Apotheosis to Research

I ate a big ol’ bowl of Imposter Flakes this morning.  And every other morning this week.

I feel like I’ve been posting a lot of positive stuff for a long time now–traveling to beautiful places, appreciating the little things in life. Very zen.  And it’s honest; most of the time, I do feel that way, and I think it’s healthy.  But if I’m being honest about the nice things, I need to be honest about the things that aren’t so nice, too.  So can I be really honest for a minute?  Sometimes things suck.

Part of me says I shouldn’t be allowed to complain at all.  After all, I have a family willing to take me in, who cook with me and let me help tend the garden and take me on hiking trips and going to concerts.  I have super-supportive advisers and colleagues who have been working with me for two and a half years with the result of me having done a year and a few months of work on the project.

Nonetheless, a nasty little part of me, like a little Eeyore sitting in my brain, says it’s no use–soon these people will give up on me–I’m just too much work to keep around.  It says that I’m obviously not good enough since I’ve been applying for funding for a year now with nothing to show for it, and that I’m lazy and should be further along in the project by now, or at least in my understanding of the concepts.  It says that I’ll never be a successful researcher because I rely on my advisers too much, that I’m incapable of having my own ideas and that I’m not intelligent enough to be working on a PhD, let alone to get a job afterward.

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And another little part of me is supremely annoyed at the whole process, at the whole culture of academia to string me along like this without either committing or breaking up.  But even more annoyed at society in general for devaluing education and knowledge.

I’m tired of seeing articles and facebook posts and hearing on the radio middle-aged people expounding upon the failures of millenials.  My generation is lazy and work-averse, unmotivated, immature, entitled, unrealistic, too willing to mooch off our parents.  We should graduate high school with an associate’s degree, go to community college for 2 more years at the very most and pay it off by working full-time, and then graduate to management and reap the harvest of our hard work.  Do these people realize that the cost of a decent (undergraduate) education these days is the mortgage on a small house?

I’m going to sound elitist here for a second, so bear with me.  The problem with this get-out-of-school-as-fast-as-possible model  is that the kind of jobs you can expect to get with a degree like that (not to mention the kind of degree you can manage to get while working full-time) are limited to a certain circle.  The jobs within this circle are important–they’re customer service, financial management, production and organization  and all the things that make society work day-to-day.  And we all should be extremely grateful that there are people doing these jobs, because without them, society would collapse faster than you can say “anarchy.”

But there are other jobs that also need done, not because we all need to buy milk and bread at the grocery store, but because not having them is detrimental to humans in general and society in a trickle-down way.  A lot of these jobs are in science and technology, or STEM fields.  I guarantee you cannot get a job at NASA with an associate’s degree in English.  But you also can’t work your way to the top of a marketing firm, or design for a well-known furniture company, or be a software engineer for Apple, or play in the New York Philharmonic.  There is a certain amount of education  and training required for all of these jobs, not because the people who do them are smarter but because they require very specific skills that most people don’t learn in high school or a few years of undergrad, and for whatever reason, also aren’t offered at trade schools.  You can’t learn to play Firebird on the bassoon at Butler Tech.  It also takes a lot of time to develop these areas of expertise.  You could argue that it also takes a lot of time to perfect customer service skills, and I would agree with that.  However, we seem content to complain on Facebook about rude waitresses, while a series of crappy concerts would put the Philharmonic out of business, and it’s downright dangerous to put unskilled people in most health and technology fields.  Would you go to a doctor with only an associate’s degree?  Or buy a car designed by an engineer whose only qualifications are that he took shop in high school and interned at a mechanic’s? In STEM and health fields, all of our work trickles down to everyday society, so we really have to consider it as important.

I’m also prepared to defend my colleagues in the fine arts, liberal arts, and “soft sciences.”  I devoutly believe that the arts are what make us uniquely human–our ability to create, expand, pass on, and participate in culture. That’s an argument for another time; suffice to say, I’m defending everyone in higher education here.

Back to STEM fields.  For those of us in more theoretical research work, it can be difficult to trace the value of the work back to the everyday person. We have to do it regularly, of course, because all anyone cares about is the application.  But how do we use this research?  Of course it’s always important to have a point, a goal, to doing anything.  I tend to find this applied-only attitude frustrating, because for me it’s simply the rush of discovering something new, of solving a little piece of a big riddle.

The research does all have a point, regardless of whether or not the general public detects it or chooses to ignore it.  It’s true that if you ask what I do, you’re probably not going to see how it can be applied. But you can always ask!  As a sidenote, as with anything, there are polite and rude ways of asking about this.  A good way to ask would be “Where have I seen the results of your work?” or even just throw out a guess.  Most people guess wrong, but that at least gives us a chance to tell you how it really is applied.  “But what can you use that for?” or “what can you do with that?” is rude.  (Please don’t say this to English majors either–they have feelings too, and they’re tired of being made fun of.  I think underwater basket-weaving majors are still fair game though.–Kidding!  Underwater basket-weaving is obviously a valuable art form.)  It seems like a petty thing to complain about, but when it happens all the time, it starts to wear on us.  Asking “but what can you do with that?” is dismissive and implies that my work is not valuable unless you get some direct benefit from it. Moreover, it implies that it’s not my work that’s valuable, but the work of the people who will be applying it directly to your life.

