Friday, March 10, 2023

Education to a sophisticated level of intellectual capability

In a discussion over at LessWrong I was asked:

I'd love to hear your thoughts on how to compress the training that one gets beginning and throughout a phd about how to learn effectively from ongoing research. Many folks on here either don't have time or don't think we have time to go to school, so it would be nice to get resources together about how to learn it quickly.

Here's my reply:

That's a tough one, in part because the fields vary so much. I was in an English department, so that's what my degree is in. But my real training came as part of a research group in computational linguistics that was in the linguistics department. I didn't actually do any programming. I worked on knowledge representation, a big part of old-school computational linguistics (before NLP).

But there are two aspects to this. One is getting the level of intellectual maturity and sophistication you need to function as a disciplined independent thinker. The other is knowing the literature. In some ways they interact and support one another but in some ways they are orthogonal.

I learned the most when I found a mentor, the late David G. Hays. I wanted to learn his approach to semantics. He tutored me for an hour or two once a week for a semester. That's the best. It's also relatively rare to get that kind of individual attention. Still, finding a mentor is the best possible thing you could do.

At the same time I had a job preparing abstracts for The American Journal of Computational Linguistics. That meant I had to read a wide variety of material and prepare abstracts four times a year. You need to learn to extract the gist of an article without reading the whole thing. Look at the introduction and conclusion. Does that tell you what you need? Scan the rest. You should be able to do that – scan the article and write the abstract – in no more than an hour or two.

Note, that many/most abstracts that come with an article are not very good. The idea is, if you trust the journal and the author and don't need the details, the abstract should tell you all you need. Working up that skill is good discipline.

If you're working on a project with others here, each of you agree to produce 3, 4, 5 abstracts a week to contribute to the project. Post them to a place where you can all get at them. It becomes your project library.

As for the level of intellectual maturity, the only way to acquire that is to pick a problem, work on it, and come up with a coherent written account of what you've done. The account should be intelligible to others. I don't know whether a formal dissertation is required, but you need to tackle a problem that is both interesting to you and has “weight.”

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