Focus

By Sean Carroll | May 9, 2007 12:09 pm

A true story.

I’m sitting on the graduate admissions committee for the physics department at a major research university. Across the table, fellow committee member Prof. A is perusing the file of an applicant who is on the bubble. Prof. A turns to Prof. B next to him and says, “Did you see this one? The student has a Masters degree in Divinity.”

Now, you know me. Not really the Divinity-School type. But still, I’m thinking, that’s interesting. Shows a certain intellectual curiosity to study religion and then move on to physics. There’s some successful tradition there.

But Prof. A shakes his head slowly. “I would really worry about someone like this, that they weren’t devoted enough to doing physics.”

Prof. B nods sagely in assent. “Yes, you have to be concerned that they just don’t have the focus to succeed.”

The student didn’t get in.

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  • Ambitwistor

    I know of a physics department which accepted a philosophy major with little prior experience in physics. “Lack of focus” did not turn out to be a problem at all. (The lack of physics expertise, however, did become an issue.)

  • HRA

    If you’ve ever known someone who did a M.Div – you know that they definitely have the ‘focus to succeed.’ It’s a LONG intensive degree.

    Prof. A and Prof. B were obviously more worried about the religious aspects of the student rather than anything else.

    Just for the record – having faith, or an M.Div, does not make one a scientific moron. There are some Christians who are excellent scientists and vice versa.

  • http://thecrossedpond.com adam

    It’s unfortunate when decisions like that are made based on a character construction that is larger than the evidence can support. As for guessing which grad students will make the research grade, I am not convinced that graduate admissions boards are necessarily getting it right in general (and it’s a hard thing to do, of course, given how different research life is).

  • http://scienceblogs.com/interactions Rob Knop

    That is (a) complete plausible, and (b) the stupidest thing I’ve ever heard.

    Physics academia is ill, very ill.

    At Vanderbilt, we admitted and heavily recruited a student who has spent a lot of her time trying to balance music and physics. I believe she has a masters degree in some sort of music, although I could be remembering wrong. And she certainly wants to continue with music.

    As much as I bitch about tenure at Vanderbilt, in a lot of ways we have a sense of perspective that is lacking at the “top” Universities. In any event, I would say that the Vanderbilt Physics department of today, despite some very serious flaws, is really a pretty good place in the scheme of things.

    -Rob

  • Nate

    Sounds like the student dodged a bullet there. I wouldn’t want to go to a university with professors who clearly are eschewing looking for real evidence rather than referring to their own preconceptions. If you have the ability to look broadly at the world, and study intensely in multiple unrelated disciplines, you probably do have the focus.

    Of course, this is further evidence of why the assault on academia is a particular threat. When you do start to have a large subset of credentialed ‘scientists’ going back to god as the reason for all things, then other scientists will feel a particular impulse to set aside their objectivity in favor of fighting back against a particular trend. It’s a sad state.

  • http://divergentboundary.blogspot.com Khurram

    Obviously this student wants to be devoted to physics and has put a lot of time into making this decision. Otherwise they wouldn’t be applying to physics grad school!
    Doing physics and believing in God (we don’t really know if this student believed in God-maybe he was just interested in the subject?) might be contradictory to some. Like Sean notes, there are a lot of brilliant physicists that are interested in religion and practice their respective religions.
    How would we like it if the tables were turned? A person with a physics degree wants to go to Divinity School. (It’s happened atleast once I’m sure). The admissions committee has the same type of conversation and the student doesn’t get in because “I would really worry about someone like this, that they weren’t devoted enough to God”. It’s a bad stereotype.

  • grad student

    I am sorry to not joining you in blasting that decision. I think it makes sense at a lot of different levels. There are only so many reasons you need before not admitting somebody who is borderline – you are looking for negatives rather than positivies at some level. Variety is nice but you should be looking to specialize at some point. Liberal arts is awesome, but there is a reason you want to get a graduate degree….

  • http://www.scottaaronson.com Scott

    What a disgrace. The funny thing is, the issue here seems completely orthogonal to religion: it seems like it would put passionate believers and atheists on one side, and the c.v. padders on the other.

  • http://blogs.discovermagazine.com/cosmicvariance/mark/ Mark

    This indeed seems like a silly discussion, and I wouldn’t agree with it. But I very much doubt that religion had anything to do with it, as a number of commenters seem to think. I expect that a Masters in literature, history, or anything else completely separate from physics would have prompted the same response.

