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The Academic Rat Race--Why do we do science again?


by Alex 11. July 2013 16:39

I started doing research my second month of college. And it was all about passion for discovery and learning back then. I was walking on campus one day, thinking about how loving and being loved are different things, yet I hadn't really heard a lot of people discussing the difference. And I thought wouldn't it be fun to study this? Problem was that I had absolutely no idea how to do research or where to begin.

By a life changing stroke of luck, the psychology department's undergraduate advisor sent me to Dacher Keltner. And he took me under his lab's wing--Dacher, Chris Oveis, and the BSI lab taught me how to be a researcher. I spent three years effectively living in the lab, becoming deeply in love with the work. Come my final year, I did my honors thesis on the difference between loving and being loved. Boom.

Back during those very early days, I had no idea about publications or grants or citations. I had never heard of the h-index or impact factors. Science was a way of probing reality rather than a journal outlet. My biggest joys came from a cool finding during data analysis--I loved, loved, loved working with data and seeing the patterns that emerged from it. 

But then I became very passionate about pursuing a scientific career--becoming a faculty member somewhere and continuing to engage in this academic adventure. I learned very quickly about first author papers, A-journals, and trial by fire that is trying to get fellowships and grants. 

I don't know where the shift happened, but it certainly occurred: I became very much focused on the pragmatics of the career. Number of publications, journal outlets, and grant money became the biggest joys. Somehow the aim of understanding nature, and working towards promoting greater human outcomes became secondary to these pragmatics.

Making this realization was hard. I found myself doing science for the wrong reasons. And just flipping back to focusing purely on discovery and learning is not prudent either--publications, journal outlets, and grant money DO indeed matter greatly to getting academic jobs and keeping them. But getting back to loving DISCOVERY and working towards understanding is even more critical. Its the heart of the field.

Ultimately, doing academia isn't really doing a job. Its a paid hobby--and typically a not-so-well paid hobby :-p. Pragmatics matter, but if they become the core, then academia does become a job. And I think we can really lose ourselves then. As a young scholar, its very easy to fall into the pragmatics--they hang over us extremely strongly on the tide of uncertainty that is omnipresent until tenure (I hope it goes away at least a bit then!). But its a mistake to ride that tide and forget what got us in the water in the first place. 

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