Every Monday and Thursday night, I take a 15 minute train ride on the Northern Line from Liverpool Central for my biweekly tae kwon do lessons. The classes vary throughout the week: sometimes we focus on technique, sometimes we focus on strength and endurance exercises, and some weeks we do so much kicking and sparring that I can barely manage the walk back to the train station. Last week we had our last two lessons before a summer break, starting with a seemingly relaxed warm-up that led into an intense 30 minute sparring session.
During our sparring prelude, someone asked about a former class attendee who hadn’t been around for a while. Our black belt instructor Paul said that he didn’t think the student in question would ever return, and wasn’t too surprised about it, commenting that the current number of students who had taken his class versus those who had completed their black belt was similar to what he had seen at other schools, including when he earned his black belt. The black belt ‘graduation’ rate according to Paul is around 1 in 35, so of 35 students that start tae kwon do training, only one will actually earn a black belt.
Call it tae kwon do attrition or just the fact that not everyone’s cut out for the sport, but it’s no surprise that not everyone makes it to black belt stage. It’s a tough sport, as my legs can attest to after our final lesson of the summer last Thursday. But Paul’s comment also brought to mind thoughts of the parallels between training in martial arts and going for a PhD and career in research. The completion rates are a quite a bit higher for those going for a PhD (50-60% in the US and closer to 70% if you’re here in the UK), but the processes have a lot of overlap. It’s not that people going for a PhD or black belt who don’t finish are lacking in intelligence or athleticism, it’s that both processes require more than you expect at first glance. To succeed at both, you can’t just be intelligent or be physically fit: it takes additional dimensions of mental strength in order to succeed.
After writing two previous posts that focused on the connections between scientific research and tae kwon do, namely in learning how to fail and the balance between rubber and steel, I was inspired to revisit the topic and delve more deeply into the parallels between these two seemingly different activities and to focus on the aspects of both that might not be as readily apparent as the kicks and punches of tae kwon do and the papers and grants of a life as a career researcher.
Both require you to humble yourself. Regardless of how flexible, strong, or fast you are, everyone in tae kwon do starts with a white belt. The color white symbolizes a person having purity due to their lack of knowledge of the martial art, and as you progress through the colored belts towards black you gain knowledge of new techniques as well as some much-needed control of your abilities.
As you go from white belt to yellow belt to green belt, you’ll feel pretty confident. You’ll feel like you can take on anyone. But as you progress further and further, inching your way towards black belt status, you soon come to recognize how little you actually know and how much of an expert you are not. There is always a move whose execution can be further perfected, a stance that can be stronger or more elegant, and regardless of what level you’re at there will be someone in your class who’s above you in some way.
Training to become a scientist is very much the same: we start off in undergrad learning so much all at once, progressing in our classes and lessons, maybe even getting a bit of lab work under our belt. But at some point we dive into the big pond of scientific research, where we find that the world is so much bigger and that what we know is so much smaller than what we thought. We gain knowledge through school and in our research, but part of learning how to be a scientist comes from recognizing how little we know and what we can do to get to the next step.
…but both also require you to have a thick skin. Feeling like you don’t know very much is a humbling experience, but it’s also one that you have to know how to counter with confidence. In both martial arts and research, you have to balance the humbleness of recognizing your place in the world with the confidence of knowing where you stand. It’s easy to let feeling like you don’t know anything or aren’t good at something turn into you thinking that your lack of knowledge or skills will set you back permanently. Those who find success in both research and marital arts are able to walk this careful balance between humility and confidence, able to recognize where they can improve but to stand firm in the place that they are strong.
Both require good senseis. A mentor or coach is crucial for success in both martial arts and in doing a PhD because both of these processes are not easy. It’s not as simple as just progressing from white belt to black belt or from undergrad to professor: you need time and a structured environment for reflection, assessment, and a critical eye to see the flaws and strengths that you can’t. And even though both endeavors are seemingly independent activities in that it’s your belt and your research, you still need a good mentor to show you the way and to encourage you to work and learn from others in the process.
