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I will be starting my PhD in Math this fall. I have diverse interests including philosophy, history and economics, but I concluded that a PhD in Math would be most useful in the real world. I wanted to hear people's thoughts on Nassim Taleb's strategy for graduate school, which can be summarized as follows: "get passing grades and follow voraciously your curiosity on the side." Here is the full quote:

From Antifragile:

My idea was to be rigorous in the open market. This made me focus on what an intelligent antistudent needed to be: an autodidact—or a person of knowledge compared to the students called “swallowers” in Lebanese dialect, those who “swallow school material” and whose knowledge is only derived from the curriculum. The edge, I realized, isn’t in the package of what was on the official program of the baccalaureate, which everyone knew with small variations multiplying into large discrepancies in grades, but exactly what lay outside it…

Again, I wasn’t exactly an autodidact, since I did get degrees; I was rather a barbell autodidact as I studied the exact minimum necessary to pass any exam, overshooting accidentally once in a while, and only getting in trouble a few times by undershooting. But I read voraciously, wholesale, initially in the humanities, later in mathematics and science, and now in history—outside a curriculum, away from the gym machine so to speak. I figured out that whatever I selected myself I could read with more depth and more breadth—there was a match to my curiosity. And I could take advantage of what people later pathologized as Attention Deficit Hyperactive Disorder (ADHD) by using natural stimulation as a main driver to scholarship. The enterprise needed to be totally effortless in order to be worthwhile. The minute I was bored with a book or a subject I moved to another one, instead of giving up on reading altogether—when you are limited to the school material and you get bored, you have a tendency to give up and do nothing or play hooky out of discouragement. The trick is to be bored with a specific book, rather than with the act of reading. So the number of pages absorbed could grow faster than otherwise. And you find gold, so to speak, effortlessly, just as in rational but undirected trial-and-error-based research. It is exactly like options, trial and error, not getting stuck, bifurcating when necessary but keeping a sense of broad freedom and opportunism. Trial and error is freedom.

(I confess I still use that method at the time of this writing. Avoidance of boredom is the only worthy mode of action. Life otherwise is not worth living.)

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    What do you want to do after the PhD? – user37208 Jul 11 '16 at 17:16
  • @user37208 Work in industry – dwvldg Jul 11 '16 at 17:19
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    It's not clear how you plan to implement that strategy. Are you planning to follow your curiosity in math on the side, or other things? – ff524 Jul 11 '16 at 17:39
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    We shouldn't have to follow an external link to understand your question; if there's something we need to know, include it in your post. – ff524 Jul 11 '16 at 17:49
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    @ff524 Ok I included the quote – dwvldg Jul 11 '16 at 18:00
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The passage you have shared refers specifically to a baccalaureate degree:

The edge, I realized, isn’t in the package of what was on the official program of the baccalaureate... but exactly what lay outside it.

In a PhD, coursework takes a backseat to research. In research, there is no such thing as "get passing grades"; there is no meaningful threshold at which your research is considered acceptable, only a continuum of poor to exceptional. At the end of your PhD, your prospects on the job market (especially the academic job market) and the impact you have made with your work depend on how close you are to the "exceptional" end of that range, not just having achieved some minimum requirements and earned a piece of paper that says you have a degree.

Furthermore, PhD-level research requires a level of depth and focus that is not typically present at the undergraduate level.

That's not to say you can't have broad interests, and you can even leverage your broader interests to improve the quality of the work you do in your primary field. But a strategy of planning to undertake a PhD and put minimum effort into your PhD research while doing other things on the side is not a winning strategy for most people. Instead, you should try to use your curiosity for your PhD research. (Also see: Can I slack off and get a PhD?)

In fact, later in that same chapter, Taleb describes how his curiosity and drive to understand probability led him to specialize in that and focus on that to the exclusion of everything else:

When, at Wharton, I discovered that I wanted to specialize in a profession linked to probability and rare events, a probability and randomness obsession took control of my mind. I also smelled some flaws with statistical stuff that the professor could not explain, brushing them away—it was what the professor was brushing away that had to be the meat. I realized that there was a fraud somewhere, that “six sigma” events (measures of very rare events) were grossly miscomputed and we had no basis for their computation, but I could not articulate my realization clearly, and was getting humiliated by people who started smoking me with complicated math. I saw the limits of probability in front of me, clear as crystal, but could not find the words to express the point. So I went to the bookstore and ordered (there was no Web at the time) almost every book with “probability” or “stochastic” in its title. I read nothing else for a couple of years, no course material, no newspaper, no literature, nothing. I read them in bed, jumping from one book to the next when stuck with something I did not get immediately or felt ever so slightly bored. And I kept ordering those books. I was hungry to go deeper into the problem of small probabilities. It was effortless. That was my best investment—risk turned out to be the topic I know the best. Five years later I was set for life and now I am making a research career out of various aspects of small probability events.

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That is a high risk, high reward strategy, and one that worked for Taleb. Your passing grades would turn off a lot of employers. But the point of following your passion is to hope to "get lucky" with one highly placed person who loves your work, and will "jump" you past your peers. In games like bridge, it's called "playing for top or bottom." The idea is not to be "mediocre."

Taleb's own research is about "fat tail" events, that the chances of getting lucky (or unlucky) is "fat-tailed, that is greater than most people would believe, assuming a normal distribution. Events that are on the unlucky side are called "Black Swan Events."

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