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Completely Useless Advice STEM Students Hear All the Time

As I’ve hacked my way into a career and now graduate degree in STEM, I’ve picked up on a few common phrases that provide little to no insight. They’re always given, of course, in response to a question as if it will solve all your problems.

“Check the protocol.”

Is it just me or do all protocols sound like they’re assuming I know more than I already do?

“It’s in the figure.”

Scientific literature is hard enough. How scientists scan a paper, look at the pictures, and start forming opinions on the research is beyond me.

“It’s in the documentation.”

I am just now able to look at code documentation and kind of understand what the function does. When I first started coding, this exhortation was useless.

“Search the literature for X.”

What – so like, all the literature? Is that . . . possible? Is that a thing?

Turns out, yup – I’m hearing fourth and fifth year grad students casually drop “reading all the papers on such and such a topic” and I instantly contemplate how and why I got myself here.

“Have a presentation ready for next lab meeting and we’ll go over it.”

Haha right. Let me just showcase my experimental ineptitude for you and all the postdocs and upper year students and undergrads with more experience than me. This. Will. Be. Awesome.

At least I can say this gets easier with time. When a professor first told the class, “The only way to get good at reading scientific papers is to read them,” I thought it was a cop-out. Turns out, he was kind of right. At least in my field, reading them – even assessing the figures! – has gotten easier. Protocols have made more sense, and struggling with vague ones have definitely made me more aware when recording in my own lab notebook. And presentations? It’ll be fine! Half the class is asleep anyway.

You know the whole “Insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results” thing? Doesn’t apply here. After a hundred times of checking Stack Exchange, I have finally gone from “this means nothing” to “ok cool let me copy-paste” and it works.

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