For all the grad students…

Especially for those in science. It’s OKAY to feel stupid! In fact, it’s required. The following is part of an essay that was published in May 2008 in the Journal of Cell Science, and it’s a must read for grad students who are just starting out on their thesis:

The importance of stupidity in scientific research
Martin A. Schwartz
Department of Microbiology, UVA Health System, University of Virginia, Charlottesville, VA 22908, USA
Journal of Cell Science 121, 1771 Published by The Company of Biologists 2008

For almost all of us, one of the reasons that we liked science in
high school and college is that we were good at it. That can’t be
the only reason – fascination with understanding the physical world
and an emotional need to discover new things has to enter into it
too. But high-school and college science means taking courses, and
doing well in courses means getting the right answers on tests. If
you know those answers, you do well and get to feel smart.

A Ph.D., in which you have to do a research project, is a whole
different thing. 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 when it hit me: nobody did. That’s why it was a research
problem. And being my research problem, it was up to me to solve.
Once I faced that fact, I solved the problem in a couple of days. (It
wasn’t really very hard; I just had to try a few things.) The crucial
lesson was that the scope of things I didn’t know wasn’t merely vast;
it was, for all practical purposes, infinite. That realization, instead of
being discouraging, was liberating. If our ignorance is infinite, the
only possible course of action is to muddle through as best we can.

I’d like to suggest that our Ph.D. programs often do students a
disservice in two ways. First, I don’t think students are made to
understand how hard it is to do research. And how very, very hard
it is to do important research. It’s a lot harder than taking even very
demanding courses. What makes it difficult is that research is
immersion in the unknown. We just don’t know what we’re doing.
We can’t be sure whether we’re asking the right question or doing
the right experiment until we get the answer or the result.
Admittedly, science is made harder by competition for grants and
space in top journals. But apart from all of that, doing significant
research is intrinsically hard and changing departmental,
institutional or national policies will not succeed in lessening its
intrinsic difficulty.

Second, we don’t do a good enough job of teaching our students
how to be productively stupid – that is, if we don’t feel stupid it
means we’re not really trying.

Productive stupidity means being ignorant by choice. Focusing
on important questions puts us in the awkward position of being
ignorant. One of the beautiful things about science is that it allows
us to bumble along, getting it wrong time after time, and feel
perfectly fine as long as we learn something each time. No doubt,
this can be difficult for students who are accustomed to getting the
answers right. No doubt, reasonable levels of confidence and
emotional resilience help, but I think scientific education might do
more to ease what is a very big transition: from learning what other
people once discovered to making your own discoveries. The more
comfortable we become with being stupid, the deeper we will wade
into the unknown and the more likely we are to make big

Now, I have a thesis proposal to outline. 🙂

Thanks to fellow grad, CYK, for passing this along to all of us.