  • Mark B.

    Wow.

    That pisses me off something fierce, though I suppose I have to admire the honesty of it. It’s not like it would be difficult to find some other reason to justify a decision like that. I’m sure I could find a good reason to deny admission to just about anyone. But they actually stuck with the bad reason?

    I’ve heard similar things from a lot of academics who feel they need to protect me from myself (I’ve got degrees in philosophy and physics), by getting in the way, effectively preventing me from focusing on getting real work done. At one level I appreciate that it is usually meant in my best interest, but at some point I think they should take my word for it, and help me make it happen.

    Incidentally, Sean, you have probably outed to the applicant your university’s real reasons for denying admission. There can’t be very many M.Div’s applying to a school like yours, and it seems likely to me that they would hear about your blog. I hope they take the responses here as a sign that they are not alone in trying to walk a difficult line.

  • anon.

    Are people here assuming an M.Div involves belief in God? From what I’ve seen, it’s just as often the opposite.

    Also, the idea that one has to focus all of their intellectual energy on one subject to succeed is laughable. I would say that many of the best physicists I know can also talk intelligently on a lot of other subjects, while many of the mediocre physicists are less able to do this.

  • Sourav

    A human being should be able to change a diaper, plan an invasion, butcher a hog, conn a ship, design a building, write a sonnet, balance accounts, build a wall, set a bone, comfort the dying, take orders, give orders, cooperate, act alone, solve equations, analyze a new problem, pitch manure, program a computer, cook a tasty meal, fight efficiently, die gallantly. Specialization is for insects.

    — Robert Heinlein, Time Enough For Love

  • ike

    Would they have kept Georges Lemaitre out as well?

  • http://blogs.discovermagazine.com/cosmicvariance/sean/ Sean

    People who think it’s about religion are completely missing the point.

  • http://quasar9.blogspot.com/ Quasar9

    Funny Sean, imagine if a ‘physics’ student or a ‘physics’ post grad were refused a place because he/she did not believe in a god or gods.

    Imagine if a ‘physics’ student was turned down because he/she did not believe in strings. Perhaps one could joke they had “no strings to pull”

    In 1671 the Royal Society asked for a demonstration of Newton’s reflecting telescope. Their interest encouraged him to publish his notes On Colour, which he later expanded into his Opticks. When Robert Hooke criticised some of Newton’s ideas, Newton was so offended that he withdrew from public debate. The two men remained enemies until Hooke’s death.

    It seems that no authenticated portrait of Hooke survives (Newton instigated the removal of Hooke’s portrait in the Royal Society).

  • Counterfly

    Sean,

    You had to have known that the religion thing would distract from your real point. Why didn’t you change the story to, say, an MFA? Unless you’ve changed it to an M. Div from the real case, which doesn’t make any sense…

    In any case, I think you should think about how that student would feel were they to read this post.

  • BlogReader

    Funny Sean, imagine if a ‘physics’ student or a ‘physics’ post grad were refused a place because he/she did not believe in a god or gods.

    If they were applying to a divinity school, then yeah I think that would be acceptable.

  • Jeremy Chapman

    I think that the problem with this scenario is idea that the student may not have the focus necessary to do physics. A Master’s in anything shows an ability to focus, but it might also indicate that the student has chosen to change fields relatively late in the game. Of course, one shouldn’t be penalized by this, but it might make me question the applicants ability to be a successful long term researcher in physics. If the person was already on the bubble then they might not have had all of the physics background needed to demonstrate his/her ability to succeed in physics. A Master’s in a completely different field might be a good addition to the application that already has all the requirements for physics, but it shouldn’t be a substitution for any of them.

    I will admit that I have heard of several people with several different degrees being successful at physics…

  • ike

    Got it – the key words are ‘sagely’ and ‘slowly’ – you must be referring to the authoritarian, power-hungry attitudes of certain ‘elder scientists’. There was a book about this published by a Russian scientist, Dudintsev, titled “White Robes” about the Russian scientific establishment.

    White Robes (Beliye odezhdi, 1987)

    “White Robes” also contains the idea of “parachutists”, described by Dudintsev this way:

    “People thrown from the destroyed world into the conditions of Soviet reality. Entrepreneurs and egoists in their souls, they looked around and saw that here, too, it was possible to live if they accepted the new “rules of the game”. And hiding their true nature they began to shout along with everyone else, “Long live the world revolution!” Masking their insincerity, they shouted louder and more expressively than others so that they quickly rose to the top, occupied leading posts and began to struggle for their own personal, comfortable lifestyle.”

