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As an adviser, I have found it to be a detrimental motive for a student to focus solely on surpassing Einstein in achievement, for many reasons. One student in particular has busied himself with the deconstruction of relativity and strives to break it down and replace it with a much better system. Not only that, he's attempting to construct a theory of quantum gravity and the refutation of string theory, among many other ridiculous sounding tasks.

The student told me earlier that "Einstein's physics will soon come to an end." when I asked him about his work on his thesis. Then when I saw his thesis, it was complete gibberish, wrong in many aspects. I tried to tell him this but he simply wouldn't listen and told me "You do not understand anything."

He then went to looking for a different adviser but failed, since nobody wanted to work with a man who wants to "surpass" Einstein. When he was rejected by everybody, he came back to me and we were on equal terms again. But now, he's trying to write another thesis. And he told me AGAIN that "It'll be something that will break string theory."

Every student that does physics today at least has a feeling, however slight it may be, to be the next Einstein, to have a revolutionary impact on science, but it's quite saddening that only 1 out of 900,000 people would actually do so. And for this student of mine, I know for sure that he'll soon fall into a well and never get out of it again.

This situation can be likened to a very similar situation in mathematics, as if your proof of a famous conjecture turns out to be wrong, say good-bye to your reputation forever.

I must mention that I do not want to drive him away completely from this. If the student indeed finds a "real" problem in fundamental physics, then let him work further on it. But this must not be the only thing that he should work on, which he is doing with the most robust motivation.

A big problem is that the student has a highly peculiar personality and is introverted; if you tell him something, he has a distaste for authority and considers himself to be the "smartest" and superior than all of everybody he knows, including me. He says that "People in physics today lack imagination" and things of this sort.

I am rather confused. What should I do? Should I try to leave him, or should I tell him in some way to quit doing this and focus on something more plausible and if he doesn't do this then I should do something else?

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    You've shown more patience than I find reasonable with a megalomaniac. Leave gracefully, if this is possible. – gnometorule Oct 15 '15 at 19:50
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    This person does not seem to have the maturity and self awareness required for serious research. Is that your impression as well? – ff524 Oct 15 '15 at 19:51
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    Refer the student to counseling? If the student is delusional they might need psychiatric treatment. – Anonymous Physicist Oct 15 '15 at 20:23
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    I would caution against leaping to "psychiatric treatment" as the best plan. To my knowledge, crackpottery is not a recognized mental illness, and there's a difference between "unable to do science" and "mentally ill." As anyone in astronomy or math could tell you, people thinking they're the next Einstein are a dime a dozen, and the only difference here is this person is currently inside rather than outside academia. – user4512 Oct 15 '15 at 21:50
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    this sounds like someone destined for blogs and amazon self-published books. – casey Oct 16 '15 at 0:14

22 Answers 22

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Let the standard processes of education and research take their course. This student will probably not survive them to receive the degree, and that is as it should be. Tough love: warn, then let the system do its thing.

The central issue I see is that this student is clinging tenaciously to a goal of disruptive fame rather than a goal of advancing research. This happens; it's a difficult thing to screen out at the application stage (where unreasonable ambition is not entirely uncommon, and not usually a dealbreaker). You can suggest that this is an inappropriate goal, and it sounds as though you have -- but you can't force the student to hear, much less change.

I would be inclined to keep my interactions with this student as concrete and immediate-goal-oriented as possible. Have an agenda for every meeting, and pull the student back to it when a megalomanic rant is imminent. Deflect, e.g. "Yes, but when will you have {thing with imminent due date} done?" or "Interesting. Write that up into a conference abstract and submit it to {conference}."

You are well within your rights to "fire" the student as your advisee, I would think. I don't know how that works where you are (or whether it's even possible), but to some extent your students become part of your professional reputation, and this one will not reflect well on you.

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    I agree with this answer in its entirety, but I think the final paragraph is most important. It's fine to let the student run into a wall with his/her crackpottery, but don't let him/her take the advisor's reputation down with it. – Marc Claesen Oct 16 '15 at 1:28
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    I disagree with the conclusion of your last paragraph. Everyone makes mistakes and people will, I think, most likely understand that Advisor6 wouldn't have taken on the student if they had a crystal ball and knew it would turn out this way. People's reaction is muc more likely to be, "Poor Advisor6, getting lumbered with that one" rather than, "Wow, Advisor6 must be a real moron for accepting that student!" – David Richerby Oct 16 '15 at 7:39
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    @Superbest: I don't think any meanigful "disruption" in science ocurred where the subject's work was considered "gibberish" by the experts. Overlooked, yes; misunderstood, yes; "gibberish", no. Newton, Einstein, Planck, De Broglie, Heisemberg, etc., where regular citizens in the physics community of their time. – Martin Argerami Oct 16 '15 at 7:49
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    @Jay: unfortunately, the system is very unfair in that respect. Here's an example of my own: I had an M.Sc. student; over more than two years I supervised and funded him. We were at the stage of proof-reading chapters of his thesis when he vanished completely, never to answer an email again. I will never be able to claim any credit for the two-year supervision to almost completion, nor for the funding. In fact, it will be held against me that "I didn't have a student" during part of that time, because only completions count. – Martin Argerami Oct 16 '15 at 16:00
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    @Jay I thought all students were supposed to have an advisor. It stands to reason that SOMEBODY has to take the difficult cases. — No, you've missed the obvious corollary of the first sentence: Someone who cannot find an advisor is not supposed to be a student. In truly difficult cases, it is far better for both the student and the department to admit that the admission decision was a mistake and let the student go. Admission does not guarantee graduation. – JeffE Oct 16 '15 at 19:24
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A major part of good science, is not only performing good research, but also convincing others that your science is worthwhile. A common belief of researchers is that their job is done after they have proved their idea – now it is the community's turn to see how awesome their science is.1,2

Maybe a first step is to make your student see this.