Both will help you find confidence but won’t automatically give it to you. I’ve heard a lot of parents say that they want their kids to get into martial arts because it’s an activity that builds confidence. But as someone who started white belt training as a 14 year-old shy kid who grew up to be red tag and slightly more outgoing and gregarious 28 year-old, it’s not just the sport that makes you who you are. Confidence is one of those personality traits that function best when they come from within. I greatly enjoyed tae kwon do as a kid, but found that I find the sport more enjoyable and more relaxing now that I’m more confident in myself than I was back in high school.
Both martial arts and science are great at building up the confidence in those that already have it, but you can’t start from nothing. If you’re lacking in self-confidence and then fail at something, you won’t get that boost of additional confidence you’re looking for and will find you less likely to try again, whether it’s a new sparring move or a complicated experiment. A good sensei will work on developing your confidence from within, finding where you’re most comfortable, and figuring out how to help you shine without having to rely on your results to give you the boost you need. The positive side is that if your own confidence has been boosted, you’ll feel good enough to try new things, to explore new ideas, and you won’t be as afraid to fail the next time around.
Both require you to take a lot of hits before you learn how to fight back. I spent 8 years on hiatus from tae kwon do and I came back into the sport only as a post-doc during the past two of years. Some of my muscle memories for techniques and forms stayed in place, and I’m also in better physical strength than when I started 14 years ago. But it didn’t mean that I was ready to jump back into being a black belt, since there were still quite a few places where my lack of practice and instincts were apparent. As an example, in free sparring I’ve become much better at attacking than when I first started, in conjunction with the downside that I’m still getting hit quite a lot since I didn’t build up my defenses to the same level as my attacks.
In science, there are numerous occasions when your strengths and instincts will be tested. Hard-line questions and critiques by your graduate committee, advisor, conference audience, and lab mates, and you’ll essentially be dealing with an onslaught right from the get-go. It can leave you reeling and hurt, as if you were in your own intense sparring session. But the thing I’ve learned about sparring is that even if you’re not perfect, the next time you fight you won’t get hit in the same place again. You learn (even if it has to be the hard way) what parts of your work are the weak points and what you can do to make the weak points stronger. A career in research isn’t about putting up a good fight 100% of the time or only retreating from others: it’s about knowing how to move forward but also to protect yourself and foster your ideas and work at the same time.
Both can be used to let your strengths shine, whatever they might be. One of my favorite things about martial arts is that it’s a sport that can be done by more than one type of person. Regardless of your body type, natural strength/flexibility, height, or weight, you can be good at martial arts and can get your black belt. In my class I’ve met other students who are extremely fast, flexible, strong, or just plain fearless. I’ve seen people who are good at sparring, who excel at forms and technique, or who are just brave enough to try anything crazy-and to me, they are all amazing martial artists.
I also love that in science, despite being thought of as a place where only geniuses and nerds can succeed, you meet so many kinds of people. Some are great writers, others give amazing conference presentations, and others are wonderful group leaders or efficient lab managers. You don’t have to fit a cookie cutter ideal of what a scientist is in order to be a good one. In science as in the martial arts, what’s important is fostering the strengths you have and recognizing what you need to work on and how you can better complement your skillset.
In both martial arts and in research, I somehow ended up becoming something of a jack-of-all-trades. I enjoy all aspects of both martial arts (forms, technique, flexibility, strength, sparring, and ferocity) and science (lab work, data analysis, reading, writing, meetings, and tweeting) without really excelling at one aspect or another. Sometimes I feel like I’m less skilled than others who have a more obvious specialty, whether it’s while sparring with someone who is faster than I am or when asking my lab mates to help me troubleshoot R code. But thanks to my own confidence in both parts of my life, I’ve been able to recognize that that’s just who I am and I value the way I work and live, even on the days when I come home exhausted from an intense work-out or a long day in labs. I’m thankful for the life lessons provided by both of my primary activities, and in the tough times I look ahead to days when my bruises are few and my manuscripts are many!