May 2012 Articles

College at 13

Jessie Rosenberg ’04, who earned her Ph.D. at 23, makes the case for starting college early.

Interviewed by David Volk

Jessie Rosenberg

Jessie Rosenberg

There are times when Jessie Rosenberg ’04 seems uncomfortable with the child prodigy label. Yes, she started reading at 3½, began college at 13, and earned her Ph.D. in applied physics at 23. The 25-year-old now works at IBM, researching how to use fiber optic technology to make computers faster.

Despite these accomplishments, Rosenberg says she doesn’t necessarily consider herself smarter than others. She was just comfortable doing things earlier than her peers. Part of her reluctance may stem from pop culture portrayals of prodigies as misfits in television shows like The Big Bang Theory. Then there’s her modesty. Despite being included in Forbes magazine’s “30 Under 30” list of “Rising Stars of Science,” she points out that there aren’t many 20-something research scientists out there.

Now that she’s almost the same age as her peers and too old to be a math whiz kid, Rosenberg says starting college early could benefit far more people and that parental fears may be overblown.

David Volk: You started college at 13. Were you ready?

Jessie Rosenberg: I just wanted to learn things. School was very boring for me. I never felt that I was performing to my potential, which was frustrating. When I went to college, I had the opportunity to do things that were hard, which is so much more fun. I was lucky to have been well-enough prepared, and I was responsible. I knew the things that I needed to do and could do them.

Maybe I had to try a little harder to observe the way everybody acted to make sure I fit the social norms, but I think that’s something anybody does.

DV: Do you get a lot of questions about your experience?

JR: I think it’s a little bit unfortunate that it’s such a strange thing to do. There are so many kids who are languishing in school systems that don’t believe in grouping by ability. There’s this idea that kids should be with people their own age, that they’ll be awkward and out of place [otherwise]. I always say, “They’re awkward and out of place already. If they’re not enjoying what they’re doing, they’re going to be so much happier if they can be in a place where they’re challenged.” When [parents] try to hold these children back, I think the question … [should be considered] case by case.

DV: Did age ever keep you from doing something?

JR: There was one time. It was swing dancing actually. One of the venues in graduate school was in a hotel bar and they wouldn’t let underage kids in. I had to dance out in the hallway.

DV: Are there advantages to graduating early?

JR:  There’s a saying that people’s contributions [to their field] happen later and later because they’re standing on the shoulders of giants, and those giants are getting taller and taller. So there’s farther to climb before you can really make your own contribution. There’s more time in my life to push those boundaries. Alternatively, if I decide I want to do something different, I’ve got more time to do that.