The next step would be that he works only on hypothesis/direction on which both of you agree: "if you cannot convince me that this hypothesis is correct, how can you convince the entire community"? To take off the personal issue (i.e., the feeling of your student that maybe he is smarter than you, and it is just you that don't understand), you can use his PhD committee, if you have such in your institution. If a committee of 3-4 established researchers don't understand "how brilliant his results are", this is a good indication that the rest of the community will not be able to understand it, and therefore, even if it is great science, it is futile.

The main thing in the above approach, is that it doesn't confront his ambitions, and doesn't (directly) say that his work is meaningless. Instead, it states that great work by itself is meaningless unless accepted by others. It would be great to channel his enthusiasm to the correct direction – but this direction must be provided, or at least guided by you (his advisor), this is what advisors are for.


References:
1 Why is my theory not (yet) celebrated by scientific community?
2 I believe I have solved a famous open problem. How do I convince people in the field that I am not a crank?

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    This is a very good answer. To try and teach him to adapt his behaviours to not unnecessarily anger and put people off, especially those who may be important to his future. The drive he's got with that obsession could be used to build great stuff, if he could just put up a filter to not unnecessarily ruin his own social chances. – mathreadler Oct 17 '15 at 11:03
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Note: I'm a PhD student so the following is based off of very limited experience.

You're in a very tough situation. It is likely that the student will end up spending a lot of time obsessing over their work and get brainwashed by their own ego and denial. On the other hand, Einstein himself was indeed regarded as a bit of a crackpot for a while (I believe his three famous 1905 papers were based on projects that he had proposed and were turned down - whether or not this is internet garbage is unbeknownst to me).

However, it certainly isn't a healthy mindset. I would not recommend counseling per se, purely because your student might see it as a soft form of rejection - and that will only make matters worse. They may feel pushed out, or told they have to conform to something they don't agree with. In extreme circumstances though, it may be necessary.

What I would then suggest is the following. I believe it is up to you to steer the project somewhat and to keep track of your student's progress. For the time being, it is probably wise to suggest an overall topic that they can (and must) work on. Strike a deal - they must progress in this project sufficiently within a certain time frame, then they can spend a week on forming the rigourous basis of their own theory, from the bottom up. After that week, you review their work and advise them on any pitfalls, and offer them another week on correcting them and extending it. If, after that brief time, they have not convinced you that it is an avenue worth exploring, they must repeat this process.

By the end, there's a good chance that they will have done sufficient work in your suggested topic to have something worthwhile, and you can get them out of your hair. There is a chance that they actually enjoy that topic enough to shift their perceptions. On the flipside, there is a small chance that they stumble across something interesting, and you'll both be on the cover of Time magazine. I did say small.

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    Were you able to find a citation for the Einstein crackpot claim? I was unable to find any evidence that his Annus mirabilis papers were rejeted by the community. – March Ho Oct 19 '15 at 2:01
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    Unfortunately I have not. I recall reading an article online which had a large list of projects that Einstein had applied for which where rejected, with many of which later becoming relevant. Unfortunately, as is the way with online articles (and I can't even find it now!), especially about Einstein, it is most likely made up. – JArkinstall Oct 19 '15 at 8:41
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    Regardless whether Einstein's papers were rejected, it is almost certain that many of his ideas were initially rejected. Novel ideas (and the people who produce them) are rarely embraced on the day of their publication. There is a long list of folks who have done stellar work in relative isolation or were rejected so soundly they quit their field (e.g. Hugh Everett) -- only to have their work rediscovered as brilliant. But I can think of none whose goal was to disrupt. They were obsessed with their ideas, not the idea of themselves. This guy sounds like he is focused on the wrong thing. – zxq9 Oct 19 '15 at 22:57
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    Adding to @zxq9 's point, Einstein had put forth STR in 1905, GTR in 1916, and the merits of the approach notwithstanding, validation for any revolutionary idea relies strongly on experimental evidence. It is not malicious on the part of the scientific community, that's how science works - you are skeptical about new ideas until there is concrete evidence in favor of them. That validation part came around 1919 IIRC, and that's when he became larger than life. – 299792458 Oct 20 '15 at 7:16
  • I think you mean Spacetime Magazine? :P – Mehrdad Oct 21 '15 at 9:36
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I am rather confused.

What are you confused about? It is crystal clear from your description that this student is going nowhere fast. Working with him is, to put it semi-diplomatically, not an optimal allocation of your time, energy and other resources. If you are confused, it's because you are letting your emotions get in the way of acknowledging that unfortunate fact.

What should I do? Should I try to leave him ... ?

As with your remark about being confused, I find it telling that you talk of "trying" to leave him. It sounds like you are a kind-hearted soul who has a hard time dealing with the fact that being a professor occasionally entails making some tough decisions and having awkward conversations about those decisions with students whose lives can be negatively impacted.

My advice is to put emotions aside and act rationally. More precisely, I suggest a two step approach:

  1. Decide what your goal is. What are you hoping to achieve by working with this student? Are you doing it out of pity? To meet your department's expectations that you work with graduate students? To learn about delusional people? Is there some concrete scientific goal that you think he alone can help you achieve? Or maybe you are thinking of doing it just because; that is, because you think you should, even though you cannot clearly articulate any good reason for it.

    If you don't know what your goal is, you cannot hope to make a good decision. So take a blank sheet of paper, and fill in the blank: "My goal is _______." If working with the student will help you achieve your goal, do it; if it doesn't, don't.

