One of the hardest transitions that students have to make on the way to becoming a scientist is embracing the uncertainty of what you have to do. Science is a very weird endeavor. The philosophy of science explains why a scientist can never know whether they have the correct answer to a question; one can only know if they are wrong. Moreover, science is much more about defining a question, which means that we don’t even know what the right questions to ask are. Thus, being a scientist means that not only will you not know if you have the right answer, you won’t even know if you’re asking the right question.

Embracing this ambiguity is the toughest transition that most undergraduates and beginning graduate students face. Our whole educational system is built around imparting acquired knowledge. This is an imminently reasonable proposition for an educational system. However, the acquisition of that knowledge is accomplished via a very different process than studying for an exam.

Thus, most beginning graduate students, based on their past experience, assume that somebody knows what the right answers are. They take qualifying exams with the expectation that their examiners are fishing for some correct answers. Whereas, the examiners are evaluating how the student pursues the identification and formulation of new questions, and how the student attacks the inquiry that these new questions inspire.

Science is about figuring out things you don’t know. This is the greatest hurdle to overcome for most students. How does one do that? How does one become comfortable with not knowing what is true and what questions to ask?

Students become scientists when they finally embrace this, and see their mission to try to clarify little pieces of this ambiguity.

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