Tuesday, February 26, 2013

What does it mean to be smart?

Today's guest blogger is Nicholas  McConnell. Nicholas earned his PhD in 2012 and is now the Beatrice Watson Parrent Fellow at the Institute for Astronomy (University of Hawaii).  His research focuses on supermassive black holes and giant elliptical galaxies.

High intelligence is a common stereotype about astronomers and physicists.  Indeed, many of us have performed well throughout school and on standardized tests.  But in graduate school problem sets are replaced by open-ended research questions, and steady affirmation gives way to occasional, even frequent, frustration.  Yet our colleagues seem brilliant and productive.  For many people, research provides fertile ground for self-doubt.  "Am I as smart as I thought I was?  Do I have what it takes?"

This self-reflection can have different flavors.  Social psychologists, most prominently Carol Dweck and her colleagues, have performed research supporting two distinct perspectives regarding personal intelligence.  One is a "fixed" mindset, which views intelligence as an innate quality attained early in life.  The other is a "growth" or "malleable" mindset, which views intelligence as a quality that can be exercised and strengthened.  Individuals tend to consider their own abilities through one of the two mindsets, although there is room for overlap (for instance, one may believe that intelligence is innate but creativity is malleable).

Everyone acquires new knowledge and builds new skills throughout their lives.  But is it actually possible to improve your ability to learn or to raise your ceiling for achievement?  The difference between the two mindsets is starkest when one faces a tough challenge or experiences failure.  In the fixed mindset these situations are threatening, as they reflect one's personal limitations.  In the growth mindset, frustration can be seen as transient circumstance, and even a failed effort can be a valuable mental workout.

For several years in graduate school, I beat myself up for perceived shortcomings: in particular, that my first paper took many months longer to analyze and write than I originally planned.  My morale was bottoming out when I encountered the idea of mindset.  I backed off the desire to make a rapid breakthrough and instead focused on steadily building myself into a better scientist.  My work eventually was fruitful and earned broader recognition, but more importantly I learned to strive for success by my own standards.

I'm not claiming that an arbitrary set of personal goals and some elbow grease are the only requirements for professional success.  Our colleagues' values and expectations are important too.  During my final semester at UC Berkeley, I led a discussion with grad students and postdocs about abilities and attitudes that might characterize a "bright" astronomer or "good" scientist.  We quickly brainstormed a list of over a dozen different skills, from "publishes frequently" to "connects apparently disparate ideas" to "collaboration and group management."  The upshot is that success has many facets rather than a single mold, and that everyone can identify traits that they value and want to improve.  However, a pitfall is to compare oneself to a "super-astronomer," a mythical person who possesses all the good qualities of various professional role models.  When you combine a growth mindset with a realistic set of expectations, hard problems can push you forward rather than beating you down. 

My peers at Berkeley had many thoughtful comments about different flavors of intelligence and grey areas between the two mindsets.  They also wondered how departments and individual mentors could help support a growth mindset for graduate students.  What are your thoughts?

Extra materials:
* PDF file of Berkeley discussion
* Article on mindsets in Asian vs. American elementary school classrooms.