Twofish's Blog

March 1, 2007

Another Chronicle Post

Filed under: academia, massachusetts institute of technology — twofish @ 6:30 am,34595.0.html

Andrew Lo, the head of the MIT Laboratory for Financial Engineering, said in a conference talk, that he will not accept any graduate students in finance to advise, because what he is doing is too weird and would be the kiss of death for any finance person looking for a faculty position.

My own brush with specialization, can when I was a MIT.  MIT was in the middle of getting people to be more well-rounded, and these values were consistent with my values.  So I studied Chinese history and read French post-structuralism along with my physics.  I did my undergraduate research in computer science developing educational courseware rather than in a physics lab.  My physics grades were decent, but they weren’t the top.  That was o.k. since I was doing what MIT said I should be doing.

Then I applied for graduate school….  It is immensely humiliating to watch your friends get into the top-tier graduate schools that you couldn’t get into it.  I got into a decent graduate school, and the reason I did was that I had posted in the same newsgroups as several people on the admission committee. But I was mad at MIT for 15 years.

People say that want interdisciplinary, but the problem is that there are 24 hours in a day.  The time I spend learning Chinese history was time that I didn’t spend working on physics problem sets.  So I got B’s instead of A’s.  The fact that my undergraduate work was in educational courseware, meant that I *wasn’t* interning in a physics lab.  In a ruthlessly competitive system, this is the kiss of death.  You are competing against someone that allocates all their time to do *exactly* what the admissions or search committee wants, and you will lose.  If you are off by a little, you are doomed.

The irony, is that among the 80 people in the physics class of 1991 at MIT, I may be the only one that is currently doing academic research, because I had the background and training to work outside the system, when it wasn’t working for me.  Something I’d really like MIT to do is to do an outcomes assessment of the 80 people that graduated physics in 1991, and see what they are all doing.  I suspect that the answer might be shocking to them.  Assume half go to grad school, thats 40.  Assume that 15% get tenure-track jobs that’s 5.  Assume half got tenure that is 2.  With the law of small numbers, it is possible that no one made it.  Except for me.

When I realized those numbers and the fact that I’m the only one from physics since the 1980’s and 1990’s that bothers to show up to alumni events.  I stopped being angry at MIT, and I started being sad for it.



  1. I stumbled onto your blog… through a search on Margaret MacVicar. I read your posting about her vision of revolutionizing the MIT curriculum and I agree that it would be easier to move a mountain. But the fact that you had the dialog is in itself remarkable.

    Then I started devouring the rest of your blog. It is riveting reading! And of course I’m wondering who you are, though in truth it doesn’t really matter.

    I’m a staff person in the distance education field here at MIT…

    Anyway, thanks. And please keep writing.

    Comment by Molly — March 2, 2007 @ 2:00 pm

  2. The actual data suggest that things are not nearly so dire.

    I did a search of the MIT Alumni Register filtering for
    {Course 8 – Physics} and {Bachelor or Science} and {1991}.

    There are 69 hits listed in alphabetical order. (You are 66.)
    There are:

    7 professors in physics and astronomy.
    [3 23 39 40 42 46 62]

    12 research scientists in government, academic, and
    Industrial labs such as JPL, NIST, IBM, and the Spitzer
    IR Telescope including one former colleague.
    [4 7 8 19 34 37 41 43 52 56 60 65]

    6 people in medicine and medical research.
    5 people in finance.
    2 teachers.
    14 people in law, business, consulting, and software.

    23 people don’t list enough information to tell what they’re doing,
    but I would assume they are putting their education to good use.

    Comment by D-Glitch — March 7, 2007 @ 6:46 pm

  3. Thanks.

    Still a hit rate of 10% to 15% is pretty scary. Part of the reason things were as traumatic for me as they were was that a career as a physics professor was the only direction that had been presented to me when I was an undergraduate, and I don’t recall anyone saying how unlikely that career path was. Looking over the alumni lists, it turns out that people end up in a rather diverse set of careers, but when I was there, the only career that was mentioned was physics professor (because that is the only career that a physics professor knows about). There is an interesting selection bias here.

    In the early 1990’s, people were still talking about a mythical faculty/scientist shortage that never arrived. This proved to be painful because if the “normal” thing to do was to have become a physics professor, and I clearly wasn’t heading in that direction, then something was very seriously wrong with me, or so I thought.

    One of the more traumatic experiences that I had was that the people in my study group seemed to have much less difficulty making it into physics graduate school than I did. Looking over the list, none of them became physics professors, and all of them ended up in the end doing more or less what I’m doing.

    The other problem was that until the late-1990’s, I had been comparing my own career track with a mythical ideal career track which now turns out to have been highly unrealistic. In comparison with my peers, I’m actually not doing too badly, and had I known that earlier, I would have felt a lot better about myself.

    Comment by twofish — March 7, 2007 @ 9:53 pm

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