  2. Execute. Once you know your goal, figure out what needs to be done to achieve it. If that includes working with the student, that's great, but it is still best to formulate conditions under which your work with him is likely to get you where you want. As others have suggested, given his rambling and probably delusional tendencies, you may want to give him very precisely defined goals with a precisely defined timeline for achieving them, and be firm that he must follow this style of work if he wants to work with you; do not be distracted by his manipulations. Also, I suggest deciding in advance how much of your time you'd be willing to devote to your work with him, and making a firm decision that you will not exceed that limit. You do not want your work with him to become a sinkhole that will ruin your productivity and impede you from reaching other important goals that you have.

    Now, if on the other hand reaching the goal you formulated in step 1 requires that you sever your work with the student, don't "try" to leave him. Do it: execute on your decision. Get a colleague to help you have The Talk with the student if necessary. You have gotten yourself in a very awkward situation, one that I feel you may be temperamentally ill-prepared to face. Nonetheless, you must carry out your decision. Sorry if this sounds cold or callous. There are definitely many occasions in life when it's good to act out of emotion, but this isn't one of them. Good luck!

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    do advisors only work with students to accomplish their own goals? i'm no longer in academia, but i suspect that is not the case .... this entire answer seems framed around what the advisor wants to do and what would be best for the advisor, rather than helping the student (note that "firing" them might still be helping them, in this case). – ell Oct 16 '15 at 22:33
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    @sgroves I think you're interpreting "their own goals" in a too narrow, selfish sense. Advisors work with students for many reasons, some selfish and some altruistic (e.g., "to feel good about myself", "to help others", "to increase my number of publications", "to get a promotion"). The point is there has to be a reason, or purpose, or goal that one is aiming for, and that one should not enter such a major commitment without serious reflection on what that purpose is and how to best achieve it. IMHO even a saint who just wants to help people is well-served by asking themselves such questions. – Dan Romik Oct 16 '15 at 23:36
  • @sgroves For the most part it's just to talk about cool stuff and help someone. Isn't it cool to just rant to an enthusiastic person about stuff you like? Maybe you get a paper or two, maybe you get an external reward. But most of the time it's just to talk about your interests. – user41631 Oct 17 '15 at 1:28
29

One of my favorite quotes is

Einstein’s PhD thesis was a sensible contribution to Brownian motion theory

Tell him that even if he wants to surpass Einstein, he needs to start from a sensible contribution to current research for PHD. This means that finding a gap in the current science and filling it with sensible contribution. Even if he has revolutionary ideas, nobody will accept them without good credentials. This means a lot of contributions (read journal articles) to current science.

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    perhaps even more to the point, the student needs to develop enough conventional background knowledge in the field to be able to communicate his brilliant insights to everyone else. the communication part is what he seems to be be struggling with. no one else is able to understand him. – dbliss Oct 17 '15 at 22:04
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    Einstein was once asked why he persisted in searching for a unified field theory unproductively during his later years at the Princeton Institute for Advanced Studies. He replied (quoting from Isaacson's biography of Einstein, p. 514) "... even if the chance of finding a unified theory was small, the attempt was worthy. He had already made his name, he noted. His position was secure, and he could afford to take the risk and expend the time. A younger theoretician, however, could not take such a risk, for he might thus sacrifice a promising career. So, Einstein said, it was his duty to do it." – RobertF Oct 19 '15 at 19:36
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    The take home message here is: If you insist on pursuing crackpot theories, wait until you 1) have tenure at a respectable institution, and 2) colleagues will respect your ideas. – RobertF Oct 19 '15 at 19:37
  • Doesn't this put the student in a compromising position? In essence, contribute to a set of theories (the student) believes is flawed, and later on, reject the work his previous in favor of the work he wanted to do all along? Assuming the student is successful of course. – MDMoore313 Nov 25 '15 at 4:23
  • @BigHomie You mean student's study does not depend on anything? What about foundations for his study? He can contribute to them. – Atilla Ozgur Nov 25 '15 at 7:26
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I would separate non-mainstream work from thesis work; make clear the thesis is not going to be about the subjects he wants, but that you are going to provide him with work that will train him in the skills he will need in the future to defend his innovations. Explain to him that students' work is expected to be of immediate use to other researchers, and that long term work can be done over the long term.

When I approached a teacher during undergraduate studies, telling him about ideas on miscellaneous topics, he told me, "Keep a notebook. Keep a notebook because now you have ideas but not the proper training, and when you reach the proper training you could find yourself without ideas and get something from the notebooks." Honestly it did not work this way; when I reviewed the notebooks years later, most things were unuseful, if not all. But at least it helped me to keep focus.

You could still allow here for some dedicated time to speculative ideas, but asking him to explain in each case not only what he thinks the mainstream has disregarded, but also to bring up some explanation, based on history of the field, about why such things have been disregarded, and then after he gives his version of the history you can give your version. At least in this way he will learn interesting things about the development of science, and perhaps bring out some insights forgotten in the sands of time. But keep always the line clear between this work and the real thesis goal.

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    "when I reviewed the notebooks years later, most things were unuseful, if not all" - that may have been exactly what your teacher knew would happen but did not point out, since your "younger you" likely would not have listened. – Stephan Kolassa Oct 21 '15 at 10:06
  • @StephanKolassa Indeed :-) plus with some percentage of caution/reservation: the main topic was about CA and by that time Wolfram had really published a couple of articles on it in Phys Rev D, so it was still unclear if it was to be an useful development for particle physics in the lattice or not. The "not-mainstream part" was about if CA had some species allowing for scale invariance or generically if they have some more fundamental meaning. – arivero Oct 21 '15 at 10:51
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    @StephanKolassa but anyway the point of the notebooks is to ask if you are at least able to convince to your "future self". This is different that trying to convince to other physicists. – arivero Oct 21 '15 at 10:53
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If you still want to help the student, I would suggest that you make a strict agreement on his duties. Specify a project, and specify dead-lines that must be met. This way, the student has the opportunity to continue, and you can ensure that at least the majority of time is spent on tackling real problems.

