Advice and What To Do With It (in Grad School and in Life)

  • November 10, 2015

By: Maria Qadri

…one person’s rose-tinted view of their own idiosyncratic story does not constitute “advice,” especially not in an endeavor where we value reproducibility.

This year’s American Society for Cell Biology Early Career Life Scientist, Vladamir Denic, wrote a brief and honest essay about his journey from average high school student to a successful Principal Investigator at a name-brand university.

What struck me about this article was Denic’s honesty about his early stubborn attitude about pursuing his personal ideas, even when the results were unfruitful, and his aversion to biochemistry during his early pursuits. Graduate students come in a spectrum of personality traits – complete insecurity stemming from Imposter Syndrome, extreme bravado stemming from a combination of youth and “Big Fish in Small Pond” Syndrome, and repulsion of particular areas of science that may stem from lack of knowledge, preconceived notions, or a poor teacher earlier on in their academic careers. In reality, all of us are troubled by personal notions of not measuring up – those of us who realize that all graduate students are failing at some aspect of their pursuits (biological pathways, required courses, some particular experimental technique) often succeed sooner than those of us that pretend we are infallible.

Denic's key point stated in both his abstract and conclusion is that we are all walking a unique path into the unknown. No two students or two faculty members experience the exact same circumstances and yield the same result. Advice must always be taken with a grain of salt and a wealth of perspective. When listening to someone about how they got to their current position, focus on their strategies instead of the minutia of how they got there. One can easily ignore perfectly good suggestions by using the unique snowflake theory – my situation is special and therefore this advice is unhelpful. Every piece of advice can be applied to your current situation IF you are open minded and think broadly enough.

And sometimes, you should walk blatantly in the opposite direction of the advice you hear to blaze your own path. As researchers we are constantly looking for the newest approach, a different use of current knowledge, and out-of-the-box techniques. If we can create knowledge in the laboratory, we can create a future that is uniquely our own.

Read Denic’s article “Advice to a young scientist (by someone who doesn’t know how to give it)” here.