When I started my Masters I remember being floored at the first few academic meetings I went to where people in my group seemed to be speaking a different language. I couldn’t even follow the conversation, let alone contribute. No one ever told me how to get up to speed, but I couldn’t believe all the people in the group were smarter than I was, so I stuck it out to figure out what was going on.
Sadly, some people might leave graduate school at this point. I wish I could warn everyone starting that this is a normal experience and that they will get up to speed – it just takes time. A friend of mine works at Google, and as part of their new employee orientation, they warn people that EVERYONE who works at Google feels like they aren’t getting up to speed fast enough in the beginning.
Mouth Shut and Ears Open
It’s probably a good policy in any new environment to not say anything and just to pay attention and learn for your first 2 or 3 months. As much as organizations talk about “hitting the ground running”, it’s far easier to misstep and offend someone early on than it is to impress them with how quickly you’re contributing. Even if someone asks your opinion, a reasonable response is “I’m still getting up to speed and learning about the group – I’m happy to hear what other people think”.
Using Vocabulary To Get Up To Speed
For my Masters work I was doing very related work within a collaborative group. This meant I had to develop an understanding of the group’s work before I could start contributing. The way I did this was to keep a notebook with me at all meetings or conversations. Whenever anyone used a term or phrase I wasn’t familiar with, I would ask for clarification – when I was talking to someone one-on-one – or write it down when I was in a group. Immediately after the meeting was over, I’d figure out what each of the words or phrases meant. If someone cited a particular work, I’d get the author and title and read the paper. As time went on, the same phrases and words kept coming up until I’d mastered the vocabulary of our research group and was able to participate in conversations based on this terminology.
I’ve often thought of the cliché interaction between 2 surgeons as they frantically debate the best course of treatment. It’s intended to convey how brilliant the two doctors are and that they’re considering issues beyond the audience’s ability to comprehend. Even in such a situation, if you had a transcript of the interaction, I’m convinced that an expert could unpack all the terminology, provide background and explain the argument in terms that the average person could understand and have an opinion on within 30 minutes or an hour.
It isn’t that the concepts are impossible to understand. It’s more that a specialized vocabulary lets them discuss the relevant issues quickly.
My father read the abstract of my Ph.D. thesis and told me he didn’t understand a single sentence from it. I certainly could have explained it to him in terms he would understand if he’d had any interest in spending the time doing so. Wisely, he didn’t. When I’ve gone to conferences with people working in my area, we’re able to have conversations based on this shared knowledge.
If I were getting up to speed in another research area, I would use this approach again. Keep my mouth shut, write down anything people talked about that I didn’t understand, and over time figure out the new field.
How did you get up to speed in your research area when you started your graduate studies? Would you do things any differently in hindsight?