    According to Dudintsev, this is why gray-haired academics supported Lysenko and gave the leadership the needed “scientific” conclusions; and this is why, says Dudintsev, “ministers built not what was needed by the people, but that which did not contradict their personal interests.” To Dudintsev it is obvious that the ecological disasters around the Aral Sea, the Volga, and Lake Ladoga are the work of the “parachutists”.

    Unfortunately, the whole text has yet to be translated into English (someone?)

  • Eric Mayes

    Didn’t Ed Witten get a history degree before turning to physics? It’s a good thing Princeton didn’t turn him down because of this.

  • Sourav

    Ed Witten was not on the bubble.

  • Andrea

    I don’t for a minute think this is about religion, since the faculty members I know who would say something like that would say it if you replace “M.Div” with a master’s in history or English literature or anything else outside the physical sciences.

    The thinking is presumably some combination of “this student has already made one drastic change of direction — what’s to assure us that they won’t do so again, after we’ve spent limited resources on them?” and “this student apparently doesn’t believe that physics is the only field worth studying, and thus aren’t completely and utterly single-minded in their pursuit of the field, and aren’t a good candidate” (which I think is what was meant by “focus” — not that the student couldn’t work hard and focus on something, but that they had shown themselves to have interests outside physics and thus were suspect.

  • http://terryware.com/blog terry

    My future professors at Arizona were amused and had to meet with me before letting me into the physics/astronomy program – they had never heard of someone coming from Accounting to Physics….but when they learned I wanted to study physics, so much so that I joined the military to get the money, they let me in.

    Maybe if the candidate had received a personal interview, s/he would have convinced the professors they had the “focus.”

  • http://whenindoubtdo.blogspot.com/ Eugene

    That’s a bit sad.

    I’d like to think that people who did something else, then decide to do physics, are those who actually have figured out what they really wanted to do. I mean, applying to grad school is not something that one does on a whim. You have to give up stuff, like jobs or years of life doing something else, ya know.

  • dave tweed

    I don’t know about the american unviersity system, but certainly in the english system it’s very rare to actually really know what a first degree in specific subject will involve/cover, because people don’t really have much time to spend talking with you until you’re actually there (and their responsibility). To a certain extent the same things happens with a Masters. As someone with BA, MSc & PhD degrees in slightly different subjects it’s not a sign of a lack of focus as much as changing of detailled interests as I found out more. Of course, there may be skillsets you need for a given level of study that are really only obtained by doing a lower-level degree: I doubt someone who’s never done any mathematics could plausibly start an american-style-phd physics program, and certainly not an english-style-phd physcis program.

  • DPB

    I have a friend who was a biology postdoc when he decided that he just didn’t like biology and he really wanted to be an astronomer. So, he applied to grad school in astronomy, and if I remember correctly, the majority of top astronomy programs refused to consider him because he already had a PhD in a different field. He did get accepted by a top program, however, and he now has two PhDs, so he’s twice as smart as the rest of us….

  • http://tingilinde.typepad.com steve

    If someone is on “the bubble” it makes sense to ask questions. A department invests in the student as well as the student investing in their studies.

    It may be that the person is a strong proponent of the scientific method and a potentially fantastic physicist, but unlikely given the bubble statement. The student should have written a statement describing the nature of their master’s degree and what it means to them – they should recognize that this raises a red flag in most reputable science departments.

  • Hope

    Sourav, how do you know that Ed Witten was not on the bubble? Were you on the committee that considered his application? It’s easy to look back on the career of a successful person and “see” evidence of his brilliance early on. It’s much harder to make that call in “real-time.”

    My heart goes out to this student; hopefully other schools will not be as myopic.

  • http://www.leekottner.com Lee Kottner

    Honestly, this seems as silly as the spiel I was given by my grad school advisor (a multidisciplinary medievalist) when I said I wanted a combined English/History degree that people in English can “do” history, but people in history can’t “do” English. Wha?

    What is it about academics that makes them so nervous about people switching fields? Are we all supposed to be programmed from birth? Sheesh.

  • J

    I hope similar things will not happen to me. I have a masters degree, except it is in physics.

  • http://mingus.as.arizona.edu/~bjw/ Ben

    As an undergraduate, I oscilllated between majoring in Engllish literature and in physics. I eventually decided to major in physics and minor in English lit (I had to do a major/minor rather than a double major), on the theory that even if I took the same courses, if I applied to grad school in physics, they wouldn’t let an English major in, while an English grad department would not be put off by a physics major.

