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Changes in Peers, UGrad to Grad

  1. Mar 1, 2010 #1
    I feel like I've had it too easy thus far. I've achieved a 4.0, dual-majoring in Math/CSC, while putting in only a couple hours toward studying/homework a week as an undergrad. Being afraid that this will change quite a bit in graduate school, I've begun trying to train myself to work beyond what's required of me. But it's hard without similar motivation from my peers. I haven't had much competition in college (or high school), and I feel as though I'll finally meet some very intelligent people in grad school.

    I've always known there were plenty of brilliant people out there; some people learned topology while juggling snowballs and torches on a unicycle, all while they were 4 years old. Still, there's a big leap between knowing these people exist and actually interacting with them. Was this a problem for any of you? How did you come to grips with finally realizing that you wasted a lot of your free time (for me, it was video games) while others were developing the latest image recognition techniques? Did you welcome their abilities as a challenge, or just accept that some people will be better than you at whatever you do?
  2. jcsd
  3. Mar 1, 2010 #2
    People in grad school are the same people that were undergraduates with you or someone else...just different school.

    But you should probably worry less about your peers and continue the excellent achievements.
  4. Mar 2, 2010 #3
    The beauty of large numbers is that results are essentially guaranteed, but not quite...

    By results I mean the fact that all of your "achievements" will fade into absolutely nothing with sufficient distance or time (in this case, against sufficiently skilled people).

    The only way I know to stop caring about who's better than you is to start caring about your subject. Its between you and the universe bud, and human strength has nothing to do with it.
    But yes, in the mundane world of rank, there will almost certainly be someone better than you. 50% of the class is below average, even if their mothers love them.

    All this excellence stuff is highly overrated. Honestly, after a (short) lifetime of fixation on "achievement" and not passion, I care more about whether or not Duke makes it to the final four in the NCAA than whether or not we make it to the top 4 in USNWR.
  5. Mar 2, 2010 #4
    I've never really thought of it that way. I prefer to focus on my own work, especially at the graduate school level. For me, this was easy because the path I chose has meant that there are people from lots of different undergraduate backgrounds; so it's easier to recognise that it's important to utilise the skills of everyone you work with, since some people are better at certain things than others. This is helpful in preparing yourself for a research or working environment afterwards, seeing as whatever you do it is likely a lot of collaboration will be required, and less direct 'competition'.
  6. Mar 2, 2010 #5
    Oh yeah, I agree with Duke. I too have become very disillusioned with "excellence."

    I applied to REUs for the first time this year and completely wrecked my nerves over the whole process. I've decided to go to the one that I want to work on, the one that's in a subject that I find interesting. I'm not going to go to a program just so I can enhance my resume with a prestigious name. Screw my resume. Man, I was stupid. I'm embarrassed I ever let my priorities get so out of line.

    I've gotten so sick of competing over everything. What school do you go to?! Who's got the best GPA?! What was your score on the Putnam?! Can I get into Harvard?! What was your GRE score?!

    I'm getting emails from my advisor asking me if I want to go to this conference or that conferece. "It'll be a good way to make connections and meet people at grad schools!" they say. NO!!! I don't want to spend my weekend sucking up to people I don't know, I just want to drink whiskey and hang out with my girlfriend!

    Anywho, that wasn't really relevant...so, uh...sorry. I think there's a point where you just have to come to grips with the fact that you'll never be the smartest person in the world. I mean, seriously, could you ever compete with somebody like Terence Tao (who, by the way, seems like a really cool guy judging by his blog)?

    Some people are just born with a very laid back personality. They don't care if there's somebody better than them. I envy them. Others, though, have a harder time accepting this -- but it's something you'll have to do if you want to have any shred of sanity.
  7. Mar 2, 2010 #6
    That's a pretty poor attitude. A big part of conferences is actually meeting peers in your academic community as well as seeing what's current beyond merely reading papers. I always come back with boatloads of ideas after going to, say, APS March Meeting.

