Monday, February 04, 2013

Decisions, decisions

Heading for the airport in an hour.

Read a couple good novels over the weekend for the Young Lions Fiction Award, but discretion suggests I should not blog about them.

The material in the opening chapters of Thinking, Fast and Slow felt over-familiar; I hasten to add that this is not Kahneman's fault, it simply speaks to how very influential and widespread this work on decision-making would later become. The middle and later chapters were increasingly rewarding and thought-provoking.

Things that speak to my experience most directly: regression to the mean clearly explains what happens when you are on a search committee and the candidate who gave a spectacular first-round interview at MLA is disappointing on campus; the general message to be wary of intuition and to embrace formulas is something that committees should keep very much in mind when reading for PhD admissions; and I am sorry to say (it is a very good chapter!) that everyone who is beginning a PhD degree or doctoral dissertation, a book, a home renovation or other major undertaking should read the chapter called "The Outside View" and consider the implications of baseline prediction and the planning fallacy (and revisit the commitment regularly with a view to considering the sunk-cost fallacy).

It is well-known that graduate admissions is a notorious crapshoot - I talked to a former DGS at Yale who had gone through old records (the program used long ago to rank incoming students in order of expectations for future contributions/eminence) to try and figure out what correlation there might be between those rankings and subsequent careers. There was none discernible.

I do think that years of experience have given me certain insights that are legitimate to apply: for instance, the qualities that lead someone successfully to obtain a Rhodes or Marshall Scholarship, which superficially might suggest aptitude for top-level research in the humanities (and will often ensure admission to top PhD programs), are often at odds with the kind of stubborn individualism and low-reward curiosity that really lead someone to excel at research in the humanities, and many of these students will intelligently reassess their choice a year into the PhD program and leave to do something that will be more stimulating and higher-profile in a larger pond elsewhere. When we give these students spots in our program (and they are likely to have multiple offers and take more lucrative ones at Harvard or Stanford!), we lose the chance to admit the less orthodox but perhaps more temperamentally suited students who have not got such uncheckered undergraduate records.

Now I must stop blogging and start packing!

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