Cognito Mentoring: An advising service for intellectually curious students

post by JonahSinick · 2013-12-31T22:03:05.365Z · score: 57 (68 votes) · LW · GW · Legacy · 32 comments

My name is Jonah Sinick, and I'm posting to announce a new advising service for intellectually curious students: Cognito Mentoring. I'm working on this in collaboration with Vipul Naik.

We have very broad intellectual interests, cutting across topics such as rationality, economics, pure math, psychology, humanitarian issues and classical music. I have a PhD in pure math, have been an active participant on Less Wrong, worked at GiveWell for a year, and have done research for Machine Intelligence Research Institute (MIRI) on how effectively can we plan for future decades and on how well policy-makers will handle AGI. Vipul has a PhD in pure math, and started Open Borders, a website devoted to discussing immigration liberalization.

We both have experience working with intellectually curious young people. I worked for three summers at MathPath (a summer camp for middle school students who are interested in math), taught at Thomas Jefferson High School for Science and Technology (an academic magnet high school), and currently teach for Art of Problem Solving (an online school for high performing math students). Vipul has trained students for mathematical olympiads, and taught calculus and linear algebra at University of Chicago for years.

We spent several months researching the educational resources that are available to high performing students, college selection and college admissions, psychological findings on intellectual giftedness, and the experiences of past and current members of the population that we're serving, and we’re ready to help. We're currently offering free personalized advising on these things by email, Skype, or phone. You can connect with us here. If you're interested, we look forward to hearing from you.

32 comments

Comments sorted by top scores.

comment by James_Miller · 2013-12-28T19:49:45.147Z · score: 30 (30 votes) · LW · GW

I just had a 40 minute free phone consultation with Jonah concerning my young son. It was extremely helpful. Jonah seems very knowledgeable about resources for gifted children. I've done a significant amount of research on this topic and believe I'm qualified to know that Jonah is qualified to help gifted children.

comment by benkuhn · 2013-12-30T03:04:34.013Z · score: 18 (18 votes) · LW · GW

I had an 11-email correspondence with Jonah and Vipul about course selection. I'm a junior at Harvard and was worried that I was hitting diminishing marginal returns to courses taken--I haven't been able to find very good non-technical courses and I'm hitting diminishing marginal returns to technical ones.

Jonah and Vipul looked through the Harvard course catalog and gave me several specific course recommendations according to the goals and criteria I gave them, as well as several more general pointers--try to take more graduate-level courses, consider intellectual history as an especially helpful subfield of the humanities, some economics can be learned fairly well through self-study, etc. (with supporting details and reasoning, not just assertions). They responded very quickly, asked a bunch of good clarifying questions, and their advice was quite detailed and seems good, though I won't get to put any of it into practice until school starts back up again in a few weeks. Overall I'm quite pleased with their advising so far, though I can't speak to their results yet with confidence.

comment by Swimmer963 · 2013-12-30T06:57:05.490Z · score: 13 (13 votes) · LW · GW

I'm so happy that this thing is actually happening! Congratulations on both of you for doing a hard scary thing.

comment by FiftyTwo · 2013-12-29T11:33:20.855Z · score: 11 (11 votes) · LW · GW

Clarification: When you say students are you aiming for a specific age range? People currently in full time education?

comment by JonahSinick · 2013-12-29T23:19:06.514Z · score: 7 (7 votes) · LW · GW

We're currently advising students who are in grades K-12 or college, or who are taking time off from school. We may expand beyond that as we grow. We're working on a wiki with information on the learning resources that we recommend, which we hope will be helpful to everyone.

comment by Eliezer Yudkowsky (Eliezer_Yudkowsky) · 2013-12-30T05:41:54.438Z · score: 9 (9 votes) · LW · GW

Is there a reason why this isn't in Main? I would immediately promote it.

comment by JonahSinick · 2013-12-30T05:46:26.690Z · score: 4 (4 votes) · LW · GW

Thanks :-). I'll move it to Main.

comment by Curiouskid · 2013-12-29T23:03:16.160Z · score: 8 (8 votes) · LW · GW

Small world!

I was just looking at this wonderful blog which had a nice collection of advice for young students. I didn't know who wrote it, but I just figured out based on Vipul's bio that it was his blog.

A good link that didn't appear in Vipul's list is Michael Nielsen's "principles of effective research" which I put into workflowy.

