No Learner an Island


“This is good,” a fellow doctoral student told me at our meeting the other day. “You are asking people for help. I should have done that.” 

One suggestion this older student gave to me was not to be afraid to contact researchers who were doing similar work to mine and ask them for feedback, too. 

Intimidated by the dog-eat-dog world of research, I would not have dared do this earlier. But, he gave me plenty of other good advice. Why not try this?

Good advice. I made an ally whom I will likely run into later in my career. Not only this, but this new contact tipped me off to something pretty obvious that I am very embarrassed I missed.

My research topic (on physician incentives and quality) has very strong relations to the research done by this year’s Nobel Prize winner in economics. 

Say what?

Even with the Internet, in 2016, it’s possible to miss out on information that won someone a Nobel prize. So ask. 

I have had no reservations with asking people for advice, feedback, criticism, etc. And why not?

No one is going to take your idea.  This is a common pushback. “If I come to someone with a new idea, they might steal it!” Yes, be prudent and find someone who can truly give you helpful feedback. Anyone who can be this helpful is going to be too busy with their own ideas to take yours.

People like to feel smart.  Go ahead. Play the “student card.” “What would you do to start out on X? Is it smart to do Y like this?” This shows your humility but also your initiative (something, not to be humble, that the older student applauded me on.)

But don’t push it. We all know the axiom about teaching a man to fish. Well, your questions should be designed to help someone teach you how to fish, not give you a fish. Example —

Teaching question: “Hello, I have an idea to write about X. Can you recommend any books on that topic?” (Indicates I accept the workload of reading the books and just need a point in the right direction.)

Giving question: “Hi, can you read this 60-page paper and tell me what you think?” (Adds lots of work to the requester — and makes less work for you.) 

No learner is an island.

This is why schools and universities exist. And, while more and more learning can occur independently, I fear recent trends swing too far toward autodidactism. 

Sure, Google exists. But it took the help of an experienced researcher to point me to what really mattered to my topic. 


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