In those halcyon days when I was happily crafting my statements of purpose for graduate school admission, I envisioned myself strolling the halls of Higher Ed, easily and breezily researching the questions that were at the core of my desire to attend graduate school.  These questions, after all, were the ones that had propelled me forward, ignited a passion to go back to school, and not once did I question my ability to answer them. I thought of myself as a competent person, a person who had worked in the field and participated in research grants prior to seeking a degree. I knew how this all worked: I had it dialed.  What possibly could go wrong?

Then I started taking classes, talking to my instructors and classmates, and reading a lot.  And I realized that while I am competent, I am also very, very stupid. And for that, I will be forever grateful.

I was lucky enough to stumble across Martin Schwartz’s excellent essay, “The Importance of Stupidity in Scientific Research,” published in 2008 in the Journal of Cell Science.  Schwartz writes about the issues with framing a research question:

For me, it was a daunting task. How could I possibly frame the questions that would lead to significant discoveries; design and interpret an experiment so that the conclusions were absolutely convincing; foresee difficulties and see ways around them, or, failing that, solve them when they occurred? My Ph.D. project was somewhat interdisciplinary and, for a while, whenever I ran into a problem, I pestered the faculty in my department who were experts in the various disciplines that I needed. I remember the day when Henry Taube (who won the Nobel Prize two years later) told me he didn’t know how to solve the problem I was having in his area. I was a third-year graduate student and I figured that Taube knew about 1000 times more than I did (conservative estimate). If he didn’t have the answer, nobody did.

That’s the essence of what I didn’t realize from the outside.  I didn’t think it through: if I have a good question, then no one has the answers yet. That’s the point.  There is a sense of discomfort being in this place, at the edge of the known world, having faith that I won’t sail over the edge.  For a long time in my academic life, there were answers.  There was a reasoning through complex problems that was once sufficient for the work I was doing. Now the task at hand demands that I move beyond those borders.  To say the process is intimidating is an understatement.

Every time I put forth an idea and it is mercilessly shot down, I have confidence that it is part of the process. Eventually, I will run out of stupid ideas and be left with something that will work. Every researcher does this.  Even then, the experiments fail–but through the process something new is learned.  So this is why I am glad I know I am stupid: it tells me I am onto something. To quote the Bard: “”The fool doth think he is wise, but the wise man knows himself to be a fool.”

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[Image by Flickr user Oberazzi and used under the Creative Commons license.]



16 Responses to Grad School made me stupid

  1. Katy Meyers says:

    Great post Andrea! I notice this effect a lot in grad school. It isn’t until I’m talking with my old high school friends that I remember that I’m actually ‘the smart one’.

    My dad talks about this being the Dunning-Kruger effect: “The Dunning–Kruger effect is a cognitive bias in which unskilled people make poor decisions and reach erroneous conclusions, but their incompetence denies them the metacognitive ability to appreciate their mistakes” (from Wikipedia, sadly).

    On the one hand it is nice to realize how little we know, but I think it makes us underestimate our own abilities which can be dangerous in grants/fellowship/job searches.

    • Andrea says:

      Thanks for the comment, Katy. I love the idea of the Dunning-Kruger effect and they’ve had some great studies come out of that theory. I’m not sure that I feel like I am “less than” anyone, more it is a sense that I love knowing I don’t know. I love even more that no one else does either. It is a celebration of finding out, really. I have a lot of confidence in my skills, but there is something new and somewhat uncomfortable about growing into that researcher role. Once one embraces the discomfort though, in my experience, that’s when things really get exciting!

      • I totally agree! I think to really appreciate that you don’t know things, you have to realize that most other people don’t know all that much either. It’s not even so much about intelligence per se, though it helps to have a reflexive attitude about what knowledge is and how it’s made. I think maybe it’s more about being openly curious.

  2. k10death says:

    great post! i think that the lesson that we don’t know everything is a crucial one for grad school–and all walks of life! reminding myself that i am in school to learn (and not to already know) has helped me immensely.

