Today I’m going to be writing about something I don’t normally write about: Myself. This blog is but one of many, however it is my only public blog and so I generally reserve it for things that are more externally oriented.
As an undergraduate student interested in pursing an academic career, I am heavily involved in my university research community (as far as an undergrad is able, anyway). I work in various labs conducting research, and I network with professors and graduate students alike.
However, I am beginning to realize that academia is a slightly different career than how I pictured it as a child.
I have always wanted to pursue academia. As a child and youth I was vastly, immensely curious. This curiosity was universal and extensive – I considered every career with great seriousness, from music to literature, from medical school to law school, from artist to mathematician. Being in a fortunate family situation, I found many opportunities to pursue training in anything and everything that interested me.
My mother was indispensable in this regard. She is the youngest of 8 siblings, most of whom hold some sort of advanced degree – 3 MDs, 2 PhDs. My grandfather was a music professor, and my grandmother was a teacher. Due to such maternal influences, whether my older brother and I would pursue higher education was never in question. My mother believed in academic achievement, and humored my constant barrage of requests for math tutors, physics summer camps, science fairs, creative writing workshops, academic prep classes, conversational French groups, public speaking, electronics camps – she indulged my interests in piano lessons, flute lessons, musical theory, skating, curling, horseback riding, tennis, soccer, gymnastics…the list goes on. My summers were consistently filled with some sort of educational endeavor, mostly at my own prompting.
I was allowed to pick one birthday gift per year, within reason – my mother’s default rule was (my current age) x 2 dollars as a monetary ceiling. My interests changed from year to year like the wind. One year I asked for a microscope, another year an illustrated anthology of 18th century literature. In 3rd grade I asked for an electronics breadboard and wiring, in 8th grade I asked for a small telescope, and in 10th grade I asked for a crystal construction set.
My mother found these bizarre educational requests hilarious and told me that as I got older, I should begin to consider narrowing down a career path. At first I thought she was insane! Afterall, why couldn’t I be a professional musician AND a university professor AND a chemist AND a psychologist AND a doctor? My 8 year old mind was confused and (admittedly) slightly affronted.
Yet the one thing that has remained constant from childhood to present is my unadulterated, immense lust for learning. It is insatiable, and the world of academia was a natural path on which to focus my energies. As I listened to my mother describe it to me, I thought that I had finally found a suitable path. Academia, to my childhood understanding, is the great frontier of human knowledge. The greatest intellectual challenges could be found there at the edges of human learning, and I wanted to be there! I wanted to stand there and look into the fascinating abyss of the unknown and conquer it. It was exhilarating and exciting, and I looked forward to growing up.
Then I hit university.
University was a place where I found belonging. I found people and professors and graduate students who understood my quest for knowledge. I found individuals who shared my motivations and my perspective on life. I found people I could converse with comfortably, at ease, without feeling the need to change the way I talked and the topics I talked about.
The deeper I sink my teeth into the academic world however, the more and more I found that it was less and less the ideal I imagined.
The curiosity is still there. The lust for learning is still there. The frontier of human intellect is still there, broad and dark and vast and inviting, but along with it came things that I struggle to reconcile myself with.
Because academia is not simply about this great frontier. In many ways, I am beginning to realize that the academic world is incredibly, immensely, inconceivably competitive, cutthroat, unforgiving, political, and diluted with professional bitterness and questionable allegiances. Many graduate students fight tooth and nail with their best friends for publication and single tenure positions – jealousy is rampant everywhere in every corner of its social infrastructure. I learned that, in many ways, HOW you say it and to WHOM you say it, may matter more than WHAT you say in the long run.
As a child I retreated to the library to avoid the playground politics of my age-peers – things I did not understand and, later, grew to detest. Imagine my surprise and horror when I found them rampant in what I thought was the more pure, most sacred nirvana of human knowledge.
The destructive junior high rumors, silent treatments, and verbal artillery had been replaced by departmental Monday-morning office speculation, research credit exclusions, and professional emails loaded with volatile words. The medium of attack differs considerably – PhD-holding academics can afford to be more selective and extensive with their hateful, bitter vocabulary than 10 year olds – but the political ill will remains. Best friends compete – nastily – for single professorship positions like kindergartners fighting over the last red crayon. Brilliant, talented researchers are cast aside because they are interested in controversial topics many profit-driven organizations refuse to provide funding for. Tenure is appointed via one’s curriculum vitae (CV) – the academic equivalent of a professional résume – which in turn is composed of successful publications. That being said, publication is very much a zero-sum game: competition is harsh, and the world’s researchers fight for a handful of publication slots in journals which are, in turn, published only once every 4 – 6 months. The reality is that for every successfully published paper, there is now one less slot for your own.
The strength of the scientific community is now also its most potent deterrent. Peer review is the process by which other experts in your field select papers for publication. Ideally, reviewers evaluate the strength of the research alone, however in reality, such evaluations are often peppered with personal biases, funding potential, institutional prestige, and old fashioned personal animosity.
Many graduate students fall through the cracks. The graduate and junior academic years are notoriously difficult, and graduate students have one of the highest suicide rates in the world. Most are very aware of the fact that universities/colleges also have unspoken age restrictions of tenure appointments – realistically a junior academic has only a limited number of years of which to produce research of tenure-calibre. Naturally such immense pressure often occurs at the expense of scientific integrity – it is easy to rationalize falsifying research data to oneself when one’s entire potential career is riding on a single study. Moreoever, negative results that fail to support a hypothesis in a meaningful way (ie. non-null), are rarely published.
I would hope that despite all these impurities, the light of scientific progress is still the guiding force in academia. I choose to believe that all such obstacles are inevitable but minute elements of academic research.
I do not see myself anywhere else but academia. Nowhere else could my immense, lifelong curiosity be satiated but on this frontier. Despite the harsh sea conditions and jagged landscape, I choose to believe that as I stand on this edge of human learning and look into the undiscovered sea, I will be reminded of why I am there and that persistance will pay off despite my pessimistic foresight.
I choose to believe that the one unifying element that all of academia shares is this passion for knowledge. I choose to believe that despite its human failings, the academic world is fundamentally driven by this passion. I choose to believe that, ultimately, this passion will be worth it.