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I'm a tenth grader in high school and I'm passionate about my research in computational neuroscience. I'm in a unique situation, and I'm wondering whether I should leave tenth grade early this year to accept a research position for four months at a leading university.

I am a deep thinker and am profoundly miserable because my present educational environment isn't intellectually stimulating, growth oriented, and I'm worried I'm not accessing my potential. Because of this, I'm going to be leaving high school next year and hoping to attend the visiting students program at a nearby college. I don't think not being in traditional high school will be a hindrance to my college admissions; on the contrary I think what I do outside of school will boost my candidacy.

I've recently been offered a research-internship position at a lab at: Cornell, Princeton, Oxford, and Rockefeller. If I wanted to attend any one of them I'd need to leave high school early this year.

This is an extraordinary opportunity which will take me to new and incredible places and I don't want to let my schooling interfere with my education. I am positive leaving school is the right choice. Of course there are considerations but I've taken them into account; I'm not afraid of being unconventional.

Just to be clear, I'm wondering whether I should leave for the last two months of tenth grade. Secondly, I'm going to attend a visiting students program at an Ivy League University next year which is designed for high school students to attend in lieu of traditional HS.

Are there other benefits or possible pitfalls I should be taking into account?

Edit: Thank you all for your guidance which is helping me see the situation more clearly.

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    I can't speak for other countries, but you should be aware that in the US high school is not about education. It is about (1) keeping youth from getting in trouble, especially given that child labor laws keep them from other occupations, and (2) learning how to socialize. You may be able to do without (1), but be careful about neglecting (2). – user4512 Apr 14 '16 at 3:39
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    Also, it might help if you describe these internship opportunities. I know in my computational field only the brightest of upperclassman undergrads have a chance of doing research. We certainly don't offer positions to high school students, because there's too much they don't know (see "high school is not about education" above). Is this really a way to train you, or are you being exploited for cheap labor entering numbers into spreadsheets or something? – user4512 Apr 14 '16 at 3:41
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    @ChrisWhite The value of "learning how to socialize" depends on what kind of socializing your high school teaches. – Anonymous Physicist Apr 14 '16 at 7:43
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    @ChrisWhite: Depends very much on your high school... – Mehrdad Apr 14 '16 at 9:32
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    I disagree with the closing of this question: this is an entirely reasonable question about the tradeoffs of getting into research early. – jakebeal Apr 14 '16 at 10:00

10 Answers 10

60

Wait! Perhaps you can finish tenth grade AND attend the internship, using some people skills :)

First, there should be an administrative coordinator listed in your internship correspondence. (If not, ask the offering professor for a contact name). Call this person and say that you are honored to receive an offer, and that your school calendar year runs through X, has anyone been in your situation before? What would he/she recommend? Maybe the dates are flexible, maybe some offsite work is permissible...

Most coordinators I've worked were experienced and helpful; it's worth a try. Your final plan will need to be cleared with the offering professor.

Then, approach your favorite teacher, and say you've received this wonderful internship opportunity, but it starts before the end of the school year and you don't know what to do. Who would be a good contact in the school to talk to? Perhaps a guidance counselor, principal, ... With any luck your favorite teacher will be excited for you and want to see you succeed.

From there, get in touch with the recommended person (e.g. guidance counselor) to compose a plan to complete your high school courses. It may be possible to complete work early, substitute an online course, ... Next, approach each of your teachers individually, tell them about the great internship and that you're working with Mr./Mrs. X on a plan to finish the year. Thank them for helping you be able to finish early. It's best if you bring it up personally since they'll feel involved in the solution, vs. hearing about it from the counselor.

A lot of work? Yes. Will all go well? Hard to say - there may be a few blockers. Worth a try? Absolutely. You want to be perceived as that friendly guy or gal who made it big and gets a writeup in the hometown paper.

By the way, if you can pull this off you will be FAR more astute than I was in high school!

Also, what do your parents think? They might have some good ideas on how to approach the situation, and on your options for next year.

