As I mentioned in a previous post, I’ve been a graduate student for four years, now starting my fifth. And as a result, I’ve reached a kind of informal, gray-haired milestone where I want to share everything I’ve learned with the younger generation. So gather ‘round, children, because I’m about to impart some “wisdom” (that last word notably accompanied by quotation marks).
I was recently asked the following: What’s the single greatest piece of advice you wish you had known when you started graduate school? It’s a pretty standard question—the “where do you see yourself in five years” of career reflection—but one I didn’t immediately know how to answer.
After thinking about it, I would say that the biggest thing I’ve learned is this: Not all information is created equal. It’s a simple realization, I think, but one that has played a significant role in shaping both my current trajectory through graduate school and my future career ambitions.
I should point out that the statement “not all information is created equal” is inherently prejudicial, asserting that some information is worth more than others. And I know it sounds antithetical when spoken at an institution of higher learning. We should value all information equally, right? When it comes to education, shouldn’t we take the Vegas buffet approach—to loosen our belts and scoop as much onto our plates as possible?
Maybe. But in my experience, to continue the tortured metaphor, we can’t pretend like quinoa salad provides the same nutritional value as chicken nuggets. Graduate school is an opportunity to acquire a Neeson-esque “very particular set of skills” in which the information we learn helps us achieve an objective: to make a difference in the world as well-trained scientists. Other information might be useful, sure, but it should be jettisoned if it ultimately distracts from this objective.
And while this might sound overly Darwinian, remember that graduate school is an apprenticeship for a future career, not an indiscriminate, multi-year bombardment of scientific facts. Our time in graduate school should be laser-focused, and we should be very selective in the projects we undertake. We should ensure that our thirst for knowledge be satisfied with a straw, not a fire hose.
Not every student will travel the same path, of course. But every student should follow some path from the very beginning, one that they themselves have constructed. We should avoid wandering aimlessly or, worse, succumbing to external pressures and marching toward something we find uninteresting or unfulfilling.
Remember, this is your education. You’re allowed, even encouraged, to be prejudicial about the kinds of information you learn. Because trust me, even though I’m still a student of biology, eating a diet of only chicken nuggets can’t be good for you.