Wednesday, April 05, 2006

Accelerating for Better Careers

A recent op-ed in the Coloradoan pointed out an interesting little nugget from Louis Terman's longitudinal research following children with high IQs. Apparently, children who graduated from high school at age 15 had "superior careers" to those who graduated at 17. The children had similar IQs. Starting your career earlier, it turns out, increases the chances you'll do great things with it (you can read the piece, which just covers acceleration in general, here).

I find this fascinating given all the articles of late about "Adultolescents," or "Twixters" (to use Time's phrase) or "Rejuveniles" to use the title of a new book by Christopher Noxon coming out in June. It's taking kids in general a lot longer to grow up these days. Gifted young people are taking even longer, given that many of them pursue advanced degrees after college. I suspect this extended adolescence is the reason so few grown-up gifted kids in the SMPY co-hort had had children by age 35. I read one study on English PhDs from the Modern Language Association that found 95% of students took more than 5 years to obtain their PhDs. In the best case scenario, these young people are 27 by the time they finish school and start working, and in normal scenarios, they're a lot older ...

...unless they're accelerated. A kid who graduated from high school at 15 could be done with college at 19 and pursuing advanced studies in the field of his choosing while most people are still choosing majors (and figuring out that "Beast" is a nickname for Milwaukee's Best). Sure there's a lot of fun stuff you experience by being the normal college age during college, but there's a lot of time-wasting stuff too. Gifted kids are often deeply interested in the fields in which their talents lie. Forcing them to spend 18 years pursuing generalist knowledge they could compact into far fewer years keeps them from devoting time to their passions.

As people have pointed out in other threads on this blog, if you devote more time to your passion, you often become very good at it. So no wonder accelerated kids do better in their careers. I don't know if it's an argument that would persuade a reluctant school, but it's worth a shot.


Anonymous said...

But what is causing what? Presumably all the students in Terman's study were of about equal ability, so choosing to accelerate was arguably an indication of some underlying quality, not determined by IQ, like academic interest, ambition, self discipline, or self-confidence. These traits would surely lead to better outcomes for those who possessed them, all other things being equal, whether acceleration was involved or not. How did Terman's study attempt to adjust for such qualities?

Also, is it possible that graduate school takes longer than necessary? IIRC, in the A Beautiful Mind bio of mathematician John Forbes Nash, it noted that when he got to Princeton to work on his PhD (incidentally he had been accelerated) the school had a policy of starting students working on their thesis right away, the result being he got his doctorate in about 2 yrs, when it might normally have been about 4-5 yrs at another school. Also,(again IIRC I think I have read it somewhere on the internet but I can't find it) physicist Steven Weinberg has said that he was grateful that when he started grad school his advisors started him immediately working on a research problem, instead of,( I assume), simply taking grad level classes. Weinberg received his PhD in 3 yrs (also from Princeton) and wasn't accelerated, although he did attend the Bronx high school of science, which might be considered the same thing. Also, both Nash and Weinberg got their PhDs during the 50's, so apparently long times in grad school were not uncommon then.

Anonymous said...

Terman's study is so archaic now that you can't get much from it. Social conditions have changed a lot since his day.

Early graduation is no guarantee of an early career. I finished my BS when I was 19, but I was still 28 when I finished my PhD.

Math PhDs tend to be quicker than those in the sciences. NSF keeps track of time to PhD for many fields, and 5-7 years is typical in the US (compared to 3 years in the UK).

Anonymous said...

Is there any study on which of the two are happier human beings?

Anonymous said...

I would also point out that many of the "big name" schools use grad students as cheap labor and have no incentive to have them finidh their PhD early.When I started PhD work in a top university,the sciences there "bragged" that the earliest you would make it out would be 9 years.The first few years would be spent working in a lab that had nothing to do with any project of your own and TAing in classes many hours a week.Only in Year 4 would you actually start your own project...if that early.The length of study may have as much to do with the state of research dollars in a field than anything else.

By the way,I found "happiness"by leaving the program and finding many other successes in the time I would have been sitting in the lab wokring on someone else's research. As a student who had only accelerated by one year, I counted my one year in the PhD program as the "free year" that I had skipped manyyears before.

The Princess Mom said...

My husband graduated high school a bit early (at 17), although he was dual-enrolled (high school and college) for two years. He started full-time college at a little Ivy taking graduate level chemistry classes. By the time he was done with school--PhD., M.D. and residency--he was 35 years old and had been in school all or part of 30 consecutive years. Does graduate school take longer than necessary? You betcha!