It could also be helpful to show him data on real famous scientists, who first worked on "lesser" problems.

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    If the student is as delusional as the OP states then I think it is unlikely that either of this will help. Deadlines will be brushed aside as they have merely been construed by the lesser minds to inhibit his superior intellect. Facts about real famous scientists will either be simply ignored or redefined to fit his world view. – xLeitix Oct 15 '15 at 22:02
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    I agree that I don't think he is very "duty driven". He is obviously not motivated by doing duties or other social drives for that matter, he is motivated by the adventures in his mind, where he is a "hero" fighting the monsters which are physics concepts or whatever. Translate the duties into exciting "adventures" or mind games for him and maybe he would take them on. – mathreadler Oct 17 '15 at 11:25
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Ground him.

Give him a project which is not only hard, but where the end result and its implications is unknown and can be experimentally checked. It does not matter if he is writing his own undecipherable lingo (you do not want to discuss this), the end result is something which gives you and him a clue where he really stands.

Simply take him by his word. If he has such a talent, a good hard problem where other people are struggling is good training, right ? It gives insight which is nice to attack later problems, right? I think he will have problems denying that.

If he tries to get out by claiming that the problem is still too simple for him: wonderful! Restrict the time for the solution to more and more ridiculous timeframes: a month/day/hour/minute. If he is that good, nice, you need the result desperately.

If he really is that good, fine. Both the student and science have a benefit. If he really suffers a delusion, you will see that he will attack the problem with ardent zeal only to become more and more agitated and frustrated. If that is obviously the case, prepare to consult medical help because the breakdown between an inflated self and hard reality can be quite severe.
Everything in between is also possible. He could be sobering and take that as a life lesson. He could be leaving science unexpectedly. Who knows.

ADDITION: Wrzlprmft rightly said that the unification of quantum mechanics and relativity is a hard experimental problem. But Einstein in his wonder year explored Brownian Motion and the Photoelectrical effect which are solid state physics. This is a very fertile ground with many unsolved problems, so I do not accept the premise that we cannot provide a test case. Naturally if he insists on doing only unification (perhaps exactly because it is so hard to disprove him), well, at least we have offered him the opportunity to prove himself.

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    There is one big problem: We are talking about a field where experimentally checking things is a huge undertaking. The established basic theories of physics (including in particular general relativity and quantum dynamics) are extremely good at describing reality on scales that are easily accessible in experiment. The experiment in your suggestion would have to happen at very small scales (particle accelerators and similar), very big scales (cosmology) or very high precision – all of this is not easy. In fact, the lack of experimental accessibility is one of the major issues of string theory. – Wrzlprmft Oct 16 '15 at 8:09
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    Quoting xLeitix in a comment above, [the project] "will be brushed aside as they have merely been construed by the lesser minds to inhibit his superior intellect. Facts about real famous scientists will either be simply ignored or redefined to fit his world view." Experiments that don't agree with the theory are obviously sloppy work by the <s>minions</s> experimentalists (that everybody knows are the physicists that weren't intelligent enough to become theoreticians). – Davidmh Oct 16 '15 at 10:50
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    @Davidmh As the range of answers shows (from "giving him the chance of doubt" to "clearly a nutcase") we really know the student only from the description of xLeitix. So we should be very careful to judge him on the description or draw conclusions from that; we all fall prey to our prejudices too easy ("that everybody knows are the physicists that weren't intelligent enough to become theoreticians"->Fermi). I simply suggested a way to find out what the real deal is. – Thorsten S. Oct 17 '15 at 12:45
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I'm reminded of the Sylvia Plath quote...

Perhaps when we find ourselves wanting everything, it is because we are dangerously close to wanting nothing.

Your student's larger than life aspirations, to me, indicates that they're in the muck of desperation. Certainly some your student's issues are bigger than the classroom - they're unfocused and not grounded, they have difficulty developing relationships with their peers and advisors. I wouldn't be surprised if, like many of us, they're struggling with issues to do with family, finances or loneliness.

So, you could either try to address these larger issues, or you could leave it alone and let them sink or swim. The risk with the first approach, is that you could put in time and energy to help them resolve these issues, and they turn out to be a bad physicist anyway. The risk with the second, is that they could've been a good physicist if someone had helped them resolve these issues - but, at least you didn't expend any time or energy on it.

For their sake, I hope you direct them towards counseling. One reason is that they'd be a better physicist for it. There's a reason the Erdős number is a thing - getting along with others is part of being a great scientist (or great anything, really). In any case, I think your patience and sympathy is commendable.

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    "The risk with the first approach, is that you could put in time and energy to help them resolve these issues, and they turn out to be a bad physicist anyway." This is not the only risk. Here are two may be more serious: (i) The student views your actions as meddling in their life and this damages the working relationship. (ii) The student welcomes the help, places a lot of stock in it, and it turns out that the advice given by a professor of physics on family, finances or loneliness was not very good -- either not as good as someone's else's advice or actually damaging to the situation. – Pete L. Clark Oct 16 '15 at 17:04
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To reassure you, yes, you should not make your own "success" depend upon this probably-over-confident-and-possibly-delusional student's success. On one hand it is "good" to try to address difficult problems. The wise gambler does not bet that youngish and ill-informed people will succeed where vastly-more-experienced and equally able people have so-far-failed. This point itself should be made clear to novices.

But, yes, at the same time, the negativist description of progress-to-date would seem to suggest that no one can make further progress, ... because lotta smart people already failed. And, I note, it is invidious to think in terms of whether one is "the chosen one", and can, maybe, do some magical thing that serious, able, people could not.

