Study Hacks Blog Posts from October, 2011 - Study Hacks - Cal Newport

I am Looking for a PhD Student

October 21st, 2011 · 6 comments

Excuse this abuse of the blog for personal reasons, but

I’m looking for a computer science PhD student for next fall.

If you’re planning on graduate school, and want to make an impact with your research, and are interested in learning firsthand the Cal Newport approach to work and life, contact me at my Georgetown address: cnewport [at]

You can find out more about my work here and see past publications here.



Citelighter Gives, I Give Back…

October 13th, 2011 · 7 comments

I don’t accept paid advertisements. I do, however, have a standing offer to write a short, honest post about a student-oriented product if the company is willing to donate to a charity of my choice. (See here for more details.)

Citelighter recently took me up on my offer by donating money to Bottom Line, a great Boston-based organization that helps more students get access to college. I spent a morning looking over the Citelighter product, and here’s what I liked…

  • I have a high threshold for integrating technology into my study processes because I find that most services are more trouble to setup and use than sticking with a simpler low-tech alternative. Citelighter is one of the few technologies that passes my threshold.
  • In short, it allows you to highlight any text you can view in your browser and then stores it along with the relevant citation. If it can’t find all of the information it needs for the citation, it asks you to fill in what’s missing. (Once anyone has filled in the missing information, however, everyone benefits.)
  • Must crucially, this works for Google Books (click the plain text link to get the text you’re viewing into a highlightable form).
  • When you’re done, you can export all the citations you found into whatever format you want. (Word, Google Docs, etc.)
  • Bottom line: I hate how much time goes into tracking down and formatting citations. For many students, this service will help.

This video explains things better than I can…

Don’t Go Pre-Med: My Advice to a Yale Student Worried About Her Future

October 12th, 2011 · 19 comments

A Common Query

Earlier this fall I received an e-mail from a rising freshman at Yale. It read, in part:

As college draws nearer, I am growing increasingly concerned about what I’m going to do with my life.

Most of the people around me seem to think that the safest route for me is to go pre-med, because it is a well-defined path that leads to a stable career.

The thing is, I don’t really want to do pre-med. But I don’t know what else I want to do with my life. What should I do?

I get this question enough that I thought it worthwhile to share my response (put into bullet point format for readability). I’m hoping the new college students among you will find something relevant here…

My Response

  • Don’t go pre-med.
  • Instead: table the question of your future until the start of your sophomore year.
  • During your freshman year, take core courses and use your leftover electives to sample more exotic subjects. Try out a few activities to find out which seem interesting and, more importantly, which offer the most compelling opportunities to someone willing to pay it a lot of attention.
  • Then, at the start of your sophomore year, make some choices: Choose one major (not two, not three). Choose one or two extracurricular areas to focus on (not three, not four). Then attack these small number of things with a large amount of time and attention. Become excellent at them.
  • At this point, put aside any doubts about whether you made the right choices. Always move forward. Never look back and wonder.
  • As you know, I don’t believe in pre-existing passions. In my experience, there is no right or wrong major or activity waiting out there for you to discover. There are, however, right or wrong reasons for pursuing something.
  • Motivational psychology tells us that what matters in a pursuit is the loci of control. If you’re going after something because you sampled it and you found it interesting, that’s a good enough reason for your mind to get on board and provide the motivation and engagement you need for a good, successful student career.  If you’re going after something only because “most of the people” around you thought it sounded safe, that is, from a psychological point of view, a disastrous reason. You’re in for unhappiness at best and deep procrastination at worst.

To summarize: First take some time to see what’s out there, second make your own choices (but don’t sweat them), and then third go big without reservations.

(Photo by CanWeBowlPlease)

Seeking the Story Behind Genius

October 8th, 2011 · 26 comments

Two High Achievers

Alisa Weilerstein is my age. She’s a cello player and she just won a MacArthur “genius” grant for her “adventurous” playing.

Adam Riess, an astronomer at Johns Hopkins University, just won a Nobel Prize for his work measuring the universe’s expansion.

It’s easy to admire such high accomplishments from a distance. For those of us with low self-esteem, we can dismissively conclude that some people are just born brilliant, and should be admired much in the way we admire natural beauty or a lush head of hair. For those of us who are more Type A, we can instead derive a hazy sense of inspiration: “That’s what I need do,” we think, “something huge!”

I find it more productive, however, to dig a little deeper.

In an interview with The New York Times, for example, Weilerstein pushes back against the idea that she was born a musical prodigy.

“Obviously there is natural talent,” she said. “But you accomplish things only by working extremely hard.”

This echoes what has been found again and again in the deliberate practice literature: the best musicians, athletes, and chess players, among other group of high accomplishers, really do out work everyone else.

For those in the Type A camp, by contrast, a recent interview with Reiss pushes back on the idea that it’s enough to simply wait for your breakthrough idea.

When talking about the inspiration that led to his Nobel, Reiss emphasized that his breakthrough was based on the fact that “I am always thinking about how to measure the universe.” It was this complete immersion in the problem — something that persisted over years and years — that laid the foundation for his innovations in parallax measurement.

The conclusion for the Type A’s: if you want to do something big, talk is cheap, it’s more important to get started down the long road to mastery.

Bottom Line: Obviously these quotes are just scratching the surface of the deeper stories lurking behind the headlines, but they emphasize my basic point: I find high achievers to be incredibly inspiring and instructive, but only when I get into the details of their stories. When admired from afar, they provide little value. I think it’s important that we keep discussing how to understand the high achievers we encounter, because becoming adept at reality-based deconstruction of these stories seems to be a key strategy in any quest to become remarkable.