The importance of stupidity in scientific research

About a year into my Master’s degree I stumbled across this article by Martin A. Schwartz called The Importance of stupidity in scientific research. It’s about how one needs to feel stupid in order to do successful research. Actually that’s not really true. It’s about how pushing oneself to the limits of current knowledge is bound to make you feel stupid, and as a PhD student, or future successful researcher, you need to figure out how to harness this feeling and get it to work for you.

I hadn’t read it since I first found it. But recently, when cleaning out my inbox (which is still no where near clean) I stumbled across an email where I had passed it on to some others. I opened it up and started reading it again. I mention in the original email how I really agreed with the authors arguments. And my second read through was no different. It still rings very true to me. And possibly even more so right now when I feel somewhat like I’m floundering in my program.

Sure, I know I want to be here. But I’m not sure exactly where I’m going. It’s like I’m standing on one edge of the grand canyon and on the other is my degree. I just need to figure out how to bridge the gap. And that as I gain knowledge and clarify my topic, and take the steps needed to complete my degree, I’ll slowly be building that bridge. Until I have one final hop to make – the final defense. But that’s for another discussion.

For now, back to being stupid. One of my favorite parts of the article is this anecdote:

I remember the day when Henry Taube (who won the Nobel Prize two years later) told me he didn’t know how to solve the problem I was having in his area. I was a third-year graduate student and I figured that Taube knew about 1000 times more than I did (conservative estimate). If he didn’t have the answer, nobody did.

I think it’s pretty amazing the day we have this sort of ah-ha moment when as a grad student, you realize that all your mentors don’t actually know all the answers. That they can help guide you, but that they’re also on the journey with you and making educated guesses as to the outcome. Scary, in one sense, because up to grad school, passing courses required meeting certain standards that are very clear and obviously attainable. Grad school has this bar you need to reach (or a canyon you need to cross) but there are no directions and may not even be possible. There is no single path that guarantees success. The path one grad student takes will be completely different from the next, and the next, and so on.

So next time you’re feeling stupid remind yourself that it’s okay.

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