The operational point, perhaps, is that your student's energy is the thing that is exceptional, that can make them do something worth doing. That is, many people do seem to not care too much. So "caring", that is, "engagement", is an advantage, in itself.

And, then, yes, "bottom line" is always a good diagnostic. But, yes, for young people, this transition, from ego to world, is complicated and typically ugly/disorienting...

  • What if his delusions make him work harder and better? Then forcing him into the "world" would not only be painful for him but also improductive. That being said, he obviously needs help learning to filter some of what comes out of his mouth to not ruin his own social chances. – mathreadler Oct 17 '15 at 11:14
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    @mathreadler, I am not necessarily advocating "forcing him/her into the world", at all. Rather, thinking of the student's energy as their advantage, and trying to see how to channel it optimally. – paul garrett Oct 17 '15 at 15:03
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My first thought is: I wonder if Einstein's teachers thought, "Ha ha, this loser thinks he's going to be the next Newton!" Maybe this student really IS a genius who will shake the world of physics to its core. Maybe his papers just seem like gibberish to you because you're not smart enough to understand them.

But okay, probably not. Which leads to my second thought: It's very common for young people to have grandiose ambitions. To an extent this is a good thing. If every young person said, "Oh well, I suppose I'll never do anything important. I have to be content to spend my life making fries at the fast food place", how would we ever progress? Of course its a bad thing if the young person expects to get rich and famous without having to do any actual work. And of course there's a difference between healthy self-confidence (or even unhealthy self-confidence) and disdaining others.

But besides that, there's a fine line between healthy ambition and enthusiasm versus fantasy and delusion. I think the proper goal of anyone acting as a mentor is to encourage enthusiasm while keeping the student grounded in reality.

All we here know about the situation is the poster's description. I see a few comments to the effect that this student sounds like he has delusions on the level of mental illness. Maybe. It's hard to say without having actually met the student.

If I was in the position of the advisor, I would look for specific advice to give the student.

If he thinks he's going to revolutionize the world of physics but he doesn't understand Newton's laws of motion, I'd be telling him that he needs to get the background first and encouraging him to spend some time studying the ideas that he thinks he's going to replace before he makes bold declarations about how wrong they are.

Perhaps he needs to understand that no matter how great his ideas are, if he's going to survive in the real world he's going to have to be able to hold down a real job somewhere to pay the bills while he works on this and to establish his credibility for when he's ready to reveal his great discoveries. When Einstein was just starting out no one was going to fund his research based on the pronouncements of a 20-something that he was going to revolutionize physics. He had to work as a patent clerk. Sure, after he was famous, then he could get support for his research.

If he is really off into fantasy land, you may need to gently tell him that this is really great if he can make these bold new discoveries, but to be prepared for failure and to have a plan B.

If the student won't listen to any of this and insists that he knows it all, etc -- which is not an unlikely scenario, I've met plenty of people like that -- I don't know what you can do besides keep trying, and to be available if he hits a brick wall on "your watch" to encourage him not to despair but to start again with more realistic goals.

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    he's going to have to be able to hold down a real job somewhere —The patent office, perhaps? – JeffE Oct 16 '15 at 19:16
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    The problem here isn't that the student is trying to revolutionize physics -- that's a reasonable (if overly-ambitious) goal. The problem is that the student is focusing on surpassing Einstein by tearing down Einstein, which is a classic sign of crackpottery. Einstein did not surpass Newton by tearing down Newton. He surpassed Newton by finding a place where Newtonian gravitation didn't work, and developing a theory of gravity that did work there. – Mark Oct 16 '15 at 21:38
  • I read somewhere that a professor once told Einstein that all of physics was complete, nothing more to do but more and more precise measurements. Maybe he just said so because he knew that will give some kinds of people a big drive to prove them wrong ;) This question is about management, finding out how to make people perform well and (want) to give their everything. Any "system" not taking that into consideration is flawed. – mathreadler Dec 10 '15 at 13:05
  • @mathreadler, you're referring to Albert Michelson's 1894 dedication of Ryerson Physical Laboratory, which has been mis-quoted and mis-attributed ever since. – Mark Jan 12 '16 at 23:09
  • I'm not sure what I'm referring to, maybe you are right. I only remember having heard the story once when I was a kid. – mathreadler Jan 13 '16 at 0:12
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Ask the student why he is here. ("Here" meaning: in school.)

He'll probably have an answer. And it will probably be wrong. And this is where, as an adviser, you have a chance to provide some advice to correct his misunderstanding.

The answer you need to teach him is the very simple, "big picture" thing that many successful professionals simply take for granted, but which he may not have figured out yet. Yes, you can let him fail out of the program, and let the system work, and let life teach him this valuable lesson the hard way. Or, as an adviser, you can give him this advice that he needs which will help him realize that he must abandon his quest of proving he's better than everyone else.

Here is the correct answer: Schools are not just for learning. Once, schools were a rare source of some knowledge, and they gained a reputation in society for being good to learn. However, now we have the Internet, and schools have lost some of the importance, that they used to have, in the role of being able to teach. This loss happened because there are now many other options that people have on how they can learn things. However, schools remain valued by many people in society, because they fulfill another important role.

Schools are a test. They are a lengthy experience where you are likely to be given multiple requirements. Some people pass those requirements, and some do not. The people who pass those requirements tend to have developed a common set of abilities, such as being where they need to be, when they need to be there. They also have proven an ability to do the work that they are required to do. Some people don't like the requirements of an instructor, and disagree with the ideas of an instructor. Some of those people just do what the instructor wants, anyway, and they produce satisfactory results. Those people graduate. Other people insist on doing things their own way, and end up not producing the results required to graduate. The end result is that schools produce graduates who are people who have learned to fulfill requirements. So, the other big role that schools have is to serve as testing grounds that weed out graduates from people who are not able to graduate. Many employers, and project funders, appreciate this task that schools perform, as they provide opportunities to graduates.

