Learning is a fundamental activity for children (and for ESRs as well!)

[By: Valentina Barone]

By the time you are hired as a researcher everyone expects you to be an expert. There’s no way you would get that position if you weren’t smart enough, right? Researchers – also the early stage ones – are supposed to show a high level of expertise and trustworthiness, associated with multiple skills like initiative and independence. A self-standing person who is able to dive into the intricate ocean of science and who can return to the surface with extraordinary results to share with the mainland. It sounds so fancy and respectful to read the initials “PhD” beside someone’s name. “Yes, I must definitely own enough competence if I got to this point, as a PhD candidate I am part of an intellectual élite after all”. This is what I sometimes tell myself in one of the rare excess of self-esteem I have.

Considering the experience we have gained in order to obtain our PhD’s positions is overall exciting and satisfying, but it can turn out to be really frightening as well. “Do I really have the abilities required to be considered an expert in my field after this first year as an Early Stage Researcher of the MOTION Project?” It is easy to feel the pressure of this responsibility, it is scary to admit that our know-how is still lacking occasionally. This is why I think that sometimes it is way better to accept our limits, to recognize our everlasting condition of students and to deal with it, rather than judging our failures and comparing them with someone else’s success.

It is still extremely relevant to consider ourselves as growing minds: we are not accomplished intellects and never will be. We, as researchers and as human beings, should preserve both our openness and our curiosity towards the world around us, even when not strongly related to our specific experiments. Our species is unique in the sense that our will of learning and expand our understanding is strongly active throughout our entire lifetime. In particular I like to think of us – the Early Stage Researchers of MOTION – as the young children we are actually studying: indeed, we have already sufficient skills to explore the world and question it, to understand the others and make ourselves understood pretty well, but we still need a lot of effort to figure out the direction of our research questions, our goals and our impact on the outside world, to recognize our own self and our own role within a group of other selves and roles. In this process we make use of the same learning techniques that children use: operant conditioning, imitation, trial and errors (especially errors!).

This may not sound like rocket science, but it is something that could be as challenging. And this is why in my opinion education during a PhD is fundamental. We should never stop learning from other people and new materials. I feel so lucky to have the opportunity to actually base my entire day on learning, on trying to understand, on discovering new insights and solutions, on cursing anytime I am not able to solve a bug within a Matlab script, even on yawning after the fourth paper of the day I read.

In this regard, I find extremely relevant the choice to follow didactic courses during the completion of our Project. To some extent this can also help to take the distances from our own experimental designs, to be open to the fresh air of new knowledge and exchanges with peers and seniors.  A fundamental aspect of the PhD in the Netherlands is the educational part, we are required to get at least 30 ECTs in order to obtain our doctoral degree. Even if at first a grumble is inevitable since the effort it takes, along the way the possibility to be engaged again as a student gets really natural and also reassuring. We are still people who need help from the others and who must not hide their specific academic weaknesses. I chose to follow three summer schools at Radboud University between July and August. This may sound kind of sad: instead of playing matkot with my friends on a wonderful beach, I spent the summertime behind the desk of a cold room in the humid Dutch weather. I have to confess it was not that bad at all, I really found a sort of a regenerative power within the challenges of the intense courses I followed on time-frequency analysis and quantitative data analysis. I recovered the stressful productive rhythms of being a full-time student, the satisfaction of finally understanding something that was completely dark at the beginning, the pleasure of a final achievement, the motivation of deepening my skills once the course is over – and eventually I will have my share of warm beaches in September.

I am glad I had the chance to strengthen beyond my faith in learning and my wish of consciously doing it for the rest of my life. It is not a superpower to be a PhD student, but we can state that learning is!