Learning Research Student-made

Is ignorance really bliss?

We’ve all heard the cliché “what we don’t know can’t hurt us”. Being in academia makes it all too easy for one to stay in their bubble, oblivious and unaware of what fellow colleagues are doing. This happens at any point, whether you’re just beginning your undergraduate degree, are in your final year of a PhD, or even a post doc. A colleague of mine recently told me that he wasn’t interested in knowing what other PhD students are doing. His reason for this was that he didn’t want to feel ‘bad’ about his own work. I walked away from the conversation wondering whether ignorance was really bliss? Or whether there was actually an upside to knowing where you stand in comparison to others.

Before exploring this matter, you might be wondering: how does one come to know what others around them are doing? Well, there are various ways this can be done. The easiest way is by simply having a conversation with someone – nothing fancy. This could be striking up a conversation during lunch or chatting to the people that sit around you (make sure not to disturb them when they are in their ‘work mind set’).

Another way of knowing what others around you are doing is by attending group meetings and asking questions, particularly if you are part of a research group. Attending conferences, seminars and other such talks also offer a great opportunity to learn what others are up to – professionally speaking. Now, onto the heart of the matter. What are the up- and downsides to remaining ignorant of what colleagues are doing?

Im not in the know

Remaining wilfully ignorant: maintaining the bubble

The way I see it, the main upside to not knowing what others are doing is that you have nothing to compare yourself against. Taking a cue from social media, the one thing to be learnt is that there is more to the story than what you see; and even what you’re told. Remaining wilfully blissful could mean that you are more content with what you are doing, irrespective of what others are doing. There is a bit of a fear element that keeps us from wanting to know.

The downside to this ignorance is that you don’t know what you don’t know. This makes things like learning from colleagues and others around you rather challenging because you simply don’t know what they have to offer. Conversely it also means that others might not seek help from you – which, I know, could be a good thing if you’re crazy busy at that time.

I'm listening

Peeking behind the door: bursting the bubble

The downside to knowledge/information is that you cannot un-know what you’ve come to know. You will just have to live with whatever you’ve uncovered. Being ‘in-the-know’ makes measuring oneself against other people’s outputs much easier, often without finding out the full story of how they accomplished what they’ve done. That being said, what you uncover might not be necessarily ‘bad’.

At the very least, talking to your colleagues or fellow students could foster networks that could be useful in future. However, you are more likely to find that there are struggles and hardships that you share or have shared with them. This could serve as a reminder that you’re not completely alone on this journey. Knowing how others have dealt with similar struggles could also help in facing and overcoming your own obstacles.

Another upside to knowing what your colleagues are doing is that it could put to rest any worry you might be having about whether you’re doing things ‘right’. You could even find that you are well on course, or perhaps even ahead of others. Being ‘in the know’ as a PGR student also makes exploring possible collaborations much easier.

The bottom line is that we live in an increasingly connected world where information overload is a legitimate ‘thing’. Finding out what colleagues are doing, on your own terms, means you can control the information you receive and shun the rest when you’ve ‘heard’ enough. Looking at things pragmatically, there are more upsides to knowing what colleagues are doing compared to downsides. So why not go out there and have those conversations.