Monday, 11 March 2013

I have literally no idea why I'm here

"So I don’t know if I’m going to be a failure in my chosen field. I don’t know if I’m ever going to have a real career. I just know that I have to try."
Sometimes things just work out ... I started writing this post this afternoon.  But I just couldn't make it fit.  Then I read this wonderful post that Mikael linked to.  Now I know what this post is about.

I'm a professor (full prof in US terms).  I often think "I have literally no idea what I'm doing here."  In this case I do not mean the imposter syndrome.  I suspect many of us have that, but I also suspect you don't have to be depressed to think: "surely I'll be found out one day."   But that's not what I am talking about.

What I mean is this.  I'm a full professor, and at a great university (well at least at an old one that hovers around 100 in most world rankings.)   The question is: why am I here as a full professor?  Why am I not there as somebody who started but could not finish a PhD?  Or there as somebody who got a PhD but could never publish a paper?  Or there as somebody who wrote some papers who nobody ever read?  Or there as somebody who wrote some cool papers but an academic job never worked out for them?  Or there as somebody who got an academic job, and it was a treadmill, not a source of -sometimes transient but very real -  joy?  Or there as somebody with an occasionally joyous academic job, but not making progress in a career? 

So why am I here?

I hope you have guessed the answer. 

I have literally no idea why I'm here. 

I don't want you to think I am being modest.  A nice thing about Depressed Academics is that I find it easy to be honest here.  If I was talking about my academic abilities in person I'll probably be understated and modest and self deprecating, because of a combination of old fashioned British nature, and partly because it can be funny (again a British type of humour.)  On the other hand, if I'm writing a CV for a job or promotion, or for a grant proposal, you will be surprised not to have seen me giving my talk for the Turing Award.     

So here goes the honesty.  There are some things I'm very good at.   I'm very clever.  And that manifests itself in thinking about fiddly kinds of discrete mathsy kind of things.  I know that doesn't make a lot of sense ... but I never really got on with applied maths and then when pure maths got really infinite (measure theory) I hit a wall there too.    But give me a small finite problem or a chance to think about algorithms for finite problems ... well I can do that.  I can have ideas about these types of things.  There are also things I'm bad at.   Maybe the oddest amongst academic skills that I am bad at is reading lots of papers.  My friend Patrick Prosser always found it justifiably hilarious that I had the job title of "reader" when I was so bad at reading papers.   [Reader is an odd UK academic title, don't worry about it.]  I never seriously learnt to program.  I can write programs to implement a cute algorithm but I'm not a great programmer especially in the large: I regret that as it cuts off some types of research I'd enjoy.   And, two sides of the same coin for good and ill: I can get incredibly enthusiastic about a line of work, a great thing and I can drive it hard because I love it; but I can't get things done well if I'm not enthusiastic about them, and worse that might be something I was super enthusiastic about a month ago.  I don't want to go on and on, but put it this way.  There are things I'm good at and things I'm not so good at.

What is the point of all this stuff I just pontificated about?

I have literally no idea why I'm here. 

What I really mean is this:

I cannot look in my memory at the me who was doing a PhD, or a postdoc, or a junior lecturer, and honestly say I can figure out why that guy was going to become a professor.  There are things I thought I was bad at then, and it turns out maybe I wasn't so bad at them.  Or I am bad and everyone else is even worse.  Or I am bad and other people are better but those things don't matter so much.  There are other things that I had never even thought of, which are very important in an academic career.  I would not have thought of them, and maybe even now I haven't worked out what they are.

I think about this quite often.  I think about friends who maybe haven't got here yet.  Maybe I can see that I happen to be good at something vital that they are not so good at.   But I don't see that it was something clear we could have spotted 20 years ago even if we'd sat down to talk about it.  And if we did talk about it, could I rewind the universe and flip the coin again, and say "aha, I'll do well and you won't"?  No.

I have literally no idea why I'm here.

This hasn't got a lot to do with Depressed Academics.  Because of that I quit writing this post half way through.  But when I read TypeInType's post, I knew what this was about.  TypeInType has problems that make research hard, but writes this:
"So I don’t know if I’m going to be a failure in my chosen field. I don’t know if I’m ever going to have a real career. I just know that I have to try."
I don't know if those problems will stop you getting a PhD, or progressing after a PhD.  I really really really don't.  But I do know that I don't know.

I have literally no idea why I'm here.  

1 comment:

  1. I read your post "I literally have no idea why I am here". First of all, congratulations on being a full professor, and thank you for being so honest. It seems to me that one possibility for the depression and the recurrent questions you ask yourself is that you have to become interested in things outside your academic world. Perhaps you are taking all this too seriously. Life IS very much unexplainable at times. That is why we have to switch to activities that give us a sense of pleasure and curiosity; things that makes you have fun and accept that we are all actors on a stage, and there is no real explanation of why we ended up there. My advice is to get involved in something that is quite different from what you do professionally. If you professionally deal with mathematics, that is quite mental, do something which is the opposite, get involved in a poetry reading group or something which is more emotional, maybe art or karaoke, something expressive. How about sculpture or ceramics? I think you will feel more fulfilled and think less about why you are where you are. I hope this helps. Be emotional about what you want to do, do not be mental or rational! Good luck!


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