Honestly, it’s not me, it’s you

In the “trying a little too hard to become a citation classic” category of title-crafting, it’s hard to surpass Martin Schwartz’s “The importance of stupidity in scientific research“. Regardless, this is a gripping short essay for the grad student feeling just a wee bit overwhelmed. Some key points:

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.

Yes, very, very, very, hard indeed with the occasional redeeming bits of dizzying fun, yawping pride, and profound satisfaction.

…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. I’m not talking about ‘relative stupidity’, in which the other students in the class actually read the material, think about it and ace the exam, whereas you don’t. I’m also not talking about bright people who might be working in areas that don’t match their talents. Science involves confronting our ‘absolute stupidity’. That kind of stupidity is an existential fact, inherent in our efforts to push our way into the unknown.

All good points. We must humbly seek out the great unknown, and be prepared to feel a mite confused for years on end.  However just as I would eschew phrases like “comfortably numb” and “passively agressive”, “productively stupid” should at most be a state of mind but not an item from the mission statement of your CV.

But the capper is the best rationalization for the hazing that grad students go through at the hands of the inquisitorial boards we ominously call “your committee”…

Preliminary and thesis exams have the right idea when the faculty committee pushes until the student starts getting the answers wrong or gives up and says, ‘I don’t know’. The point of the exam isn’t to see if the student gets all the answers right. If they do, it’s the faculty who failed the exam. The point is to identify the student’s weaknesses, partly to see where they need to invest some effort and partly to see whether the student’s knowledge fails at a sufficiently high level that they are ready to take on a research project.

Yes, we reduce you to a mass of quivering jelly because we care…too much.

Definitely worth a read.


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