If a person finds school dissatisfying, sometimes the best thing to do is to just be dissatisfied, but fulfill the requirements and get through the program and become a graduate. Whether a student is smarter than the instructor, or not, is not the point that this educational system is out to prove. In some cases, students may actually be smarter about some topic. In rare cases, that might even be the subject that the instructor is teaching. Still, the system has the instructor put in the place of authority, and so the student's role is to fulfill requirements.

After you've had that conversation, any submitted "gibberish" can be marked as not fulfilling standards, and he'll be able to understand his weakness, even if his only weakness is that he's not fulfilling standards. Perhaps the part of this conversation that is nicest for you is that you'll also be in a position of being able to quickly address the issue effectively, simply by saying that he needs to pass this test of society. Then, whether he approves of society's test or not, he'll be in a position of easily being able to understand what must be done. The requirements will also make more sense to him, because the requirements being asked of him will match what he feels like he needs to do in order to fulfill the goal of being able to graduate, instead of feeling like a mismatch from his current goal (which might be to learn and become more skilled). As is, it seems this student has some pride, and he might even genuinely feel that he is morally obligated to win the contest, because it would be immoral (dishonest) to stoop to the level of treating the instructor as a superior when the instructor is clearly not smarter than he is. The point, though, is that the instructor is in a position of being treated as the superior.

Point out to him that as he moves through is career, he may continually find that he must report to inferior minds. He must get used to being able to satisfyingly produce fulfillment, despite that. It is, after all, what Einstein did. Einstein had to convince people to proceed with a project. Right now, this student doesn't have an employer paying him to learn the lesson of needing to fulfill requirements. Instead the school is performing this role in society.

When he understands that this is society's test at work, he'll learn to comply. Or maybe he'll choose to fight all of society, but at least then he'll be making that decision from an informed point of view, rather than being misguided from his own dreams of grandeur. He'll understand that he didn't make it through the system, and it's not because the system was failing to give him the opportunities that he should have had; it's because he didn't complete the requirements.

  • So any academic institution represents "all of society"... umm, okay.. If any "system" fails to put resources to good use then it clearly has a design flaw. You don't blame the resource for not fitting the tools to make use of it. Instead you choose a better tool or build a new one which can handle it. – mathreadler Dec 10 '15 at 12:57
  • 1
    @mathreadler Wow, had to read that 4-5 times to follow each analogy. An academic institution prepares students (which you call "resources") for professional work. Students who drop out can use a "tool"/"system" other than getting the college degree. Certainly that can happen: Living without a college degree is not a death sentence. Others adapt and get recognized by a degree. I'm hardly saying this system is perfect. When it was explained to me this way, I recognized that is the reality (as imperfect as it may be). This explanation helped make the currently existing setup understandable. – TOOGAM Dec 10 '15 at 19:34
5

It is entirely possible that your student is suffering from mental illness. Some of the answers here are loaded with moral judgement but, if it is illness, it is not a moral failure or character flaw in your student, nor is it likely to be within your ability to help. If you care about this student, you should seek advice from whatever mental health services are available on your campus.

  • 3
    It's entirely possible that anyone is suffering from mental illness. I wonder what in the description of this student makes you think that is especially likely here. I'm trying to imagine what I might say if I had such a student and wanted to contact campus health services on their behalf. "My student thinks that he will do work that better than that anyone in our a field has done in a hundred years. He has turned in work which seems to me to be nonsense, but he says I am not qualified to understand it." Would mental health people really be able to do something with that?.... – Pete L. Clark Oct 16 '15 at 23:44
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    ....I'd be a bit surprised, but I don't really know. Having unrealistic ideas about one's own knowledge, skills and future does not seem to be a mental illness: on the one hand it's so common that we'd be saying that a substantial percentage of all university students are mentally ill and on the other hand it is often functional rather than dys-: having a completely rational opinion of one's own worth and value could be crippling. I guess the real question is what other thoughts and behavior accompany these (likely) delusions of grandeur. – Pete L. Clark Oct 16 '15 at 23:48
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    @PeteL.Clark the answer to the question at the end of your first comment is yes. A competent psychologist or psychiatrist may well be able to do something with that delusional state. Not always, but sometimes. – EnergyNumbers Oct 21 '15 at 15:59
  • @EnergyNumbers: If they can work with the student, sure, but part of the point of my comment is that I don't know how a mental health professional would know whether this is a delusional state just by having a conversation with me. As at the end of my second comment, I guess what they could do is mention some other, less academically-related behaviors to look for. – Pete L. Clark Oct 21 '15 at 16:14
4

One thing that is absent from all of the answers provided so far is the question of funding / financial support, and your fiduciary duty to the funding source, and possibly your department / institution.

How is this student's work being funded? The student's own funds/loans? Scholarships/fellowships? External grants? Whatever the source(s), what are your fiduciary responsibilities in your role as the primary point of oversight of this student's work? If the funds are provided without specification of the research area/topic, then the question is moot. Otherwise, if the student refuses to focus a lion's share of effort on the topic for which the money was allocated, there is an ethical problem, if not a legal one.

I would never directly raise the topic with the student, as likely it would raise an angry response in the vein of "The system just doesn't understand what I'm doing, it's threatened by me, and it's trying to shut me down!" While the financial question pales to some extent when compared to questions of properly guiding this student toward a research career and of the possibility of mental illness, I believe it ought play some sort of role in your deliberations on the matter.

3

The answers here already cover the issue quite well. Still, perhaps I can offer something of value here because I too believe that I will one day be "another Einstein". I don't normally go around publicising it, because that won't help me achieve my goal*. But perhaps the student will be willing to listen to my perspective for this reason.