    I now know that English departments are more conservative than I gave them credit for, but still might have let me in. I think I was quite right about the physics departments though – not being an Ed Witten, it could have been fatal. (I did eventually do a physics degree.)

    On one level, this story is evidence of the blinkered attitude of academic departments, and I also doubt it had anything to do with the fact that the masters was in divinity. However, let me also be provocative and say that this blinkered and conservative attitude might be encouraged by the rigorous but extremely intellectually conservative physics programs we now have, where the material and the method taught in many first year grad courses (mechanics, E&M, quantum) hasn’t really changed in the last 30-40 years.

  • Sourav

    Hope,

    You have to ask yourself, how does a history major get into the applied math PhD program at Princeton? And then transfer to theoretical physics, and do a PhD in less than 5 years? I’d be shocked if he wasn’t dripping with talent, head and shoulders above the rest of the applicant pool.

  • orchard grass

    Did they look at the rest of his record? Did he show interest in physics classes and succeed in it for an undergrad degree?

    Physicists can be smart and driven, but not necessarily smarter and more driven than anyone who may not have a physics degree.

  • http://math.ucr.edu/home/baez/ John Baez

    Hope wrote:

    Sourav, how do you know that Ed Witten was not on the bubble? Were you on the committee that considered his application? It’s easy to look back on the career of a successful person and “see” evidence of his brilliance early on. It’s much harder to make that call in “real-time.”

    I don’t know Witten’s early history, but somehow I think he was always clearly brilliant. Heck — he completely trounced an Italian friend of mine in Scrabble. In Italian.

  • http://www.thechocolatefish.blogspot.com Yvette

    True story: I am currently doing a study abroad for a semester, something not usually done at my uni especially in physics, and before I left I had a few professors and students alike sternly warn me that I might miss out on irrecoverable GRE studying/ lab experience time. The first time this happened I was about to laugh until I realized the person was serious- these people really thought that going off to see the rest of the world and expanding my horizons beyond the physics department at one university was an egregious error. Funny, I thought the point of a university education was to expand your horizons…

    So I guess between study abroad, the history minor, and the extensive writing/ music performance I’ll now have reason worry about percieved “lack of focus” when applying to graduate school next year. Grrrr.

  • http://mingus.as.arizona.edu/~bjw/ Ben

    Yvette and others: For what it’s worth, another part of my story is that I took a couple of years off before going to grad school. A professor at another school told me that I would surely ruin my career by taking a year off. (That’s almost a direct quote.) I thought that was ridiculous, and indeed, nobody cared about that, as far as I know. If I were sitting on a committee, I would assume that somebody who took time off and then decided to apply was _more_ committed because they knew what they wanted, rather than just applying because they had no better idea during senior year of college. So don’t feel you have to avoid doing anything interesting.

    As for Ed Witten, I bet he had letters of rec that would get a frog into princess school.

  • rudy mcgoody

    what does “on the bubble” mean?

  • uglyfoo

    Revolting. No wonder I find the attitudes of my physics colleagues toward other intellectual fields more closed-minded and condescending by the day.

    Few people who are truly good at what they do are solely and only interested within the confines of their fields. What does it say about scientific academia that we choose to shut out those who are evident polymaths? What does it say about how we value interdisciplinary brilliance?

    Sean, did you speak up? And if so, what did you say? And if you didn’t, why not?

    At the risk of bringing up a dead horse to beat, I wonder if these attitudes negatively affect certain groups entering the sciences more than others. Anecdotally (disclaimer: I am speaking as a white male) I’ve noticed that the women in our graduate program tend to have broader interests than the men, are more interested in interdisciplinary work, and I’ve been told privately that it shows that not many women are sufficiently committed to physics. For a while I thought that it was a true weakness to come into physics without that singlemindedness. Now I’m not so sure.

  • uglyfoo

    I just read some of the last ten or so comments on the post about ‘the message that is sent” and the odds of physicists and astronomers getting actual academic jobs. Do you think these attitudes about focus are harmful to academia in the efforts of academia to “weed out” the weaklings, the insufficiently committed ones who read novels instead of ApJ on Sunday afternoons, who may actually have a refreshing and flexible intellectual sensibility?

    More importantly do you think these attitudes will ever, ever, ever change?

