To go, or not to go: that is the question facing many graduates who are considering whether to embark on a postgraduate degree. Reasons for buckling down to some rigorous research can vary – from hoping to stand out in the competitive job market, to a pure love of academia and perhaps a career therein.
Whatever the motivation, though, choosing the right area of study can be a tricky, but ultimately rewarding, process. If you’re feeling particularly confused or just can’t make up your mind, then this list of the 10 youngest students to ever achieve a doctorate is guaranteed to inspire you – or maybe kick-start your ambitions.
10. Akshay Venkatesh – 20
Indian-Australian Akshay Venkatesh distinguished himself at an early age. In 1993, when he was 11 years old, he won a bronze medal at the International Physics Olympiad in Virginia. Venkatesh chose to switch his focus to mathematics soon after taking home the bronze, and he went on to win two more Olympiad medals in the subject. He finished high school when he was only 13 and went to the University of Western Australia, graduating with first class honors in Mathematics in 1997 – the youngest student ever to do so.
Even then, Venkatesh didn’t pause for a breath, and a PhD from Princeton University consummated his academic success. At only 20 years old and with a doctorate under his belt, the young scholar already had a solid position in the world of academia. Since completing his PhD in 2002, he has gone from holding a post-doctorate position at MIT to becoming a Clay Research Fellow and, most recently, a professor at Stanford University.
9. Erik Demaine – 20
Born in Nova Scotia, Canada, Erik Demaine took a somewhat unconventional route when it came to his education. When he was seven years old, his father – an artist and sculptor – pulled him out of school to travel around North America. From the age of nine, Demaine basically home schooled himself, and an early interest in computers was his gateway into math.
At age 12, even though he didn’t have any academic records or results, Demaine began studying at Dalhousie University in Halifax, Nova Scotia, going on to receive his bachelor’s degree when he was just 14. He then set his sights on a PhD, completing pioneering work in computational origami at the University of Waterloo before his 21st birthday.
Demaine, who in 2001 became MIT’s youngest ever professor – at 20 – says, “It’s a pretty awesome position to be able to think about these basic mathematical truths and what’s solvable and not solvable.” His work includes computational origami, decoding an ancient Incan language, and protein folding (which crosses over into the field of biology).
8. Charles Homer Haskins – 19
Charles Homer Haskins was only 19 when, in 1890, he was awarded his PhD in History from Johns Hopkins University, Baltimore. After teaching at Johns Hopkins, Haskins went on to become a professor at Wisconsin University and then Harvard University, and he helped set up a pattern for graduate studies that is still in use today. He is regarded as the first medieval historian in the US and is particularly remembered for his 1927 book The Renaissance of the Twelfth Century as well as for his academic work on the Norman institutions.
Haskins also played a role in the fate of nations. President Woodrow Wilson made him a member of an inquiry charged with resolving territorial issues in the wake of World War I. And Haskins was also part of the US delegation at the Paris Peace Conference in 1919, where he presented a solution – which was ultimately accepted – for dealing with the German state of Saarland.
7. Juliet Beni – 19
Juliet Beni was a college senior at 15; and in 2012, when she was just 19 years old, she received her PhD in Psychology from the University of California, Riverside (UCR), becoming the youngest student to do so in UCR history. Linda Scott, a member of the university’s graduate division for the past three decades, says, “In my experience we have had no one who even approaches that age.”
Beni hopes to become a medical doctor, an ambition she has held since a young age. Self-discipline, dedication and problem-solving techniques served Beni well in her bid for a doctorate, and anyone interested in getting a PhD would probably do well to cultivate the same kind of qualities. Perhaps most important of all is Beni’s sheer determination and persistence. Her advisor Robin DiMatteo says, “I have never once seen her get discouraged or fail to try to achieve a goal.”
6. Sho Yano – 18
Sho Yano started college when he was just nine years old, after chalking up a score of 1,500 out of 1,600 on his college SATs the year before. Moreover, while experts on child prodigies say it’s better for children as young as Yano was not to go to college, there may be no other choice.
Yano’s mother says, “Some people really think I’m [a] really pushy mom to prove that my son is a gifted one. But that’s not the issue. Because… if your child is going so fast and doing so well enjoying his life, you cannot just let him stop.” Yano certainly didn’t stop. He graduated summa cum laude from Chicago’s Loyola University when he was 12. And in 2009, aged 18, he received his PhD in Molecular Genetics and Cell Biology from the University of Chicago. Completing this string of success, Yano achieved his MD, also from the University of Chicago, by the time he was 21 – earning him the nickname “real-life Doogie Howser.”
