The Learning Curve

The Learning Curve
By Sean Lee
May 04, 2015

[3 years ago] How to get a research visa take one:


“Hi there! How are you doing today? I’m very sorry to bother you but my name is Sean and I’m just calling to check on the status of my visa application that I submitted a few hours ago. I understand there is a three-day processing time but I just wanted to check on—”


“Hello? Hello? Helloooo?”

[2 years ago] How to get a research visa take two:

“What do you mean ‘there is no guarantee?’ Can’t you just check to make sure?”

“There is no guarantee. Come back on Tuesday.”

“But I’m leaving next Sunday and I need to know NOW if I will be approved for this visa!”

“Come back on Tuesday.”

“I’m trying to tell you—”

“There is no guarantee.”


“Come back on Tuesday.”

[This afternoon] Take three:

“Here is my visa application. I’ll be back in three days.”

Not everything takes me this many years to get the hang of. Granted, learning how to best deal with an exasperating expatriate embassy employee who has completely different cultural norms than you and happens to hold the fate of your dissertation research in the palm of their hand is akin to a fine art. But the three-step process is often the same. It generally goes something like:

Step 1: Naivety.


Step 3: Complete understanding.

Everyone learns things in their own way, but this process has been especially relevant for me as I close out my first year of graduate school. For some things, you have a bit more time to learn, like how to avoid writing incessantly long emails to your exceedingly accommodating advisors. Other things, however, require far more urgent understanding, like respect for your colleagues, appropriate professional conduct, and the importance of being a good teacher. I am happy to have learned many of these things this year, largely due to the resources that my graduate program provides. Here at CASHP, these values are prioritized just as much as our scientific education. Many academics sadly never receive this training, so I have found it worthwhile to take a moment to reflect on some of the things I learned this year.

For instance, there is not much room for committing “Step 1: Naivety” when teaching college students. It is all too common for academics to brush off teaching responsibilities and come to class ill-prepared, treating the duty frivolously and forgetting that paying students are the reason why we have jobs. But these students rely on us as teaching assistants and professors to take this responsibility seriously and to do what it takes to help them learn. I am glad to have begun my teaching experience in this first year so I could develop this understanding early.

Also, it is never acceptable to verbally exhibit “Step 2: Frustration” when working on projects with peers. It happens, but it shouldn’t. And when it does, you should learn from it. At CASHP, first- and second-year students engage in a seminar in which we all work together on a research project for an entire semester. The priority is not to learn how to do a research project per se, but how to do a research project collaboratively. I am glad to have done this because there is really only one way to learn how to work collaboratively, and that’s to do it.

Lastly, there is no room for ever believing you have reached “Step 3: Complete understanding”. It’s far too easy to retract into your comfort zone in grad school, but it’s important to try new things and adopt different perspectives. The diverse array of events, journal clubs, and other activities that we as CASHP students are required to participate in really keeps us on our toes and prevents us from falling into a monotonous, un-stimulating grad school regime. Being in this active and dynamic graduate community has helped me to think a bit differently each day—and to be wary when I don’t. After all, we are scientists here at CASHP, and what, if anything, are we better at than continuously questioning how something is done?

So whether it’s figuring out the bureaucracy behind obtaining a visa or a new way to explain a difficult concept to your students, we should all think about what it is we have and have yet to learn.