Intellectual Curiosity

I had an interesting discussion with a friend and fellow graduate student the other day on intellectual curiosity. I was explaining to my friend about an idea I have for graduate students to participate in a weekly work in progress talk where one or two graduate students would talk each week about their current research.

I was saying that I wasn’t sure it would work in my department because people only usually go to talks that interest them, and those are usually only talks that are closely related to their own research (well, and talks given by friends). It also doesn’t help that you often only hear about talks within your research interests. I said I thought it was kind of sad that I don’t know what most people in my department are doing. And to be completely honest, I can’t tell you exactly what most of my friends are researching outside of their given research area.

This brought up a discussion about intellectual curiosity, and how we (graduate students) would all benefit from having more of this. That we should want to go and hear talks, even if they aren’t directly on our research. That we should be interested in what others are doing, since you never know if it may somehow overlap with your research or that of a friend. It should be our duty to help connect people we know with others we know working on related research.

Yet, I’ll be the first to admit then I pass on talks that aren’t related to my research or interests. If it sounds like it’s going to be over my head or boring, I won’t go. And I’ll also be the first to admit that this is a terrible strategy. One of the biggest perks of graduate school is having these years to explore your given field. And so we should be grasping every opportunity we can – and exploring both in depth and breadth.

The depth is easily covered within our specific research topic. If you’re doing a good job, you should be close to (if not) an expert in your area by the time you finish a PhD. But breadth can be much harder to come by. Some schools try to encourage this by having students write comprehensives or quals. They figure if a student studies really hard for a test that “covers everything” the student now has the breadth knowledge needed.

I won’t go into an argument right now on why I don’t really agree with that, but I will say that attending talks within your department no matter how far they are from your own research can only benefit you as a researcher. You’ll walk away with your degree and a much better understanding of your field as a whole. And hey, you may find another area of research that you’ll love even more.

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