You don’t have to be smart to go to grad school

Probably the majority of grad students out there, especially ones who are a few years in, would agree that you don’t have to be all that smart to go to grad school. True, you have to be good enough at taking tests to have high enough scores to get into a school in the first place, but that’s about as “smart” as you need to be.

Intelligence helps you get along, of course, but after the admission process is over, anyone can make it through grad school if they put in the effort. And there is plenty of hard work to put in. In fact, you can’t even substitute being smart for being hard working. You still have to do the work in the end in order to succeed.
 I recently saw an article floating around social media about the difference between kids who do well in math and kids who don’t. The article points out that the real difference between these two groups is the belief that hard work can lead to better performance. Simply knowing that it’s possible to get better at something through practice — increasing one’s intelligence through studying, for example — was enough to improve student performance in school.

I know from experience that it can be hard to find the motivation to work on something that I’m struggling with. When I’m trying to solve a problem and having trouble, it can be easy to just leave it and move on to something I’m better at. This is justified by the argument that I’m just playing to my skills, focusing on those things I excel at and leaving the rest to someone else who may be “naturally” better at the things I ‘m bad at.

But as I go further through grad school, I’m realizing the power of facing down hard problems and figuring out how to solve them, instead of sticking to things I’m good at. Getting better at something requires practice. This “practice makes perfect” lesson is a common one kids hear and seems obvious to me when it comes to sports or some other distinct skill. It’s a little less clear that this lesson also applies directly to the day to day problem-solving skills I need to do my work. But all skills take practice, science included. Grad school is all about spending the time to learn the skills necessary to identify and solve new problems.

Now that I’m teaching for the first time, this lesson hits even closer to home. Seeing my students struggle with the material is never fun. I am learning the material right along with them, so I know that they’re capable of learning at the pace we’re going. But I also know that in most respects I’m putting in more effort than them. I make a point of trying to foresee questions they may ask and knowing all aspects of the material I need to teach. I review it multiple times in different formats and come up with quiz questions to test their knowledge from past lessons. And then I go and present the information 3 times a week to different classes with different questions, solidifying my understanding. I don’t always know the answers right away, but I always follow up with other experts and get back to the students, closing the loop on the learning process.

My extra effort on this class means that I’m learning the material at an advanced level in real time. It’s not that I have some extra affinity for geology or some hidden passion for it. But in taking the time to really absorb it and to anticipate tricky aspects, I’m able to come away with a deeper understanding. And in the spirit of that article, I’ve made a point of emphasizing to my students that if they put in the effort, they’ll see the reward.

Taking the time to struggle through a subject almost always pays off. One of the most interesting classes I took as an undergrad was an electronics lab. It was the most intense class I took — a lab and lecture combined, with weekly homework, regular exams, and lab practicals on things I’d never even come close to doing before. I started from scratch learning all about circuits and computer hardware. A partner and I built a microcontroller. I researched and wrote a cost analysis on a campus solar array.  I even learned how to count to big numbers in binary and how to solder for the first time.

There was a ton of information to learn and a lot of new hands-on experience to get. The class was far more work than others I’d taken, but the material was so interesting. I mean, we learned Assembly Language and programmed our microcontroller to do algebra. How cool is that? One day it’s a pile of wires and resistors and the next it’s doing math. Crazy!

Not every class comes with the kind of motivation-inducing interest factor. And not everyone finds the same subjects to be interesting. But if you can will yourself to work hard of any subject, even those ones you have to take, I’ve learned that in the end is usually worth it, if only because  I retain better what I learned. One of the biggest obstacles is sticking with it through the pain of making mistakes along the way. Lots and lots of mistakes.


7 thoughts on “You don’t have to be smart to go to grad school

  1. Perseverance and Common Sense are invaluable attributes. Common Sense can’t be taught but the most creative, accomplished people have overcome difficulties thru perseverance. Well done Gail!


  2. What a well put lesson for learners of all ages to remember. Thanks, Gail. Hmm…maybe I will pick up knitting that second sock that has been waiting for 2 years….


  3. You’re a natural (and wise) teacher, Gail — from a long line of teachers, of course. Very well put, inspiring even. As for me, I may tackle second-year Algebra again.


  4. What an excellent essay on learning! If students can get over the worry of failing long enough to persevere at a subject they are having trouble with, they will succeed. Like you, I learned a lot while trying to teach some subjects, like science, as a matter of fact!


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