Survival in the immoral maze of college

by AllAmericanBreakfast5 min read8th Jul 202012 comments

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Moral MazesWorld OptimizationRationality
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My composition teacher in college told me that in some pottery schools, the teacher holds up your pot, examines it, comments on it, and then smashes it on the floor. They do this for your first 100 pots.

In that spirit, this post's epistemic status is SMASH THIS POT.

As an older student, facing a long educational track, I'm interested in developing the right attitude toward schoolwork. By attitude, I mean a language to describe my problems and an intuition for what my goals should be and how to prioritize to achieve them. I'd like this to be generally applicable, correct, and user-friendly. I'm going to write these guidelines with confidence, even though they're just my opinions.

Learning and credentials

First, some concept handles.

Practical learning is knowledge and skills for which a) the learner has high confidence that they'll contribute directly to their tangible success, and b) are acquired in a timely and efficient manner to be actually used on the job. Central examples: on-the-job training on equipment you'll be operating, learning to read, moving to France and enrolling in an intensive course in French.

Scaffolding is knowledge and skills for which a) the learner has high confidence they'll make it so much easier to do practical learning that it's more efficient to build the scaffolding first, and b) it's acquired in a timely and efficient manner to do subsequent practical learning. Central examples: learning Python as an introductory language for someone planning on a career as a programmer, learning how to use Anki for someone whose job entails learning a lot of facts, building healthy life habits and time management skills.

Very little of what you learn at the undergraduate level is practical learning by this strict definition. And most course work is not scaffolding either.

Credentialism is knowledge and skills for which the learner has high confidence they'll contribute directly to earning the credentials they need to level up. That typically means being able to advance to college, to graduate work, or to complete a certificate for job training. Even if you do wind up using a small subset of this knowledge as a practical skill, you don't know what will be useful, so it's impossible to prioritize your deliberate practice to maintain and build on it.

Familiarity is a sense of identity with a subject, and experience navigating the reference materials. With scaffolding, you learn in order to progress to practical skills and with the expectation that the scaffolding and practical learning reinforce each other. With familiarity, you learn with the expectation that you'll forget almost everything.

Most undergraduate course work builds credentialism and familiarity. You've worked through the chemistry textbook. A year later, you might not remember the Arrhenius equation, but you do remember that it exists and where to look in order to re-teach yourself the knowledge. Some small subset of the learning does indeed wind up preparing you for practical learning, but because you can't predict which bits will apply, it's not scaffolding in the strict sense.

The frustrating truth

It's important for students to understand that it's not their fault that most of their early education is spent on credentialism and familiarity. We just haven't structured the educational system to better-prioritize scaffolding and practical learning.

In fact, you almost can't do scaffolding or practical learning prior to graduate work. You won't know what you need to concentrate on. Your time will be consumed by credentialism and familiarity-building.

If you can accept this state of affairs, then the logical thing to do is to focus not on learning, but on buying your credentials as cheaply as possible. When you have the rare opportunity to do scaffolding or practical learning, take it. Spend your slack figuring out even better deals on your credentials and making life as sustainable for yourself as possible.

A change in mindset

This is aimed at high scholastic achievers. The A students. The ones who know they want to get higher degrees, and arrive at a demanding and rewarding career doing something they're passionate about or believe is important for the world.

The mindset they're starting with is "I have energy and intellect to spare. So I put it into perfecting my grades, into side projects, and into internships. I don't just want to do well enough to get to the next level.

I am impatient to finish. I don't just want to do good research for an undergraduate; I want my undergraduate thesis to be worthy of peer review and publication. I don't just want to fiddle around with fun software projects while I'm learning to code; I want to build something that's actually useful for people."

The mindset I want to leave them with is "I have energy and intellect to spare, but I likely won't have access to the tools, learning environment, and opportunities I need to achieve tangible success until I'm credentialed. Trying to hasten toward early tangible success will tend to make me prioritize immediate tractability over all other considerations, which is not an optimal long-term strategy.

My present life as a student isn't just a precursor to my long-term career. It's worth my time and energy to live well in the present. The right thing to do is spend my slack getting myself pointed in the right direction, figuring out ways to tick the necessary boxes as easily as possible, and making my life as good as possible right now. Maybe when I'm more powerful and better-resourced, I can improve or even revolutionize this slow and tedious system to speed the next cohort's journey into scaffolding and practical learning."

