Originally published on April 20th, 2014 at generalcirculation.blogspot.com
I love a good Wes Anderson movie.
His humor is whimsical and slightly dark, his cinematography is vivid and fantastical, and his stories are a mess of intersecting character arcs and random tangents that somehow coalesce into a plot.
While watching Anderson's latest offering, The Grand Budapest Hotel, I mused on the mess of intersecting pursuits that frequently seem to characterize my life as a graduate student (with the hope that they will coalesce into a plot nearly as good as Anderson's).
This week has been a jumble of different undertakings: my co-organizers and I ran a biannual mixer and discussion forum for the Princeton Women in Geosciences Initiative; I went to a seminar on writing and reviewing academic papers; I helped an undergraduate with his senior thesis; I learned about China's energy development pathways. And sandwiched between all of these things, I tried to portion out my work time between my current dissertation research, revising my previous dissertation work, my policy project, and another project with some collaborators.
None of these things have immediate deadlines and each could easily occupy all of my mental space if I let it, but I had to figure out how to focus on one thing at a time and in what order (to be honest, it's an ongoing process).
Choosing how to spend my time has been one of the great challenges of doing something as unstructured as getting a PhD. After our general exam, we're essentially sent off into the blue to weave ourselves into fully functional academics. Deciding what it means to be an academic and what kind of academic I want to become has been an intellectual and existential struggle. My friend refers to it as "finding your research personality."
There are many different approaches to being a scientist. Do you value skepticism above all else and advance the field by scrutinizing other peoples' work for improvements? Or do you value collaboration? Will your great contribution come from digging deeply into understanding one phenomenon, or will it come from asking the hypothetical questions that get everyone thinking in a new way? Do you write your papers from beginning to end, or do you write the results first and then go from the middle out? Everyone has a different philosophy, and your philosophy may end up being very different from your advisor's or your institution's or even, ultimately, academia's.
I often struggle with corralling my wide-ranging interests into the standard metric of what constitutes a good academic, namely research productivity as quantified by number of papers published. I enjoy thinking deeply about climate science, but I also want to spend time doing things like organizing scientific dinner discussions for undergrads, or learning how to teach effectively, or running women in science organizations, or taking classes on policy and economics so that I can communicate outside of scientific circles. But what do I do if the things that I value don't align with the things that an academic job search values?
There's a thread on the online Earth Science Women's Network in which one scientist details how having founded a nonprofit organization to give high school girls experience in field research has worked against her in academic job interviews. Earlier this year, two public health professors at Columbia were fired for dedicating too much time to public engagement and not enough to securing grant funding.
Does the evaluating rubric of the academic community need to change to accommodate these different aspects of what makes someone a good contributor to the advancement of science in society? In some ways it is already starting to, with big funding agencies like the National Science Foundation demanding to see a robust explanation of the "Broader Impacts" of any scientific project proposal that crosses its desk looking for money. But this push has been met with no small amount of hesitancy within the scientific community. Do I instead need to change my expectations of what career path will make the best use of my skills and passions?
In one of the discussion forums at the PWiGS mixer this week, I voiced a guiding principle for myself that I'd never articulated or even fully thought through before then: I'm going to choose what to dedicate my time to according to my own internal value system, because in the end those are the only values that I will be able to defend. Whatever career path those pursuits lead me down will then be an honest representation of what I think is important.
Another student in the discussion encouraged me with a word of wisdom from none other than Albus Dumbledore, Headmaster of the Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry. Dumbledore gives this gem of tough love to the Hogwarts groundkeeper, Hagrid, who has shut himself in his cabin during a particularly crippling bout of low self-esteem:
"Really, Hagrid, if you're holding out for universal popularity, I'm afraid you're going to be in this cabin a very long time."
Though I don't think the fictional wizard ever pursued a PhD himself, the quote was a reminder that the process of forging one's own research personality sometimes requires forgoing universal popularity.
My drama teacher used to repeat Walt Whitman's poem, To a Pupil, to each of his graduating students, and one stanza in particular has always stuck with me. In this process of finding my research personality, it is perhaps the call to action that I find most compelling.
Go, dear friend, if need be give up all else, and commence to-day to inure yourself to pluck, reality, self-esteem, definiteness, elevatedness. Rest not till you rivet and publish yourself of your own Personality.