“I have a goal,” Yano told CBS News in 2009. “And I think the worst thing to do in life is fall short.”
5. Norbert Wiener – 17
Although Norbert Wiener earned a bachelor’s degree in Mathematics from Tufts College (now Tufts University) when he was 14 years old in 1909, he didn’t immediately pursue a doctorate in the same subject area. Instead, he studied philosophy and zoology before returning to math. In 1912, Wiener was 17 when he was awarded his PhD in Mathematical Logic from Harvard University. He held a job as a journalist for a brief stint, and also worked on the automation of anti-aircraft guns during World War II, but he is best remembered for his pioneering work in the field of cybernetics.
Cybernetics is concerned with the idea of feedback and has consequences for societal organization, philosophy, engineering, biology and other fields. In Wiener’s own words, “To live effectively is to live with adequate information. Thus, communication and control belong to the essence of man’s inner life, even as they belong to his life in society.”
4. Ruth Lawrence – 17
In 1985, at the tender age of 13, Ruth Lawrence graduated from Oxford University with a bachelor’s degree in Mathematics. The next year, she got a second degree, this time in Physics, which was followed by a PhD in Mathematics in 1989 when she was just 17. After spending some time at Harvard as a junior fellow and working at the University of Michigan as an associate professor, Lawrence moved to Israel. There, she became an associate professor at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem.
Although Lawrence has gained recognition for her work in algebraic topology and knot theory, she has hinted at a sense of regret over the childhood years that were lost to academia and has said that she will not put her child through the same rigorous studies. “I was not in their shoes,” says Lawrence of her parents. “I very much appreciate the effort my father put in. I am enormously grateful for what he did for me. I can see now that being a parent is very difficult.” Fortunately, most graduate students won’t face the same challenges, pressures and media attention Lawrence did.
3. Balamurali Ambati – 17
Indian-American ophthalmologist and academic Balamurali Ambati was doing calculus when he was four years old and co-authored a research book on AIDS when he was 11. At 13, he completed his studies at New York University. And in 1995, when he was 17, he graduated from Mount Sinai School of Medicine, New York City, effectively becoming the world’s youngest doctor (and a Guinness World Record holder). Ambati completed all his medical training by the age of 24, making him an anomaly in the medical profession – as most doctors don’t finish their instruction until their early to mid 30s.
Ambati is happy with his hard work, suggesting that finishing his training early has given him time for other life experiences. Clearly, the proper motivation is key, and Ambati’s studies have certainly paid off. He says he loves his career and is very happy as an ophthalmologist. “You see all kinds of diseases, you do exquisite surgery, you see patients of all ages – in what other field could I be a transplant surgeon, a prosthetic surgeon, an emergency surgeon, do international and overseas work? I conduct wonderful research as well. It’s really a very nice combination.”
2. Kim Ung-Yong – 15
Imagine being a guest student at a university when you’re three years old and being invited to do research for NASA when you’re eight. It’s pretty hard to wrap your mind around. Yet South Korean former child prodigy Kim Ung-Yong doesn’t have to imagine; for him, it was a reality. Still, Kim’s 10 years at NASA weren’t exactly happy ones. He says, “I led my life like a machine – I woke up, solved the daily assigned equation, ate, slept, and so forth. I really didn’t know what I was doing, and I was lonely and had no friends.” He also missed his mother.
Although Kim, born in 1963, earned his PhD at the astoundingly young age of 15 and appeared in the Guinness Book of World Records for having the “Highest IQ,” he is quick to point out that academic success is not always the measure of a person. “Society should not judge anyone with unilateral standards – everyone has different learning levels, hopes, talents, and dreams and we should respect that.”
Kim, who currently works at Chungbuk National University, says he’s doing what he really wants to do. He’s happy, and in the end, that’s what really counts.
1. Karl Witte – 13
Born in 1800, Karl Witte was the son of an educational author who is said to have put his hypotheses to work on his son. His father’s methods appear to have been successful, though. When he was nine, Witte could speak five languages; and incredibly, this prodigy was awarded his doctorate degree in Philosophy from the University of Giessen when he was all of 13 years old – another Guinness World Record, and one that still stands today.
Witte might have ultimately become a lawyer, and he apparently traveled to Italy in 1818 to further this goal, but his love of books pulled him in a different direction. Witte became especially enamored with Dante’s poems and eventually became a recognized Dante scholar.
If nothing else, these 10 inspiring intellectuals prove that hard work and focus can lead the way to a successful – and hopefully happy – academic life.