Monday, January 15, 2018

Be Willing to Get It Wrong part 2: On the cost of being wrong as a graduate student

In my previous post, and in a video I posted last Friday, I was talking about being willing to get it wrong.  In both the video and the blog post, I assert that the cost of being wrong isn’t that big a problem, and that’s a claim that I don’t make lightly.  This post is to discuss why I believe this is true for graduate students.

Graduate students often get stuck in the writing of their dissertation, and then, as a result of being stuck, fail to produce written material to give their professors. A lot of these writers, I think, are stuck because they don’t feel their work is good enough, and perhaps even feel that they are not good enough to do good work.  One approach to this problem is to focus on how writers are often more self-critical than is best for themselves, and get stuck for this reason (a book on writing blocks argues that self-criticism is one of the big causes of writing blocks), but that focuses on the writer.

In this post, I want to focus on the context: why is it that getting it wrong isn’t that big a deal for graduate students? Why do I assert that the costs of turning in a bad work are generally low? Well, what are the costs?

Firstly, there are the emotional costs of getting negative feedback. I would argue that these are the biggest costs—the main damage from getting bad feedback is emotional. A self-critical person who receives negative feedback will quite possibly struggle a good deal due to negative feedback. This can be a big problem, but there are ways of managing your response to feedback that can help.

Beyond the emotional costs, what are the other potential impacts on a graduate student? Well, those impacts are generally constrained to the context of the university—friends and family do not, typically, even look at a graduate student’s work, so a bad work isn’t going to affect those relationships, and a non-academic employer similarly won’t care whether or not your professor liked a specific work (if your employer is paying for your education, they might care about your standing and progress in your program as a whole, but they won’t generally care about individual pieces of work). So what are some of the possible impacts:

1. Getting kicked out of your program.  This is a form of academic death, I suppose.  Realistically, it’s implausible to imagine a student getting kicked out of a graduate program for submitting an inferior piece of work. It’s plausible to imagine a student getting kicked out of a program for plagiarism, but that’s not really poor quality work (which is difficult to avoid), that’s malfeasance (which is pretty easy to avoid). And it’s pretty easy to imagine a student getting kicked out of a program for regularly turning in poor quality work—but that’s not what I’m focusing on here.  If you have turned in several pieces of inferior work over a long period of time, obviously there will be some anxiety over whether another such inferior work will cause problems, and if you’ve been previously warned that you have to improve your work or get kicked out of your program, then obviously there’s a significant potential negative impact.  But I would wager that’s a real threat to only a few students. Students are far more likely to fear getting kicked out than they are to get kicked out.

2. Damaging your relationship with a professor.  There is a real danger here, and one to take very seriously.  At the same time, I would argue that if your work does actually cause a significant negative reaction from a professor, that’s a good sign to reconsider working with that professor.  There is a world of difference between harsh yet constructive criticism and peevish complaints or ideological agendas.  The kind of professor who would give harsh but real criticism is also likely the kind of professor who will revise their views when new, improved work is submitted (again, acknowledging the different impact of repeated submission of inferior work compared to a single piece). A reasonably mature professor will not carry a grudge against a student for a single piece of poor work. The kind of professor who would be offended—who would carry a grudge—for a single inferior piece of work, is probably not the kind of professor that you really want to work with. (Granting, it’s sometimes desirable to work with professors who are emotionally difficult—but if you choose to do that, you can then manage your relationship and your emotional response to that professor by remembering that the professor’s issues are not related to you personally.)  On the whole, the cost of a single bad piece of work, then, is low. If you are a student who is dealing with writer’s block, it can be very helpful to remember the low cost of a single bad piece of work.

3. Other negative impacts. Realistically, for graduate students, there are very few other negative impacts of poor work.  Poor work could prevent getting a fellowship or grant, and that can be be distressing, but, of course, in the context of grant/fellowship applications, the rejection of a poor work is equivalent to the result of no work: you can’t let fear of rejection stop you from writing and turning in an application because the result of rejection is almost identical to the result of submitting no application at all—rejection and not applying both end in missing the opportunity. I won’t make light of the emotional impact of trying and failing, but isn’t there an almost equal burden in allowing fear of failure to stop you from trying?

Turning in low-quality work can have negative ramifications. But for graduate students, the dangers are relatively slight, particularly when compared to the dangers of letting fear of error interfere with the progress of your writing and research. Take chances, experiment, and face censure for your actions rather than fearing error, inviting paralysis, and earning censure for not having done work. For the vast majority of graduate students, the costs of getting it wrong are relatively low compared to the costs of delaying submission of a work.

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