After my graduation day, my friend Gabriel Tao asked me an intriguing question – “Do I feel proud of what I have accomplished or where I reach today? Research or academic wise?” It took me some moments to think through – there is something so immersed that couldn’t be wrapped into some simple adjectives, proud, happy, or excited. So here leads to this small article, writing about my honest feelings after graduation.
Gratitude and Thanks
I would admit it is an important “degree” – five years of work and struggle. While, at the same time, I recognize I have been truly lucky and privileged since the beginning of this journey.
My program was a collaboration between the University of Saskatchewan and the National Center for Atmospheric Research (NCAR) in Boulder, CO. I have been traveling across the US-Canada border for the first three years of my Ph.D. before the pandemic – usually staying in Canada from Sep to Apr, registering for courses, and spent summer in Boulder for a research internship.
So I was lucky to have “top-tier” educational and research experience from both institutes. From the USASK side, I have Dr. Yanping Li as my supervisor, Andrew, Warren, and Jay as my committee chairs, who are all experts in prairie hydrology and land models. From the NCAR side, I have closely worked with the NOAH-MP group in RAL, with Fei, Mike, and Changhai as my host. One can easily shout out – they are the Galácticos of my team – world-class researchers.
After the 2020 pandemic, my regular office route and visit to Boulder were forced to halt, but not so much the research. My work relies heavily on supercomputers, large remote clusters that can run in multiple cores parallelly. So basically what I need was just a laptop, with internet access, connecting remotely to a supercomputer, located in Cheyenne, WY, or Niagara, ON.
Yanping, my supervisor, gave me as much freedom as I could imagine. Since the beginning of work-from-home in Mar 2020, I have had very few restrictions on my research topic from her, except for a one-hour group meeting once a week.
To be honest, I, “discreetly”, moved to Calgary in 2020 Sep, and stayed there for 9 months before moving back to Saskatoon to prepare for my defense. Calgary is a bigger city close to the Canadian Rockies (Banff National Park), hence, much more fun to have if you like hiking. I had the craziest skiing season in the 2020-2021 winter, almost every other week, and the price was fair with a student discount.
With that being said, I had a really lucky Ph.D. journey, research-wise and life-wise. My supervisor wasn’t very hard on me, pushing me to do various work. Many people struggle with getting some life out of dense research, I am the opposite, trying to get some work done amidst tons of fun stuff. I dedicate my total gratitude to it.
The never-ending “rock rolling”
I had a bad time too. I returned to Saskatoon in 2020 Jan after a three-week winter vacation spent in China with my family. That was before the lockdown in Wuhan, where we started to read tragic news flowing out from there around the Chinese media. They are not taken very seriously in the western world – preventive measures were loose and people were careless about the Covid – at that time no one could imagine an ever-changing society with mask-on and work-from-home as the new norm for the next two to three years.
Once I moved my computer from the office to my bedroom and tried to adapt to this new norm, a depressed feeling stepped in. It feels like a never-ending loop – everyday morning I woke up and made coffee, had breakfast, started some meetings, had lunch, did some work in the afternoon, cooked for dinner, and watched YouTube for the night. That’s it. Though I had roommates, our conversation soon became day-to-day Hi-Bye talks.
Days with little change were trapped in a dead loop while reading news from Chinese and English Media made things worse. In China, people were concerned about the new cases and death numbers and didn’t have enough food due to the lockdown. In the U.S. and Canada, people cared about freedom threatened by Covid restrictions and protested against George Floyd’s murder. I tried not to step into the argument between collectivism and individualism, but the bad news from both sides surely would trample my heart and emotions over those periods.
Reading, particularly philosophy, saved me from the repeating loop. As the pandemic went on, Albert Camus’s book “The Plague” became phenomenal. But here I want to bring up another quote from his “The Myth of Sisyphus”:
“The gods had condemned Sisyphus to ceaselessly rolling a rock to the top of a mountain, whence the stone would fall back of its own weight. They had thought with some reason that there is no more dreadful punishment than futile and hopeless labor.”
No one living in lockdown loops could stay indifferent after reading these vivid words, describing the hopeless labor of Sisyphus. As such labor for meaningless-endless suffers, is quite a metaphor for every single “journey/task/mission/project/day” in our life. Once it finishes, reaching its top, life will fall back to the bottom “on its own weight” – Then what’s the meaning of the day I spent on debugging, the paper I wrote with no citation, the project I finished but the funding stopped, what’s the meaning of everything?
Here Sisyphus can prudentially teach us some meaning out of meaningless –
“One always finds one’s burden again. But Sisyphus teaches the higher fidelity that negates the gods and raises rocks. He too concludes that all is well. This universe henceforth without a master seems to him neither sterile nor futile. Each atom of that stone, each mineral flake of that night-filled mountain, in itself forms a world. The struggle itself toward the heights is enough to fill a man’s heart. One must imagine Sisyphus happy”
I changed my perspective to discover things in more lively detail – each “atom” and “flake” that forms each world. The whole meaning doesn’t lie in “somewhere”, what we need to do is just to reach there and grasp it – we get either happy when arriving, or anxious and depressed when get lost. The journey itself forms the meaning – doesn’t matter where you set off to reach, what matter is you keep on running.
Carried on with Sisyphus’ teaching, I finished my comprehensive exam totally from May to Jul 2020, under the peak lockdown tension in Canada. It wasn’t so bad actually, if I reflected on those times from now, at least I managed to write some paragraphs in the morning, read literature in the afternoon, run and cook after work. That was still some daily routine “loops”, but the alternative perspective from “raising rock” was enough thrilling to me.
A new journey
After my graduation, one big rock named “Ph.D.” falls to the bottom and here my new journey begins. My next job will take me from Prairies to Rockies – Boulder, a small city in Colorado. What’s interesting is that the name actually means a “big rock” – what a coincidence on raising the rock for me in the coming two years. Now, instead of questioning every meaning of everything, I may ask myself in a slightly different way – Are you “bold” enough to raise the “Boulder”? The raising itself, its stance and action, should guarantee the whole meaning of life.