Lessons Learned in Graduate School vol. 2

What do people think of you? When should you speak up?

Graduate school is a unique opportunity to take high risks, make mistakes, and become keenly aware of your career mortality. It’s often exciting to make mistakes in graduate school, because the personality types in grad school love to discover the rules and boundaries that make the environment tick. But mistakes that pile up, or are made more than once, can have detrimental effects on a graduate student. This can represent incompetence, lack of attention to detail, and overall ineptitude. Therefore a graduate student must take special care in their means of communication. It’s all about communication in graduate school. Whether it’s communication of your understanding of learning material (through papers, homework assignments, exams), email transactions between department staff, or interpersonal relationships at work or at home, much attention must be made to the quality of that communication.

Sometimes, perception is reality

It is essential to seek feedback (quality advice or criticism) from mentors and managers about performance. Getting feedback is a unique opportunity to learn about how others perceive you. I’ve been told by a supervisor that sometimes “perception is reality.” That was such significant advice. I learned at a young engineer age that whether or not you’re working hard, if you give off the impression of a lack of professionalism, you will be perceived as unprofessional. If you don’t put effort into the details of your punctuality, attitude, or even clothing (these are a few of countless examples), the perception of you will suffer. And that perception of you, regardless of whether or not it’s true, may become an unfortunate reality.

The point? Consider the details involved in all practical components of your work routine. Strive to be the best version of yourself and deliver your best face to the world. Listen for feedback, good or bad, and make slight adjustments. If you are getting complimented, you’re heading in the right direction.

A perfectly good opportunity to stop talking

It is often quoted (sometimes, too often), in some variation or another, that “it is better to be thought a fool and remain silent than to speak and remove all doubt.”  The engineer follows this lesson well in the classroom. However, when we need to speak on significant matters, our meaning can fall apart because we may have trouble communicating. Classrooms should be considered a safe haven for the exchange of thought, but engineers cringe at the first opportunity to speak. Or when they do inevitably shoot, their lone misfire will encourage them to keep quiet next time! What is the experience of the engineer in the classroom? A wrong answer gets demolished (and it could have been close) and the student is often publicly embarrassed by a professor’s bewilderment at the response. When a professor asks a question of the class, they are looking for an exact answer. There is no gray area like in other subjects. It’s unfortunate, and I hope to conduct a classroom one day where everyone feels comfortable to speak freely. Oddly enough, the engineering student keeps very quiet in classrooms, but do they exercise that same level of caution with their other daily communication?

There are plenty of situations in graduate school where a careful choice of words is best. Never speak to offend. Always consider being your nicest to everyone regardless of the situation. Don’t write stuff on the internet that is negative (that may come back to destroy you and you may never even know how). Generally, approach life with such congeniality that it would make your parents (and advisor?) proud. Why? Because rotten things said lead to a rotten perception of you. Regardless if you think you are a master of dry wit or sarcasm, it is a language poorly understood in the professional world. It is not welcome.

This reality needs to be taken seriously. As an example, I’ve considered myself to be a very kind person. I just love working with people and I love seeing young Americans develop into productive members of society. I volunteer for STEM projects far more than I should and I care so much about the development of STEM education. Big deal. If you say something negative in an email or a web post, you’ve done well to alienate yourself. It’s hard to repair the damage done by poorly chosen words. If you’re fuming (because graduate school is a very flexible yet stressful lifestyle), realize that it’s probably a perfect opportunity to stop talking. You’ll be fine. There will be lots of stress, but watch what you say because your words are documented online or in the minds of those around you.

Unfortunately, my advice to this point does not allow you to go very far as a communicator. Knowing when to speak up and how to use your words effectively is an art and science. You only get better at art or science by practicing (making mistakes). There are a lot of considerations that must be made quickly before speaking such that you can have maximum impact with your words. An efficient communicator will say more with less. Experiment with your communication and speak up often, and learn from the reactions of your peers, mentors, and others. Loosen up in the classroom. It’s a painful process, but a good communicator will have a much easier time developing a strong career.

Small steps to self-improvement

Graduate school is making me a better person. I needed more time to mature and develop into who I’ve envisioned. I love the idea of self-refinement, but there are certain environments that facilitate that growth best. I’ve found that graduate school is an opportunity to see my boundaries. I see what happens when my stress takes me to my limits. I can be a mess. But it could have been worse. I could have made a huge mistake, said something inappropriate (even inadvertently) and lost a million dollar contract in the field. My mistakes could have been more costly. Graduate school has given me the opportunity to learn from those mistakes, develop a philosophy for how I’ll handle high stress situations in the future, and come back even stronger. It continues to have a powerful impact on my life and how I conduct myself professionally.

Wrap-up

Remember to put your best face on every day. At times it may be a significant struggle, but you’re in control of more than you think.

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