Before she could sit down to dinner last night, a friend of mine and fellow doctoral student blurted, breathlessly, “I’m not sure if I want to do my Ph.d anymore.” For those of us currently suffering through a Ph.d, this thought has at least once, if not multiple times (admittedly, daily for some like me) crossed our minds. Our daily work is often plagued with a feeling of being generally overwhelmed and creeping thoughts that we’re somehow not qualified to be in the current positions we find ourselves in. To put it bluntly, grad school sometimes makes us feel dumb.
Our third dining companion, also a doctoral student in the same program (it’s important for us to join in solidarity, commiserate together over sushi), immediately reassured her that this was a normal reaction and that if we didn’t feel dumb at some point in this process then we probably weren’t learning or doing our jobs. She brought up this excellent piece by Martin Schwartz, a microbiologist at the University of Virginia, “The importance of stupidity in scientific research.”
I’d recommend anyone who is conducting academic research or a student to read this short piece. The gist of Schwartz’s argument is that we often feel stupid in grad school because that’s what we’re here for. If we didn’t feel stupid once in a while, then we aren’t doing actual research or striving to answer questions – that’s the whole point. This article reminded me of a speech I wrote for a senior colloquium at Wake Forest University – the three best out of a dozen or so were then selected to speak at an awards ceremony during graduation.
I remember hitting a wall the first semester of my senior year – I had been running at full speed the day I stepped foot on campus, exhausting myself to do all the things I thought others wanted or expected me to do – be it my mother, my professors, or my peers. I ended up burning out and feeling completely lost and unsure of what end I was racing toward and why I was doing all the things I was doing. The title of my colloquium speech was, “Certain Uncertainty,” and I made the point that here I was, a senior graduating at the top of my class, and I had no post-grad plans and no idea where my future was heading. For any overachieving, type-A personality (and the parents of one), this was a frightening reality. Instead of spiraling into a deep depression, this is what I wrote:
Uncertainty is certainly where I stand now upon graduation. It is simultaneously terrifying and exciting, like the way I felt when I found myself in the midst of the Costa Rican jungle with only a compass to navigate, because Wake Forest has given me the confidence of self and this lens through which I can view situations differently and take advantage. I can be strangely comfortable in my newfound uncertainty because of many experiences at Wake Forest in which I was challenged and honestly felt uncomfortable, be it eating lamb in a tent on top of a mountain in China or as the lone biology major in an upper-level economics course.
The certain uncertainty we will encounter in life will be our greatest challenge and, if we persist, we may discover much more than we originally anticipated. My mother once told me that we are each born into this world as rough pieces of unpolished jade, and, with each obstacle we encounter in life, we become more polished and more beautiful. Perhaps she and my father knew when they named me An qi, meaning “peaceful jade” in Chinese, that I would undoubtedly face challenges but be able to succeed and withstand the detours and bumps of life. Even though I never expected to be where I am today four years ago, I know that the challenges that uncertainty brings in the coming years will only make me polished, more beautiful in my eccentricity [this bears reference to an Emily Dickinson poem I recited earlier in the speech], and more of my name — a piece of rough jade weathered to perfection by life’s uncertainties.
Remembering the certainty of uncertainty and the importance of stupidity, I can look back and say that I’ve been here, done that, and lived to tell the tale.