    Katy brings up a good point, that we don’t need to underestimate ourselves when it comes to grants/fellowships/job searches, but i think balance is the key. none of us wants to become that know it all jerk professor–every department has at least one–and some grad school experiences could lead us that way.

  3. Andrea,

    I’m not sure stupid is the right term. It’s just not knowing. Right up there with not knowing is naivete.

    As I begin the proposal-writing stage, I am stunned at how much I have learned– not just about my areas of interest, but about how to *think*. That, for me, is the essence of this advanced torture– er, I mean, study.

    For example, I know enough now to know how much I don’t know, but I have learned enough to know that, because I have learned so much about approaching and working through my own questions, I can teach myself whatever I need to learn. I can reach out to others and say, “Hey, would you like read this complicated stuff together?”

    A fellow doc student and I were talking about this last summer. She was off doing a high-powered internship with an international agency. She remarked that whenever she was in a meeting, she would eventually have gravitated into a leadership position simply by virtue of her ability to think deeply and logically and pose questions no one else had considered.

    So. I’ll argue that “stupid” is a little too pejorative, and that doc school is hard enough without imposing more burdens on ourselves.

    Besides, I think you are awesome.


    • andrea.zellner says:

      Well, Karen, I think you are awesome, too. And you’ll have to forgive the word “stupid” a little bit as I can’t resist a provocative title ;). I love the emphasis you are placing on the journey here in your comments. It is about growing into scholars who have the ability to “think deeply and logically and pose questions no one else had considered.” I think those are exactly the qualities I wanted to grow in myself. As always, I know you will rock your journey of advanced “study,” and I do hope you consider writing for the site. I know I always appreciate your perspective and advice.

  4. Terry Brock says:

    This is the humbling thing about graduate school: the realization that you don’t know much. At the same time, however, you realize that is why we’re here: to answer questions no one knows the answer to. I remember in my oral defense of my comps, the best part was when one committee member asked me a question and ended it with, “I’m not asking this a test, I just honestly don’t know the answer and I’m wondering if you do.” That was when it hit me: we’re all here because we’re a little bit stupid about something, and we want to figure out the answers.

    • andrea.zellner says:

      Love that anecdote about your comps, Terry. I think this conversation here in the comments is precisely why I love the idea of Gradhacker in general: what if we didn’t realize the commonality of this feeling? What if we really thought we were stupid instead of recognizing the beauty of curiosity and exploration? Thanks so much for the comments.

  5. Ismail Nooraddini says:

    Theres a reason we enjoy not knowing (and no its not because ignorance is bliss). Through billions of ears of evolution, ecological and societal, we are hardwired to ‘seek.’ On an earlier research paper i was curious of the physiological implications of the world wide web. Why are we addicted to google, FB and twitter? Research has shown, everytime we hit the refresh button, or check our phone, some doses of dopamine are released into the system. These doses act as a reward cue, signaling us to try again. Research on tigers, wolves and other mammels have shown that ansimals would prefer to hunt out their own mean, rather than be given it stright up. In fact, its more than a preference, its a matter of esteem. Part of the reasons animals may become depresed during their captive period is due to the inability to seek out their own food. With this information applied to humans, its no wonder we enjoy ‘not knowing,’ as it reinforces our need to know, through physiological and psychological adaptation.

    • andrea.zellner says:

      Oooh, I love the idea that we are all tigers, hunting down our meat. That sounds way cooler than what it looks like I am doing, which is generally reading a lot. Thanks for mentioning the dopamine research as well: so interesting. Thanks so much for the comments.

  6. Trent M Kays says:

    Lovely post! I didn’t realize how dumb I was until I started my doctoral program. It was quite intimidating at times until I realized that most of the other students were just as dumb as me. That made it much easier and more enjoyable.

    I see my job as to soak up as much knowledge from my awesome professors and move on. I’ll never know everything, and I wouldn’t want to either. 🙂

    • andrea.zellner says:

      Thanks, Trent. I like the goal of soaking everything up and moving on. Seems like a good plan. I appreciate the comments!

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