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    I love this idea. No idea if it will work, but the downsides/costs (a bit of wasted time) are negligible compared to the benefit of showing 10th grade as completed. Where I live (WA state), skipping 11th and 12th grade for early college entry is something people have heard of (our program is called "Running Start"), but not 10th. Not completing 10th grade may be more prone to be perceived negatively. When you graduate, you don't want to look unusual in a negative way. Definitely try to get lots of people involved for advice or other help: Though some may be wrong, others may be lifesaver – TOOGAM Apr 14 '16 at 6:59
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    Once you have a tertiary degree, the only entity that will view dropping out of high school negatively is McDonalds. – Anonymous Physicist Apr 14 '16 at 8:10
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    @AnonymousPhysicist An international company that I applied to, even after seeing my university degree in the field, with distinction, still wanted to see my high-school marks before offering an interview. I thought it was dumb, but it does happen. – Laura Wentworth Apr 14 '16 at 8:26
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    Your favourite teacher might not always be the best option, it depends on why they are your favourite. (Most of my favourite teachers in secondary were my favourites because they were amusing, not necissarily because they were organised or good at giving advice.) – Pharap Apr 15 '16 at 12:15
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I'd like to offer a counterpoint to Anonymous Physicist. I started school early because I was on the border of the birthday cutoff date, and then skipped my senior year of high school. So I left for college at 15.

It was too early for me.

Not academically. I passed all of my classes, and found a number of them still a bit boring. But going to college isn't entirely about classes. For most people, it is their first time living life on their own terms. You make your own schedule, make your own food, wash your own clothes, make your own decisions with no immediate consequence.

In short, you're learning how to be an adult. And in that, I floundered a bit. It took time for me to build a work ethic. It took a bit of failure for me to figure out how to maintain my own motivation and discipline. Enough for me to lose my scholarships and eventually drop out.

And that was with a bunch of other early entry students to provide social support. If you're going to be unique in that environment, that will provide it's own challenges. And then there's the culture shock of going from being the best at your school to being just another person among the best in the world.

So I would caution this approach. The things that led to my failure were things I didn't even think to consider at the time. The grass isn't always greener on the other side of the fence.

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    Did you go to a "regular" college or one that specifically caters to younger students, like the one Anonymous Physicist went to? I think going to a "regular" college would magnify the difficulties things you describe. (I had a high school student as a classmate in my own "regular" undergraduate college, and his experience was similar to yours, I think.) – ff524 Apr 14 '16 at 2:46
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    @ff524 - I went to the Clarkson School, linked in the comments. So 1 year with early entry students and then most left to other colleges. That's what I meant in the next to last paragraph, but I can see where that is perhaps unclear in rereading. – Telastyn Apr 14 '16 at 11:22
  • Oops. I missed that detail in that next to last paragraph. Thanks for clarifying. – ff524 Apr 14 '16 at 11:27
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    Presumably British colleges are different to US colleges, but college certainly did nothing to teach me how to be an adult. – Pharap Apr 15 '16 at 12:17
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    On the other hand, making this step is tricky whether you try it at 15 or 19. – Owen Apr 15 '16 at 21:24
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"I don't think not being in traditional high school will be a hindrance to my college admissions"

As a high school dropout who is now an academic, I have found skipping much of my secondary education has actually accelerated my education, career, and earnings. However, this path is not for everyone. It depends on what sort of high school is involved, the goals/motivation of the individual, and what they do with themselves after leaving high school. If you want to pursue a research career, but your high school does not provide an environment conducive to learning, then I would recommend changing to a different environment. Keep in mind that you will need to learn things outside your preferred area of study to be successful as a researcher.

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    Note that "changing to a different environment" may well mean "moving to a different school" rather than "leaving school altogether." – David Richerby Apr 14 '16 at 6:56
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On the one hand, there are whatever difficulties there might be with your current school and leaving before the semester is out. Should you return (likely mind you), you should negotiate what credit you get from this semester, what credit (if any) from your experience, and what will be needed to graduate. Get most of this clear up front if you are likely to return.

Next, this scenario offers you an opportunity. It is not too dissimilar to the 'semester schools', where HS students go as a 'semester abroad' kind of arrangement - often the credits there map back on to standard HS courses. In addition, it can give you an excellent essay topic or two for college applications.