    It's also about getting your ideas out to other people, because dissemination of knowledge is an extremely important part of the process of doing science. You won't have any impact on the world if people don't know about your work (and P.R. is everything, sometimes).
  8. Mar 2, 2010 #7
    Neither. I think "yay, someone else I can bug for help when something crashes" and I return the favor with the tasks that I'm better at, 'cause people are complex that way so it all usually balances out in the grand scheme of things. I have the added benefit that a lot of the smartest guys I know are also some of the nicest, so it's awfully hard to resent people who are all around awesome.

    I don't consider that video game as wasted time, it's just time you took to do your own thing, and it all works out. Also, you have to realize that guys developing the latest image recognition stuff usually aren't working in a bubble; they're part of research groups and working off of years of research and they've gone down 50 wrong paths before stumbling on that right one. (And they also played video games in their down time.) If you beat yourself up over missed opportunities, you'll be too busy sulking to spot the ones knocking at your door.
  9. Mar 2, 2010 #8
    Oh, come on now. Are you trying to tell me that it doesn't get to be too much sometimes? You don't ever need a break from the grind? You don't ever need to blow off some steam?

    I need a break from math and science sometimes. If it's a poor attitude to admit that, then so be it.
    Last edited: Mar 2, 2010
  10. Mar 2, 2010 #9
    I think that FYG was referring to this specifically in your post:
    As anyone will tell you, sometimes you just have to "play the game". Politics is perhaps not as important as ability and work ethic, but it is an important part of a successful career in academia or in industry.

    And besides, it's only a chore if you approach it like one. Rather than go in with the attitude that you'll have to suffer through boring presentations presented by a bunch of pompous blowhards, see if anything genuinely catches your interest. If so, just try having a real conversation with some of the people involved with the project.
  11. Mar 2, 2010 #10
    Look, I appreciate the comments -- I really do. Normally I'm a very grateful, easy-going, and eager person who jumps at every possible opportunity. I was just venting a little bit (and simultaneously unintentionally jacking the thread, sorry CuriousQuanta!). I'm human, and I have the right to fly off the handle and start ranting sometimes. My only error was that I did it on the Internet, where everybody will critique how and what I ranted about.

    My point in my post was that I lost track of why I got into this major and all the extra junk was getting in the way of my "me"-time, which I need to keep everything in perspective. For now, I'm putting everything I deem extraneous on the back-burner while I try to get my priorities readjusted. I stand behind what I said. I will not be told to feel bad for getting frustrated or angry sometimes. I will not feel bad for having this "poor" attitude when I have a fantastic attitude all the rest of the time.

    Again, I apologize to CuriousQuanta for this embarrassing little escapade of mine. You can have your thread back.
  12. Mar 2, 2010 #11
    It all depends on where you're at and where you're going.

    If you are currently at Harvard doing pure mathematics alongside Putnam and IMO champions but end up at a very average state college for graduate school, you very well may find that your peers in graduate school are (significantly) less talented than the aforementioned undergraduates at Harvard.

    Flip the scenario around. If you are at a very average state college right now surrounded by relatively disinterested and even untalented peers but make it into Princeton for mathematics graduate school, you will probably be in for a very substantial shock as you find yourself surrounded by some of the most talented mathematics students on the planet.

    These are the extreme scenarios. Everything in between is possible as well.

    [I want to clarify that I do not mean to imply that everyone at an "average sate college" is disinterested and untalented. Likewise not everyone at (say) Harvard is brilliant. It's a difference in density, not presence.]
    Last edited: Mar 2, 2010
  13. Mar 3, 2010 #12
    I still don't buy that at the grad level, 'cause the competition is just too steep, even for 4th rate schools and 'cause you can't make it through a grad program being totally disinterested and untalented. That being said, it's awfully boring to be the smartest guy in the room, but it's also maddening to be the dumbest guy in the room. Just look for a research group you fit into, one where you feel like you can really learn from the other guys/girls in the room.

