Choosing learning over knowing

Is academia about having the right answers to problems? Emily Larson argues that it's the process of getting there that's important.
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I think and talk a lot about education with friends and colleagues– what it means to us, what our experiences were, how current higher education looks in comparison to our own experiences, etc. Making decisions about your personal educational or academic path is tricky and not always obvious, especially in a time where it really seems more like an expectation rather than a personal choice to go to university or obtain some form of higher education.

I was a pretty standard over-achiever as a kid, and my less-than-great high school experience really put this behavior into over-drive. I saw college not only as something that was expected of me, but also as a way out of a peer environment that I didn’t feel comfortable in. I also had the privilege of having parents who had been to university and graduate school. But for better or worse, I have always been interested in learning and invested in the thought of being a smart, responsible human. This last point influenced my decision-making as I found my way through high school and manifested in different ways during college, graduate school, and other aspects of my life.

I am currently a postdoctoral researcher at the University of Glasgow; it’s just short of 20 years since I graduated high school and attended college, and 10 years since I made the decision to apply for graduate school. With this distance, I’d like to share just a few things with those who are thinking about entering academia – including thinking about graduate school – that might help in finding the right match for your best learning environment.

What do you like talking to other people about?

I used to joke that I went to a liberal arts college so that I would be interesting at cocktail parties. I wanted to know a little about a lot of things. When I was researching undergraduate colleges I already knew I wanted to study biology, but I had a hard time with the idea that if I attended a technical institute or a university with strict study programs, I would lose the opportunity to study other topics. I wanted to prepare myself for graduate school but didn’t want to lose the chance to take courses outside of biology, so I tried to find a school that would encourage me to do both. This also meant that other students would be encouraged to study outside of their main interest, which would make my science courses more dynamic. I wanted to engage with students who were studying outside of my area so I could talk not only about science, but also about literature, art, and music. As a kid, I found learning an instrument helped me understand math better and I wanted to have similar “Eureka!” opportunities in college by being able to study broadly. This perspective has served me well in planning my scientific career. I have been able to apply my basic science education to my work in multiple model systems throughout my research – first in my undergraduate projects using the algae species, Chlamydomonas reinhardtii, then working in the biomedical field as a technician, and finally focusing on cell biology using the plant model system, Arabidopsis.

What kind of learning environment suits you?

I was a good student in primary and secondary school because I was good at following directions and over-prepared for exams….mostly. As I started thinking about college, I came to realize that I really didn’t like learning this way – if I was learning at all. If I got an A, I was doing fine. If I got a B, I could do better. But how did this really evaluate what I had learned or how I was using this knowledge? Exams were extremely stressful for me and rote memorization was frustrating. As I toured college campuses, the larger universities that had huge lecture halls clearly stood out as a continuation of the type of education practices I wanted to avoid. Smaller colleges with class sizes that promoted more student participation were outside of my comfort zone, but I knew this would challenge me to take more responsibility for my education and how/what I was learning. This appealed to me – it was scary but I wanted to share accountability for my education. When I toured Bennington College, I sat in on a genetics class where students were up writing on the board with the professor, other students were helping each other. It was chaotic and beautiful. It was exactly the scholastic format that I knew would challenge me to be a better learner.

I used similar parameters for evaluating graduate study programs as well. I chose the Cellular Molecular and Biomedical Science program at the University of Vermont because it was a broad study program that was relatively small and focused on the fundamentals of cell biology. The CMB program stressed conceptual learning, which felt similar to all the things I had looked for and liked about my previous academic experience.

What is your plan after graduating?

This is the dreaded question every student gets from family, whether you are an undergrad or postgrad. The answer will also be different for those about to earn their bachelors vs. a higher or terminal degree. After undergrad, I wanted to be able to know enough to be flexible. I also wanted to feel confident in getting an entry-level job in my field of interest. While this was relatively easy for me back in the early 2000s, it’s becoming harder to find employment in the current economic landscape and thinking about this in general terms can help focus your university choice. For example, do the programs or schools you’re interested in have internship or work-term opportunities? Can you get on-the-job style experiences outside of lab classes, which let’s face it, aren’t at all the same as working in an actual lab. Does the graduate program have teaching or grant writing training? Do the faculty have industry connections? What have former students gone on to do after graduation?

If you have an idea of what you might want to pursue after school, find people who are actually doing that and ask them for advice about the academic choices you are in the process of making. If you’re thinking about studying science, email a professor at a local university (or at the universities you’re thinking about applying to) and ask them for their advice. What do they look for in students, do they take interns, what did they struggle with the most as a student? Academia may be an ivory tower but it’s not a vacuum. Take the initiative and think creatively about where you can get useful information to help you make some of your scholastic decisions.

If I’m honest, graduate school was a much more traditional education process compared to my undergrad. I attended classes that were mostly PowerPoint lectures, and suffered through multiple-choice exams that required a lot of memorization than the courses I took as an undergrad. I also had to maintain an acceptable grade point average to stay in the program, which caused some backsliding into equating knowledge with a grade point and my personal learning style suffered from this. But I had chosen a graduate program made up of students and faculty who I really enjoyed talking to, and the CMB program at the University of Vermont was small, diverse, and friendly. I tried hard to gain experience that would help me with my future goals, which meant having opportunities to engage with undergraduates in different ways, mentor interns, attend conferences, and do the majority of my own writing.

In my opinion, participating in academia is much more enjoyable and personally fulfilling when you can focus on growing as a person rather than solely as a professional. For those of us who were lucky enough to be encouraged to explore during undergrad, this is where we lay the foundation for our personal scholarship. Forget the grades and think about where you will be able to learn how to learn.

Emily R LarsonEmily R Larson is a postdoctoral researcher at the University of Glasgow, UK, studying the molecular mechanisms of vesicle trafficking in Arabidopis thaliana. You can follow her on Twitter @erlarson_phd.


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