A student’s job is to learn, not know

by Imraan Dixon

There’s a cognitive bias called the Dunning-Kruger effect first described by two aptly named researchers, David Dunning and Justin Kruger (funny how things always line up like that, huh?). Essentially, it causes people with limited knowledge to overestimate the extent of that knowledge. Regardless of how true to life the Dunning-Kruger effect is, there is a popular interpretation of it that looks something like this:

When we’ve explored the tip of the knowledge iceberg, ignorant of what lies beneath, we assume we are more knowledgeable than we actually are. Once we are able to see into the depths and how far out of our reach it is, we realise that what we know is a but a droplet in the grand scheme of things.

Honours really gives us the freedom to search and learn about the topics we want to. Undergrad coaxed us with the gentle guide of lecture material. But Honours is conservative on that front, opting to encourage us to seek out knowledge autonomously, bounded only by our own eagerness and deadline constraints. It is through this that I’ve plummeted into the so-called “Valley of Despair”.

Aware of how little I really know, thoughts creep in. Thoughts that I’m not living up to the Honours standard. See, I wasn’t originally accepted into Honours. The only reason I made it here is because space opened up from other admittees leaving. Where does that put me amongst my peers? An off cut that was only put in the final product, because the packaging still had some free space in it…

You know what, though? That’s a bit self-centred, isn’t it? Tsk, tsk, tsk. Let’s not pretend that there aren’t people out there who feel like they are underperforming. I’m not saying there’s definitely people out there who feel like that – I speak only for me, myself, and I – but chances are that I’m not the only one with these insecurities. It makes sense, in a way. Students are integrated into labs where it’s likely that the majority of their interactions are with people on a higher level than them. They’re constantly exposed to Master’s and PhD students who are more experienced. In a way, perhaps those students start to be seen as peers regardless of the degree they hold.

What’s comforting for me to think about is that it’s okay to feel incompetent. It’s okay to feel like I don’t have it all or that I’m lacking knowledge that I assume is supposed to be basic. It’s okay if there’s some things that I can’t do with my current skillset. I’m a student. I’m not here to do. First and foremost, I’m here to learn. The practical aspect is there to facilitate this. The idea that, just because I’m a postgraduate, I’m supposed to be a full-fledged researcher swimming in grants and sleeping in sheets made up of hundreds of my published papers is absurd.

The takeaway, for me, is that I should be a lot more forgiving on myself for my gross inaptitude. Sure, I shouldn’t be complacent, but shooting myself in the foot by psychologically punishing myself like this will hamper my ability to walk forward. After all, I could very well be at the level of knowledge I’m expected to be at and I’m just looking at things through murky lens. Such a preposterous idea! But maybe I just need new glasses…

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s