What makes a good academic scholar?
November 12, 2009 1:32 PM   Subscribe

Where can I find personal stories of popular scholars on their life as students, phd candidates and/or professors?

I love my field of study and I am a smart student. But sometimes I feel like this might not enough. That there is something more I should have.

Thus, I am looking for personal stories of popular scholars on their life as students and/or scholars. An example would be Leon Lederman's Low Pay and Long Hours that is also quoted in another ask metafilter thread:

"It was probably five years after my PhD when I began to realize I was fairly competent. By year 10, I realized to my surprise that I was as productive as those best friends who brought me into physics, even though they understood much more than I did (...) Hard work--yes, it really accounts for a lot of the success. Most scientists aren't brilliant. Some are even very slow. Being solid is important--that means really knowing what you have to know even if it takes a long time. Many "brilliant" guys are superficial. Determiniation, doggedness and hard work are the characteristics that are highly valued in a group."

Although I am more interested in humanities or social sciences, personal accounts from any field are fine with me.
posted by jfricke to Education (12 answers total) 23 users marked this as a favorite
I LOVED "In Search of Memory" by Eric Kandel. Very personal, GREAT story about the making of a Nobel prize winner.

I also ready "Apprentice to Genius", by Robert Kanigel, and although I thought it was a bitter and depressing view of scientists (they're not all competitive jerks! really!) it is just what you're looking for.
posted by Cygnet at 1:59 PM on November 12, 2009

Advice to a Young Scientist by Nobel laureate P.B. Medawar, giant of British 20th century science (but before biology was cool, so perhaps not so famous), who went on to be a very successful manager of scientists later in his career. The practical advice in there has dated badly, so it's a good thing there isn't much of that. It's more an elegant, short (90pp) and precise essay on approaches to research as a career.

He does emphasize the role of experiment, which may be less useful for you, but he was, as they tended to be in those days, a classically-educated polymath, so I'm sure that at the very least you'll find it an enjoyable read. Myself, I'm a physicist, so I got like 100 pearls of wisdom out of that bitch.
posted by caek at 2:41 PM on November 12, 2009

All the good stuff is in the oral tradition.
posted by fourcheesemac at 2:46 PM on November 12, 2009 [1 favorite]

Didn't mean to sound snotty with that. Your question has fascinated me for years. I have long thought of doing a book of interviews on the subject.

Here is an interesting, if offbeat, choice that plumbs that oral tradition. The great ethnomusicologist George List gave an interview near the end of his life, in 2007, that reflects back on some amazing early years when the discipline he was helping to invent did not yet exist and had to be imagined anew in each scholar's career development. It bred a cohort of very strong personalities of whom List, the meticulous transcriber and genius on the subject of music and language and their relationship (he wrote the paradigm-shifting article, "The Boundaries of Speech and Song," in 1964) was one of the most interesting.
posted by fourcheesemac at 2:51 PM on November 12, 2009

American Prometheus has a few chapters on the college/graduate studies of J. Robert Oppenheimer, and there are also some interesting details about his students. (Like the part where his grad student's research was classified and they just gave him a doctorate and called it good? Awesome.) Oppenheimer went through a period of disillusionment and difficulty during his graduate studies, and I think that will really ring true with anyone who has been through the PhD process. Later on in the book they start naming a whole lotta communists, and that gets a little tedious. But I really enjoyed the first part.

109 East Palace is another book I enjoyed about the Manhattan Project, and it has many stories about young scientists on the project, including Richard Feynman.
posted by sararah at 3:25 PM on November 12, 2009

Richard Feynman's anecdotal autobiographies are a good read.

Also I quite enjoyed the Feynman biography Genius.
posted by beepbeepboopboop at 8:49 PM on November 12, 2009

I've also heard this recent biography of 2009 Nobel Prize winner Elizabeth Blackburn is pretty interesting, although I have not read it myself.
posted by sararah at 8:59 PM on November 12, 2009

Piled Higher and Deeper certainly qualifies. From the about page:

The strip:
"Piled Higher and Deeper" (PhD) is the comic strip about life (or the lack thereof) in academia.

The author:
Jorge Cham got his PhD in Mechanical Engineering at Stanford University, and was a full-time Instructor and researcher at the California Institute of Technology (Caltech) from 2003-2005.

posted by about_time at 6:50 AM on November 14, 2009

Response by poster: Thanks for your recommendations so far. I will check them out.
On the other hand there really seems to be a lack of literature that gives academia a human face. Maybe, fourcheesemac you should really do a book on this.
posted by jfricke at 3:20 PM on November 14, 2009

It's an oft-made observation, actually. Along the lines of "why are there almost no ethnographies of academic departments?" What there is is mostly hagiography, or presentist chronicling of chains of influence.

The best stuff I've seen is serious intellectual history that focuses on the contributions of single scholars to the formation of a discipline (which turns the question of what constitutes a scientific career into an interesting story). My very favorite example would be George Stocking, the historian of anthropology, in such books as *Victorian Anthropology.*

The downside is that such literature doesn't come up to the present generation very often. Within any generation, we tend to assume our careers follow the same paths as others' do. We share a common oral tradition within any given discipline. And we're invested in mystifying whatever success we achieve as meritoriously achieved in a transparent context.

On the other hand, the most memorable moments of my graduate education (and beyond) have come from listening to senior colleagues describe their own paths, and the characters they met along the way. Some of my colleagues are real raconteurs, a dying skill in academia -- the ability to tell cuttingly wicked but generous tales about the great figures you've encountered, generally in a tone of humility that is utterly duplicitous, while knowing that the moment you create by doing so will become a link in the chain when your audience (often grad students) will tell their stories to their students.

I really have long thought about capturing some of this in text for my own discipline. It's a young enough one that the men who built it (like George List, above) are only now finally dying off quickly, while the ones who established it in the academy are in many cases at the peaks of their careers or in early stages of retirement. No one -- not one -- has written a comprehensive monographic memoir, and there is no standard go-to intellectual history of the field, nor am I aware of any underway. As someone who does a lot of oral history work for my own research, it's tempting!

But the secrets, the secrets.
posted by fourcheesemac at 7:30 AM on November 15, 2009

I should say, men and *women* (though they tended to be outsiders to the process until the late 60s) who built it.
posted by fourcheesemac at 7:33 AM on November 15, 2009

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