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This last point is important.  Most people don’t realize or don’t stop and think that behind the therapists, the mechanics, the Apple Geniuses, the teachers, the doctors and nurses, the marketing executives and financial advisors, government officials, astronauts, and truck drivers, there are researchers.  There’s even a whole documentary about research on the daily movements of semi-outdoor domestic cats in small English villages, which sounds kind of stupid until you realize that it has a lot to do with the spread of disease and rodent populations, and territorial behaviours in domestic animals, which helps everyone from farmers wanting to know why their chickens are so stressed out to the PetSmart employee who tells you to move your cat’s litter box to the bathroom to make him stop peeing on your bed.  Every bit of information that you know has been discovered by researchers.  Every piece of technology you use daily has been designed to be efficient, using research from several fields.

Yes, the majority of my problem right now comes from the intense competition for funding.  But part of the reason that’s even a problem is that we have a culture of devaluing education.  As long as I’m complaining, I might as well mention how frustrating it is to get the reactions from people that researchers tend to get.  Many people assume that we’re lazy, unmotivated, avoiding getting “real jobs” by getting impractical degrees.  We’ve all been asked when we’re “finishing school” or if we’re looking for a job or what we’re going to do after the PhD.  We’ve all been treated like higher education is an extension of childhood, like our work is not of value because it’s done in a university and not an office cubicle, and we’ve been scolded for expecting people to pay us to go to school. As if what we do is sit in class all day scrolling through Facebook, like you might have done in undergrad.  Teachers and artists can relate to this–I know they get the same “oh it’s like band/art class/babysitting all day?  How hard can that be?”

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Continuing education and careers in academia are not the same as being “in school.”  We work the same hours as everyone else and often longer when we have deadlines, conferences, or test subjects who want to come into the lab at 8pm on a Sunday.  Those of us in human research are customer-facing, and we have to be able to connect on a personal level with subjects who maybe feel a bit weird about having a stranger dig through their hair, collect blood or spit samples, put them through an MRI, or evoke emotional responses.  We are also data analysts with extensive knowledge of coding languages, statistics, physics and psychophysics, chemistry, electrical engineering, and biology.  We are experts in theories of ethics, because if we screw up we might get into major trouble.  We are authors of uncountable grant proposals, published journal articles, and lengthy dissertations that few people will take the time to read.  We are supervisors and mentors, teaching younger scientists how to use technology and how to think both critically and creatively, how to come up with ideas and test them in order to discover things about the world and about people.  We are pencil-pushers, grunt workers, supervisors, trainers, shift leaders, overnighters, managers, and HR all at the same time.  And most of us love it.

What we shouldn’t have to do is find the money so that we can be paid.  Imagine if this happened at any other job.  Office work? Firefighter? Nurse? Barista? Grocery store cashier?  Imagine you have a full-time job.  (If you already do, congrats!)  Imagine that a few times a year, you had to take a lot of time out of your regular duties (which you still have to complete) to write a bunch of applications which are all slightly different and due at different times.  There are 400 people competing for 4 salaries, and you have to prove that you deserve to be paid.  Just because you have a job now doesn’t mean you’ll get to keep it, and the reviewers are going to judge you on the work you’ve done already, even if you don’t have the job yet.  You can continue working if you want, because your place of work needs you and thinks you do a good job, but you won’t be paid unless these outside reviewers choose you.  If you can’t or choose not to work without being paid, it will be held against you in future applications.  If you do, you’ll have to find the money to live on from  somewhere else, like taking on another job (in addition to your full-time job, which you’re not getting paid for).  Oh, and sometimes instead of a review panel of people who understand how to do your job, it’s one person who has no idea what you do and may just not be interested in loading receipt tape/how to make a caramel macchiato/putting out a grease fire/car insurance policy/which size syringe to use.  They probably won’t even read the whole application.  If they’re not interested, better luck next year.    Sound crazy?  I think so.

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So this is my call to action, people.  I don’t know how we can change this, but it needs to change worldwide.  Finland is on the right track giving university students free tuition. Heck, there’s even a whole holiday celebrating education, and don’t get me started on Promootio, which is just about the most awesome thing to happen to graduation ceremonies since rye bread was invented.  The U.S. has a long way to go, starting with the cost of undergraduate tuition and the treatment of teachers.  And in order to change that, we need to change the idea that higher education–and education in general– is not valuable.  Because even if you don’t care that my research isn’t getting funded, you should care about your kids, their teachers, and access to quality education.

On a personal level, we can start small.  Take a moment to think before you ask a grad student when he is “finishing school”.  Think before you complain about your kid’s teacher assigning too much homework.  Think before you share an article with “tips and tricks” to get a job with the least amount of education possible.  Think before you assume that just because we hate writing grants, that a job in education is pointless.  Think before you make a snide remark about kids these days getting dumber.  Maybe your attitude is part of the problem.

If you know someone in education, take the time to have a chat about it.  Say thank you to a teacher (shout-out to all my awesome teachers over the years–thank you!).  Hug an engineer.  Ask a grad student what her thesis is (no one ever asks us, and we love to share our passion!).  Let us vent about the parts of our job we don’t like, the same way we listen to you vent about the parts of your job you don’t like.

We need to have a better dialogue about education and why it’s important, a dialogue that isn’t based on test scores and statistics.  The best way to spread real information is just to talk about it–talk to kids, talk to teachers, talk to your neighbor, talk to a researcher.

Preferably over coffee.

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