I wake up every day with a sense of uncertainty.
At first glance, this unease that I feel in the mornings of the workday is nameless. It may be anxiety or just the sense that something will go wrong.
I’m not sure whether this is true for everybody else, but after some time in my morning routine I start to feel the courage to go about my day.
I once read that waking up in the morning was like starting up your laptop. After I open the cover of my MacBook Pro after it has been asleep for a few hours, there is this lag time of 3 to 5 seconds when it reconnects again with the world. The programs discover the Internet and everything starts talking with each other again. It is the same for me. I wake up mornings and ask questions “where am I?”, “What am I doing here again?”.
I’m a lone wolf in a pack of lone wolves. Working in academia is unlike any other profession I have ever read about or experienced. When I get into laboratory in a workday, there is this reorientation of what my job is. I serve no clients, and do not need to consider what my boss thinks, or what my colleagues require of me on a daily basis.
So I arrived to work today, and performed the routines that get me started to feel comfortable in my job again. I check my e-mail, I grab a cup of coffee, and usually I check off the things on my calendar that I feel I need to do in order to be (or feel) productive. Then, if I so choose, I can close my office door and read literature that is relevant to my research, or I go about just reading for my personal enjoyment.
I know from experience that whenever I read, as long as it is in within the field of neuroscience, not just my specialty of SCI, I unconsciously gain some new insight that will reveal itself at a later date. It’s sort of like I’m painting a picture in my brain by reading. I don’t know what the picture is going to look like, but each word that I absorb is like a brushstroke. Over time my mind makes the associations and connections that are relevant to making my research more compelling, more informative, and more relevant to you and me.
So, you see just in my mornings before the clock strikes lunchtime, I have the opportunity to discover and learn. Importantly, I have the choice that few have. I can do absolutely nothing with my mornings, with no external pressures (as no one is really watching what I do on a daily basis), or I can explore the wealth of knowledge that exists in academic journals, or books, or even old newsprint stories that report on breakthroughs. There is so much out there that I can be free to explore without even lifting myself from my office chair.
I think the need for discovery is a key trait for human happiness. I am acutely aware of the disadvantages of academia. I’m sure I don’t need to tell you what they are, and the list is so long. If I had to name 2 disadvantages of academia, they would be first, the financial instability, and second, the sense of uncertainty.
To elaborate, the financial instability hurts. Without grants, which I am trying to obtain now, I solely rely upon the funding provided by others in the laboratory. I am fortunate that I’m allowed to have the autonomy to research projects that I’m interested in. Though I know other people at my level without their own funding are forced to work on things that they either are not truly interested in knowing about, or are placed in positions that make it hard for them to distinguish themselves.
Regarding the sense of uncertainty, while I know this is true for any career, any job, the uncertainty in academia is magnified. It is magnified because none of us who are in academic research is given a set goals or even the necessary instructions to achieve those goals. For example, at my level of academia where I am a full-time faculty member, my task is not only to set the objective for a research project, but also to design the experiments to meet those objectives. And while I can plan carefully how to proceed, what experimental techniques to use, which approaches are best, ultimately, the success or failure of an experimental project to achieve its goal (i.e., prove or disprove the main hypothesis) is based on something we call “Factor X”.
Factor X is defined by some people as luck or chance. We cannot foresee how factor X will influence any part of our experiments and how it will ultimately change the way we can interpret our data. So Factor X is a shadow that we chase and that chases us.
In my mind I try and ignore the unforeseen issues that may arise. But like anyone placed in an unknown situation there is that sense that something could go wrong. I guess over time I’ve been tested through experience to endure the sense of uncertainty in academia. My graduate advisor had likened the experience of becoming a true independent scientist as walking through fire. In my mind, I see the academic career as a type of “soul forge”.
Well, here I am. I have overcome uncertainty and have accepted the possibility that financial instability may become a part of my life. If these are the only curses of academia, then I am blessed.
I was 12 or so when I learned that Christopher Reeve had fallen off a horse and suffered from a serious cervical level spinal cord injury. Superman when I was young had been a hero of mine. This imaginary figure could fly, was super strong, bulletproof, and a yes, a good person. Sometimes when horrible realities hit your imagination, your imagination goes into overdrive and propels you to do things to fix the issue.
Here in academic research, the sense that I can truly pursue anything in my imagination (within bounds) and make it real in a way that is tangible is a good reason to stay.