You are probably an average unusual person

The average scholastic high-achiever really is trapped in a dysfunctional gate-keeping system that's not build to accommodate them. You are probably more or less an average high-achiever. You have potential, not power. You don't have the contacts. You don't have the ideas. You don't have the skills. You don't have the money.

Your best bet isn't to try and bypass the gate. It's to get through it by the normal path as effortlessly as possible.

You bought into the system at an early age. You identified with your A. Then you grew up and you saw that getting an A isn't the same as doing useful work. Now, you don't identify with your A, but you don't have an alternative outlet for your raw energy and creativity. What to do?

The right answer is to identify with your life. Figure out how to make more money on the side so that you can have savings and enjoy nice things (be charitable later, when you're making real money). Get enough sleep. Learn how to do those fun hobbies you always thought you'd cultivate after school. Figure out ways to do the tedious busywork as quickly as possible while still getting an acceptable result (and acceptable might still mean straight As).

Why do I think this?

This is the attitude I've arrived at after a lot of influence from LessWrong. It's the logical student-relevant implication of the idea that school is 80% signaling. It's the result of trying to do a lot of side projects and never feeling quite confident in even the best ideas. It's the result of being deeply skeptical about a lot of other people's projects. It's the result of the assumption that most of the low-hanging fruit has been picked, which should lead to a strong bias against the value of ideas that are accessible to even a very bright early student. It's understanding that counterexamples involve a combination of privilege, cherry-picking, and exaggeration.

It's also the result of figuring out in loose terms what I would count as a career-defining achievement, seeing the many years of work and huge amount of resources it would take to get there, and knowing that somebody else is almost guaranteed to beat me to it if I try to start now.

Understanding the circumstances

School is an immoral maze. At least three levels of management (students, teachers, departments, higher-level administration, the administrators of the higher level schools they're tailoring their curriculum for, the PI who manages grad students, the grant-makers, peer reviewers, ethics boards, University administrators, politicians and the voting public). Teachers and administrators have very little skin in the game. Some have soul in the game, but many teachers are either burnt out, or never wanted to be teachers in the first place. To keep away from the appearance of a soft curriculum, there is pressure to over-assign work, and pressure on students to over-commit in order to stand out in the signaling game.

And what does it say about itself? Well, my college's website says "X College offers... academic and professional/technical degrees and certificates to meet... learning needs."

If a college wanted to advertise itself as a place to do scaffold or do practical learning, it would say so. Perhaps "X College offers curriculums tailored to teach up-to-date job skills, delivered by efficient teachers who harness the power of top-notch digital lectures and educational software." Instead it offers degrees and certificates. To meet "learning needs."

Zvi says the right thing to do is "Quit. Seriously. Go do something else. Ideally, do it today."

As a student, you're as far as possible from the top. You're not doing object-level work. And you're paying, not getting paid, so there's no question of charitable giving.

But for most of us, there are only a few alternatives, most of which have a pretty low professional ceiling. If you want access to the colleagues, tools, money, position, and credibility to do groundbreaking innovative work, you're going to have to go through the maze. It is very rare to become a scientist without the credentials, and if you ask the people who did, they'll generally tell you they did it the hard way.

If you can't escape the immoral maze, and you can't change it, and you can't pretend anymore to identify with it, then the next best option is to make it as livable as possible. Don't give it more than it requires. Don't sacrifice what you want to achieve out of distaste for the maze. Don't beat yourself up for not being able to beat the system.

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If you want access to the colleagues, tools, money, position, and credibility to do groundbreaking innovative work

I think it's questionable whether any of that actually helps with groundbreaking innovative work (besides maybe money). Even in 1905 where the academic instituations where much more conductive to groundbreaking innovative work Einstein did his innovative work on the side while earning his paycheck as a patent clerk. 

Today's academic institutions are so effectively designed to prevent groundbreaking innovative work from happening that it might be better to go Einsteins road. Take a part-time job that pays the bills and spend the extra time doing groundbreaking innovative work without having a stiffling institution around you.

Sorry, but that's major cherry-picking. Let me pre-register a micro-study.