    What a stupid job track I’ve signed on for, I keep thinking. Better jump ship while I still have my dignity.

  • Sam

    As a little undergraduate Physicist from England I am not too familiar with the system in American Universities.

    However the post seems to me to be showing the foundations of a much bigger problem. Us scientists are very keen on emphysising the value of our own work and de-emphysising the good work that goes on in more humanity-based academic areas. Profs A and B are clearly of the opinion that studying religion or philosophy or whatever is somehow worth less than a science.

    Personally, I take lectures with students who take additional modules in physics (and maths) who do philosophy as their main degree and they are often the most rigarous and questioning of the lecturer.

    Now, I love my subject but I have first hand experience of the way in which other subject areas can allow thought from different angles. It is important that we do not disregard questions and ideas from other points of view and non traditional ‘athiest-scientist’ types. Surely it will be these people who are pioneering within the field. It is unfortunate that your admissions Professors missed the chance to have a student like this.

  • Peter Lustig

    Hmmmm… Caltech has/had (he’s leaving to Madison this summer) Michael Ramsey-Musolf as a senior researcher in their theory group. He’s a great scientist and person, and an Episcopal priest holding an M. Div!
    See his CV here: http://www.its.caltech.edu/~mjrm/bio.htm
    So I assume Sean is in the graduate admissions committee at a major research university not too different from where Mike is… So the profs in the committee should know better!

  • Anon

    Here’s another reason to be upset by this kind of attitude about “focus”: like it our not, the same system that trains its graduate students to become academics, and nothing else, can only provide academic careers to a small fraction of those students.

    Those who obey all the advice of those who made it into the realm of professorhood to “focus” on physics (or whatever field they are pursuing) to the exclusion of everything else will also find themselves much more adrift if they don’t happen to be one of those few who are able to have an academic career.

    I know, because I’ve been there — I followed the advice of those who told me (for example) not to take time off before graduate school, and I aspired to academia to the exclusion of all else. If I had had less focus, and spent more time learning and doing things other than physics, I’d probably have had an easier time pursuing other options when the postdocs petered out.

    (I might even have been more committed and more successful in my scientific career, knowing more about what else was there. I don’t want to emphasize this point, though, because the raw number of graduate-students-trained-per-professor remains the same, and because it furthers the notion that “success” means success in academia, and nothing else.)

  • Lee Sawyer

    I can think of at least two HEP expermentalists who are tenured faculty members at research universities, who would have been turned down by this criteria.

    Although, if this student was “on the bubble”, it probably became a search for reasons not to accept. There are, in the end, only so many slots.

  • JustAnotherInfidel

    Quasar:

    “Funny Sean, imagine if a ‘physics’ student or a ‘physics’ post grad were refused a place because he/she did not believe in a god or gods.

    Imagine if a ‘physics’ student was turned down because he/she did not believe in strings. Perhaps one could joke they had “no strings to pull” ”

    Touche!

  • http://egregium.wordpress.com/ Christine

    I also would like to learn what “on the bubble” means. Does it have to do with one’s “social capital”?

    More and more I reach to the conclusion that “PhD” is an anachronic term to the title. Nowadays, for a successful career in science, apart from building a high social capital in the first place, one has to show that he/she is essencially a technician, above all.

    In my opinion, the notion of having “focus” is much related to the profile of someone who will most probably submerge completely into the technicalities of the subject area in question. Someone who has been showing signs of this from his/her CV. Something that, e.g., could naively be related to the fact that he/she has not shown previous signs of having pursued interest in other areas of knowledge.

    Being a technician is good, but is not all. It is not the most important issue. And it is definitely not the most certain mean to attain an end. It is just a very poor notion of what constitutues the profile of a good scientist.

    In my opinion, the student in question should at least have been asked for an interview.

  • Paolo Bizzarri

    Well,

    my idea was that the decision was deeply wrong, for at least two reasons.

    First, professors are making decisions about the future with little (if any) good data. There is no reason why a good theologist could become a very good mathematician, or whatever else scientist.

    For example, they could remember the history of Bletchey Park, where people from really different backgrounds were able to work jointly to break german codes.

    But the second point is that lots of people, both in mathematics and in theoretical physics, are saying that we need researchers with a broader vision. People that are able to see beyond their own field, make connections and so on….

    I believe that there are not lot of connections among theology and string theory.

    Also, I doubt that there are lots of theologist interested in studying mathematics.

