Visible and Invisible Progress

This: This is something I’ve begun to feel over the past year, that the pursuit of a Ph.D./position in academia and the pursuit of knowledge are two different things. They overlap, but they’re not the same, and it makes me sad.

I didn’t at all have a notion of what research was back in undergrad. I just focused on learning my classes well, to build a body of knowledge for a pre-selected field, rather than following a thread of interest or curiosity.

The big difference between people like Jean and me is that he’s much better at scientific inquiry than I am. People like him – they’re interested in science *because of the questions.* They ask questions, they try to figure things out. They want to know the answers to their questions. From his post it seems like he’s tried to tackle some big problems head-on, and persevered through resistance. I focused on doing well in classes and accumulating knowledge. I didn’t ask my own questions, and I just stole the questions that other people in the field ask, and made myself think that those were the most meaningful questions. I’m still playing within the system: working on things that other people find important. I’m afraid that’s what I’ll keep doing: working on things other people find important, publish a lot of not-very-meaningful papers.

But one lasting effect of college is that it’s made me want to learn. There’s a joy in learning in itself, even if it’s not anything advanced, anything new. My stamina for learning still isn’t high, but I want to learn more broadly than I did when I first entered college.

I think I’m coming around to asking my own questions, but very slowly. I wish I have more courage. (Asking questions is so hard. But the only way to make it easier is to ask more questions.)

I don’t feel like what I’m working on right now is so meaningful. I bite the bullet because I think (a) the most outstanding questions are hard to make progress on, so (b) people work on smaller, less meaningful problems in the meantime, and this might give them insight into the larger ones. But this argument doesn’t work when the small problems *aren’t* actually connected to the big problems I’m interested in.

So sometimes, during the evenings, I work on other things. Stuff I don’t see any way of doing “officially” – it won’t result in any papers, at least not short-term – but nevertheless feels interesting/important.

What’s lacking in academia is space. Space (the not-worrying about having to publish) fosters creativity. Research is a creative profession, because it’s uncertain, a shot in the dark. If you’re spending your time on things that you know will result in papers, then what you’re doing is maybe not the most important.

It’s the same problem with exams in school. There are two options: (1) be the good student, and spend your time on schoolwork and studying, and (2) instead be in charge of your own learning: do the projects you’re interested in, etc. The problem with (1) is that you have a lot of knowledge, but you don’t get any direction. The problem with (2) is that you fail your exam. If you’re good enough, then you accomplish both (1) and (2). If you’re good enough, you can (1) publish a lot of papers AND (2) do research that you feel is very meaningful. The most successful people do this, and you feel that you can copy them by starting with (1) first – but no. Often it seems a choice choice between (1) working suboptimally so you have the appearance of making progress, or (2) doing research that you feel really meaningful, and not getting a position in academia.

And so what? What do I really want? A position in academia? That’s like saying I went to college to get a slip of paper (a degree). I want a life where I can be free to learn, teach, think about things. And once I realize that, I realize that academia isn’t the only place where this is possible. (Wasn’t Einstein a patent clerk?) What’s important is to be in a situation with *room* to think and try things.

Because economically, the situation seems hard to resolve. How can you distinguish between the people who are really want to do research, and the people who want a sinecure? But we should talk about better ways.

I have a tendency to “bottleneck” goals: to think that certain ultimate goals are achievable only when I get myself into a certain situation. For example, I can do good research, *only if* I get a good position in academia. One can be a good entrepreneur, *only if* one gets into one of these selective programs where you get facetime with tech leaders. But you can do things outside your job. Maybe you’re busing tables, and want to be a writer. It’s OK for people to look at you and say, “Writer? Puh-leeze.” But if you are, in fact, spending your evenings writing, it doesn’t matter that *no one knows* that you’re working on being a writer.

Modernity has the effect of cutting down evaluation time. One is judged, or has the illusion of being judged, in very short intervals – from one publication to the next. It’s impossible to play when everyone has a scoreboard hovering above their head. It’s like the experiment where you try to be calm but see a readout of how calm your brain is; it’s like being in a competition where you have to be the first person asleep.