RU GSE Student Blog

A Student Perspective

Ask the expert…


If you’re anything like me, you’ve found yourself thinking “I’m not an expert” at some point or another during your grad school career. Grad school has this magical way of making you feel like there’s SO much you don’t know. You’re being taught by seasoned professionals and faculty members with years of experience and learning. You’re working as graduate interns or teacher’s assistants. In every realm, you’re low (wo)man on the totem poll.

Learning is great, don’t get me wrong. I’m a firm believer in the whole lifelong learner concept. There’s always something else out there that you’ve yet to experience, learn, or understand. But, as a grad student, it’s sometimes a little too easy to fall back on the whole “I’m not an expert” argument. Instead of making a decision or taking the lead, we sit back and let our supervisors and superiors take the helm.

So, what is an expert anyway?

According to the online Merriam-Webster dictionary, an expert is:

obsolete : experienced
2 having, involving, or displaying special skill or knowledge derived from training or experience 
Hmm…obsolete? Interesting word choice. Experienced: well, that makes sense. It’s in the second part of the definition where I think the real truth lies. No where in this definition does it say you have to be the end-all, be-all, know-it-all on a given subject, which begs the question:
Then, why are we, as grad students, so afraid to be considered (dun dun dun…)


Hope you didn’t hold your breath because I don’t have an answer. I’ve been in the situation where I’ve been asked to present at a workshop or I thought about submitting a proposal for a national conference, and I hear that little voice of self-doubt in my head whispering…BUT, you’re NOT an expert…

In her blog, Sarah Santacroce suggests a way to calm that fear. She suggests that we change the word “expert” to “specialist.”

I think what scares most of us about the word “expert” is that it’s very comital. In practice, the word “expert” implies complete, full knowledge, whereas “specialist” implies a strong degree of knowledge. While the difference is subtle, I think it explains why many of us cringe at the word “expert.”

But, this is just semantics. The real issue is that grad students have a tendency to discount their knowledge and ability to convey that knowledge to others for lack of “experience,” low level of expertise, and young age. The next time you think to yourself “I’m not an expert” or “leave it to the experts,” keep the following in mind:

Expertise is Relative: You may not be the most knowledgable person in a room full of Ph.Ds, but you may be the expert among your peers. Expertise is highly situational. In some instances, you may know more than some, while in other situations, you may know less.

Expertise takes Time: Becoming an “expert” doesn’t happen overnight. It takes time and practical experience to develop expertise. Have a little patience with yourself.

Expertise is Achievable: We tend to believe the myth that the title of “expert” is reserved for a limited number of individuals. The truth is that there’s enough “expert” out there for all of us. You can do it! 

Next time you find yourself wanting to ask an expert, just look in the mirror, and ask yourself….



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