In the last 3 years, there were 22 Nobel Prize winners in physics, chemistry, biology, and economics. I'm willing to bet that of them, at least 20 have PhDs, which is what I meant by " If you want access to the colleagues, tools, money, position, and credibility to do groundbreaking innovative work, you're going to have to go through the maze."

Result:

All 22 STEM Nobel Prize winners from 2018-2019 had PhDs or MDs (which is a PhD equivalent).

Discussion:

This is some evidence that a terminal degree is ~necessary to do groundbreaking STEM work. It makes sense. Scientific equipment is expensive, data gathering is hard, it helps not to have to spend 20-40 hours per week on other forms of work, the PhD pipeline makes it easier to network and learn practical on-the-job scientific skills, and having a PhD makes others more likely to trust your work.

For follow-up studies, it would be useful to use other metrics of who's done groundbreaking STEM work. Examples might include:

  • Fields medal winners (all 4 2018 winners started a PhD, and 3 appear to have completed it)
  • Open Philanthropy grant winners (first 3 individuals mentioned in Scientific Research/Human Health and Wellbeing grants are all PhDs - just the first place I looked)

Just based on poking around like this, I feel quite confident that I am correct. A PhD is virtually a requirement to do groundbreaking work in STEM. You could say that Eliezar Yudkowsky, who's never completed high school, is doing groundbreaking work. But he has no proven results, and from what I've seen, virtually everyone else at MIRI has a PhD (correct me if I'm wrong).

List of STEM Laureates 2018-2019:

Arthur Ashkin: Cornell University (MS, PhD)

Gérard Mourou: Pierre and Marie Curie University (PhD)

Donna Strickland: University of Rochester (MS, PhD)

Frances H. Arnold: University of California, Berkeley (MS, PhD)

George P. Smith: Harvard University (PhD)

Greg Winter: Trinity College, Cambridge (MA, PhD)

James P. Allison: University of Texas, Austin (BS, MS, PhD)

Tasuku Honjo: Kyoto University (BS, MD, PhD)

William Nordhaus: Massachusetts Institute of Technology (Ph.D.)

Paul Romer: University of Chicago (SB, PhD)

James Peebles: Princeton University (MS, PhD)

Michel Mayor: University of Geneva (PhD)

Didier Queloz: University of Geneva (MS, DEA, PhD)

John B. Goodenough: University of Chicago (MS, PhD)

M. Stanley Whittingham: New College, Oxford (BA, MA, DPhil)

Akira Yoshino: Osaka University (PhD)

William Kaelin Jr.: Duke University (BS, MD)

Peter J. Ratcliffe: College, Cambridge (MB BChir, MD)

Gregg L. Semenza: University of Pennsylvania (MD, PhD)

Abhijit Banerjee: Harvard University (PhD)

Esther Duflo: Massachusetts Institute of Technology (PhD)

Michael Kremer: Harvard University (AB, AM, PhD)

It is quite plausible that the Noble Prize is given to more credentialed people, either for the work/ideas of others or over the more important work/ideas of others, because they are credentialed. There's also a huge selection effect of who chooses to get a PhD, and a large time delay so you're measuring what a PhD used to be when it meant something different.

I also don't think MD is the same thing as a PhD in context, and it is quite the credential - doing the things an MD does without an MD isn't hard to fund, it's outright illegal.

Another way to measure things might be to take a historical list of important discoveries-yet-to-be-made, and look at the credentials of the person who made them. This sounds like it needs a longer fact post, so I'll have that up when I get a chance.

There's little groundbreaking work currently done and as a result we have the great stagnation. Nobel Prizes do require a certain academic contribution but they also require networking and winning academic politcal competitions. 

Counting winning those status competitions as proxy for groundbreaking work is an illustration for everything that's wrong with academia today and preferring status over actual scientific results. 

Do you think any of the names on your list provide the kind of groundbreaking work that Einstein was able to do twice in 1905?

Apart from that today's academic enviroment is not the same it was when Arthur Ashkin went to Bell Labs. He might have needed a degree to get to Bell Labs. The fact that he got the Nobel Price in 2018 for work over 30 years old is again a sign that our academic system isn't producing much groundbreaking work lately. 

The nearest we have to Bell Labs is Google X which doesn't require degrees. 