*my goal is not to become another Einstein, but simply to make the greatest contribution to the world that I can.

I'm going to assume that this student really is gifted, and that his confidence is based on his careful assessment of his theories, rather than some innate belief of superiority. (The fact you are willing to persist with this student suggests you see a lot of value in him.)

I have a lot of respect for you for asking this question and giving this tricky student this level of consideration. It sounds like you are going beyond the call of duty, and I applaud that.

Think about how frustrating it would be if one had a brilliant, sophisticated idea that nobody else appreciates. Groundbreaking ideas, like Darwin's Theory of Evolution and Einstein's Theory of Relativity tend to be difficult to explain succinctly and tend to be easily shot down (until they are widely accepted).

It is a natural response to become frustrated when you are in this position. Why doesn't anyone listen? Why doesn't anyone get it? One reaction is to begin to question oneself. Another reaction is to lose faith in everyone else. That is probably what has happened to the student.

The hard truth he needs to accept is that the world is an unfair place. If only it were enough to just work out a brilliant theory! It isn't enough. He must also change people's minds, which is a very tough thing to do. He must become an excellent communicator; he must learn how to explain ideas in a way that is accessible to others (that involves exploring hundreds of different ways to express something); he must learn how to make people feel curious, even excited, instead of threatened or rejected; he must learn to participate in dialogue, to listen to people's concerns, criticisms and questions and be open to the possibility of learning something, as well as be willing to guide his listener to a better understanding. He must learn to manage his own feelings, learn to be patient instead of frustrated, enthusiastic instead of superior. And he must accept that he is human too, that he is not right about everything, and that that's OK.

Einstein was famous for his humility. That was certainly one of the keys to his success in gaining acceptance for his ideas.

These things are all difficult to change, however it is possible (I have taken this journey myself). If your student sees the value in this and wants to improve himself, do not force it upon him all at once, but gradually get him more comfortable with questions and critique, and be understanding when he slips into his old patterns of superiority and impatience.

Aside from helping him reach his goals, I can say (from experience) that it will help him be a better person.

3

I tried to tell him this but he simply wouldn't listen and told me "You do not understand anything."

At that point I would agree and I would tell him that since I don't understand his great work, I can't possibly help him. If you can't advise him because he doesn't listen, you can't advise him. Your roll is nothing then.

My advisers I always listen to and seriously consider all advice. Otherwise what's the point?

You can't be an adviser, which means you can't help him.

2

Perhaps something you could do is redirect his zeal/ambition into asking questions about material he reads and forming a research direction in that way. If he is wacky he can probably come up with some good ideas, instead of the unlikely scenario that he will crush a major open problem while a PhD student. Also this open-ended approach might help him reconnect with the reason he liked school in the first place (speculation), and de-escalate the situation (his work can't be "wrong", and if it is "special" it may not be found out for years).

2

Your student should read Thomas Kuhn's essay "The Structure of Scientific Revolutions," given that he's convinced such a revolution is about to shake the discipline of physics. Kuhn makes a strong argument that these revolutions are collective, not individual, efforts.

Maybe the anomalous results in your field are accumulating so fast that a so-called "paradigm shift" (Kuhn's term) is coming. Maybe not. Maybe this guy will be a big thinker in that shift. Maybe not.

Once he's read (or at least skimmed through) Kuhn, you can ask him to make the case based on empirical evidence that a shift is coming in your field.

At any rate he will have to write, and then defend, his thesis. It sounds like you believe his thesis is indefensible. It sounds like you've tried to rein him in a few times, with little success. You've met your teaching obligation. Move on.

  • At last someone interested in these things :) I had to sneak into some philosophy exchange to try and find any but they seemed more interested in juggling with semantics and emotions than philosophy of science. I interpret Kuhns position more of a sociological one. A paradigm shift would need a critical mass of supporters to occur as it by definition is very much a social event. – mathreadler Dec 8 '15 at 15:46
  • A paradigm shift, like the plate-tectonics shift in the last third of the 20th century, does have social elements. But that was driven by an accumulation of evidence for which the dominant-paradigm explanations somehow got crosswise with Ockham's Razor. Ditto for the epicycles in Ptolemaic cosmology: overwrought (and underdetermined) theoretical gymnastics that simply vanished when the cosmological paradigm shifted to heliocentrism. If General Relativity is to be superseded soon as this nutballxxx student claims, there's probably an accumulation of observations with overwrought explanations. – O. Jones Dec 10 '15 at 12:26
1

The student should be evaluated psychiatrically. Delusions of grandeur, in particular with regards to scientific, business or spiritual accomplishment, are a hallmark symptom of manic depressive illness / bipolar disorder (they are synonymous), and particularly a manic episode, and are a psychotic symptom more generally.

I don't know the best way to act on this information. Interestingly I don't see any questions on academia.SE to the effect of, "I believe my student may have mental health problems interfering with their work, what should I do?" I would consult department or university-level resources on this. You may also consult with a therapist or psychiatrist on your own behalf.