Jonah also has a lot of really excellent posts

I'll also mention that there's a "Less Wrong for High Schoolers" facebook group that I set up when I was in high school. I've found it to be fun to talk to other LWers my own age. Just search for it on facebook.

comment by JonahSinick · 2013-12-29T23:11:45.876Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW · GW

Thanks for the feedback. Feel free to be in touch.

comment by Curiouskid · 2013-12-29T23:33:54.146Z · score: 1 (1 votes) · LW · GW

We've already skyped. I replied to your post in the U20 summit FB page.

comment by JonahSinick · 2013-12-29T23:35:57.643Z · score: 1 (1 votes) · LW · GW

Oh, ok, cool :-).

comment by Mitchell_Porter · 2014-01-09T12:00:09.102Z · score: 6 (6 votes) · LW · GW

I just looked at Jonah and Vipul's histories, and I was struck to observe that they both did higher degrees in math, but their first career steps had nothing to do with the content of their degrees. I mean that Jonah studied number theory but worked on "effective altruism", i.e. which charity achieves most per dollar, and Vipul studied group theory but became an open-borders activist.

When I thought about it further, I was reminded of the phenomenon whereby people do a degree in physics or math, but then get a job on Wall Street. In such cases, the actual content of the degree means very little, it simply indicates that the person in question is capable of mathematical analysis, and therefore might be able to add a small fraction of a percent to the profits of some bank or hedge fund.

In this case, it looks like math degrees have again served to signal analytical ability, but here the payoff was entry into the world of quantitative altruism - either the small world of organizations like GiveWell, or the larger and older world of public-policy economics.

It might be a laudable improvement to have math-degree-as-proof-of-ability-to-think being used in this way, rather than the other. But I still wonder about, for example, people who want their higher degree itself to be a meaningful pursuit, and not just a stepping stone to a career as a banker, an activist, or a mentor.

There are certainly people who do a higher degree, and end up disgusted with it and wishing they had spent their three years doing something else; but there are also people who do their higher degree because they love their subject and are genuinely interested in it, and who then crashland in an awful real world when they find they can't obtain continuing employment in that area.

So my questions for Cognito are these: What is its general philosophy regarding the pursuit of higher degrees? In their opinion, when is this a worthwhile activity? Are they equipped to advise people who aren't careerists, the ones whose interests and intellectual makeup will actually create difficulties for them in life, precisely because society offers little or no support or understanding for their specific interests and aspirations? And do the founders consider that their experiences are relevant for that sort of person?

comment by JonahSinick · 2014-01-09T22:46:08.824Z · score: 1 (1 votes) · LW · GW

Hi Mitchell,

Thanks for your interest.

Both Vipul and I went to graduate school with a view toward learning more math rather than as a stepping stone to a career outside of academia. Our academic credentials may have some signaling benefits, but if we had wanted to optimize for careers outside of academia we wouldn't have gone to math graduate school. As it turns out, our academic background has been quite helpful with the advising work we've ended up doing.

Our goal is to help our advisees attain life satisfaction. For some of them this may come from a high paying and stable career, for others it may come from pursuit of intellectual interests, for others it may come from a blend of the two. We feel that we're well equipped to advise people in any of these situations.

comment by Benito · 2013-12-28T00:54:56.255Z · score: 6 (6 votes) · LW · GW

Thanks! I'll be in touch soon.

comment by Gvaerg · 2013-12-28T01:18:53.617Z · score: 5 (5 votes) · LW · GW

I would like to see a review after someone goes through this process.

comment by benkuhn · 2013-12-28T05:40:02.429Z · score: 11 (11 votes) · LW · GW

I'm taking them up on their offer right now. I'll report back when I'm done. EDIT: here.

comment by Dorikka · 2013-12-28T20:28:35.803Z · score: 4 (4 votes) · LW · GW

You may be interested in this.

comment by katydee · 2013-12-30T07:06:49.857Z · score: 4 (8 votes) · LW · GW

I wish I had more than one upvote to give this post. I love seeing LW community members going out there and doing cool things.

comment by [deleted] · 2014-01-06T18:31:13.266Z · score: 3 (3 votes) · LW · GW

Wow. I wish I'd had this when I was younger. I might have avoided specializing in Programming Languages and Compilers, which has turned out to be a much smaller world than I had really wanted to enter.

