What is research? Implicit learning during a PhD

Each spring, UCSD requires all MFA and PhD students to undergo an annual evaluation. The department and university’s graduate division make sure we’re making adequate progress toward our degree. This includes coursework, but also requires each student and advisor to reflect on progress in the last year, plus strengths and weaknesses. It’s a formality and we can get away with writing very little of substance, but for me it’s a great reminder to stop what I’m doing and reflect on the past year. What have I done well? What would I like to improve? How will I do so in the next year? This is a time to reflect on how I’ve developed as a researcher, teacher, thinker, and person.

From my progress report, May 2014, at the end of my first academic year in grad school:

I have engaged in a lot of implicit learning during my first year of graduate school. Undoubtedly, I’ve also learned a lot explicitly – the theoretical foundations for cognitive science, an overview of systems neuroscience, and how to program an experiment in Matlab are a few examples. Though more difficult to quantify and articulate, the knowledge I’ve learned implicitly may be what best characterizes the progress I’ve made this year.

I’ve had the opportunity to observe many successful cognitive scientists, ranging from grad students who are only one year ahead of me to tenured faculty and distinguished speakers. As a result of this exposure, I’ve not only learned more about the field, but have also gained a better understanding of what constitutes a good research question and solid research methods. I’ve also realized that collaboration and community are essential for conducting good research, and that sharing ideas with others, whether informally over lunch or more formally at a CRL [Center for Research on Language] talk, is beneficial to both sharer and listeners. I’ve learned when to ask for help and whom to approach with different types of questions. By doing this, the phrase “it takes a village” has taken on a new importance for me – the idea of doing research in a vat is nearly as unrealistic as expecting cognition to manifest from brain in one.

My research projects this year may best demonstrate the implicit learning I did. I only ran a few pilot studies, and I certainly have no significant findings to show for my work. However, I learned what working on a relatively nebulous (and intriguing) question entails. It includes defining a question, thinking creatively about how to investigate it, and doing exploratory work.

I wrote more, but I’ll spare my loyal readers from what I aptly referred to in this progress report as “academic soul searching.” I took a lot in that year, and it didn’t feel like I put out nearly as much. In hindsight, I’m comfortable with that investment of time to deepen my understanding of the world I was joining. Grad school is really different from undergrad.

Here’s how I summed up my first year in that same reflection: During my first year, I have recognized the importance of communities and communication for success in graduate school and academia. I still believe that communities and communication are some of the most important pillars in my grad school and professional career, so maybe all that implicit learning wasn’t quite as implicit as I believed it to be.



  1. I graduated from UCSD (Revelle College) a very long time ago, and then worked for two different bosses with UCSD backgrounds. I still miss it although if you have to leave La Jolla, Boulder, Colorado is a pretty nice place to go.

    I think that you are right to value reflection every year. I found it to be essential to growth as I moved through different stages in life. I hope that you had a good year in addition to learning, and that the new year (rich with your community affiliations) will be a great one for you.

    1. Thanks so much for this kind comment. Of course I try to reflect as often as possible, but having the mandatory exercise once a year helps. Another resource I’ve found that fosters some really productive reflection is the book Designing Your Life, by Bill Burnett & Dave Evans. There’s also a companion site if you’re interested!

      1. One of the best parts of my teaching career (having escaped years of servitude in a research lab…) was the cycle of reflection and redesign that was my summer. Hope your summer goes well.

        Thanks for the info, but I’m near the end of the journey and the days of designing my life are pretty much over; you are much nearer the launch so those resources are much more meaningful for you.

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