Erin Bedford (@erinellyse) is a PhD student in Nanotechnology Engineering at the University of Waterloo and the Pierre and Marie Curie University (Paris VI) in a co-supervised program. Illustrations are by Geoff Lee who is currently working at the University of Waterloo after finishing his masters degree in Electrical and Computer Engineering. He also draws for the blog Sketchy Science (Twitter).
“I am wiser than this man, for neither of us appears to know anything great and good; but he fancies he knows something, although he knows nothing; whereas I, as I do not know anything, so I do not fancy I do. In this trifling particular, then, I appear to be wiser than he, because I do not fancy I know what I do not know.”
— Plato’s Apology
A young grad student is presenting to an audience of professors, grad students, and researchers. Her voice shakes, she stares at her notes, the heavily rehearsed words pour from her lips so quickly that they’re barely able to stop at the audience members’ ears. When questions begin, she freezes: how can she possibly answer? She knows nothing.
A few years later, the young grad student thinks she has learned her lesson. She’s been studying for several years; she now considers herself to be an expert—if not the expert—in her field. When she begins to speak to a similar audience, she blasts them with jargon and convoluted explanations that few can follow. She answers questions dismissively and with little patience for those who aren’t as familiar with the field as she is. She’s the expert, she knows everything, and she wants to make sure that everyone knows it.
Hopefully, our grad student friend will one day find a balance between fearing that she doesn’t know enough and thinking that she knows everything. Underestimating what she knows can lead to impostor syndrome, while overestimating it leads her to academic arrogance. She isn’t alone—many of us find ourselves drifting between the two during our studies.
Most of us are in grad school because we’re curious. We have decided that we don’t know enough about our subject and we want to know more. Knowledge is our goal (and is, in my opinion, a worthy one!). But that’s also where the problem begins—we begin to define ourselves by how much we know.
If we think that we don’t know enough, we end up feeling as though we’re frauds, that any day now we’ll be found out. As a result, we hide so that no one will notice us and uncover our imagined shortcomings. While hiding, we avoid opportunities to grow as researchers and to expand our knowledge. It’s a no-win situation—even if we’re right and we don’t know enough (which is rarely the case), we become too frozen with fear to do anything about it!
Another case of underestimating what we know appears as devaluing what we know. Tell a graduate student nearing his defense that he’s now one of the leading experts in his field, and he’ll often give you a look of shock and confusion. We don’t realize how much of the knowledge we’ve gained is unknown to most of the world.
If we feel that we know more than what we do, or begin to overvalue what we know, we become arrogant and closed off to gaining new knowledge. We stop questioning what we’ve learned because we already know everything about it. When others question our work, we assume that it’s because either they don’t understand or are just plain wrong, rather than considering that they might have a point.
Problems with not knowing what we know also come up while communicating—in teaching, writing, or presenting. We explain things badly to our students, readers, or audience because we forget what it’s like to not know what we know. In The Sense of Style, Steven Pinker calls the problem “the curse of knowledge” and notes that while trying to put yourself in the reader’s shoes isn’t always effective, taking a step back to think about how our knowledge might be getting in the way of explaining our work to others is certainly a first step.
Socrates knew what he was talking about: knowing what we know and what we don’t know better equips us to know more. And just as Socrates used others to draw out knowledge, so can we. Continuing to openly discuss what we know and asking questions about what we don’t know lets us check our knowledge and learn more.
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