We all start out questioning the world around us. Even before we can communicate out loud, we resort to using our other senses to better understand anything and everything we can. It’s almost biological. Somewhere along the line though, whether it be by society’s erroneous design or as a result of collective, subconscious “bad habits”, we implicitly start to reel in that curiosity as we grow up. I can’t help but note that unfortunately, this is especially true in young girls, but that’s a post for a different day.
Part of why we stop asking so many questions may just be a natural extension of growing wiser—the more things we know, the less we naturally wonder about things that affect our day-to-day lives, and the more effort we have to put into finding out what we don’t know. But I think more of it is explained by our pervasive fears of being perceived as uncertain, weak, or uninformed, or disrespectful, combative, or ‘arguing’ just to ‘prove a point’.
It’s not that these fears are unfounded. You know the scenario; someone poses a question with an opposing thought or view, and you observe a reaction as if they were just told their entire value system was WRONG and they should be ASHAMED for having thought differently than anyone else. Or, they just stop talking to you.
Even one of those experiences is enough to make anyone start to wonder if maybe they should stop questioning things…
But really, we should be questioning more!
And as scientists, asking questions is already kind of our thing.
It’s not to be ‘disrespectful’, or challenge a view ‘just to be difficult’. It’s just what we’ve been taught to do in the lab/office each day. We strive to look at something objectively—that is to say, from a fact-based, measurable, and observable way—question why and how it came to be like that, and by extension, how can it then be improved.
And one our favorite questions is “Why?”
And I don’t mean like:
Question: “Why is grass green?”
Answer: “Because, chlorophyll.”
But more like:
Question: “Why is grass green?”
Answer: “Grass appears green to us because of these specialized cells in our eyes called rods and cones that can detect light reflecting off of an object. When the rays of sunlight, which contain all the colors (including those we can’t see in the ultraviolet and infrared energy range), hit the grass, a chemical molecule located in the cell walls of grass called chlorophyll absorbs the energy corresponding to blue and red light, but all the rays with energy at ~510 nanometers, corresponding with green light, are reflected and enter our eye where they’re detected on the retina by photoreceptors……and so on.
We like details. We like nuance. We constantly want to dig deeper…to understand even more with each new question.
What I've learned in grad school though, is that applying that line of thinking outside of the lab, although JUST as important, can be a bit more challenging.
Maybe it’s because, as a grad student, it’s common to feel unsure or insecure about what we think and how we feel. Our twenties and thirties are already when we start to really establish who we want to be and what we want to stand for. Add in a new home, a new school, a new lab/adviser, new friends and colleagues, and things really start to feel uncomfortable.
But, grad school is all about getting comfortable with being uncomfortable.
It's okay to be a little uncomfortable. It’s okay to question. It’s how we grow. It’s how we improve. And wanting to improve is okay too. It doesn’t automatically discount a previous way of thinking or mean that it was “wrong” in any way. Without that previous thinking, we may not have ever gotten to where we are today.
I guess what I’m trying to say is, whether you’re in grad school or not, whether you’re a scientist or not, there are always going to be people who will perceive “questioning” as disrespectful or out to prove them wrong.
If you are in grad school though, this is the time to start carving out your niche; make a name for yourself and your science. It’s so important to practice communicating what you learn--especially to those outside your field–have a discussion with opposing views, and ultimately, push our collective knowledge forward.
Never stop asking questions. And never stop asking why.
Why do we believe that? Why is it that way? Why does this lead to that?
Because once we understand the underlying reasons for what we don’t know, we can start to approach filling those knowledge gaps and move on to finding new questions.
Welcome to Think Like a Postdoc. If you're a fan of science as much as I am, and/or are curious about getting a degree in a STEM field, or pursuing an interdisciplinary graduate degree (all from the perspective of a graduate student), then you're in the right place. Think Like a Postdoc also includes posts about my current lab and field research, including analytical chemistry, Arctic biogeochemistry, and energy & environmental policy. Comments and questions are always welcomed. And please tell me what you want to hear about next!
Questions to Ask Before Choosing Grad Program
First Semester of Grad School
Field Work in Alaska
Science Conference Dos and Don'ts
Women in STEM Series
Things I've Learned in Grad School Series
Blogs I Follow
Mass Spectrometry Blog
The Grad Student Way
Anthony's Science Blog
The Thesis Whisperer
Fossils and Shit
Science Communication Breakdown
Science Communication Media
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