    But I believe that some researcher from a completely different background can provide some new idea, some new way of thinking that, even if it is completely wrong, can be useful and stimulating to the field.

    Paolo Bizzarri

  • http://blogs.discovermagazine.com/cosmicvariance/sean/ Sean

    “On the bubble” just means that they were close to the line between “admit” and “don’t admit.”

  • http://egregium.wordpress.com/ Christine

    Thanks! I was completely wrong in my guess of what “on the bubble” meant…

    But, for what is worth, I maintain my previous assertions…

  • ivy privy

    I suppose you don’t worry about this in physics, but as a biologist I read this and I think of Jonathan Wells, advocate of Intelligent Design Creationism, who sought a PhD in biology specifically so he could use it to battle “Darwinism.”

    Father’s [Moon’s] words, my studies, and my prayers convinced me that I should devote my life to destroying Darwinism, just as many of my fellow Unificationists had already devoted their lives to destroying Marxism. When Father chose me to enter a PhD program in 1978, I welcomed the opportunity to prepare myself for battle.

  • Jeff

    I’ve been in the same boat — and was punished for it. In grad school, when I was on the bubble — I was told I had too many outside interests. Partially that was true — I was very interested in a lot of things — and partially it was dictatorial restrictions on focus. I don’t think I truly understood as a grad student the level of exclusionary focus that is expected in academic physics — both in the good and bad sense that I spent time studying Chinese or writing fiction instead of reading ApJ, and as well as the truly limiting mentalities and social capabilities of some of those who are blindered by academic research.

  • http://egregium.wordpress.com/ Christine

    who sought a PhD in biology specifically so he could use it to battle “Darwinism.”

    Distortions, aberrations, ignorance and bad intentions do exist out there in various forms and can pass hidden in many situations.

    But what I believe Sean was addressing to in his post was the issue of whether lack of “focus” is a fundamental (and objective) criterion for rejecting a candidate in a PhD program. In this respect, there is the issue of considering the danger of losing really good candidates just because they have previously shown deep interest in other fields, and hence, being “less focused”.

    In the example given, of a student with an Masters degree in Divinity applying to a PhD in physics, there are really only two options: to deny admission (and this should really be based on objective criteria) or to go one further step in the process with a face to face interview. That would allow the comittee to learn more about the potentialities of the candidate and, at the same time, to detect possible distortions, as mentioned above.

    However, it is not an easy situation, I think.

  • ivy privy

    In this respect, there is the issue of considering the danger of losing really good candidates just because they have previously shown deep interest in other fields, and hence, being “less focused”.

    Once again, the “really good candidates” are not the ones on the bubble.

  • http://egregium.wordpress.com/ Christine

    Once again, the “really good candidates” are not the ones on the bubble.

    Yes, in general.

    But what are “really good candidates” anyway? A reasonable thing would be to use some objective criteria to define them, but… I do not believe this is always a simple issue. There is for instance the question of lack of “social capital” (mentioned before), with the effect of throwing some candidates right on the bubble just to start off.

  • dave tweed

    @ Christine,

    I think you’re conflating the issues that one can change the focus of ones interests in a relatively short space of time with your putting down of “technicians”. Broadening this out to science and engineering, I’d be inclined to argue we’ve got far to many “big thinkers” and far too few technicians. The problem is that almost anyone who has the skillset for getting a Phd in science can be a “big thinker” because it just relies on having ideas (the initial having of which isn’t that hard) and maintaining a limited level grasp of current research. You’ll get plaudits for being innovative and big thinkers are always much more popular because, by their very nature, what they’re talking about isn’t details you need to study up on to understand. By contrast, actually being a technician is hard because you’re working on the harder, buried problems, trying to properly understand every apsect of the problem (to see if there’s something being missed) rather than the “immediately accessible” stuff big thinkers do. And it’s difficult to talk about what you do to people because you have to explain detailled background other people just don’t want to listen to.

    And yet, very few of the people who self-consciously set out to revolutionise things with their big thoughts, and most world changing stuff arises from the details. Eg, analysing blackbody radiation and the photoelectric effect gave rise to quantum theory.

    This isn’t to say one shouldn’t have a spread of interests (both professionally and personally), but I think science and engineering primarily advance through people who in their work focus in on details.

