Caveat emptor… what it means (to me) to be a graduate student

This post is intended for current and prospective graduate students. If I am lucky enough to one day hold a faculty position with a lab and students of my own, I hope this will prove useful for prospective students. It is intended to serve as a fossil record of my thoughts on what being a graduate student means, and what characteristics I think are hallmarks of successful graduate students. I have made it a personal rule not to change any of my thoughts once I put them down so that they may serve as an accurate representation of my thoughts at the time. Hopefully, how these thoughts change over time will itself prove useful to readers.

Embracing ignorance: it’s turtles all the way down…
This is a big subject, and since it has been addressed by others before me I will keep this relatively brief. Also, many of my thoughts I will be collecting here are variations on this theme, and I’d like to avoid too much repetition.
Above all, being a graduate student means having the willingness to be ignorant. No, enjoying being ignorant. Good science pushes the boundaries of the collective knowledge of everyone in the field… if you are asking the right questions, there will be no answers, just a series of fascinating insights, and a myriad of related interesting questions. It’s turtles all the way down. Being a graduate student means being comfortable sailing in these uncharted waters; enjoying taking responsibility for their own education and relying on their own judgement to explore their questions of interest. Many students are daunted by this, and many can’t stand it. It can take years, even for graduate students to come to terms with the reality that they can never be right, only on an interesting line of inquiry. Some never do. Many faculty and students never learn, or are unwilling to accept that there are no right answers… However, in my experience, those who routinely feel that they are ‘right’ about anything in science usually: 1) are feeding an ego that demands validation, 2) fundamentally do not understand the complexity of the questions being asked and the limits of the understanding they can achieve within the framework of current research, or 3) are purposefully over-simplifying the question as a heuristic tool (which can be good or bad, depending on the context). Personally, I think I have become deeply suspicious of any feelings of certainty regarding my own science. When I do, I routinely ask myself whether I am doing so for any of these three reasons, and this often helps me avoid pitfalls and biases in my own thinking. Learning to self-check like this is, I feel, one of the first lessons that graduate students must learn in order to be successful.

– Ask yourself before asking others
This is pretty straightforward, and a big part of embracing ignorance, taking responsibility for your own understanding, and learning to rely on your own judgement. Invariably, every good graduate student I have ever known does this: whenever they are stumped, frustrated, feel the need for ‘answers’, or the desire to go ask their peers or supervisor a question… they stop. They take a breath. And then feverishly investigate and refine their question(s) before they ever open their mouth. Usually, the exercise of carefully examining their questions leads them to the solution they were seeking. And if not… they have a far better understanding of what their question really is if/when they do seek feedback from others. Which leads naturally to how to seek feedback…

– Inspire feedback
 This is a crucial point, and will go a long way towards improving interactions with both peers and supervisors. Graduate students cannot expect useful feedback to help them navigate their questions and research… they must inspire it. Feedback can only be as good as the questions and explanations you offer to your peers/supervisor, and the discussion you create. This goes hand in hand with ‘asking yourself before asking others’, and ‘turtles’. A graduate student must explore their own questions thoroughly before seeking feedback. Remember, it’s turtles all the way down… the key to getting good feedback is inspiring your peers/supervisor with your fascinating line of inquiry, NOT asking them questions that you expect answers to. Remember too that inviting others down your rabbit hole means knowing your way around the warren… often the most useful part of seeking feedback is the exercise of preparing yourself to guide others through your lines of inquiry.

Possible future thoughts:
– Building System 2 endurance.
– The professional/personal boundary

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