Thoughts for a New Semester: A Trick of Perspective

And so it is we’ve found ourselves again in the last week of classes for the Winter semester, which means that, although grad school is a year-round affair, the comparative lull called Summer is upon us. The current weather suggests that effecting a jump from Winter straight to Summer is a bit idealistic, but I’m told that hope is a virtue, after all. I was eying the menu of topics we’ve laid out for you here at Gradifying, and thinking that what with the change of season, it’s coming time to pay some attention to “New Students.” Soon there’ll be another new cohort navigating the same changeable waters as us. What that consideration made me realize is that it can be all too easy to suppose that most folks you meet are more or less in the same boat, more or less on the same page; and I’m not just referring to the effects of being in the so-called University bubble. I just learned (thanks, Dr. M, if you happen to be reading this) that there’s a name for the phenomenon I’ve been trying to put my finger on for ages: the Dunning-Kruger Effect. (Don’t you just love it when there turns out to be an extant shorthand to elegantly capture the sense you’ve been struggling to define? Wait a minute…is there a word for that?) The Dunning-Kruger Effect names a cognitive bias with two sides. On the one side is the observation made by psychologists Dunning and Kruger that unskilled individuals tend to “suffer from illusory superiority, mistakenly rating their ability much higher than average.” (If you clicked the link above, you’ll notice that the quotation I just offered comes from Wikipedia. That’s right. It’s truly 2013.) But the other side of the bias, the side that interests me here, is that “actual competence may weaken self-confidence, as competent individuals may falsely assume that others have an equivalent understanding” (emphasis mine). For an audience that needs annual workshops to overcome “the impostor syndrome,” (see Atif’s earlier post) surely this is worth thinking about.

So where am I going with this? On a well-worn path toward a comment about the importance of perspective. Twenty-one years deep in formal schooling, eight years into a university education, and four years into graduate school, here’s the advice that I would offer to a younger me, just entering a grad program: don’t lose sight of the specificity of the unique skill set you’ve acquired – the trainables that took you years of gradual accumulation to develop as well as the untrainables for which you’ve only got the experimental mind of mother nature to thank. Your charitable reading of the world might suggest the outlook that “well, given the time or inclination, anyone could do what I do,” but the reality is that you are invariably one of the few who actually took the time and has the inclination. Don’t be so shy about broadcasting to others what you can offer them; it’s not an imposition, it’s an invitation. Did you read the word “few” above and think the knee-jerk thought that “yeah right, the market is already saturated and academics are a dime a dozen”? Yes, there are others researching in your area, but the last thing that means is that it’s all been done before. A critical mass of researchers giving attention to some area is a desirable thing. They form your intellectual community.

So when the year 2013 ups its technological game beyond the mere glut of information offered by Wikipedia to match what The Jetsons and Back to the Future offered me as a child – namely, hovercars and time travel – I’m going to drive my hovercar right up to my past self and tell her about the Dunning-Kruger Effect. For now, I’ll just tag the “New Students” category and get back to work, a little less sceptical of my own arguments.

Posted in New Students
One comment on “Thoughts for a New Semester: A Trick of Perspective
  1. Colette says:

    Way to go Sharday. Great way to put into perspective without using the ‘panic” word.

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