  • real_universe

    When I was admitted to the certain institution with which Sean Carroll is associated at the moment, I did not realize how deep the devotion to science is there…

    Somehow whoever was on the admission committee decided that I will fit right in…

    And what is the in that I speak of? A socially awkward block of buildings and people; but nonetheless one in which freedom of ideas flow is present! And ideas about everything- science, life, beliefs, activities,gadgets…

    Of all the socially bizarre individuals I interacted with, none ever refuted my personality or my ideaologies based on their own preconceptions. Everything was in game!

    And while I will never understand the reasons behind my admission, I do understand that I did fit in…

    Later on when I pursued graduate work elsewhere, I did not encounter the same understanding of my character, strengths and inclination for my chosen field of study…

    Pissed…I was…but that only reinforced my belief that there is this one miraculous place on earth and that I will be forever a part of it…

    There are always better places for better people..

  • http://scienceblogs.com/interactions Rob Knop

    I’d be inclined to argue we’ve got far to many “big thinkers” and far too few technicians.

    I think this is right.

    Listen to the rhetoric of Universities when talking about their research programs and the kind of faculty they want to hire and keep. They always talk about being the leaders in their field.

    If everybody is the leader, whom do they lead?

    Ultimately, universities aren’t interested at being good at what they do. They are interested in looking like they are good at what they do. Often, many figure out that being good at it is one of the easiest paths to looking that way, but the pressures are set up so that looking good is the ultimate goal. And, often being good gets sacrificed in that name. Prestige is more important than actual competence. Scientists who get the press releases are more important than the scientists who do a lot of the work.

    This is hardly unique to science. This is the way all of American society (at least) works. We worship the winners, and all but ignore everybody else.

    -Rob

  • http://egregium.wordpress.com/ Christine

    dave tweed wrote:

    I’d be inclined to argue we’ve got far to many “big thinkers” and far too few technicians.

    I think science and engineering primarily advance through people who in their work focus in on details.

    Perhaps my use of the word “technician” has a more derogatory sense, which I explain in the following.

    What I see around me (and my experience might be somewhat different from yours) is that most people try to increase their “technical knowledge” just enough to have a lot to say around in workshops and conferences, with really very little true understanding of what they are saying. Students are mostly trained to be technicians (and good presenters) and not thinkers. This formulae usually result in a very big number of papers with really little useful content in general.

    In this context I very much appreciate the following passage from Schopenhauer in his book Parerga and Paralipomena, “On learning and the learned”:

    Students and scholars of all kinds and of every age aim, as a rule, only at information, not insight. They make it a point of honour to have information about everything, every stone, plant, battle, or experiment and about all books, collectively and individually. It never occurs to them that information is merely a means to insight, but in itself is of little or no value.

    In analogy to Schopenhauer’s point, I would say that a technician profile is not really very useful if he/she does not realize that technique is just a means and not an end.

    But of course that I agree with your second assertion above: the best combination is the “good thinker” with enough wisdom of knowing how to use their learned techniques. I agree that these are the people who really advance science. If this is the definition of a “focused” person, so, yes, these are excellent scientists.

    But let us go back to Sean’s post. The student in question was judged as someone with a lack of “focus” because of his Master in Divinity. How can one tell from this that he did not have the potential of being a “good thinker with enough wisdom of knowing how to use his learned techniques”?

    Thanks,
    Christine

  • Tom C.

    As someone who applied to Physics & Astronomy grad programs with a resume that included on-the-bubble raw numbers and lots of “focus” flags (liberal arts degree, time off to do odd stuff), I would caution against drawing general conclusions from this single anecdote. In conversations with admissions committees and department faculty, I found their attitudes towards candidates like me to be varied, almost random. Certain departments which one would have expected to be quite conservative were surprisingly open to non-cookie-cutter candidates, while others rejected them (well, rejected me at least) without a second thought. As long as there are quality departments that will consider admitting people with a wide range of backgrounds and qualifications, I don’t believe we are in a crisis situation. And if (as many commenters have asserted) the more narrow-minded top departments are missing out on some of the best people, then they won’t be top departments for long.

  • bubble

    I’m not sure that the issue only has to do with universities narrow-mindedly not wanting to admit students with breadth. Personally, I would happily accept a student with a masters in biology or math or engineering or chemistry. However, I would certainly have some apprehension about a student with an M.Div. I think it’s quite unlikely that an M.Div. requires that same kind of critical thinking, attention to detail and capacity for logic that an M.Sc. requires. Given that this student was already on the bubble, I think this is a perfectly reasonable excuse to deny admission.

