I am sitting in my apartment which is now empty, while I write these lines.
I came to Durham, NC, three years ago. It is fair to say I have been very happy, and become a much more mature researcher and, tentatively, a better human being. There are, of course, disappointments that are intrinsic to growing up, discovering your preferences, and figuring out what is out there and what you can offer. That’s why they call it “research“.
I am now going back to my country of origin while finishing my dissertation part-time. I will have a job in the research department of a government institution. This is not what I expected to get as a final outcome when I came to the US, but after thinking carefully about it, it is the best choice at this decision node, and I strongly believe in sequential rationality.
Here are a number of things that I have learned and which I did not know before:
- Academia is a bubble. It is not like I was not aware of it, but academia is not the real world. It is easy to be trapped into it. It is full of wonderful people, but if you are not careful you can be underexposed to the world you are trying to study, or be absorbed by the idiosyncratic obsessions and personality disorders of your community. And you also risk starting thinking that your community makes you better. I am fine with belonging to religions -secular or otherwise- as long as one is aware of what he is doing: joining a cult.
- Previous background matters. For better and for worse. It matters because previous skills are key. I was lucky to have some technical background, and that helped me to build on it and reflect it into my research. But it also has generated problems of becoming part of an epistemic community with certain standards. I tend to think that research is about answering relatively standardized questions in an increasingly technically sophisticated way, and less about finding “puzzles”, or sexy framings.
- Writing code and writing introductions: the two central skills in academia are writing/marketing and technical skills. Many people underestimate the importance of one or the other. Start writing early, and talk about it. Try to implement as many statistical techniques as you can, and get good at coding.
- Explain to strangers what your research is about. My main mistake was to start working on a complex story that was coherent in my mind, given my background. When I told people about my research, they often misunderstood it. I attribute it to their lack of background and exposure to what I was doing. But while this is true -people always lack exposure and will misinterpret your explanations- it is also mistaken. If your research cannot be explained to someone without background, you have a real marketing problem.
- Learn to filter both encouragement and criticism. Unfair criticism should not take you down. But for me, the worse advice is one of naive encouragement. When you present your research to people, they often will give a sense of false security- especially in the US. This is because they don’t want to confront your negative feelings, or because they think you need emotional comfort. But this is just keeping your bubble alive.
- Previous background matters also in terms of life experience. Being older than the average, and because I had some working experience. I met plenty of intellectually brilliant people who had serious issues with basic life and human skills: dealing with failure, and dealing with people.
- Failure is key in research. If you have never experienced it, you probably have been overqualified for what you were doing, never seriously challenged. And research is only stochastically related to effort, and often in an unfair way: some people may just dislike you, or the topic you are doing. Your topic is not interesting is the worst criticism you can get, because interestingness is in the eye of the beholder.
- Research is a social activity. It is social in two ways. Firstly, by interacting with other scholars. But also, in terms of keeping a life related to the real world, not forgetting that there is stuff out there. While you go through the research process, it is easy to forget what it is like interacting with other people: approaching professors, cheap chat in seminars and conferences, dealing with reject or disdain. The same is true in social life: I have met too many people who have essentially no clue of what it is like to approach a person of the opposite sex, and have a certain control over the type of relationship you want to establish- professional, personal, intimate… This has dramatic consequences for gender (and race) balance, by the way.
- Work-life balance matters. It is key to be productive. I used to ignore this, because I am ok working hours and hours. A friend of mine told me, when choosing my department “You should think it is a place where you will live 5 years of your life”, and I thought it did not matter because I did not have much time for visiting the city anywhere. It so happens that I really miss living in an actual city with urban density, one which is walkable and allows for taking pauses of 20 minutes in a coffee shop downstairs. I also learned that it is important to have hobbies – I found one in fountain pens- that are compatible with your work routine, and still allow you to get some steam out, be somehow creative.
- Work-life balance is not just about taking time off. You will take time off anyway. It is mostly about not procrastinating: that is, ensuring that your time off is not spent watching Netflix, twitter, facebook, or youtube unless you seriously think that is a good use of your time (maybe, but then think twice). But beware of people who think you should take entire days off, doing jobs, going out, or something like that. Academia, at least the one I know, is highly incompatible with having a “normal life”, similar to that of 9 to 5 job with weekends. You sign up for that. Work-life balance is about finding things that complement your research activity, in particular addressing all the above problems: bubble environment, social isolation, monotonicity of job, lack of schedules.
- Dating apps can help. The two times I have joined dating apps was when I was going through peaks of work. It might seem paradoxical, but it is not. A date is an environment in which you are trying to make a good impression on a stranger that probably does not value your research skills alone and will judge on a totally superficial and unfair basis. In terms of training your social skills, of meeting people slightly beyond your social bubble, of reminding yourself how to dress properly and to keep in good shape, learning to deal with rejection and unfair treatment, and of course of having fun, first dates are a very good complement to research. And dating apps allow control on the amount of time you spend on it- unlike other hobbies.
- Conversations about research are not always intellectual in nature. Most conversations among researchers, in their daily life, are not about substance or real topics. Academia does not typically equip you for that, in most branches. When intellectual, academia is most of the time about papers and research fads. And to an incredibly annoying extent about “academic bureaucracy and politics”: the common denominator of a group of three or more researchers is typically requirements, fellowships, data availability, and an incredibly high level of bureaucratic topics.
- Academic elitism is stupid. Look at point 1. Academia allows to meet fascinating people, some of them really smart. People are multidimensional, and the skill of writing papers that are publishable correlates very imperfectly with many other things- a sense of humor, good aesthetical taste, not having a serious personality disorder, common sense- that are important for good judgment and a healthy social environment.
- Politics, beliefs, ideology matter in academia. But they do not matter in the type of research that people produce, as it is often thought. It matters in terms of how the environment shapes extra or para academic discussions. Because many academic environments have a strong lack of diversity-gender, racial, political, national- the sensation that people as incapable of questioning their own ideas is too often around. This is also the case among muggles, but in those cases, you are a bit confronted with otherness.
- PhD research is an incredible living and learning experience not only academic but also with respect to the above points. The most important part is, of course, the quest for truth (or at least publishable truth), but the quest for maturity does not hurt either.
I will keep posting here from time to time. You can follow me on Instagram, as lmgeeko .