A life long quest for knowledge, bring your friends.

When I was entering my PhD program, I thought the goal was to learn everything there was to learn and desperately try to remember it. The trouble with this was that I’m much better at remembering the lyrics to songs from the ’80s than I am at remembering steps in glycolysis. As I finished my PhD, I realized what had happened. I didn’t remember things directly, but I had gotten much better about processing information. When faced with the need to come up with information, I could readily distill the question into major keywords, know where and how to access information, read through it and compile it with efficiency. Maybe some of my colleagues could remember everything directly, but I wasn’t that sort of person.

I realize now as a tenure track professor, I have the need to learn every day. It’s a bit exhausting sometimes. As such, I don’t see the need to demand rote memorization from my students (EXCEPT IF YOU ARE TAKING MY GLYCOLYSIS EXAM). I should qualify that – graduate students doing lab research do need to know some things cold. However, the vast majority of things, they have time to double check on google if they are right, or open a pdf to double check a paper. As such, I tell them to approach their lab work with the “I want to be a millionaire” decision list:

  1. Know it. Give the answer right away, say it’s your final answer and move on. Hope to god you’re right.
  2. Remove some answers. List possible options, order them A–>D, then do some research to remove two, then make a decision between the remaining ones.
  3. Phone a friend. No shame in asking for help once in a while.

Overall, I often think option 3 is underutilized in science. I did an interdisciplinary PhD and since then I have worked in marine science. Being interdisciplinary can suck. You never know enough, and sometimes you miss the gaping holes in your logic, because you just don’t know better. And there’s always someone on a panel or review board who knows the point you missed. You wind up kicking yourself when reviews come back.

In my interdisciplinary fellowship, we had a social scientist come and interview us to look into the value of networks. From what I remember, she asked the question: “Is it better to have a wide network that is shallow, or a narrow network that is deep?”. Most people in a PhD program develop a deep, narrow, discipline-specific network. But our program tried to tie people together across departments, where you may have a few contacts in multiple disciplines, wide but shallow. It turns out that now, these are the people I call for help. These are the people who expand my horizons into new and interesting areas of science. And I hope I do the same for them.

I’ve tried to ask about the results of the study we did, but haven’t found if they exist. But due to it and my experiences, I try to encourage students to work on their cohorts. In marine science, it’s inherently interdisciplinary. Students: learn to talk to each other and develop ties. Because as you move on in your career, there’s a good chance these people can help you. It’ll remove some of the exhaustion of knowing that you’ll never know enough without using option 3. We can’t all be this guy.


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