Lee Smolin Encourages Graduate Student to Stay in Science

A graduate student's critique of academia.

Posted Sep 11, 2013

You should read the entire critique, but here are the 8 main sections of the letter:

(1) Academia: It’s Not Science, It’s Business

(2) Academia: Work Hard, Young Padawan, So That One Day You Too May Manage!

(3) Academia: The Backwards Mentality

(4) Academia: Where Originality Will Hurt You

(5) Academia: The Black Hole of Bandwagon Research

(6) Academia: Statistics Galore!

(7) Academia: The Violent Land of Giant Egos

(8) Academia: The Greatest Trick It Ever Pulled was Convincing the World That It was Necessary

Although the author of the letter makes some excellent points, what I found most interesting was the encouraging response from Lee Smolin, the famous theoretical physicist.

Dear ____,

As the author of a book about the issues you so eloquently describe, The Trouble with Physics, I would urge you to stay in academic science, for exactly the issues you describe. Like so many things important for life the issues you talk about come down to values. There is to put it simply, an ongoing fight between those of us who do science to satisfy our curiosity about nature and increase our knowledge and those who do it for careerist or egotistical reasons. We need you on our side in this fight. If you do not stand up for your values, who do you think will do this work for you?

I faced the same crisis at the same point in my career. What kept me in science was reading Paul Feyerabend’s Against Method which taught me that a life in science must be both a search for truth and a challenge to our characters.

In a long career I’ve learned a few things that I would pass on. As bad as it is-and every word you say is true- a determined individual can have a career where they spend most of their time doing what they love. In my experience those who followed their own compass succeeded in their careers about as often as those who choose what they thought would be good for their careers. In both cases nothing is guaranteed, life is not fair and there are good people whose careers failed. But being ready to quit puts you in the best situation, because you have nothing to lose. You are free because you are willing to walk. So why not go for it and try for a scientific career based on love and integrity?

I also learned that when that individual succeeds they can do a great deal to improve the situation for others. One scientist with the right values can employ and protect many promising young individuals, freeing them to pursue their own ideas. There are also fights that can be won on an organizational level to promote the right values, up to and including starting new institutions.

Finally, the hardest lesson is that the fight is within each of us. Few are immune from their own egos and desire for security and status. So the fight you are about to resign from turns out to be a lifelong struggle to build your own character.

A final word: where ever you go if you leave science you are likely to face the same fight, because it is in the nature of modern life and modern organizations. So why not stay to fight it in a place where the outcome can be to discover truth?


Lee Smolin

Given that this post gathered over 51,000+ views in less than 24 hours, I wonder if Smolin's response in the comments was not so much for the student who wrote the letter, but for the thousands of aspiring and current graduate students who were reading it. Are the problems in academia the same as the problems in other areas as Smolin argues? What do you think?

See also: Do Gifted Kids Want To Be A Scientific Genius Today?

© 2013 by Jonathan Wai

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