  • http://blogs.discovermagazine.com/cosmicvariance/mark/ Mark

    I disagree with you bubble. Presumably, the totality of the student’s scores, letters, applications packet, and educational history were taken into account and after all that, they were “on the bubble”. The problem with what happened is that having studied for an M.Div. was taken as a lack of focus and therefore a reason not to admit.

  • http://aeolist.wordpress.com Ponder Stibbons

    bubble:

    The comparison is not between M.Divs and M.Scs. Most students applying ti US grad schools have only Bachelor’s. I’m assuming, since the student in question was on the bubble, that he had a Bachelor’s in physics, or equivalent physics experience. So, just because the student went on to get an M. Div where other applicants simply applied straight to physics grad school, he is discarded.

  • http://aeolist.wordpress.com Ponder Stibbons

    Re Ben’s comment:

    I was also told by at least two professors that taking time off would count against me. I think that’s something that probably varies from person to person. But the fact that there exist people on admissions committees who frown upon taking a year or two off is enough to induce trepidation about taking time off. I can understand why they would balk at candidates who stayed away from physics for longer periods, since it is likely that one’s skills would deteriorate in over longer periods, but one or two years seem perfectly reasonable to me.

  • http://aeolist.wordpress.com Ponder Stibbons

    I have no idea if Sean’s experience was at the U of C, but as an undergrad there, I’ve had mixed reactions when I tell physicists that I’m also a philosophy major. Three physicists approved of that combination (with the caveat that one of those three has worked on foundations of physics issues), but I did encounter one who was strongly dismayed by that. In contrast with this professor’s attitude, philosophy professors regard double majors with unequivocal approval, especially if the non-philosophy major is in a quantitative field. And it’s not just that they prefer applicants who specialise in philosophy of science to have a science degree: quantitative experience is regarded as an intrinsic indicator of philosophical potential whether one is an ethicist or a logician.

    I also agree with those who suggest that people who have changed fields tend to have given greater thought to why they finally choose physics. In my opinion, way too many undergrads rush headlong into physics grad school because that’s the standard thing to do. Very few of them know enough about other fields to make a truly informed choice. But perhaps those on top who disapprove of polymaths like to have ignorant proteges whom, as they become increasingly specialised in physics, are unlikely to be lured away by other temptations.

  • Pingback: Focus: Not What It Seems « The truth makes me fret.()

  • John R Ramsden

    Several people have used the phrase “on the bubble”, which was unfamiliar to me but, as I gather from a quick web search, means “just short of a position or prize with a monetary award”. It’s pretty obvious how this would apply to, say, a pool competition; but could someone briefly explain, to someone not in academia, how it relates to a university admission?

    Surely this guy could not have expected to go straight from an M.Div to a physics PhD program without having previously obtained a physics BSc and MSc, or can we take the latter as read and I’m being obtuse for even mentioning it?

    One last point, which I don’t think anyone has mentioned. Could the profs’ real reason for rejecting the applicant have been a concern that in switching from M.Div to physics, which might involve a rapid catch-up, the applicant would somehow “show up” the physics department and the other students by proving in catching up that the syllabus and/or standard time alloted for it was not as demanding as it might be?

  • http://aeolist.wordpress.com Ponder Stibbons

    John, I believe it is implicit in the fact that the student is a borderline admission case that he had the requisite physics background, and so would not have had to play catch-up. Mark’s comment supports this interpretation. Simply put, after looking at the usual credentials, the student was considered on par with several other students, all “on the bubble”. However, in order to break the tie, the fact that that student had an M.Div was used against him.

  • MedallionOfFerret

    I suggest that Sean didn’t include enough detail for the conclusions jumped to on both sides.

    One of the first things scientists should do is question whether there is enough information available to draw a useful conclusion. Actually, that’s one of the first things everyone should do, on every optional decision. When you gotta make a decision with less than optimal data, sure–make the decision. But when it doesn’t have to be done, don’t do it.

    For those of you who like to jump to conclusions, I do have a few select shares in the Brooklyn Bridge I have been authorized to let go to individuals with sufficient monetary resources. Feel free to jump.

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Cosmic Variance

Random samplings from a universe of ideas.

About Sean Carroll

Sean Carroll is a Senior Research Associate in the Department of Physics at the California Institute of Technology. His research interests include theoretical aspects of cosmology, field theory, and gravitation. His most recent book is The Particle at the End of the Universe, about the Large Hadron Collider and the search for the Higgs boson. Here are some of his favorite blog posts, home page, and email: carroll [at] cosmicvariance.com .

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