The difference between high school, college and graduate school academics is a lot like the difference between high school, college and NFL football
As I write this post most college application deadlines have passed and students are anxiously awaiting to hear back from their top picks. One question I get a lot from my students around this time is “How much tougher is college than high school?” And from some of my college students, “How much tougher is graduate school or medical school than college?”
Since I am asked this frequently and just saying “Oh, you wait, it’s a lot tougher, you can’t mess around in college and still get good grades!” isn’t of much help, I thought I would come up with an analogy that most Americans can relate to: FOOTBALL.
The difference in the level of difficulty between high school, college and graduate school is a lot like the difference between high school, college and NFL football. Every level up the players are much bigger, stronger, faster and more competitive. Same for education – every level up the brains are much bigger, stronger, faster and more competitive. Even gifted athletes who were stars on their high school football team have to put in more work than ever if they want to become a star player in college. And for most, it takes a couple of years before they acquire the skills necessary to play the game at the college level.
In college football the conditioning is more exhausting, the playbook is more diverse, the coaches expect more, there is less margin for error, and because the stakes are so high a screw-up, one bad game, or an injury can take you off the roster for good. In college academics the studying is more exhausting, the skill set you need to be successful must be broadened, the professors expect more, there is less margin for error (a couple midterms and a final usually make up around 70% of your grade), and because the stakes are so high a hang-over, one botched exam, or missing a key concept can destroy your GPA.
A lot kids could at least make the high school football team if they tried. Similarly, most kids can make the grade in high school if they put in some effort. But a lot of kids who made the high school football team wouldn’t be able to make the college team, just like a lot high school graduates can’t make the grade in college. And just as only the best from college make it to an NFL training camp, only the top college students end up going on to medical or graduate school.
Sometimes high school football stars become college stars and then NFL stars, but certainly not always. Sometimes high school academic stars go on to do great things in college and then pursue graduate school, but certainly not always. And then there are mediocre high school football players that excel in college, or mediocre college players that somehow make it to the NFL and succeed. Sometimes middle-of-the-class high school students rise to the top in college, and sometimes average college students go on to do great things in graduate school. I would also like to clarify at this point that I’m not saying all the best students continue to pursue education at higher and higher levels, because that’s certainly not the case. Many superstars choose to stop pursuing higher education in favor other pursuits, just like some football stars choose a different sport or another path entirely. Bill Gates of Microsoft, Mark Zuckerberg of Facebook, Larry and Sergey of Google, and the late Steve Jobs of Apple all dropped out of school, but are clearly intellectual all-stars.
And just as there are all-stars in the world of football, there are all-stars in the academic world. The NFL might have Tom Brady, Peyton Manning and Adrian Peterson, but we have David Wineland, Robert Lefkowitz and Shinya Yamanaka. Tom Brady might be an NFL MVP, have won 3 Super Bowls, been in 8 Pro Bowls, passed for 50 touchdowns in a season, thrown an oblate pigskin spheroid for over 45,000 yards in his career and is married to a supermodel, but David Wineland is a Physics MVP with a Nobel Prize, has won 8 of the most prestigious physics awards on the planet, can quantum teleport information, created a quantum logic atomic clock that keeps time accurate to within 1 second over a period of 4 billion years, has paved the way for practical quantum computing systems, has nearly 300 peer-reviewed scientific publications in his career and has grown a badass, yet sophisticated, half fu manchu mustache that Tom Brady better not let Giselle anywhere near unless he wants Jerry Springer reading him the unfortunate results of a paternity test. How could you Giselle, how could you!!! To summarize, and not be a hater of Tom Brady (in fact I like him and watch my share of football), but guys like David Wineland have contributed a million times more to the progress of society and can probably explode a Tom Brady perfect spiral with their mind as it’s flying through the air because they have so much brainpower, or just quantum teleport the ball directly into the receivers’ arms and skip the juking and dodging of the 300-lb line of monster men in the pocket. It’s just unfortunate that we haven’t heard about these guys and don’t value their contributions as much as Justin Bieber’s haircut and dance moves (what’s with the Victoria’s secret models?).
Now you have an analogy you can use to gauge the difference in difficulty between succeeding in high school, college and graduate school and what it takes to be an all-star at each level. And just as every NFL football star made it to where they are through different paths – some may have attended a junior college, or played Canadian football, spent hundreds of hours training on their own time, been a walk-on, and just simply out-worked everyone else before they were able to acquire the skills necessary to earn a spot in the big leagues. And that’s great, if you keep pushing you can do anything and succeed anywhere. Just because you have a setback in your academic career doesn’t mean you’re not going to make it, just keep pushing. Tom Brady was a sixth round draft pick and third string quarterback, he was too small, too slow, not a strong enough arm to make it in the NFL. But he kept pushing and worked harder and smarter than everyone else to acquire the skills and strength necessary to quarterback with the best of them. And now his opponents tremble in fear when his team needs a game-winning drive and he’s at the helm with 1:56 left in the 4th quarter.
The big, important problems we face in the future like climate change, fossil fuel deprivation, and running up against the physical limit for computing power in Moore’s Law will only be solved by intellectual all-stars like David Wineland. And like NFL football players, they have put in their share of hard work, long hours, exhausting study and have unrelenting dedication to make it to where they are, and you can too no matter where you stand today. And trust me, we are going need your talents more than the NFL does.
Also, baller scientists deserve cheerleaders in their labs: “QUANTUM QUANTUM ATOMIC CLOCK, TELL THAT TIME RIGHT ON THE DOT!!! YEAH! WOOO HOOOOO!! GO DAVID!!! YEAH!!!”