Thursday, April 23, 2009

Steep Learning Curve

I've heard before about the steep learning curve in graduate school. Usually people say that you learn so much in a masters program--how to write better, how to actually do analyses, how to figure stuff out on your own, etc. Usually that's why people suggest that you don't skip a masters program because if you jump right into a phd you may not be prepared to compete with fellow students getting the same degree (of course some people would have no trouble, but this is not me). And as a masters student I often feel like a moron when talking to phds in the same field. We have lab meetings all the time when the phds carry the conversation and I just sit there wondering where I missed out in my education. But, now after a year and a half I feel a little better about it. But what I've noticed more recently is the gap bewteen undergrads and masters students.

I teach ornithology students and I also took my first "stacked" class this semester. So working with undergrads has been frequent and sometimes a challenge. One side of me wants to help them out, teach them all that I know, tell them all the things I wish I knew when I was in their shoes and didn't have a clue either. But another side of me wants to strangle them sometimes. They can be so lazy and are often looking for short cuts. And they don't have a clue what a scientific journal article is or how to write something like it. But I know I used to be that undergrad. I know I tortured a few grad students when I didn't have a clue and they had to work with me on a project. And scientific writing is still difficult for me. So I vow to try and help them learn something--the way I wish someone had helped me. Of course, they need to want the help--you can't educate someone, you can only present them with the opportunity to learn. It's up to them after that.

Letting someone struggle because I struggled never really crosses my mind as a teaching strategy--although some of my mentors seem to think this is effective. I'd much rather give someone the extra help that I wish I had. But I guess sometimes its better to let people figure things out on their own. Masters students have to learn that quickly--and I still have trouble accepting this sometimes. I feel like I'm surrounded by people who already know what I don't, and that the info should be shared. But, you can't do everything for someone, or they will never learn. So its about finding a balance between doing something for someone and teaching them the steps so they can do it themselves. (I grew up in a famly where most stuff was done for me, which becomes difficult when you are 22 and can't check your oil or change a tire on your own, jeez.) I hate struggling when I know someone has the answer or solution. But sometimes getting the answer from someone is not possible. And I try to keep in mind that it will be better later on if I struggle with challenges now.

Good mentors are hard to find -- I have had a couple, but really they have been few and far between. Teaching is not one of my career goals (and certainly not my calling), but I don't mind advising and offering my experience to those who might be able to benefit from it. I hope the students that I work with know they can always ask me for help. They may not like the answer I give them, but thats just too bad. I'm still learning too. I don't know all the answers and I'm not any smarter than them--I just have a little more experience--I know what worked, and what didn't work for me. So if that helps someone, I've done my job.