A Surprising Thing About Graduate School

Before I came to graduate school, I had this grand picture.  Here was an institute dedicated to the advancement of science and knowledge.  Researchers fervently working on the fringe of human knowledge in their particular subject matter.  Every topic somehow contributing to this grand scheme called human progress.

It’s funny how we like to idealize things that we know nothing about.

Don’t get me wrong though, there are tons of smart people working on tons of really interesting and important problems.  But there is definitely one thing I did not expect when I came to graduate school: the enormous amount of writing I would have to do (at least from the point of view of an engineering undergraduate).

One of the primary reasons why I came to graduate school is to work on interesting problems.  And I get to do that on every research project I work on.  The only thing I didn’t really think about is what happens after I come up with and implement a solution to that problem.  The answer (which in hindsight I should have thought about) is that you have to share it; communicate it; or in other words, write it out in a painstakingly clear prose so that semi-experts can understand it (and think it’s useful).  It turns out the last part is a necessary condition to be a good researcher (it’s obvious if you think about it).  So what does this fact have to do with me and graduate school?  It means I have to write a lot — something that most new graduates don’t think about.

Come to think of it though, maybe it’s best that young budding minds excited about doing new and innovative research don’t get told about this.  I mean, what would happen if grad. school’s tag line was: “Research: it’s about communication, stupid!”  It turns out though, writing (and communication in general) is very important to your overall success.  In fact, it may be even more useful to your individual success than your actual research project!  So while most don’t like writing, the end result of writing paper after paper is that you get good at it.  And even start to like it a bit.

So while I still grumble at the thought of having to write yet another paper, I guess I’m always working on some challenging problem whether that be the actual research, or figuring out how to present it effectively.  In the end, grad. school is close to what I thought it would be: working on interesting problems, except with a lot more writing.