  • 8
    (1) It's a very strong language to say that "the student should be evaluated psychiatrically", almost if you were sure the student is actually ill and knew the diagnosis. Congratulations to your 6th sense /sarcasm. (2) Even if you were right, how should the professor communicate this? (Imagine coming to your student and saying "visit the doc cause you seem to have bugs in your head, man"). (3) No matter what's the cause for the behaviour of the student, the professor has to solve the current situation somehow, the fact that the student may be ill does not provide a solution. – yo' Oct 19 '15 at 15:07
  • (Note that I didn't downvote; I see a point in an answer in this direction, it's just the tone and the (lack of) contents of the answer that I don't like.) – yo' Oct 19 '15 at 15:10
  • @yo' to repeat myself, the student should be evaluated. I have not evaluated the student. I don't understand where you got the idea that I evaluated the student from my assertion that the student should be evaluated. Please stop with this contradictory insinuation. (2) and (3) are valid points. My answer is not complete, I however thought it was valuable to answer with what should be done (next), even though I did not provide advice on "how," which I thought was better than providing wrong advice on "how," which the other otherwise good "mental health" answer does. – user18072 Oct 19 '15 at 16:04
  • Well, one thing which is missing in this answer is what it means for the person asking the question. Do you recommend that the OP tell his student "You should be evaluated psychologically"? If the student says, "No, thanks" then...? – Pete L. Clark Oct 19 '15 at 18:11
  • I find this answer helpful, especially because of the delusions of grandeur sentence. – aparente001 Oct 23 '15 at 4:49
0

There are indeed some red flags here for possible mental illness.

It is possible to have some challenging mental health stuff going on, AND produce brilliant scientific results.

It's time to ask your student to get a mental health screening. You can ask this of him because you care.

As a matter of fact, it is part of your ethical responsibility as his advisor.

If you're in any doubt about how to request the screening -- that's where you can reach out to your department or university administration.

That can be a short conversation. Example: I see some mental health red flags in a PhD student of mine. He has grandiose scientific ambitions that are disconnected from scientific reality. He feels superior and alienated from peers and mentors. He has great potential, but I am worried about him, both for his academics and his well being. I would like him to get a good mental health screening. How can we go about this?

Make sure the person doing the screening is good. A conversation with a bad therapist can be worse than doing nothing. Have a conversation with the therapist yourself first. You will be able to tell if the person is smart, can listen deeply, has an intuitive understanding of how alienating it can be to work in cutting edge science. Make sure the screening includes bipolar (to give you an idea, you can look at this questionnaire.)

Much can be done to treat and manage mental illness. Step one is to screen and, if necessary, diagnose.

  • 12
    to think that an academic adviser should vet a set of possible therapists for a student, select a therapist for the student, consult with this therapist, and (presumably) bring the student to the therapist is pretty far off the mark of what is generally considered appropriate. – dbliss Oct 17 '15 at 22:02
  • @dbliss - The advisor doesn't take the student to the therapist. Once the advisor has received a recommendation of a therapist that s/he feels confident about, or who has had a conversation with a therapist and has satisfied him or herself that the therapist has the sensitivity to academics that is needed, the advisor can then make a specific recommendation when asking the student to get screened. Because this is a student who would not do well with a garden variety therapist. It needs to be a therapist the student can respect intellectually, given his degree of alienation. – aparente001 Oct 18 '15 at 1:24
  • @dbliss The word should varies by one's moral tastes. In particular, some moralities are strictly more burdensome. – gfjhjgfhj Oct 18 '15 at 9:34
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    @djechlin - If you've never had a problem feeling understood, i.e. feeling on the same wavelength with a particular therapist that was covered by your insurance ... lucky you! – aparente001 Oct 22 '15 at 6:40
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    @aparente001 I saw 6 therapists and 2 psychiatrists before I received a correct diagnosis and still feel your portrayal of "garden variety therapists" is horribly out of touch. – user18072 Oct 22 '15 at 15:21
0

You are in a difficult position; however, I think the best thing to do would be to let the student attempt (and likely fail) on whatever topic he chooses. Simply tell him outright: "If this is what you want to pursue, here are the resources available, make the best of it," and just sit back and watch. Either he is serious enough to sit down and do the leg work to understand the background necessary or he will remain unproductive. If he is unproductive after a year (so long as he is paying the bill for his education), approach him with another broad problem that you have some experience with and offer yourself as a resource. If he is productive, great, take a look at his work and see if you can help him in his communication skills.

I would strongly discourage, however, giving him his thesis topic and insisting he work solely on it, as that does not breed a future independent investigator, as you are just taking away his responsibility to actively, and intelligently, contribute to the community.

0

There is little one can do to turn a self-convinced student around, and, beyond a certain limit, this is not your responsibility anymore; after all, they might be right (even if that is highly unlikely). The best chance I found one has - in my experience with related cases - is to try to discuss with them approximately along the following line:

"If you are trying something that so many have tried and failed: what are exactly the reasons why you believe you should succeed where all these others are failed? This is not to mean that you can't succeed, but you'd better have very strong reasons.

What is it that makes makes the Big Ones, Newton, Gauss, Maxwell, Hilbert, Einstein, so particularly brilliant? Were there no other, equally brilliant minds around? That's not quite the case, in fact. However, what clearly set these Big Ones apart was that they knew to choose the right, big, questions at the right time rather than wasting their time on - at that period - unachievable problems. Gauss, as far as we know, did not seem to work on Fermat's Last Theorem. Hilbert is reported to have explicitly refused to do so. He, especially, understood Fermat's last theorem was out of his reach; he understood that the techniques were not ready for it at that time.

In general, their scientific success endured as long as they chose topics which were challenging, but in their reach; in fact, with general relativity, Einstein was lucky that he had Marcel Grossmann to help him with differential geometry of which he himself originally knew nothing; what topic you believe is in your reach and why, and who is going to help you achieve it?"

The key in the argument is indicating that these larger-than-life scientists forwent topics under the conscious knowledge of their own limitations or that they needed external help and that success was not a foregone conclusion, even for the best of them. That argument has sometimes worked for me.

Especially Einstein needs to be brought back to scale as (without his fault) he sets a particularly notorious bad example for self-convinced students, as it supports their image of the "rebel" scientist. But let's not forget, the concept of the misunderstood genius scientist is older than Einstein, as at least Victorian novels attest.

protected by jakebeal Oct 16 '15 at 23:53

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