Advice to the Past

Over at Scientific American, Amanda Baker has a story about what scientists say they would tell their younger selves.

I reached out to eight of my colleagues who are currently in STEM fields and asked them a series of questions about their childhood interests in science, school experiences, and roadblocks that they faced on their path from elementary school to their current positions. [...]

Their feedback covered not only what drew them to science, but also what had almost pushed them away. Below I have consolidated the feedback into five main points, including the advice they would give their middle school selves if they could do it all again.

It's sort of interesting, and a lot of what they talk about resonates with my own experience-- like her colleagues, I always wanted to do something science-y, which included a paleontology phase, and I had my own issues with dry and abstract math classes. And, of course, this naturally leads to idly musing about what I'd tell myself back in middle school.

Unfortunately, I'm not very interesting in this regard. I'm basically happy with my place in life (the occasional period of work-related depression aside), and there's not a lot I feel I missed out on, in terms of career preparation. A lot of the advice suggested by Baker's colleagues is stuff I did already-- I was never a grade-grubber, I went to a liberal arts college, and I got really into basketball starting in middle school so I've remained physically active, more or less.

And lots of the things I didn't do were not-done more or less consciously as trade-offs for something else. I probably should've taken some chem or bio classes in college, to understand those fields better. But then, I probably should've taken art history in college, and I didn't do that either, for the same reason: I was avoiding time-consuming classes outside my major to allow time for playing rugby and socializing. And I don't think I'd trade those experiences for a slightly wider knowledge of science. There are some other gaps that would require much larger changes-- my knowledge of field theory and general relativity is pretty sketchy, mostly because they didn't regularly teach those subjects at Williams. I could've learned more about that stuff, but I would've needed to go to an entirely different college, and I wouldn't make that trade, either.

Though that's also a kind of funny way to talk about things. Because I don't doubt that I could've made any of those trade-offs and still ended up basically happy with my place in life. I'd just be a very different person, being happy in a very different place.

Really, if I were going to go back and give advice to my middle-school self, it wouldn't be about career preparation. I had a few unhappy years in the middle-school sort of time frame, but that was a matter of social things, not anything educational. I got a handle on that stuff a little later, but if I were going to try to get seventh-grade-me to do something different, it would be to try to speed that process up a bit. Specifically, to recognize that a big part of the problems I had getting along with other kids was self-inflicted.

But, you know, sorting out that sort of thing is part of what middle school is about, and I'm not convinced that seventh-grade-me would believe 2016-me, anyway. Seventh-grade-me could be an insufferable little shit. Which was a major source of his problems.

So, like I said: boring.

I will, however, endorse the general advice given in that post. And, in fact, I've said that at much greater length, here and here. So, if you're in middle school now, take that stuff to heart. Learn some programming, chill out about grades, study a broad range of subjects, and find some physical activity you enjoy. You'll be glad you did.

Also: work on not being an insufferable little shit, okay?

More like this

When i was about 8, my dream was to be a coroner/medical examiner. I had been given a book which i believe to be Coroner At Large, a compilation of reports on suspicious celebrity deaths by Noguchi and DiMona, and read it multiple times. I then checked out every book from the library related to the subject. That was my dream job for at least 2 years until my mother told me, "Medical school is very difficult. You're probably not smart enough or hard working to get through it." And of course i believed her, and set my sights on other careers. Even when i was in high school and college, at no point did i even CONSIDER any medical fields, because i wasn't smart enough.

Well, when i was in grad school for synthetic organic chemistry working for a senior editor of the Journal of Organic Chemistry, and my BF at the time was failing out of med school because he never attended class or did his homework, it occurred to me suddenly that i was much smarter and hardworking than him. And that i probably COULD have achieved that career goal, had i held onto it.

So, my advice to my younger self would be to not believe what anybody tells me about what i'm capable of without independently obtaining and verifying the evidence ;)

By Double Shelix (not verified) on 21 Jan 2016 #permalink