Oh well.

comment by Armok_GoB · 2014-01-03T04:57:46.472Z · score: 3 (5 votes) · LW · GW

I am confused. Something I cannot distinguish from random advertizing is being highly upvoted, promoted to main, and lauded by everyone including Eliezer himself. What is going on here?

comment by lambdaloop · 2014-01-03T20:29:16.947Z · score: 8 (8 votes) · LW · GW

I agree that at first glance, it may seem like advertising, but it is different in quite a few ways:

  • The service Jonah and Vipul offer is free. They are doing this for the benefit of the community, not for themselves.
  • Jonah and Vipul seem well qualified to actually advise people.
  • This is in the spirit of self-study and improvement that perpetuates Less Wrong.

Really, I see nothing wrong with offering rational advising on a site that aims to improve human rationality.

comment by Armok_GoB · 2014-01-03T23:13:37.444Z · score: 3 (3 votes) · LW · GW

Ah, I completely missed the "free" part and assumed this was extremely expensive for some reason.

comment by JonahSinick · 2014-01-05T21:47:04.766Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW · GW

See my response to lambdaloop.

comment by Armok_GoB · 2014-01-06T01:35:36.890Z · score: -1 (1 votes) · LW · GW

So it is just random advertising that doesn't belong here?

comment by JonahSinick · 2014-01-06T02:05:36.586Z · score: 2 (2 votes) · LW · GW

We posted here because we're working to provide a service to a niche market that many Less Wrongers belong to.

comment by VipulNaik · 2014-01-06T02:14:29.511Z · score: 1 (1 votes) · LW · GW

To add to Jonah's point, we believe that our advice will use and promote ideals of applied rationality. We often refer to LessWrong blog posts and ideas in our advice, and we've pointed some of our advisees (who came from other sources) to the LessWrong site. So, both ex post and ex ante, our advising work is of potential interest to LessWrong.

comment by JonahSinick · 2014-01-05T21:46:41.338Z · score: 2 (2 votes) · LW · GW

Regarding:

The service Jonah and Vipul offer is free. They are doing this for the benefit of the community, not for themselves.

Our offer of free personal advising is for a limited time only. We would like to work on the advising service full time, and so will be charging for our services at some point in the future. Before doing so, we're offering free advising to gain feedback on our service in order to ensure that it's worth the money. We do plan on producing free, openly accessible information: we're writing up our research findings on a wiki which we'll be making public.

comment by [deleted] · 2014-01-26T05:34:15.449Z · score: 2 (2 votes) · LW · GW

I also had an 11-email correspondence with Jonah, specifically about focusing techniques and munchkining for math and physics learning. He also had useful, low-level advice that has, so far, helped me to avoid curiosity-specific temporal discounting (how to generally focus on what interests me the most and the consequences of just skipping around for the sake of curiosity instead).

One of the most useful things (that I am now researching further) were his suggestions for effective altruism in scientific research (specifically, a lot of good resources concerning the impact of theoretical research). This was a huge deal, because, as a 16-year-old, I've been promoting effective altruism for a while. But hadn't actually explicitly considered how my passions, interests and abilities (and later, career) could fit into that framework. I would probably have been swept up, unknowingly, in whatever my curiosity pointed to for a long while if Jonah had not helped me learn more about it. This is probably one of the most valuable "uncertainties" or set of questions I have received from anyone personally for a couple years.

comment by realitygrill · 2014-01-11T04:50:51.034Z · score: 2 (2 votes) · LW · GW

I am out of school, but am an intellectually curious autodidact (not a particularly effective one). I was once considered mathematically gifted but fell off the bandwagon early - no encouragement or mentors. Others I know are in a similar position. This is LW, after all..

A bunch of us would be interested in shoring up and increasing our mathematical abilities, and so would be situationally similar to a homeschooler. Should we still contact you? Otherwise, I'll wait for your wiki of resources. Thanks!

comment by JonahSinick · 2014-01-11T07:24:53.450Z · score: 1 (1 votes) · LW · GW

Feel free to write. We may not be able to offer detailed personalized advice, but we can send you our preliminary lists of resources.

comment by Dahlen · 2014-01-16T19:36:53.768Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW · GW

Can we still contact you even if our performance in math is not particularly impressive so far, but nevertheless we would like to improve it? Learning math has long since been my main educational objective; however, I've practiced very infrequently due to poor motivation and I've never really gotten far. I'd love to hear from people who have "made it" in math, and find out what they did right in order to get there, and how to best go about studying math.

I'm not sure someone like me wouldn't basically be a waste of your time, though; maybe the time spent advising me can be better spent on someone who's truly worth the effort.

comment by JonahSinick · 2014-01-16T20:56:48.608Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW · GW

Hi Dahlen,

We're interested in working with whoever can most benefit from our services. Feel free to write to us.

Best, Jonah