I was curious, what is academia's perspective on the following type of student, assuming that the student is well qualified via research experience, letters of recommendation, grades, GRE, passion, and other things CV related:

The student is very, very good at asking innovative questions and proposing difficult questions that others have not thought about, that is they can see the current landscape of their field and understand it really well. However, innately, they are not a good problem SOLVER. They can pretty much do a minute portion of problem solving in research, but it's something akin to hinting (ambiguous solutions that need a third party to think hard about implementation). They can solve solve problems as per their curricula (and thus get a high GPA), but not unsolved problems in academia. Moreover, it helps that they are a brilliant communicator and writer.

The reason why I ask is because I have a friend who fits the description above. That friend is heavily, heavily revered by his PI who absolutely loves him. One of the primary reasons is because my friend's questions have been the basis for many grants (which he also writes with the consultation of my professor), resulting in a large influx of funding for my professor. The professor, as a thinker, would be qualitatively put as "above average", and is a hybrid between a thinker and a doer. Everyone else in the lab is a lab technician, and there are a couple of postdocs. What's interesting is that the lab has really good chemistry. My friend comes up with an idea, runs it by the PI. The PI, who has insight checks it off or guns the idea down depending on the context. The PI also proposes solutions. Next, the technicians and postdocs who are highly skilled in procedure and are the tangible hands that make the results happen in real life as per the instructions of the PI. The PI admits that they don't have the innate vision to ask these questions, but given the questions can crank out a solution with the lab technicians. It's a little scary to think that for the past 2 years, an undergraduate has been the mind behind pretty much all of the sub-experiments and directions of my institution's top labs by funding and results. The PI has received tenure as a result. What's interesting is, by speculation, no one can survive without the other. Well, the PI could technically survive, but would be reduced to doing his previous projects. However, without an army of skilled labor and a PI as an intermediary, my friend cannot get anything done. My friend wants to move to a different institution for pedigree as he receives an advanced degree. My friend is an abysmal doer, and cannot learn at an appreciable rate.

By abysmal doer, I mean (by his own admission), sometimes clumsy with the hands, sometimes randomly lacks motivation, and when focused, is "slow" in picking up a step by step procedure. For example, we took an upper level chemistry course together for a science elective. He can easily explain PCR on paper and orally, with much deeper insight and implications than a textbook, so you know he's not memorizing. But come in the lab, he looks totally clueless and out of place, looks at the reagents like they're foreign substances.

Outside of being a theoretician (for example a theoretical physicist, something my friend ironically does not want to pursue), can my friend survive in graduate school?

  • 10
    "The PI admits that they don't have the innate vision to ask these questions, but given the questions can crank out a solution with the lab technicians. It's a little scary to think that for the past 2 years, an undergraduate has been the mind behind pretty much all of the sub-experiments and directions of my institution's top labs by funding and results. The PI has received tenure as a result." Perhaps I'm way off-base, but I find myself skeptical. The path to tenure is a lot more than two years. Tenure-track hires have already exhibited the skill of proposing good projects. Oct 10, 2015 at 23:48
  • 1
    Have you spoken to the PI about this? Does he corroborate your friend's story? Oct 10, 2015 at 23:51
  • 1
    Thanks for clarifying that "The PI received tenure as a result" is your opinion based on certain projections rather than something the professor said himself. " Also, the PI explicitly mentioned that my friend was the best professional colleague he had and that he found new passion for his field as a result of the contributions he helped spur, content he couldn't think of alone." To you? Oct 11, 2015 at 1:43
  • 2
    Excuse me for asking, but: what's a PI?
    – Oliphaunt
    Oct 11, 2015 at 14:23
  • 2
    @Oliphaunt: it's also in use in Europe; here is an example from UCL. In countries where English is not the first language, this might be different; but in the linked field, researchers in other such countries are certainly familiar with the term. So it's probably an expression not used in your field. Oct 11, 2015 at 17:58

4 Answers 4


Be careful. Interesting conjectures, new ideas are a dime a dozen. The hard work of proving (or disproving) conjectures, and working out the implications of new ideas to see if they turn out useful or are just ephemeral fireworks are the real center of any science.

