The famous quote from John Muir – The mountains are calling and I must go.
A typical academic career path would be like this – after 4-6 (or longer) years of Ph.D. training, fresh grads get into postdocs, and transitional positions, until finally apply and obtain a faculty position and achieve tenure. A big surprise to the people outside the academia – this journey is actually low-paid, insecure/unstable, highly competitive (to find a faculty position), and time-consuming (long working hours).
Given so many of the downsides in this career path, why do people stay in this area? In this post, I want to write about the truly inspiring and encouraging aspects that the academic career can offer and keeps me motivated.
(A bit of disclaimer: I do admit that there are many people who may have put too much time into it and have got so used to the academic setting and become afraid to leave and find other jobs. This might be a little different for them, passively choosing this path though)
Answer to the intriguing unknowns
I am a climate researcher, and at the same time, I am an outdoor person who enjoys hiking, running, skiing, and climbing. So, I have always liked a metaphor – doing research is like hiking. For many people, the goal is to reach the top as high and enjoy the view as far and wide. What’s also important, is each step you take along this path and the people you share the journey with.
Now, let’s start this journey – let’s say the beautiful Sulphur Mountain in the Banff National Park! (A hike we did back in July)!
At the bottom of the trailhead, you feel thrilled and excited to set off – the same feeling you may have when just starting a new research project. When people are into a new and unfamiliar topic, there are so many unknowns to explore, discover and learn new things every day. Enjoy this time – it is this intriguing feeling of the unknowns that initially drives us on this journey.
In the middle – you will have of course encounter challenges – that’s where the fun begins. For example, a tree falls off and blocks the trail on your way up. You may have multiple ways to deal with this situation, perhaps can go over from the top or beneath, or find an alternative way and bypass the blocking tree, or just happens you and your teammate have the right tools, and chainsaw, to cut through the tree. With effort devoted and time spent, you are able to get across this challenge. Regardless of the method you use, the sense of satisfaction from brainstorming and problem-solving will boost morale and keep going.
Then into the later half – you may feel tired and don’t have a clear vision – you begin to question, how far is it till the end? Am I able to get there? Can I take a break? The pandemic Work-From-Home situation made it especially devastating, as we were all isolated in our rooms and house, and worked on our individual projects. This is exactly like hiking the last 3-4 miles to the top. Go take a break and talk to friends and family and your advisors – we all need help and connections with others. But remember to come back stronger – we can’t rely on others with the heavy lifting work and must deal with the final task ourselves. What made me pass through the last year of my Ph.D. is with group mates’ suggestions and the discipline that keeps me running – just like when hiking, we cheer everybody up on the way and still have to go through the final miles. “The last distance won’t gonna hike itself”.
Finally, when you reach the top – congratulations! Enjoy the moment – you want to see the splendid view from the top – think about the clear sky snowy view from the top of Sulphur Mountain in Banff National Park. However, if the weather is not good, foggy and wet, you may end up spending a lot of effort but can’t see very far at all. Don’t get disappointed – just finishing the journal already made it unforgettable and a big achievement – for the community and for yourself. Reaching the top may seem important but not the final destination, what truly matters is the process we go through along the way, which transforms us into a stronger mind and better person, and the meaningful relationship we maintain with other people.
Support the community
The second motivation is about the community spirit, core idealism, and even volunteering, in research.
A part of my research is associated with the application, development, and maintenance of a community climate model. By community, it basically means: 1 the code is open source and is accessible online through GitHub; 2 the development and maintenance of community models rely heavily on the user community, i.e. little specific funding support. That being said, it is almost volunteering work, with the credit not as financial but as reputational.
Last week, our group received a request from some users, can we provide a new model capability to read the new climate input data from the European Center (ECMWF) into our community model?
I was put in charge of this request – voluntarily more or less. Essentially, what I need to do is to write some pre-processing codes for the new climate data and a read-in capacity in our model – then it should be fine. Not difficult, but trivial.
I took three days to finish this task, longer than I planned because of some unexpected technical issue with the data format. I was frustrated when encountering problems in such community service, delaying the progress of my own research, while with little pay.
Eventually, I managed to tackle it, anyway. A strong sense of happiness and satisfaction bumped into my head. One is that it feels like training progress to my problem-solving skills and “job-done” accomplishment is absolutely joyful. On the other hand, is that thinking about other people would actually use the capability I developed – my code is actually helping others (not dead codes just sitting there) – provides a great sense of fulfillment.
Here can jump in is David Graeber’s idea of “bullshit job” – people get paid to work (or pretend to work) on meaningless jobs, jobs that they don’t like. In this way, the end of our labor is alienated to the growth of money and we become money’s slaves – it’s absolutely suffering.
On the other hand, while doing community work, nobody is “bossing” me, and I can facilitate fully my subjectivity to the most. That’s exactly the community support I wish to provide and motivate me in my research.
Becoming the Ubermensch
By the end of this post, I want to finish with the reading of Nietzche in his three metaphors, in the process transforming into the Ubermensch. This was originally a German word, whose direct translation may be Overmen, meaning humans must overcome themselves and then transcendent to something greater – that’s Overmen.
In his book Thus Spoke Zarathustra, Nietzche described three stages – a man must first be a camel, then a lion, and finally a child, until he can transcend to the Overmen.
The first stage is the camel. The camel means always saying yes to the current order, accepting the status quo, and being willing to work on what others have put upon it. The characteristics of a camel are endurance and compliance he is willing to do something, rather than sit down or waste time doing nothing. It is the first stage of the transformation, answering yes to whatever has to say to it but don’t know if or how to question the authority.
Then the second stage is the lion. In this stage, the lion already knows what he wants and dares to say no to the status quo, which is putting pressure and commitment on him. He is willing to destroy the system that’s in the way of his pursuit.
The final stage, and the most difficult to comprehend, is the child. Because after the lion, has a strong willingness to deny everything, it is still needed the power of affirming and creating. That’s what the child is good at – forgetting the past and continuing to build up new things.
Through these three stages, a human is able to transform into the Overmen. To be honest, these three stages are exactly the process from a newly admitted grad student to becoming a fully established professor in an academic track. From that students are told to do everything by their supervisors, so they know what they want and start to say no in pursue their goal, and finally, be able to establish and create. What an extraordinary journey!
To conclude, an academic career is obviously competitive and challenging. I choose to perceive it as a training and transformation process, from what I have known little about to be able to create new knowledge. Through this journey, I am also able to help others and build meaningful relationships. That’s what motivates me in an academic career.