Adventures in Ethics and Science

Maria has an awesome post about her thoughts upon wrapping up her Master’s thesis. It captures the kind of shifts one can have in figuring out what to do, who to be, and how schooling fits into all of that — and how what’s at stake is as much emotional as it is intellectual. She writes:

I have found that clinging too stubbornly to long-term goals is actually bad for me. Not because the goals themselves are bad, but I tend to become emotionally overinvested in them, and then I freak! out! at the slightest threat to my success. Learning to keep things in perspective has meant, for me, appreciating that lots of things can happen between now and the completion of my Five-Year Plan.

Longtime readers know that my career trajectory underwent some pretty significant changes, so I can really relate to this. I’m going to add just a few loosely connected* thoughts of my own here:

  • If you doubt the existence of the fight-or-flight response to threats, graduate school will dispel those doubts. Even if you’re not the one fighting or fleeing the various challenges to your self-image as a competent human being, you’ll see your classmates do so. But as useful as this instinctive response can be, it is bound to make you wonder what your real motivations are for slogging onward or bailing out. This can be unnerving.
  • Lots of people seem to have love/hate relationships with academia. Sometimes it turns on an inability to commit. Sometimes it’s an abusive relationship.
  • I’ve heard that some people are very good at maintaining a clear distinction between what they do and who they are. I have a feeling most of those people aren’t in academia. (I’m not even going to speculate on whether such people might be generally happier, because I don’t know that that would help those of us who identify strongly with our work to be any happier.)
  • Possibly the feeling of accomplishing a big project is so awesome because of the many stretches of time preceding its completion when it looks entirely implausible that you could ever pull it off successfully. If only those “This is never going to work!” moments were more fleeting.
  • In my experience (both times), the serious periods of thesis writing have made me feel really isolated. This probably was a side-effect of my efforts to block out distractions and get down to it. But looking ahead to a year in which I need to accomplish some serious writing, I’m hoping I can find a way to do it that doesn’t leave me feeling cut off from the human community.
  • I love research to my bones, but it’s still seriously hard.
  • I love teaching to my bones, but after six years of increasing enrollments, I think it will be best for everyone that I take a short break from it.
  • A person can love academia and still see other people professional communities, right?
  • Is there ever a point in one’s academic career where it doesn’t feel like people are keeping score (or at least, where that isn’t so far in the foreground of the experience)? If so, will I live long enough to experience it for myself?

_____
*Loose connections are what I can produce at the moment, as I pass through the valley of the shadow of gigantic piles of grading (which might well turn out to be deadly).

Comments

  1. #1 NJ
    April 30, 2008

    I’ve heard that some people are very good at maintaining a clear distinction between what they do and who they are. I have a feeling most of those people aren’t in academia.

    Nail. Head. Hit.

  2. #2 Super Sally
    April 30, 2008

    Re: Maria and clinging to long term goals.

    Having “other responsibilities” like growing children can dissuade you. I recall that the day I turned my master’s thesis in, I came home to find “my three sons” serenading me with two choruses and a full verse of Get a Job (Sha-na-na-na).

    I had much more choice in my long term goals than many in my suburban motherhood group, but I could not call it real control. Five year plans make a reasonably good yardstick (oops, meterstick) against which to judge one’s own progress moving through life.

    Does the grading have the potential to be “deadly” for student or teacher? If the latter, think Kevlar clothing and consider a helmet, or at least a hard hat.

  3. #3 Jim Thomerson
    April 30, 2008

    I changed majors twice so I think that is about right. Part of my persona is what I do(did) as an academic. If asked directly who I was, or what I did, I would answer biology professor or ichthyologist. On the other hand there were(are) parts of my persona where that designation was not revant or proper, and would not surface.

  4. #4 Becca
    April 30, 2008

    Love the post.
    For me, the fight-or-flight thing… oh yeah.

  5. #5 (another) Maria
    April 30, 2008

    I’ve been thinking about whether I want to stay in academia after I get my PhD, and the point about the distinction between what you do and who you are is the main thing I come back to. I love the people in academia, but I’m not sure it’ll be good for my mental health.

  6. #6 Pete M.
    April 30, 2008

    Thank you for this post. I’m at the beginning stages of a dissertation in political philosophy, and finishing up my first semester as an adjunct. I’ve loved the teaching, but it’s been difficult to maintain focus on my research. It’s nice to hear someone else saying the things I’m feeling now, including the fear that my ever accomplishing this task is, as you put it, implausible. On good days, I recognize that I have a fruitful topic and some things to say, but that fear kind of sticks around in the background.

  7. #7 Pete M.
    April 30, 2008

    Thank you for this post. I’m at the beginning stages of a dissertation in political philosophy, and finishing up my first semester as an adjunct. I’ve loved the teaching, but it’s been difficult to maintain focus on my research. It’s nice to hear someone else saying the things I’m feeling now, including the fear that my ever accomplishing this task is, as you put it, implausible. On good days, I recognize that I have a fruitful topic and some things to say, but that fear kind of sticks around in the background.

  8. #8 Mark P
    April 30, 2008

    My only experience with academia was my graduate school life. After I got my PhD, thanks to the Reagan revolution, my field withered to a certain extent and I ended up in the defense industry, about as far from academia as you can get. I have accepted it at this point and am able to maintain the distinction between what I do and who I am. But I owe who I am to my education, which made me a scientist, despite the fact that I never do science. It shaped, and continues to shape, my thinking, my perception of the world, and my perception of myself. Maybe this is a case where losing something – a life in science, if not academia – made my experience in that world even more valuable to me.

