I think that an extremely effective way to get a better feel for a new subject is to pay an online tutor to answer your questions about it for an hour.

It turns that there are a bunch of grad students on Wyzant who mostly work tutoring high school math or whatever but who are very happy to spend an hour answering your weird questions.

For example, a few weeks ago I had a session with a first-year Harvard synthetic biology PhD. Before the session, I spent a ten-minute timer writing down things that I currently didn’t get about biology. (This is an exercise worth doing even if you’re not going to have a tutor, IMO.) We spent the time talking about some mix of the questions I’d prepared, various tangents that came up during those explanations, and his sense of the field overall.

I came away with a whole bunch of my minor misconceptions fixed, a few pointers to topics I wanted to learn more about, and a way better sense of what the field feels like and what the important problems and recent developments are.

There are a few reasons that having a paid tutor is a way better way of learning about a field than trying to meet people who happen to be in that field. I really like it that I’m paying them, and so I can aggressively direct the conversation to wherever my curiosity is, whether it’s about their work or some minor point or whatever. I don’t need to worry about them getting bored with me, so I can just keep asking questions until I get something.

Conversational moves I particularly like:

  • “I’m going to try to give the thirty second explanation of how gene expression is controlled in animals; you should tell me the most important things I’m wrong about.”
  • “Why don’t people talk about X?”
  • “What should I read to learn more about X, based on what you know about me from this conversation?”

All of the above are way faster with a live human than with the internet.

I think that doing this for an hour or two weekly will make me substantially more knowledgeable over the next year.

Various other notes on online tutors:

  • Online language tutors are super cheap–I had some Japanese tutor who was like $10 an hour. They’re a great way to practice conversation. They’re also super fun IMO.
  • Sadly, tutors from well paid fields like programming or ML are way more expensive.
  • If you wanted to save money, you could gamble more on less credentialed tutors, who are often $20-$40 an hour.

If you end up doing this, I’d love to hear your experience.