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May 2014

Ten years: the MIT 2004 Commencement speech

Next week marks ten years since I graduated from MIT. It's been quite a ride. I read online that Elias Zerhouni, who was then the director of NIH, gave the Commencement speech - I have no memory of it, but it's an interesting coincidence, given the turn that my research has taken toward healthcare. I re-read the speech just now, and Zerhouni made good points: I love his "relativity principle of time and aging," which is: "the older you are, the faster time seems to go by," something that I've found to be very true but was of course incapble of understanding back in 2004. I also appreciate Zerhouni's kind words toward the MIT president at the time, Charles Vest, who was in the last year of his tenure and recently passed away.

But the key part of Zerhouni's speech is something that completely went over my head at the time: "What I will dare to say to you is that life sciences and their applications will be the defining challenge of the 21st century, bar none. And the reason is that we are changing our environment at a speed which will require us to understand life sciences to a degree we do not understand today. And let me tell you, it will require the intelligence and commitment of many classes of graduates like yours. The solution will not come from biology alone. It will come from the integration of biology and computer sciences and mathematics and physics and chemistry, and we want to encourage that to happen." Now this seems eerily prescient, but imagine saying that to a crowd of over 2,000 graduates back in 2004, many of whom - including myself - were not about to receive a degree remotely related to the biological sciences.

Zerhouni also provided some of his rules: 50% of what graduates know today will end up being wrong, many of your contributions will not come from your core discipline, try to have 50% of your friends from walks of life not related to yours and definitely have at least 50% of your friends smarter than you. Zerhouni explains: "At least half of your life contributions will be stimulated by others that are interacting with you... Now look at laboratories around the world that have been very productive. They've been productive because they have, in fact, encouraged the clustering of people from diverse backgrounds, coming from diverse horizons, with different ideas."

And my favorite quote: "Last but not least, I would say you should have big dreams, full dreams, not half dreams. You know, it's very simple. You can't put a large box in a small box. Well, you cannot put a full life in a small dream box. What you need is to have a box, a dream box, in a life that is as full as the potential you have today."

The full text of the 2004 MIT Commencement address is available here.

Giving tough advice - to students of opera or engineering

I came across two excellent blog posts about telling opera students they may not have a future in the performing arts business, and was struck by the parallels with telling PhD students they may be better suited doing something else. Here are the two posts:

  1. On the WQXR Operavore blog, "Giving tough advice to aspiring or established opera singers"
  2. On the Strad blog, "How to advise a student that music is not the right career

The conversations presented on the Strad blog are eerily reminiscent of those a PhD advisor can have with a student, and I liked the tips at the bottom of the article, especially the advice to address students as unique individuals, and to not take things personally if a student wants to change teachers. Overall, though, the WQXR blog post offered a more in-depth, thoughtful analysis, with the twist that the author was once discouraged from continuing on his path and ultimately found success as performance manager at the Met Opera in New York City. How can anyone in academia read "And there are those delicate situations, which must be handled with extreme care, in which someone is told that he or she just does not have what it takes to be the opera singer, instrumentalist or performing artist they hope to be" and not be reminded of a difficult conversation with a would-be PhD student who, indeed, did not have what it took?

(The Strad blog provides the example of a student who, although upset at first, ended up happy in a very different and prestigious career path, and a good friend of mine in graduate school who failed her qualifying exam at a local university in the Boston area said even 2 years after the fact that this was the best thing that could have happened to her. So those conversations can help students avoid wasting time and effort, and send them on a more-suited path. On the other hand, some students may take longer to mature and grow as scientists than others, the author of the WQXR blog post was given bad advice, and has an interesting end of the story to report at the end of his post, suggesting that bad advice may be given by people either insecure or with their own personal problems. Further, as far as PhD programs are concerned, a student may not meet the threshold in a top program but still do perfectly fine work in a lower-ranked department, so it is important to think about it in terms of "PhD student in a specific department" and not "PhD student" in general, but it also has implications in the sort of jobs the student can hope for after graduation.)

Standing between someone and his dream is a difficult thing. Becoming an opera singer is perhaps more of a long-held dream than becoming a professor, but a lot of students in the PhD system are foreigners who have left behind their families and made strong sacrifices to come and dream of settling down in the US thanks to their PhD. But letting PhD students toil away for five or eight or ten years and then denying them the prize because they don't meet the standards would be cruel. Not telling music students they might need to consider a backup plan would expose those students to severe financial uncertainty, struggle and disappointment later on. We live in a culture, especially in the US, where more and more students are protected from failures (see the ribbons given for participating in school sports and the idea that everybody should be a winner). But sometimes a quick death to a misguided dream is better than a long demise that drags on. From the student's perspective, I think there are warning signals, at least regarding the relationship with the teacher, whether in opera or engineering, that suggest that the teacher is losing faith or confidence in the student's ability to succeed, and that the student would do well to notice and act upon.

How do you handle dealing with a student who you don't think will make the cut? Here are some possibilities: suggest that the student might benefit from changing advisors, encourage the student to get an industry internship over the summer or even during an academic semester to broaden his horizons, terminate the funding of the student (because if you think a student is not going to succeed in the PhD program, he probably hasn't been doing very well work-wise). The easiest way to proceed is to do a limited-time-only, no-string-attached project together so that it is easy to put an end to the collaboration between student and professor if the two are not a good fit for each other, but a short project may not always provide sufficient information, so we can never hope to develop a failproof system that will save us for sure from having difficult conversations with people we manage or mentor. A good reference on the topic is NYT Business Bestseller "Difficult Conversations", which may help navigate common pitfalls.  

Good reads from Harvard Business Review

Cover-in-this-issue-0514From the May issue of HBR:

  • Beware the next big thing, by Julian Birkinshaw (when is a new innovation good for your organization?)
  • Managing the invisibles, by David Zweig (about how to engage top performers who aren't seeking status but take pleasure in the work itself)
  • From purpose to impact, by Nick Craig and Scott Snook (special mention to the purpose-to-impact plan on p.111)

From the April issue of HBR: