Dear Humans: you're doing it wrong, part I

Yet another thread of not-entirely-disconnected thoughts on the current state of affairs. This post (and any eventually forthcoming in this series) should not be taken as set in stone; some points are up not only for discussion, but also for a possible rewriting. Still, to paraphrase Pullman: no one has the right to read this blog without being offended.
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An article on the Süddeutsche Zeitung a few weeks ago reported spiritual and psychological counselling to university students as being on an all-time high. Students fight with course overloads and the pressure to perform, in additional to the usual doubts and uncertainties that abound in the early phases of their supposed adulthood - sometimes on the verge of a burn-out.

My advisor in Erlangen, and a recently-promoted post-doctoral researcher in Waterloo, obtained 5-year assistant professorship contracts without a permanent-position option. A recent article on Nature denotes tenure as necessary "to protect academic freedom; faculty members can disagree with popular opinion, express negative views about their institution, or research unpopular topics". Meanwhile, both the Universities of Erlangen-Nürnberg and of Waterloo resort to underpaid graduate students to serve as teaching assistants to tutor the very undergraduates who should, arguably, be the main focus of such institutions.

This Monday's IQC colloquium presented a very interesting (re-)formulation of known questions in Quantum Information as problems in asymptotic geometry. Unfortunately, beautiful mathematical structure was perverted - prostituted, maybe? - into finding a supposed application - with the speaker even going to lengths to instigate experimentalists to try and implement a proof-of-principle demonstration.

And the online triathlon/cycling community I regularly take part in has a discussion on the migration of bike parts manufacturing and development jobs to China; one of the books I've just finished reading preaches off-shoring unfulfilling tasks to India to maximize rentable working hours, but maybe this is a discussion for part II. Never mind for now.

Our civilization has managed to automate most of its existence. It has developed fantastic theories on effective and efficient management and production; let alone the incredible advances on communications and transportation we now take for granted. Yet, one is still expected to fulfill a 40-hour working-week labouring as much as two hundred years ago. Dear humans, you're doing it wrong.
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Sure, I find it appealing that abstract ideas can find their way into possible experiments - if something positive can be won from the work done in the lab. I still envision mathematicians playing with such structures for the sake of mere curiosity - of knowledge for knowledge's sake - rather than for a need to report back supposed applications, or, worse yet, an increased number of publications.

If I have but one fear, one idea I dread for the future ahead, it is that of ending up trapped in a rat race. A friend recently characterized the scientist's profession as one requiring one to be "an efficient, well-organized artist" - to which he added that such ideal "corresponds more or less to an oxymoron". Whether I actually possess all traits necessary to emerge 'victorious' from such a pressure-instigating scenario doesn't enter into consideration. In fact, while I've come to realize I've produced less-than-optimal performances in certain processes and activities over the last few years, and currently strive towards more efficiency and efficacy for the goals I have ahead of me, I recognize that I have more than once avoided putting myself in situations where striving for a higher step led to potentially destructive behaviour. Be it for reasons of ethics, sportsmanship or health, I've opted to throttle back, even if it meant giving up on eventually achieving higher accomplishments (*). The same may just apply in to Academia. Publish-or-perish my behind. Either this is fun, or I'm quitting to start a small café.

(*) Have you seen "The Loneliness Of A Middle Distance Runner"? When he stops the race and looks around... - not just the Belle & Sebastian song , I recommend the movie as well.
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Not surprisingly, yet again the theme here involves Academics and the Future. Entering my 3rd year as a doctoral student, I only have a bare idea of where I could go from here - that is, if I am to follow Physics as a career of sorts. Balance seems to be an important keyword. My work as a researcher must somehow be compatible with my current and future sportive endeavours, long-term travel plans, and the eventual prospect of developing a relationship with a significant other. And I don't seem willing to give up on any.
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I'm surprised I never posted xkcd #137 here. It's a fantastic epitome for much of what I'm very often thinking:
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Maybe I'm starting a café anyway.


Whiskas said...

In Connor's second thesis it is stated "There is no fate but what we make for ourselves." Does the routine destroy our creativity or do we lose creativity and fall into the routine?

Anyway, who's up for a road trip?

\mp said...

There are a number of things that, depending on taste and perspective, can be considered wrong in the academic system. The main one is probably the fact that students who pursue studies in sciences, entering often a Master and/or a PhD program, do it out of passion, trying to realize some dream (for example, being a successful scientist and becoming a researcher for life/professor). But reality is harsh, and only few can realize such a dream. On the one hand, only few have the qualities to do it, and on the other hand there is only a very limited number of positions available. The system seems to be pretty unable to handle this situation. In my opinion, one big issue is that supervisors---being often under pressure themselves---push students not to get ready "to face reality" (that is, to enter at the certain point the job market outside academia) but rather unconsciously often "ask" them to commit more towards an academic career. The point is that supervisors are those who made it or are on the verge of making it, so they are biased towards the "if you work hard, you will make it". In a sense, they often miss a larger perspective because they did not need to have one, and because they are really focused on academia.

The results presented last Monday were certainly beautiful, and I agree that it is bad that even for "beautiful science" one is often led to argue that it is "practical science". The point here is that we scientists are supported in our research endeavor by the rest of the population. One big reason we receive such a support (especially in quantum information processing) is to provide discoveries/ideas to make the life of people better through (future) applications. Indeed, while some can simply appreciate the value of discovery and knowledge, for some others it is difficult not to ask "what is this useful for?" (that is, "why are we taxpayers putting money into this when there are so many more compelling issues to be faced at the moment?"). Of course, each of us is free to choose to what extent to try to give an answer to such a question. I can only say that from time to time I feel privileged and grateful for being given the possibility to do what I am doing. (I guess one could argue that just teaching is sufficient to pay back, but I am not teaching at the moment :) )

I have the feeling that two-hundred years ago people would work much more that 40 hours a week ;)

You are the only one who can decide what level of effort and compromise you are ready to tolerate. One exercise I suggest to make is to look around yourself in academia (your department, your institute, other people you have come to meet), and check how many of those who "made it" (are tenured, or on the way to get tenured) look like they are the kind of person (in terms of personality, interests, sentimental status, level of social activities) you would like to be. Take those and check haw passionate they are about what they do, what intellectual qualities they have, how organized they are. That's the standard you should meet in a way or another if you want to reach the "balance" you talk about.

I think there are an incredible number of possibilities out there. I am certainly supportive of the cafe' idea :) but I am sure that you could do a gozzilion of wonderful things: it is up to you to decide what. The reflection in the xkcd strip, which I find wonderful, should only be a first step in a positive process to be a happier you, either by continuing on the academic path with more determination or looking for another way to fully realize yourself.