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Repost: You’re only as washed up as you think you are March 21, 2013

Posted by mareserinitatis in career, research, science, work.
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Note: In the course of conversations, I sometimes find myself discussing something that I realize I’ve posted before.  Such was the case with the false notion that scientific honors go only to those who are brilliant in their youth, and so I’m republishing a post from the old blog which addresses this point.

I was listening to a speaker talk about success in grad school. This person said something that has bugged me to this day, particularly since I was 28 at the time. The person sitting next to me was 45…someone who’d worked in industry for over 20 years and decided to get a PhD. Both of us, of course, were parents. He said:

“You want to get through grad school as fast as you can. You want to do your masters in 1 1/2 year, PhD in 3 to 4. You want to do this because you’re young and don’t have families to distract you. Most of the greatest scientists made their great discoveries before they were 25, and you don’t want to be washed up.”

Needless to say, my fellow attendee and I sat slack-jawed after this most definitive pronouncement. We never heard the rest of the talk. We were too stunned to hear anything aside from the fact that were hopeless.

I wonder if this is the whole reason that so many academics feel you can’t succeed unless you put in 80+ hrs./week.

Look at it this way:

1 – The only reason to do science (or engineering) is to win great prizes in your field and endear you to humanity. (You see, you can’t do a job like that simply because you enjoy it. Never mind that most average people have no clue about the majority of Nobel prize winners.)

2 – You must make a brilliant breakthrough early in life to set the tone of your entire career.

3 – If you don’t manage to pull off #2, in order to achieve #1, you will spend the rest of your life chasing after the people who do manage to pull off #2. In that case, you must spend every waking minute focusing on your career and everything else is a distraction. (See FSP’s post on monomania, as well as the follow-up on Women in Science).

All I can say is, “Dudes, get over yourselves.

If you check out this paper (sorry about it being locked, but the NDSU library was nice enough to let me see it), there’s a lot of info that says how whacked out this view is.

It does some nice statistical analysis of Nobel Prize Winners in Physics for the period 1901-2000. Keep in mind that, unlike many professional society awards (the highest of which are usually given for career achievements), the Nobel Prize is a one shot deal. You may be a bright and highly productive person, but unless you make the one great discovery being considered most important to humanity, you aren’t eligible.

It says that Nobel prize winners, at the time of their great discovery, ranged in age from 22 to 64. The average age of the physicist at the time of discovery is 37.4 years with a standard deviation of 8.1 years. (That means that about 2/3 of the people make their discoveries between the ages of 29ish and 45ish.) On average, they get their awards 15 years after their discovery…but the range was 1 year to 53 years later. They did say that the trend seemed to be moving toward the laureates being older when they received their awards.

So the most compelling reason I can see to try to make that prize-winning discovery before you’re 25 is so that you aren’t awarded the damned thing post-humously!

(Keep in mind that your chances of actually winning something like the Nobel prize are probably not quite as bad as winning a lottery, but the chances still aren’t all that great. The max they can award is 30 per decade.)

As a counter to the three “thought points” above, I think these make more sense:

1 – Your best discoveries can happen any time between the time you initially become brilliant at something to when you’ve been brilliant at it for decades. If you are going to win a Nobel, chances are you’ll probably have been at it between one and two decades.

2 – A researcher with a good work ethic who has the time to enjoy his or her life may be less prone to burnout and may actually be able to accomplish something later in life. How many profs get tenure, take a sigh of relief, and just sit there because they’ve had the life sucked out of them as a grad student and assistant prof?

3 – You don’t have to spend the rest of your life playing catch up. Richard Hamming actually suggested that you change (sub)fields every 7-10 years so that your ideas don’t get stale. I’ve often wondered if having a very diverse background (which can take a while to accumulate) may in fact serve the purpose of coming at new fields with fresh ideas…rather than taking the single-minded, monomania approach that seems to be so often revered in science. Maybe, possibly, that approach is more suited to beating a dead horse. (Not always, of course.)

If you’d like more examples of how not to be washed up, I suggest reading R.W.P. King’s Obit. Pay close attention to this paragraph:

His scientific contributions were prodigious. He was the author of 12 books, many of them treatises; many book and encyclopedia chapters; and more than 300 journal papers. Most amazing, he never seemed to slow down. He published his latest book at age 97 and published his latest journal paper at age 98. He received numerous honors. King was a Life Fellow of IEEE and a fellow of the American Physical Society and the American Academy of Arts and Sciences.

If I win the Nobel prize, I want my discovery to happen when I’m older than 37.4 years. That way, when I do it, I’ll be above average…even for a Nobel prize winner. But in all honesty, I think I’d prefer to still be publishing papers when I’m 98.

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