Tuesday, June 26, 2007

System, failure.

So, you know how in academia, especially in the major research universities, there are all these things you're supposed to do if you want to be successful? And how you're supposed to do a lot of them? Almost a ridiculous superhuman amount?

This internal conflict arises in me.

Many of those things, those hallmarks of success, are not fundamentally all that important to me - at least not in the volumes I am supposed to be doing them. For example -

Let's say that to support a nice PhD student for a year (stipend, tuition, conference travel, supplies, publication costs, etc.) I need 30,000 clams. There are a variety of sources for this kind of clammage, and I don't particularly care which source I ultimately get it from. Because really what matters to me is that we get to do the research and share the results, and I get to participate in the development of the next set of researchers.

But, the system will tell me that some clams are really worth more than others, because they are more competitive or higher profile or pay more overhead. And the system is not at all impressed by the low value clams.

And so forth.

And, you know, I could work maybe 50-75% more than I do, and maybe rack up some more of those awesome things. But I would do so at the expense of my private life, which is more important to me, in the end, than my work life - even though I definitely value my work life.

So, this conflict. Do I

  • do all the things that are important to the system, as if they are important to me too, and really try to conform myself to the system's definition of success?

or

  • maintain my own definition of success, and do all the things that are important to me as a person and a researcher and an educator, and in the right balance for me, and hope that enough people in my position do the same, so that in time they system becomes more like us?

I lean towards the latter - at least, I live that way, so I suppose it probably is what I really believe. I think if I did the former, I might grow to hate my job, and leave. Or, imagine how irate I would be if I did the former and it still lead to, you know, unsuccess. Either outcome seems like it would mean I'd wasted a LOT of time and energy and joy.

Or, maybe the people that are successful are the ones that just naturally have EXACTLY the same definition of success as the system, and so they don't ever experience this conflict. Maybe I'm naive; I find this pretty unlikely.

Although, I suppose a lot of faculty types are internally motivated by external recognition of their awesomeness - so, maybe it's really that successful people are that way because the thing that is fundamentally important to them is just the success, however that happens to be measured or judged in their chosen field. I'm sure there are some people that are this way.

(And then I guess some people are just supergenius and savvy and lucky. But, I'm not those things, just a normal kid! So that can't be my strategy anyway!)

2 comments:

sixdegrees said...

That's a pretty accurate description of a major quandary that we, as academic scientists, have to deal with. The key question, in my mind, is why do we do what we do? Are we doing it just for the recognition, for the external rewards? Or are we doing what we do for the intrinsic rewards - to get answers to the questions that bother us so? (my apologies to Jimmy Buffett).

First and foremost, we have to have our own value system that defines what is important to us. An example - a couple of months ago, I met a senior colleague in my department as we were walking to our respective destinations across campus. She is very well-respected in her scientific field and throughout this particular state university. I was upset because of issues in my little piece of the university. Her counsel was to ask me how my son was doing - to which my answer was, truthfully, quite well. To which she replied "and that's what really matters, isn't it". She was right - that the maneuvering of university and departmental politics is, ultimately, of minor importance relative to the things that really matter to us.

Our values enable us to maintain a balance between our work and personal lifes. Our values also enable us to deal with some of the external pressures that come with an academic scientist. For myself, I am doing science for a very personal reason - because it is the only way to truly know and understand the world we live in. It is this internal motivation that provides a stable foundation through the erratic fluctations of grant funding, lab personnel, manuscript writing and teaching reviews.

Ms.PhD said...

"Or, imagine how irate I would be if I did the former and it still lead to, you know, unsuccess...

Or, maybe the people that are successful are the ones that just naturally have EXACTLY the same definition of success as the system, and so they don't ever experience this conflict. Maybe I'm naive; I find this pretty unlikely. "

Sadly, I've been trying to do what you're supposed to do, even though it's not really me, and it has not been working. I've also tried to do things "my way", and that hasn't worked, either.

I really do think the system is built for people who are not like me, the way most things in the world are built: by tall, burly men, for tall, burly men.

Nevertheless, this post and sixdegrees optimistic comment both cheered me up somewhat. Maybe I'm not completely alone.