Scientific equipment is expensive, data gathering is hard, 

Scientific equipment is expensive but it can drive you to try to make us of the scientific equipment instead of doing the kind of groundbreaking work Einstein did where you work conceptually to reorder existing data. 

it helps not to have to spend 20-40 hours per week on other forms of work

That's basically saying it helps not to be in academia. Within academia there are few jobs where you don't have to spend 20-40 hours for teaching and administration per week. 

I read this as advice that you should half-ass school since the only goal is to collect credentials. You don't specify the field, but I think this advice is counter-productive for people getting computer science degrees.

My CS program had a lot of classes that prepared me for the wrong careers (network technician in 1990, AI researcher in 1980, person who writes philosophy papers about databases, etc.), but the majority of the CS-track classes were directly applicable to my job right after school. This was largely just the long, slow process of learning how to program at all, how to interface with the external world and other people's code, and the long list of performance data that you need to memorize if you want to be competant. Even some classes that I thought were useless, like linear algebra ("I don't plan to write game engines!") ended up being useful.

Within the useful classes, doing more than the bare minimum on projects made a very big difference, and the people who obsessively improved their trivial programming projects became the same people who found it easy to get an internship, and then eventually the people who skipped the "Junior Engineer" job title and jumped directly into "real programmer jobs".

I suspect CS degrees are overly padded and could probably be packed into two years or less with a better focus on the careers people actually want or can get. Despite that, I think your advice to half-ass your way through school and not try to over-achieve is bad advice, at least in the context of CS. Most of the classes are useful, and it's extremely obvious which ones aren't. Half-ass the IT classes if you don't plan to go into IT, but don't half-ass the relevant learning-to-program classes.

Perhaps half-ass what you need to do to get a good grade, and whole-ass what you need to do to actually learn the material.

That’s the distinction I’m trying to draw. I think that CS is unusual in that it has characteristics of academia and a trade. So is math, because AFAIK the undergraduate course content is directly applicable to many fields. Of course, some people who hate CS and will never use it are still forced to take classes in it. For them, it's almost all credentialism and a bit of familiarity; no genuine scaffolding or practical learning.

By contrast, many other disciplines are inherently “survey courses” to some extent, even if not labeled as such. You’ll only use a tiny subset of the content as you specialize, and you’ll forget the rest. Others are just not very useful for an actual job: nurses taking o-chem for example.

Your comment adds substance and nuance, so thank you for writing it.

I do think your first paragraph is reductive, and the point of this post was to create concepts to allow us to get beyond the reductionist dualism of "half-assing vs whole-assing." In particular:

When you have the rare opportunity to do scaffolding or practical learning, take it. Spend your slack figuring out even better deals on your credentials and making life as sustainable for yourself as possible.

I believe thought-patterns like these are common among students:

"I'm only taking this course for my graduation requirements; I'm gonna half-ass it"
"I'm never gonna use 90% of what I'm learning in this class, but it's still relevant to my future career, so I need to whole-ass it."

I'd like to see shifts to thought-patterns like these:

"This course is pure credentialism; I'm going to focus on the fun parts and otherwise do the minimum required to get an A."
"This biology course is almost entirely for credentialism and familiarity, but I really need to focus on the part about viruses. That'll be a combination of scaffolding and even some practical learning, because I want to make a career in pandemic prevention."

The point is to cultivate discernment about the personal relevance of the course content, and drop the moralistic self-judgment.

From the post:

Figure out ways to do the tedious busywork as quickly as possible while still getting an acceptable result (and acceptable might still mean straight As).

I'm suspicious of the direction of causality in what you described:

Within the useful classes, doing more than the bare minimum on projects made a very big difference, and the people who obsessively improved their trivial programming projects became the same people who found it easy to get an internship, and then eventually the people who skipped the "Junior Engineer" job title and jumped directly into "real programmer jobs".

Some people enjoy programming independent of schooling. It's meme-level widespread (i.e. common) knowledge among programmers; so much so that the resentment by (professional) programmers that don't enjoy hobby programming is also meme-level widespread.

I don't think advice to 'do more than the bare minimum on projects' or 'obsessively improve your trivial projects' is any good really. The people that seem to benefit from the advised behavior don't need any additional motivation to do it and everyone else isn't going to benefit from doing what is, to them, just more "tedious busywork" (and without any short-term payoff).

FWIW I think the content doesn't deliver on the title.  Perhaps "How to Survive the Immoral Maze of College"