finding focus

Graduate schools would do better to skip the psychoanalysis and just stick to evaluating credentials.

The problem is there’s simply no way to predict whether one student more than another will be a “psychological fit” for academia. The proof is that graduate students are not, on a whole, happy. Don’t get me wrong, I don’t think they’re any less happy than the average person who has bills to pay, who works for a living, who is getting older, who has to strain to get noticed, whose success is no longer well defined or so… inevitable, as it once seemed. They’re no less happy but, for all their prestige, they are no happier. So it would seem that this current rubric for finding, among those who are qualified, the select few who are “right” for graduate school (that is, defined as focused, idealistic, persistent, unwavering…) does no better than random in accomplishing its goal.

Yet every year, students are starting to define their “research track” earlier and earlier, and graduate schools reward them for their “focus”. I don’t really know at what point, between making an arbitrary college choice, an arbitrary major choice within this college, navigating a core curriculum which is meant to establish a broad and general knowledge base, starting a thesis with the first or second lab you ever worked in, you’re supposed to have found your life’s calling definitively in some subfield of some subfield of some field of science. I didn’t find it by the end of junior year (which is when the decision must be made), so I took some extra time to find out, to think carefully about whether this is for me.

I don’t get how that might make me a weaker candidate.


6 thoughts on “finding focus

  1. Ben Chun says:

    To be a complete cynic about it, the reason it makes you a weaker candidate is because you aren’t going to feed and support the system the same way that the “more focused” (that is, less experienced) candidate will. Phil Greenspun wrote a good article on how this applies to women in science, and his ideas apply broadly:

  2. Lulu Liu says:

    I do intend to go into industry…

  3. … and I am still confused. I think industry would be the “lesser of the two evils” for me, although doing what’s “useful” for society no longer makes me happy 😛

  4. Lulu Liu says:

    did you have some dreadful experience? or just old and jaded

    • Anonymous says:

      I would like to think that I just hit some road bumps, although lately I’ve been careening down the cliff after said bumps, so… :shrugs:

  5. Anonymous says:

    So how’s graduate school going?

    And what industry are you planning to join? Do you think graduate school will give you those qualifications required, or is it merely an intermediate step that is enjoyable enough for you to go through?

    – from a fellow MIT physics major.

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