If you ask someone what the point of a mathematics or science degree is, chances are they will tell you a tale about becoming a great problem-solver and seeing the world through new eyes. This has become a sort of battle cry for many who want to encourage people to learn about science and mathematics. The problem-solving skills you develop during these degrees allows you to be valuable in a wide range of careers later on.
While this is true, I would argue that it’s not one of the main skills you learn as a student. Instead, the skill you develop is persistence.
Let me tell you a story. When I was taking a quantum mechanics class, the professor assigned homework from a textbook. A few of the problems were marked as “very difficult”. When I began working on them, I knew I was in for a long calculation. It’s not that the problem was difficult so much as it was time-consuming. I even knew what I needed to do, but it just took forever (and it wasn’t clear where to start).
Multiple times, I felt like giving up. I wanted to find a shortcut, some way to make this less painful to do. If I was being rational, I could have decided that my time was being wasted on such a problem. I would only lose a few points, so it wouldn’t be the end of the world.
Of course, I have the “lovely” problem that I can’t hand in work that isn’t completed to the best of my ability, so skipping the question because it was too tedious wasn’t an option. Even with the hours ticking by, I gritted my teeth and finished the question.
Was it worth the extra time to get a few more points? Not really. The tedious part was a bunch of algebra, which also meant that the problem wasn’t any more illuminating when I finished. In the moment, it felt like a thankless task. However, the benefit came later. What I learned from doing a problem like this is that I can get through it with perseverance. If I set my mind to it, I can get a problem done. This is what I believe to be one of the best skills I’ve acquired through my science and mathematics degrees. Being unreasonable and pushing through the tedium and difficult parts of a problem to see it to the end is important. If not, you will tend to give up when you should push through.
Having the grit to push through is a skill that’s much more applicable than to just mathematics and science. Grit is an essential part of doing work that is important to us. Whether it’s writing, drawing, dancing, practicing a sport, making music, working on a business, or doing science and mathematics, grit is what helps us make breakthroughs when everyone else has given up. Plus, while it can be argued that others have more skill or talents from genetics or the environment, you control your decision to continue working when it seems useless.
This idea of developing grit during a science or mathematics degree is also why I don’t like having tests with time limits. Think about it. If you establish a time limit, you’re telling students to give up after this point. But isn’t it more impressive if the student keeps on working until they succeed? Sure, it might mean they have more trouble than others, but I would want to have that person on my team before the person that gives up after a few minutes.
One might object and say that people would all just stay until they get everything right, so the class average would be 100 (barring any mistakes). I don’t think this would be true, since my experience is that most students tend to give up quickly when they don’t know what to do. They don’t want to sit and think when they are stuck.
The point I want to emphasize here is that problem-solving skills are great, but I think developing grit is a skill that isn’t recognized as much as it should be. Of course, I’m not saying that we should persevere to the point of delusion, but being able to push past the initial point of discomfort is something we should all want to do. That’s why I think it’s one of the most important benefits of doing a science or mathematics degree, since you’re frequently put in the position of struggle. You learn that being stuck isn’t a bad thing, and is often temporary. You learn that giving up shouldn’t be your initial instinct, but one that is only considered after all other options are exhausted.
I know that this will be something I carry with me throughout my life, even if I don’t stay within the areas of science and mathematics forever. I’m thankful for learning this skill no matter where life takes me.