As I reflect on this past year, I realize how long this year felt compare to others, and that’s not to say that the year dragged on. In fact, I would say that this year has been one of the most diverse and dynamic years of grad school for me. I will spare the specifics of what my 2014 has looked like, so in this post I will touch on the idea of reflection while in grad school.
The exercise of reflection is something that I rarely do. I often find that I am too future/deadline focused that I forget to reflect, appreciate, and learn from past events.
Grad school is filled with learning opportunities, and typically not your traditional ‘acquisition of rote-knowledge’ type of learning. In fact, the learning that takes places in grad school comes in many different varieties; however, it can be tricky to consciously recognize when ‘learning’ is taking place, especially when these moments are coupled with confusion and frustration. A prime example is the learning that takes place through mistakes. Performing a lab technique 8 times before you get it right, or going through countless rounds of edits with your supervisor can be painstaking and difficult to realize that learning and personal growth are in fact occurring. In most cases, we’re focused on getting the hell away from a challenging task, not reflecting on the lesson(s) that can be taken away from the experience. However, there is a strong likelihood that you will be involved in a similar task in the future and without reflection, you miss out on a valuable learning opportunity that will guide your future work.
Further, without reflection we miss the opportunity to ask the important questions. In most facets of research, we engage in reflection when interpreting our ‘data’ (whether we consciously realize it or not). In human physiology, our expected vs. observed outcomes often do not neatly align; therefore, it is imperative that we reflect on how we collected data, who was in our sample, what extraneous factors may influence our findings, etc.
Reflecting on both your successes and failures allows you to take pride in your efforts and validates the work you put in on a daily basis. 3 lines of text on your CV do not adequately capture the amount of work that went into a project, nor does it convey the personal growth that came out of an experience. While these considerations may be secondary to an outsider, to you they positively reinforce your efforts, especially at times when your grad school journey has gone from a grind to a seemingly dead stop.
The tricky aspect of reflection is when and how we perform this task:
WHEN: Learning from mistakes and repetition is great and all, but let’s be real: there’s a good chance that your emotional state has been affected by the experience. It may be especially difficult to glean important lessons from an event when you’re in a negative mindset. Conversely, the act of reflection may be just the thing that helps pull you out of an emotional tailspin following a negative experience. Be mindful of how you respond to setbacks and experiment with the timing of your reflection.
HOW: While I am advocating for the practice of reflection, there is definitely a fine line between productive reflection and being over-analytical. Certain situations will warrant an in-depth debrief, while others may be best left alone. If the purpose of reflection is to learn from our past experiences, sometimes the best approach is to shake off a failed attempt and try again. Similar to ‘When’, How we reflect is situationally dependent and very individualistic.
Enjoy the much-needed break and don’t forget to take time to reflect on what you have accomplished so far!