applications (50) but we easily had 20 people with very good publication track records, strong teaching experience, and meaningful research mentoring experience with undergrads. (Those last two items matter at my school.) We only did preliminary Skype interviews with about a dozen of them, and we’re inviting 4 for campus interviews. I think that the 4 we are inviting are great, but if we had selected a completely different set of 4 I still would have felt like we’re serving the department well. Yeah, I prefer (most of) the 4 that we’re inviting, but it’s not like the next 4 (or even 10) are mediocre.

    Reading these applications, and looking at whom we didn’t even interview, I’m frankly baffled that I ever got a faculty job. And I’m not even very senior. The applicant pool has frankly gotten frighteningly good.

  16. Maybe you overestimate how highly the PI’s opinion is on a graduate student’s life choices. Hoping to be a professor and going through a PhD without knowing the odds is irresponsible enough to disqualify you from earning that tenure track spot.

  17. Timely post. I’m on the job market now.

    I’m not a super star. My CV is honestly just OK. After several years of postdoc-ing I have 1 FA paper actually published, there are more coming but really I didn’t feel ready to apply yet. However I was advised by postdoc and grad mentors to go for it, so I did. I applied broadly, I think to 25ish+ positions and – hurray! I’ve had several interview offers! I think I have a decent chance of getting a job, of course nothing in life is guaranteed.

    I get that the search committee thing sounds crazy on the face of it. Like, how was it that I (a mere mortal) got interviews, when there are hundreds of people applying to each position? Part of it comes from applying to a lot of jobs, I think. Sure, looking at any one position it is unlikely, but over many positions, you’ll catch someone’s eye eventually. And ultimately we are talking about other people looking at your materials and making a decision. It’s a crapshoot – much like grant proposals… apply early and often and you’ll eventually get lucky. Fit also makes a big difference for the mere mortals among us – I only got callbacks from positions which were fairly closely tailored to my expertise (and certainly not from all of those).

    My CV was only OK. People seem to think my papers are good, though I hate looking at anything I’ve written – always feel when I look at my own writing after a year or more that it is amateurish. My letters, I think, were very favorable. I believe I have built good relationships with the people that wrote my letters, they respect me as a person, my abilities, and my work ethic. None of my letters was from anyone who could be considered a star in our field so I don’t think I am benefitting from some old boys’ network except so far as the people I have worked with genuinely like me, and are generally respected by others.

    Full disclosure, I’m in a quantitative biological science, so not as hardcore-mathy as the physical sciences that xy and others are discussing. Maybe “talent” matters there a lot more than it does in bio-ville, where I think consistent, hard work really does matter a lot more.

    I do think there may be such a thing as “talent” for doing hard work with a minimum of extrinsic motivators. Are you able and willing and often even excited to come in day after day and grind through the process? That’s the hard part about academic science from my perspective – not the “being smart” part. If you aren’t excited enough to push through the drudgery, you are probably better off getting a job with more structure to it – and that is OK! Most people work better with some extrinsic motivators – it’s why it’s been the primary model of work for centuries.

  18. jojo, congratulations on your interviews! Best of luck.
    I think the willingness to work hard and mental toughness that you speak of are necessary (but not sufficient) to become a high achiever in any field.

  19. Just found this blog from gasstationwithoutpumps. Hi!

    My perspective as a computer scientist is most similar to nicoleandmaggie’s econ perspective. I have no qualms about encouraging talented students to go to grad school, because the downside isn’t terrible at all. It’s not a field where you need to do 2 or 3 postdocs to get your first tenure-track job. Having said that, I’ll encourage anyone to do a (funded, Canadian research) masters, but I’m more circumspect about the PhD. They should have some idea of what they’re getting into: even though the downside isn’t terrible, it’s still opportunity cost vs working in industry. However, if it’s plausible that they can get the academic job they want as a computer scientist, then I think it’s positive to give it a try, even though failure is an option, and perhaps a likely one.

    Agree that grit isn’t everything. Certainly not in sports. But the required mix of grit vs talent depends on the subfield.

    My PhD advisor said that you have to be lucky and you have to work hard. I think that’s particularly important in terms of developing humility in those that do succeed.

    (On the other hand, my judo coach just retired from international-level competition and is starting grad school in philosophy. I suggested that he 1) look at the odds; or, 2) see if he can spin himself as a computer scientist. The odds of making a living as an academic philosopher are probably better than those of making it to the Olympics, which he had been trying to do for the past few years.)

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