Knowing nothing: keeping an open mind

During your undergraduate experience, you probably had a fairly good idea of what you “needed to know” for your coursework. In contrast, you’ve probably heard that the biggest lesson of graduate school is that you know nothing. That is not entirely true, but you certainly realize in grad school just how big the world of science is and that your goal is not to learn everything but to become increasingly specialized in your knowledge and to think through information. How do you adapt to these newer, bigger goals?

The feeling of “knowing nothing” comes from the fact that you are still learning the fundamental models of a field. It also comes from aspects of graduate school that are likely new to you, including exploring primary data for a field, discovering how to analyze that data yourself, being introduced to different management styles and lab philosophies, realizing new areas of science that you didn’t know you’d like, and even recognizing new approaches to learning such as individual and small-group discussion-based approaches. Although you’ve already succeeded through diverse schooling and training environments, you are still a burgeoning scientist as a first year graduate student. During this transition, you should realize that there is a much bigger world out there to discover beyond textbook information, and keep an open mind about the discomfort that can come while exploring this new territory.

It isn’t uncommon for graduate courses to seem like an open fire hydrant gushing new information out at you. This alone can make you feel like you don’t know very much, even for students who are well-prepared from their undergraduate or master’s coursework. However, beyond this, you’re developing a foundation that will include a more historical perspective of knowledge and experimental data that has lead to our current paradigms, some of which may not clearly defined. You’re also learning that there are a TON of unanswered questions and that our “knowledge” is ever-shifting with new data! If you are feeling like you can’t create a nice little package of knowledge that you can tie up with a bow, then you’re learning the real world of science! Although you should soak up this information as much as you can, there is no way for you know the entire world of science.

This might sound contradictory to how you have previously thought about school, but in my opinion, one of the goals of your first year is to learn that “how you think” is far more important than “what you know”. Yes, you should know A LOT about the fundamentals of science, but you will blossom when you marry these fundamentals with an ability to reason and analyze your way through something unknown. Knowledge in graduate school isn’t just learning our current models of nature; its about learning how and why we have built those models and how to test them further. By the end of your first year, you won’t know everything, but you should have learned how to analyze diverse kinds of data, construct a testable model from this analysis, and what methods might be most appropriate to test your model. In summary, as important as it is to learn fundamental biomedical concepts, you should also be comfortable when you don’t know something. You should build your reasoning skills, and lean in to the times when you are at the edge of learning something new. Indeed, this is the purpose of science: to explore the unknown!

Overall, the goal of graduate school is not to learn or know everything. This is impossible as there is too much information and scientists are constantly challenging existing models. Instead, your task is to learn how to think about science. You will certainly need foundational knowledge in order to think critically and with appropriate context. I would encourage you to not allow the “knowing nothing” discomfort overwhelm you, and rather celebrate how far you have come in your ability to reason through new information. Focusing on your critical thinking skills will help you the next time you are inevitably faced with the feeling that you “know nothing”.

One thought on “Knowing nothing: keeping an open mind

  1. Pingback: Seeking comfort in the discomfort: How to approach your first year – Materials & Methods

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