Staying kind in graduate school

Have you ever been barreling down a train of thought, only to encounter a “what?” and a blank stare from the person you thought was along for the ride? You’re always going to encounter people that have a different knowledge set than yours. I think this simple fact can sometimes be hard to remember: not everyone knows what you know. As engineers, I think we often face this.

It’s a challenge, and you can meet it in two ways. I recently encountered a knowledge mismatch situation. The knowledge mismatch wasn’t even about something technical. It was about how grad school works, how departments, labs, and years of grad students are organized. Right now, my whole life is grad school, so this lack of knowledge from my conversation partner drove me mad. I was expecting them to know what I was talking about, but was instead met with confusion.

I handled that particular conversation the wrong way. I said something sharp and snarky. Later, I had a great reflection with a fellow engineer about how to approach situations like this in the future. I realized I needed more tools for this type of situation. We agreed that the key tool to use is attitude, or we called it “head-space.” You can fall into a head-space that’s characterized by acting like “I know everything” and being dismissive. The opposing head-space is one of slowness, understanding, and kindness. When your conversation partner gives you a “what?”, you slow down. You remember to show understanding and patience.

These are two distinct mindsets that an engineering grad student could take. I present that the kindness mindset makes you a better lab mate, TA, friend, and partner. Think of it: haven’t you had a mentor or TA who took a long time to explain a concept to you? It probably made you feel empowered to keep trying new things. Evan as work and school get frustrating, even when it’s easier to be irritated, I’m trying to spend more time in a kind, compassionate head-space.

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