Just go search in e.g. Wikipedia for conjectures, there are many famous ones (and literally hundreds of less well known ones).

  • 2
    I agree, "Genius is one percent inspiration and ninety-nine percent perspiration" still applies. I used to think that coming up with ideas is easy and it turns out it is; proving/disproving and putting in the work to actually be able to judge whether it's a good idea is the hard part.
    – Fasermaler
    Oct 12, 2015 at 4:55

I would recommend, in the strongest possible terms, that your friend try to remain with his current PI, at least until he has some significant papers with his name on them.

There are tons of analytical people who have good ideas and know how to ask good questions. It is difficult for most people, even near the top of the academic ladder, to tell the difference between a good question/idea and a great one. The people whose questions get listened to are those who either (a) have the power to investigate their own questions, or (b) have such a high record of success that investigators will choose that person's questions over their own. Your friend has managed to achieve (b), in the eyes of your professor, without going through (a). This situation is incredibly rare, and he will not likely find it with another professor. Instead, he may end up trying to investigate his new PI's (less interesting) questions until he can prove his competency; and if this never happens, his voice might be lost to science, indistinguishable from that of a myriad of crackpots (in spite of his new institution's pedigree). If his question-asking ability is as exceptional as you say, this would be a great pity.

Important caveat: This all hinges on the assumption that your description of your friend's situation is entirely accurate. If your professor has been exaggerating your friend's contributions to encourage him, for instance, or if your friend has deceived himself about his own importance, then all bets are off. In fact, this is likely what other PIs will assume has happened if your friend tells them his story the way you have, which is a good reason for staying with the PI who already values him.

  • 2
    I think this is a good answer. If you accept all the premises, then the OP's friend is very special and should be encouraged to continue to make academic contributions. However a lot of people will have difficulty believing the story, and if the OP's friend is dropped into a different academic environment it is much less likely that all the factors of the present one will combine to ensure his success. Oct 11, 2015 at 3:17

This is a beautiful question. I will focus on generalities since I am a pure mathematician myself with no experience in the practical aspects of your field. I believe science has much need for people like your friend, and he can and clearly already does bring a lot of value to the scientific enterprise. The key for him is to be in an environment where he can collaborate with others who have skills complementary to his, as in the current situation. I think the history of science probably offers some famous examples of collaborations that achieved some fantastic breakthrough when one of the collaborators was a great thinker and a poor doer, and the other was the opposite. (I admit I can't think of any specific ones right now, but the idea sounds familiar and maybe others can comment with such examples).

As for your friend's lack of practical skills and "doer" mentality, given that he is only an undergraduate it is probably too soon to get concerned. He has plenty of time to continue working on improving these areas of weakness. Researchers mature with age and experience and sometimes become surprisingly good at things at which they used to be quite bad.

So: can your friend survive graduate school? That seems impossible to predict; I think the possibilities are that he may have a really hard time because of his practical clueslessness; he may be able to make up for it with his theoretical brilliance and strategic collaboration with others; or he may be able to work on his limitations to the point of completely overcoming them.


A PhD student needs to "do" massive amounts of work, but it's the analysis work that needs to be done personally, not the lab work. He may be expected to do lab work personally, or have trouble finding someone willing to do it, but if he does find a team like the one he is in now, having help from technicians won't bar him from theorizing, analyzing lab results, and presenting an effective thesis. (Naturally credit should be given, the student should not claim to have mixed reagents if he did not).

Really, it's the role currently served by the PI (proposing solutions) where your friend desperately needs to develop skills in order to successfully complete doctoral studies. Of course, this does require familiarity with lab procedure -- some things aren't possible, and things that go wrong need to be accounted for when evaluating results.

But you already knew this -- your question title focuses on the "problem solver" aspect, not lab technique.

You must log in to answer this question.

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged .