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.”
- Martin Schwatz’s “The Importance of Stupidity in Scientific Research” doi: 10.1242/jcs.033340 June 1, 2008 J Cell Sci 121, 1771.
- My favorite book right now on research design: Field & Hole’s How to Design and Report Experiments. Sage, 2003.
- As a budding researcher, I am cultivating a sense of extreme skepticism. For my fellow quant heads, check out Ziliak and McCloskey’s The Cult of Statistical Significance:How the Standard Error Costs Us Jobs, Justice, and Lives. University of Michigan Press, 2008.
[Image by Flickr user Oberazzi and used under the Creative Commons license.]
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