Now, if you have no intention of returning to your HS, things get slightly harder perhaps. That means either a GED (probably easy) and college applications, or a university that accepts early leavers - Simon's Rock is one, U Delaware used to at least, as did New Mexico Tech. In these cases, there can be issues (one person I knew well went to a university program and was back within a month - they were not impressed with the quality of the program - your mileage may vary).

Finally, your local school district may have an arrangement with the local community college, letting you take courses there to fulfill your HS requirements. This may be a state law kind of an issue, so who knows.

  • How would I determine the legal issues at play? – theideasmith Apr 13 '16 at 23:37
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    A guidance counsellor and/or assistant principal might help. – Jon Custer Apr 14 '16 at 0:42
  • Clarkson in New York also has/had? an early entry program, and New York State gives/gave? a GED to someone if they complete 60 college credits. – Telastyn Apr 14 '16 at 2:16
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    @AnonymousPhysicist - indeed, once an 'academic', what you did in HS is irrelevant. However, some colleges will want you to have a HS diploma or a GED for admission. So, if you want to go to one of them you just do it. And, yes, community colleges vary - you are stuck with the one in your community. Perhaps there is even a correlation between local HS and CC quality. But it remains a useful option as pointed out above. Bottom line: perhaps the OP is so brilliant CalTech will take him right now. I rate those chances as slim to none without more history shown (by CC for example). – Jon Custer Apr 14 '16 at 13:13
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    No, homeschooled applicants have to provide detailed records of their homeschool classes. – Tom Church Apr 14 '16 at 20:05
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It depends on what you want to get out of high school.

For some people, there may be social benefits to continuing high school. Peers of a similar age may have similar issues and goals, and as such you may be less isolated from them. There is a great deal to be learned from people who are going through the same issues as you are. Relationships, both friendships and romantic attachments, can be easier to form with people who are closer to your chronological age.

And there are many milestones that you will miss if you choose to skip nearly three years of high school. Prom, cruising through the senior year, perhaps even voting with your friends–all of these things can be worth experiencing.

That said, high school is not the only way to have a real social life, or to interact with one's peers. You don't need to lose touch with your friends just because you are working at a lab, even in a different city or country. You don't need that your social group is limited to your research group. You can certainly learn a lot from people who have few years' more life experience.

Which works better for you will depend on how much you depend on the school environment for socializing, and how much you prioritize learning.

My own experience was somewhat similar. I was homeschooled, a path which is already associated with social isolation in the minds of many. I studied college texts at home, and after taking a few classes, was off to graduate school by 17. I missed out on both the "high school experience," and the "college experience."

When I started, I struggled with the courseload. I struggled with interacting with people who often seemed to have entirely different interests from mine, and entirely different lives from me. But I had the opportunity to advance to a level of academic sophistication that was better suited to me. And I discovered that many of the older students were just as fun to hang out with as younger people, and that there were plenty of undergraduates worth talking to anyway.

It's not really a zero sum game; that's the point. You don't have to become a social misfit in order to advance in your education. If you're motivated, you can find plenty of social and personal growth even in a very different academic environment.

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I skipped a year of High School to go to college early. My gut reaction is "Do it! Going to the prom is way over-rated."

A more nuanced answer is that you need to understand the trade-offs. How good is the High School you are currently attending? If 80% of the students go to a 4-year collage and 20% go to a top-10 college, then there is value is sticking around. If the relevant numbers are 12% and 0%, you need to leave now.

I went to college at the age of 16, and it definitely affected my choices. I got into my safe school, but not into any of my first choice schools. Subsequently, I took a couple of years off, and then got into a good grad school, but the whole thing was sub-optimal. In my case, the choice was either a second-rate university, or a third-rate High School. You need to take a cold, hard look at what your choices really are.

You have the advantage of getting good advice. I suspect that you have had good advice up to this point, or you would not have even known that internship programs exist.

If I had to make one recommendation, it would be to figure out how to have the internship count towards getting a High School diploma, and then go to college at the usual age. For most people, their age is a very important parameter in where they get accepted, and in how well they do academically.