    I totally agree with you and feel bad you're getting jumped on. Burn out is one of the major reasons people drop out of grad programs, so it's great that you've got a system in place to manage it.

    So, I'm quite good at playing politics; I can smile and nod and ask lots of questions and join in and volunteer, and I still dread hearing about the next meeting I have to go to. It just gets tiring after a while and one of the advantages of still being a student is that you can take a break from the game.
    Last edited: Mar 3, 2010
  14. Mar 3, 2010 #13
    Well, I didn't say that graduate students at 4th rate schools were disinterested and untalented. I would outright disagree with this sentiment. Nevertheless, there is a big difference between being surrounded by people who made great grades in an ordinary undergraduate math program and being surrounded by IMO champions who published significant research as an undergraduate and completed the standard first-year graduate curriculum while a freshman or sophomore.

    Also, the distinction between those graduate students who complete the Ph.D. and those who don't is irrelevant here; the question concerns your peers once you enter graduate school, and your peers will include people from both groups.
  15. Mar 3, 2010 #14
    Oh man. Don't buy into the hype. I know enough of these people, and some of them are shiny and others should be avoided at all costs and guess what none of 'em are all that different from anyone else. I think the distribution is about equally distributed, with a lot of fluctuations in research output being due to plain old funding issues, but I'd love to measure it in on an objective manner.

    It almost doesn't matter either way though, 'cause you should avoid stereotyping your classmates at all costs. If you walk into a room thinking that you're smarter/better/more qualified than everyone else, you'll have an awfully hard time turning off those blinders so that you can actually listen to some advice, ask for help, and get some real work done. Here's the thing people often miss: even if you're smarter than someone, that person can still offer awesome advice about some topic ('specially one that they study.) The best way to walk into any situation is to respect the people around you; people often notice when they're not respected, and often react rather negatively to being disrespected.

    Dude, it has a lot to do with union68's comments, which are a part of this thread and what I was commenting on.
    Last edited: Mar 3, 2010
  16. Mar 3, 2010 #15
    No, you're making the mistake we're all encouraged to do- couple a perhaps true love of science with a blind need for "excellence," recognition from others, Nobel Prizes and papers.

    The funny thing is, do you think anyone ever achieved greatness by gaming the system? Yes, Feynman was conventionally successful, but he was also brilliant. Do you think going to more conventions will help you reformulate your field?

    No, but perhaps you're not setting your standard as high as I am, or as many of my peers are (yes, the Nobel or Rhodes standard is about where most naive highschoolers start).
    Even if you are setting it lower, perhaps at "Harvard" the fact remains that your careering has nothing to do with intrinsically personal love of the beauty of nature. Even if you use the latter to justify the former.

    A lot of us are taught early on to like shiny things, achievement and excellence. This translates to a person highly receptive to things such as A's, or praise. Eventually, these turn to recognition from some subset of humanity in the form of faculty appointments or monetary rewards.

    Nobody is saying that one can't both have love for physics and an urge to be successful. BUT it is true that for many of us youngsters the two have been presented as a package, both necessary but not sufficient for each other. This is the notion we would have shattered, me and union.
  17. Mar 3, 2010 #16
    First, please let me try to clear up some confusion. :D

    I did not say anywhere that one group is smarter than another, that one group has higher research output and quality in the end than another, that one group is friendlier than another, etc. All I said is that one group more or less got a very early start and the other didn't.

    I certainly didn't say anywhere that someone would be unable to offer awesome advice because he didn't get an extremely early head start in mathematics. I also certainly never said that anyone should not respect others for any reason.

    The point here is that some people have a head start in taking graduate classes and others don't and that it will be an adjustment if you're surrounded by one group as an undergraduate and then the other while a graduate student.

    Adjustments such as this really do cause problems; I'm not just speculating here. For instance, there are lots of high school students who are used to winning every contest they participate in, making perfect grades, and being by far the top student in all their classes. Then they get into MIT (for example) and more or less self-destruct emotionally because they had very naively allowed their academic performance to actually become part of their self-identity.