  9. #9 PhysioProf
    April 30, 2008

    A person can love academia and still see other people professional communities, right?

    In my experience, maintaining strong connections with a professional community other than academia of which I am also a member has truly benefited my academic life. It has provided a different set of people to interact with who think differently than academics, a different perspective on the world, and something to engage me intellectually other than academia.

    All of this has made it easier to focus on my academic goals. I think of it like intellectual cross-training.

  10. #10 Napoleon Champagne
    May 1, 2008

    re: “to my bones…”
    Bones are whats left after we bail out….I love bailed-out bones;-)

    “doubt the existence of the fight-or-flight response to threats, graduate school will dispel those doubts. Even if you’re not the one fighting or fleeing the various challenges to your self-image as a competent human being, you’ll see your classmates do so. But as useful as this instinctive response can be, it is bound to make you wonder what your real motivations are for slogging onward or bailing out”

    I only bail when I have to tolerate PC rhetoric, or
    a-PZists who qualify every statement with some antiquated preface dealing with “late 90’s sensitivities”instead of right now imperitives…that trick laden rhetorical HUMV full of late 90’s soldiers: propagandized to believe that your real allies are your only enemies…

    Take a junior level CSCL class “for fun” to remind yourself of your own righteousness….they will affirm that you are wrong, if only because you march off to a death chamber, and espouse “truth” as opposed to dogmatic underpinnings of dogma…

  11. #11 PaulN
    May 1, 2008

    “Who you are and what you do”, in the private industry world, is known as “Work-Life Balance”, and there are some great Dilbert cartoons about it. It is not unique to accademics, I assure you. I did a Degree and PhD in Biochemistry, and after a spell in hospital, and in (and out) of a couple of accademic Post Doc jobs, and went back to Uni to do a Masters in I.T. – and got a private industry job. I’ve never looked back. I miss teaching (but not marking) a little bit – and so when I retire from my industry job at 50 (I kid you not), I’ll take a teaching post at a local college to fill in my time. I work hard, 8 hours (sometimes 9) a day – and then I go home or to the pub or to a concert or to…… Get what i mean? My job is not my life, it just pays (very well) for it.

  12. #12 Costanza
    May 1, 2008

    I know the feeling all too well. I was in academe for many years, and then moved to the private sector for 15 years (oft maligned as “bottom line driven” (as if the university isn’t)). Now I’m back. I too love research “to my bones” and teaching more than that (it’s harder work, too). But the academic culture is sometimes almost more than I can stomach (I don’t think I’ve ever heard so many whining adults…and then there’s the students). But being back in the classroom makes it worth the while.

  13. #13 Peter
    May 1, 2008

    ‘I’ve heard that some people are very good at maintaining a clear distinction between what they do and who they are. I have a feeling most of those people aren’t in academia. (I’m not even going to speculate on whether such people might be generally happier, because I don’t know that that would help those of us who identify strongly with our work to be any happier.)’
    Actually, it’s easy to maintain this distinction; just don’t take what you do too seriously, that’s the trick. Too many people today allow themselves to be defined by what they do, rather than who they actually are (there IS a difference), all the while forgetting that it is extremely unlikely that they will be exactly where they are today in, say, five years (or even one year). When that simple fact dawns upon them there will, of course, be a great deal of stress and panic when the realisation sinks in that the time has come for them to move outside of their comfort-zone.
    By the way, I am also in ‘academia’, although as a student not a teacher.

  14. #14 Laura
    May 2, 2008

    My blog, most academically-oriented blogs, are filled with the love/hate relationship. Mine might be made worse by being on the staff side of the house and being literally married to the faculty side. Do you know how hard it is to go home after a day when you’ve been at odds with a faculty member and look your faculty-member husband in the face?

    Given my IT credentials, I could jump ship, but I can’t do the separation thing. I want my work to be fulfilling and part of who I am. That makes making career choices difficult, but now I know what I’m in for.

  15. #15 Hank Roberts
    May 5, 2008

    This reminds me of the line about academic politics being so vicious “because there is so little at stake.” (Variously attribued, certainly true for the low funding levels.)

    This is certainly relevant:

    “Clearly, something needs to be done about the way the United States deals with its scientific labor force. A system that consumes more than $30 billion a year should not collapse like a dying star when its budget drops by a few percent points….”
    http://sciencecareers.sciencemag.org/career_development/previous_issues/articles/2008_05_02/caredit_a0800064
    ———-

    I have a neighbor who teaches in the California State College system (not the University Of .. which is better funded), who has a ten (10) dollar annual photocopying budget. They have many part-time instructors, all at risk of termination this year because of budget cuts.

    Who the * is going to teach these kids how to read and write English and do math?? Every student has an English and math requirement.

    (Did you know there are _three_ levels of remedial English below the standard introductory English 101 course, in Ca. state colleges? Why? Because they need that many steps in the ladder to bring their students up to minimal competence — many don’t use English at home or haven’t for very long.)

    For all of the courses she teaches.

The site is currently under maintenance and will be back shortly. New comments have been disabled during this time, please check back soon.