A Message to the Incoming PhD Class of Case Western Reserve

There are really only three things I want to tell you before you leave this room and embark on a journey to the campus bookstore where your parents will buy you a lifetime supply of university-embroidered loungewear. Three things, that’s all.

The first thing is to assume you know nothing. Better yet, from now on, whenever you have downtime, continually recite in an audible voice, “I know nothing. I know nothing.” This will draw unwanted glares, but will also remind you of a universal truth: “That real knowledge is to know the extent of one’s ignorance.” To admit you know nothing is a beautiful and humbling sentiment. When I entered graduate school, I had nearly a decade of academic research experience. My name was attached to over twenty original scientific publications and I had established a sound reputation in the world of pancreatic research. I came to graduate school assuming I knew something, only to realize, that something was relatively nothing. This realization should be used as fuel which drives your unabashed willingness to ask questions constantly and thoughtfully. Fight every instinct that tells you your pride is more important than an experience to learn. To assume you know nothing will allow you to see the world with a child’s wonderment and a scholar’s perspective.

The second thing is to find your gift, realize you love it, and pursue it viciously. This is a hard one, but let me give you a simple example. My grandfather was born at the height of the depression in the steel capital of the world. His destiny should have been to work in a combustion plant, helping to produce the world’s supply of iron-alloy. Instead, he went to a university at a time when college degrees were scarce. Following his gifts (instead of an expectation) lead him down a different path. To this day, he makes the trip every morning to his university lab where he studies earthquakes. Next year, he’ll be 90.

In some rare instances, a person’s true gift intersects seamlessly with their true love. Most of us, however, must work tirelessly at excavating ourselves; digging through our troves of talents and ambitions before we can clearly identify our undisputable gift. My point is, all of us are born with a gift, yet, most of us live our entire lives never really understanding what it is. My advice to you is keep digging. And when you find it, realize you love it (after all, some-one or –thing was nice enough to give it to you in the first place). From there, make it your life’s goal to pursue it without regret. Acting upon our gifts is the greatest insurance policy for an exciting life.

The third thing is to understand the myth of the mountain top and the reality of climbing. In 2004, I completed my first semester of college and found myself in an unfamiliar situation: I was flunking school. In my panic, I stood still. Time went by and my second semester wasn’t much better. So, I made a decision: To stop spectating, and start climbing. Inch by inch I began crawling my way to what I hoped would be the mountain top, the realization of all my dreams. Slowly but surely, opportunities came knocking. Long story short, let me just say, I’ve learned some important lessons since then. I’ve learned that the view from the bottom is overwhelming and that the hardest part of any climb is the first step. Oftentimes, it’s hard to know what that step should be or in which direction—for me, starting the climb was half the battle. I’ve also learned that in the real world no one cares where you’ve been, or how far you’ve traveled. What matters is where you are in the present and what you can contribute now.

Last March, my PhD advisor wrote me an outstanding letter of recommendation for a grant I was applying for. We had only known each other for a few months, yet the letter sounded like we were father and son. In reply, and out of gratitude, I sent him the following e-mail:

Thank you Dr. Markowitz for this tremendous letter (I’m truly flattered). Your support and encouragement mean a great deal.

To which he replied:

Hi Abe, No thanks needed, after all, now you have to live up to the letter!

I didn’t interpret his reply as a threat, but rather, an affirmation that what’s past is passed. It was also a reminder that climbing is constant. You see, there is no summit. The mountain top is a myth. The only reality is that climbing lasts forever. The sooner you can come to this realization, the easier the climbing part will be. I’d encourage all of you to find a mentor who is willing to endorse you publicly and still push you privately.

Now, before I go, I want to say something about what it means to be a student of scholarly thought. Be warned, you are entering a bubble. Inside this bubble is a world based on facts and reasoning and logic. Outside the bubble lives a post-fact world. With this white-coat, you are taking an unwritten oath to uphold the virtue of facts and dispel the nonsense of propaganda, be it scientific or otherwise. As you embark on this journey you will forever be seen as an ambassador of truth in an often fact-free world. The title of “PhD student” will indelibly make you defenders of that which is educated. Outside the bubble, you will hear people say things like, “If we evolved from monkeys, then why are there still monkeys?” You will read things like, “Vaccines cause autism.” You will listen to politicians say, “Global warming is a hoax!” From now on, when you encounter these sentiments, it is your responsibility to retaliate with truth. Your acceptance into the upper echelon of academia bares weight. Complacency to non-truths will often be viewed as an endorsement of those non-truths. As an intellectual, what you say matters—what you don’t say matters more.

So, there you have it. That’s it. You’re ready for graduate school. Oh yea, I almost forgot one last thing: call your mother. After all, she was kind enough to buy you all that university-embroidered loungewear.


Featured image courtesy of the Case Western Graduate Education Office

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