    Now, I think this problem is less likely to occur as one goes from undergraduate to graduate work than it is as one goes from high school to undergraduate work, and the reason is simply that people who have spent four or so years as an undergraduate will have a much higher probability of having realized how silly and dangerous it is to allow academic performance to factor into self-identity. But it still happens, usually with people who are "sheltered" at relatively easy schools and simply don't realize how much incredible talent is out there until they reach graduate school.

    Okay, but in all fairness to myself the only part of your post I responded to was the part that appeared to be written in direct and immediate response to a quote of something I said.
    Last edited: Mar 3, 2010
  18. Mar 3, 2010 #17
    And the point I'm trying to make is that you've got the same head start crew at just about every school, so going into a school thinking "oh, they're probably way ahead of me" or "awesome, we're on the same track" is pointless.

    Having been part of the honors trap for years, I can tell you quite honestly that it's not limited to MIT by any means. Self-destructive honors kids are self-destructive everywhere, and state/city schools are by no means easier. Judging by what two-fish said and what I've seen, it's actually easier to get good grades at MIT than at some public schools 'cause MIT tries to prevent self-destruction.

    So one thing I've learned about people is that they can be incredibly blind to talent regardless of what school they're out. It's more a reflection of the person (and taking an attitude of not looking at his surroundings) then the school, 'cause just about every research university has something incredibly shiny going on.

    *sigh* I talked about drop outs in response to union's comments, you responded that discussing drop outs is pointless.
  19. Mar 3, 2010 #18
    I would agree that it's a bad attitude to have. I never said anything to the contrary.

    I never said it's limited to MIT. I even put "for example" right after I mentioned MIT, which was meant to suggest that it wasn't limited to MIT.

    But MIT was just a more or less random example. I don't know the details of grading there.

    Why did you put a response to union68 right after quoting me and at the end of a sentence which clearly was in response to the quote? :D
  20. Mar 3, 2010 #19
    Um the quote was from union68, I just didn't label it 'cause I was lazy that way.

    Ack, before we go back into a circle, I'm pretty sure we agree on the core things and I'm just taking issue with the generalizations that I perceive that you're making of "prestigious schools" and pubic ones. You seem to be saying going from one type of school to another may lead to culture shock (which I agree with by the way), but you were couching it in semi-specific terms (MIT/state school) whereas I feel it can happen regardless of where you start and where you end up.
  21. Mar 3, 2010 #20
    Man, was I in a pissy mood yesterday. I was looking for somebody to humor my whining and chime in with, "Yeah! Life sucks, man!" :biggrin:

    Most of the pressure that's been put on me was from myself, and that's what I've come to realize. This is the problem: this is a super, ultra, uber competitive field that I'm in, and I am in no way a naturally competitive person. Even though, I always pressured myself to constantly go above and beyond: to do absolutely everything that I could possibly do to distinguish myself from the 1,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000 other math majors.

    Math competition? Sign me up.

    Need a TA? That's me!

    You heard about that conference? Yup, I'm going.

    Did you do that extra credit? Oh yeah, spent 5 hours on it.

    Been studying for the GRE? Like mad!

    Did you write the the essays for your scholarship applications? Just finished them.

    I can't do it anymore! This is not why I got into this field!

    Ahhhh, oh well. For all my doom-and-gloom, I feel slightly liberated. I'm in a better mood (contrary to what I displayed yesterday, ha). I no longer really care what school I end up at, just as long as I'm studying something cool. I no longer worry about getting the best job afterwards, I know I'll find something when the opportunity pops up. If I end up teaching at some backwater school, then so be it! I can make something out of it.

    I'm just gonna try and slow things down a bit -- stop and smell the roses, to use the old cliche. I'm going to try not to take things for granted, because I vividly remember my days on minimum wage in a dead-end job before I decided to try out college. Come to think of it, I'm lucky that I have these problems! :smile:
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