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I left high school 6 weeks into my junior year (11th grade) due to a weapons possession charge (It was just a simple pocket knife. I'm an Eagle Scout, and always carry one. Zero tolerance state at the time, but now I think they all are.)

Anyway, I dropped out of high school and took my GED. I got a 99% without studying. I then took my ACT and got a 35/36, again no studying. I went to college and the rest is history. It is possible.

However, a GED is not very congruent with an Ivy League school. I would look into a hardship diploma, or a "homeschooling" path. Much more attractive.

Bottom line, if you don't like it, get out. It's your life.

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Although pursuit of an internship would fulfill your passion, as others have mentioned, there is a great amount of maturity necessary for one to fully take advantage of opportunity life has to offer, which you would gain most effectively in school. Rather than pursuing a research internship, enter a high school that is more academically challenging because I can promise you there are probably many. If your family is not financially secure enough to make the move then I suggest you still wait until college and you should be able to get a scholarship at a great university. It is only two years away from you and I promise you the wait will be worth it. In general, employers will look at your past job and project experience but college is an experience you definitely won't want to miss because many offer both great academic competition and an environment in which you and your peers can develop both strong maturity and character. If you have already chosen to drop out of high school try to find an opportunity to advance you education because as a researcher, further education will only push you further down your path towards success. I wish you luck both in school and for your future.

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The general sort of choice you face has significant pushes in both directions. Agreed, in the U.S. (and many other places) high schools are not equipped in any way, simply do not have the personnel (nor do most community colleges) to present srsly-upscale content in the sciences or anything else, possibly with the exception of music (my observation...!), because expert practitioners get essentially-infinitely-better possibilities elsewhere. So, sure, intellectually, high school is boring or worse.

On another hand, who said it wouldn't be? Undergrad is pretty much the same thing, except that it's the "top quarter" or "top half" or something... and now everyone's out from under their parents, and many are able to pose as legally able to buy alcohol, and ... there are drugs...

I would imagine that a "lab" is a little more goal-oriented than the crowd-control of most undergrad situations. Ok.

But, now, there is the issue of socialization. True, alienation from one's peers can be defended as a reasonable conclusion/state... but, subtly-enough, not-quite-exactly for the reasons one might see as "immediate" while in high school (in my own recollection, e.g.).

By this point, it is entirely unclear to me whether the benefit of more intellectually-grown-up situation of ... well, ok, not so much undergrad, and, oop, not really grad students, and ... um... but maybe national labs are entirely different? (... sigh...) is really worth the trade of getting to know the human animal(s) of one's own chrono age, if not intellectual.

That is, even if one strongly suspects that one has little interest in participation in popular cultural processes... there might be reason to have an idea of what they are, and who the people are, first-hand. NB, both pop-culture and "academic" culture significantly caricaturize actual people... for reasons that are mildly interesting to study. Direct observation is the only reliable fact-base.

I myself really did not like the boredom of high school, ... but the human-condition factoids I acquired there are among the most significant I have.

  • I think this is a good answer in theory. In practice, I'd like to optimize for a global maximum. So sure there are benefits to staying, but I still need to view that into context with the advantages of elsewhere, which I see as orders of magnitude greater. – theideasmith Apr 15 '16 at 1:47
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There is a school of thought that "work experience" (and in this case, the resulting connections), is even more important than formal education. This thought is particularly prevalent in America. Bill Gates dropped out of Harvard after one year and never looked back. Using this train of thought, you should take the prestigious internship even if you have to drop out of school. Once you have completed your work program, you can always go back to school. Unless you are the next "Bill Gates" and can rise to the top of your profession without more schooling.

The exception to the above is if you come from a country where once you drop out of school, you can never get back into the "system," and most employers look more to schooling than to work experience. That is not the case in America (where I live) nor in most western countries.

The laws of economics say that the highest returns accrue to the scarcest factors of production. In most cases, a prized internship is a scarcer factor than an educational opportunity. The previous paragraph dealt with the odd case where "education" is "scarcer." In either event, your decision should be governed by this rule.

protected by ff524 Apr 17 '16 at 4:13

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