Learning to Think April 1, 2014
by Sarah Eagleman, PhD, Post Defense Graduate Student, Department of Neurobiology and Anatomy
As you come to the end of your career as a graduate student there is a funny feeling you experience that no one warns you about. You’ve spent countless, tireless hours in the laboratory slaving away trying to understand how to use big, complicated pieces of equipment. You also now understand how to make measurements and with these measurements, you test hypotheses about the properties of tiny things you can’t see. You’ve certainly learned a great deal, but then you start thinking about the fine details of your work. Thoughts arise about the limitations of your analyses or extent of your controls. And you begin to have this daunting feeling about all of these things you don’t know and didn’t even consider while you were tirelessly trying to acclimate to a life in academia. When I shared this feeling with my postdoctorate labmate, Jose, he generously provided a quote that summarizes this experience:
“(…) as soon as I had finished the entire course of study, at the close of which it is customary to be admitted into the Doctor degree, I completely changed my opinion. For I found myself involved in so many doubts and errors that I was convinced I had advanced no further in all my attempts at learning, than the discovery at every turn of my own ignorance.
”René Descartes, Discourse on Method, 1637
Instead of feeling overwhelmed by this new space you’ve entered, pat yourself on the back for getting there. Knowledge about our own ignorance empowers us to design better experiments and make more accurate conclusions. When you leave graduate school you should feel like you know less than you knew when you came in because you are now aware of all the things you didn’t know, you didn’t know. The key difference is that you are now aware of the enormity of your own ignorance. I dare say that if this is not true, then you haven’t learned anything.
I wanted to follow this up with some advice about graduate school to those who are just beginning their careers. Take this as a way to set yourself up for success and to handle the demands of what this work will teach you. Most importantly, you are ultimately responsible for your own success. If you don’t take control of your graduate career, no one else will. Your advisor is there to guide you, but you need to educate yourself to ensure you are asking the right questions and designing the right controls. Be open and thank everyone – your advisor, your committees, your colleagues and friends – for times they push you to fully understand and defend your analyses and limitations of your conclusions. Just because someone else did something and published it doesn’t make it right. You will have to defend what you do, and you need to know the limits of what you do and limits of the conclusions you are able to make about the results. Finally, appreciate your failures and mistakes – the projects that fail the most, teach you the most. The worst thing that can happen to you in graduate school is having all of your projects work out perfectly and as you expected. And if you are lucky, sometimes the most elegant truths about your work come from the ugliest messes.