The Most Important Lesson I Learned in Grad School

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I spent seven years in graduate school studying physics to get my PhD. You might think that the most valuable lesson I got from that experience would have been about the nature of physical reality. I was studying the positions of atoms on crystalline silicon surfaces in ultra-high vacuum, you know. Or maybe you'd think it had something to do with the advanced mathematics I had to use or just how to survive grad school.

It was none of those things, though. It was simply to acknowledge my ignorance and ask questions. Like many people, I think, I went through school pretending to know things I didn't when I encountered the boundaries of my knowledge. It was embarrassing when someone knew something that I believed I also should have known, so I just nodded my head and let them believe I understood.

In grad school, I suddenly found out that I wasn't as smart as I thought and that technique of feigning knowledge didn't work at all. Through my undergrad education, I'd always been at the top of my classes, but in grad school, for the first time in my life, I was in the bottom half. We had some guys who were absolutely brilliant. Two stand out: Glenn, the Oxford grad, and Dmitry, the Russian prodigy who'd gone through the Soviet system of being groomed for one career (physics, in his case) since his earliest days in school. My friend Mark was pretty amazing, too.

Learning to get past the pride barrier, to acknowledge that I didn't understand something, and then to ask questions was huge. It helped me immensely in grad school, and it's helped me especially in the career-shift I've undertaken in the past decade. I'm constantly learning new things about building science, as well as old things on deeper and deeper levels. I don't have all the answers, and I try not to pretend that I do when I don't.

Sometimes that pretense is not even fully conscious. I've actually convinced myself that I did understand something well enough when there was still so much more to learn about it. But then I think of my grad school friend Steve, who asked in class one day, "What is temperature?" I thought I knew that, but I had only a superficial understanding. The question, What does that mean?, can take you pretty far down the rabbit hole.

Are you asking enough questions?




Photo by Marco Bellucci from, used under a Creative Commons license.


Christopher Cadwell
Sep 28 2011 - 9:36am

I have to concede with you. 
It is not what we "don't know" that prevents us from all becoming savants.  
It is what we "do know" that causes the problems. It is a very deep subject that goes even deeper than just a slight air of aristocracy. 
It is also part of a natural learning axiom that we first know about something, and feel highly confident we know it, and eventually we discover that we "dont know" it, through a failure, or other means. That is the point where we decide to really learn, or leave at failure. Hopefully we work at it and graduate up to true knowledge. 
Hmm, you just inspired an idea in me. 
Always a pleasure.

Sep 28 2011 - 9:37am

You're awesome.

M. Johnson
Sep 28 2011 - 9:45am

If you would let me be presumptious enough to suggest a question to ask, there is one which I think illuminates a lot of things in Building Science: 
There are many many rules in Building Science and if you really understand the principles you will be able to elaborate on the answer to the above question, for any given rule. When the answer is bogus, you can tell that improvement is needed in knowledge. Particularly valuable for when people think they know something and it just isn't so. 
Things as simple as AC sizing can be better understood using this question.  
For example, people used to believe a too-big AC uses an excess of energy (KWH). A study by FSEC attempted to define right-sizing as an energy saving project, and demonstrated zero or negative results. The conventional wisdom may have been true at one time, but in the modern world just isn't so. At least not within the demands of provability.

Walter Stachowicz
Sep 28 2011 - 12:05pm

The bigger question is - who do we ask? There are so many differing opinions out there, from educated people, that it's hard to determine who is right. Even Einstein is being questioned. (Those pesky neutrinos!) At the 1964 World's Fair (yes, I'm dating myself) I saw the "Better Living Through Chemistry" exhibit. What actually appeared in our future were DDT, PCB's, CFC's, thalidomide and hexachlorophene. My high school teachers told me that there were only 108 elements. My doctor told me that ulcers were caused by stress. They were all wrong. So who do we trust?  
JPL recently announced that ocean levels have DROPPED 1/4". Henrik Svensmark's theory on solar activity had been dismissed by a great number of scientists, but recent experimants at CERN have shown his premise to be sound. So is man-made global climate change just a myth, also? 
Yes, we have to ask questions. But be careful who you ask.

Sue Firpo
Sep 28 2011 - 1:40pm

Geez.. I've been struggling with a phenomena for months with my 11 year old. I'm trying to teach him that to admit that you don't understand something is an opportunity to learn something really cool. He has been afraid to ask questions because (to him) the act of asking, makes him seem less smart than he perceives himself to be. It's painful to observe and he's only in the 6th grade. Is it just part of our social fabric? No one wants to be wrong? Or everyone wants to be right? I do believe that part of the problem is his confidence in that he thinks he knows. And when the perimeter of that knowledge is reached, he wants to put up a wall rather than letting those boundaries of his knowledge expand. Thanks for the post. It's sort of nice to know that we're not the only ones...

christopher cadwell
Sep 28 2011 - 3:32pm

There are some talks about education on the TED channel on itunes, and one the great thinkers of our times has pointed out that our current educational system is the biggest part of the problem. 
We are rewarded for being right, and penalized for being wrong.  
The position that he holds is that we really learn at the point that we realize we are wrong.  
Our educational system focuses students attention on prescribed rightness's. This distracts students and pigeon holes them to that prescription and if they are wrong on that they are penalized. 
A modern contention is to allow the student to be creative and allow them to be wrong. That students should learn from others mistakes, and cherish those mistakes as keys to success. 
I will blog more about this someday soon.

Michae Stubbs
Sep 29 2011 - 10:02am

I agree with having to ask questions when your not sure of a subject, but what do you do when the person teaching the class is telling maybe I will have some time later this week etc. My son is dealing with this in school right now and with no other options since this is the only instructor teaching the course. It use to be fun to learn and we use to have teachers who really cared about teaching. I can't get over the fact that I'm paying for this and so is my son.

Sep 30 2011 - 8:47am

As a young person starting out in this field, asking questions about everything is pretty much all I do. Which I usually think is good--a lesson I also learned from my physics background especially as a physics tutor, where "pretending you know to avoid looking stupid" pretty much doesn't fly--sometimes the reinforcement that even the pros don't get to the point where they know enough to stop asking is a helpful reminder. Thanks Allison!

Allison Bailes
Sep 30 2011 - 3:19pm

Thanks for all the great comments! Sorry I don't have time to respond individually to them this time, but I appreciate your taking the time to let me know your thoughts on this.

Mike Legge
Oct 9 2011 - 2:23am

Great article!The flip side of this approach is when someone emphatically says you should never, never ever, do so and so. This means that he/she has made just that mistake and wishes to mollify his/her former errors to themselves. This is why experience is the name we give our mistakes. Cheers Mike Legge

Steve Byers
Oct 17 2011 - 9:35am

And it isn't binary; right vs wrong. There's also simply not knowing.

Dale Sherman
Sep 27 2012 - 8:19pm

Well said, Allison. Exploring the edges of one's knowledge is what makes learning so interesting. The more I push into the gray area of my gray matter, the more I learn what I don't know.  
Even more than knowing whether one is right or wrong, it's knowing WHY one is right or wrong. The real learning for me happens when I'm wrong but then figure out why.  
Of course, there was that one time when I thought I was wrong, but I was right. I still don't know why, though...