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Career tip: You never know enough October 3, 2010

Posted by fetzthechemist in Uncategorized.
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There are several early phases in a chemist’s career: schooling through undergrad, grad school, post-doc, young “independent” chemist, and so on. The first of schooling through a bachelor’s degree (or the equivalent) is a period of gathering facts and then regurgitating them back on tests. The more facts you know and can connect into concepts, the more you accurately put in the correct answer space on exams. It is not too much more than that on the average.

Grad school’s first year or so is basically the same. You take classes and you study for cumulative exams and spew out your accumulated knowledge. The difference is that at this level you learn sources, the scientific literature, that are part of building to the next level of competence. You learn about the key books and journals in various fields. But the knowledge is read, stored, brought out to answer the appropriate question. Still the same.

But grad school changes as you get into your research program and often also you must come up with some independent research proposal. These two areas start the transition into taking facts and concepts and extending them into new, undefined areas. Thinking starts to differentiate people. Those who can extrapolate do well. But one type of learning that must be done in this phase is also to get away from the idea created over almost twenty years of education that learning more facts is the key to success. In fact, at this stage you ought to start understanding that nobody knows very many facts (on an absolute scale) and that the fact database is always increasing.

You never can rely solely on just learning facts. First, it lacks the creative spark that gives new science and it also is a never-ending impossible task in itself. Yes, to be current you must learn to keep learning. A degree is not the end of schooling and learning. It just metamorphoses into internal homeschooling – you have to keep teaching yourself…..or you become obsolete.

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