Back to reality

And yet another academic year kicks off again. What year is this? 2014, check. Which year did I start? 2011, check. Whoa! Wait a minute – three years have gone by?! How did that happen? Why didn’t anybody tell me?! So my last year has started?? Oh boy [picture me becoming pale in the face], in a year’s time I’m expected to have written a book, drawn some very profound and groundbreaking conclusions and am expected to head off to the next step in my career? Oh boy!

“Ah”, I hear post-docs thinking, “the final year grad student – been there, done that. Feel so sorry for those guys (NOT!)…” Well, I guess last-year grads are easy to recognize: walking hastily through the corridor, a bit pale faced, sleep deprived, maybe a nervous twitch or two. You’ve got it, that’s us. To be honest, I actually don’t feel all of this (yet), but the what’s next? question has definitely been popping up in my mind more often these days. Three years ago, doing a Ph.D. to me was a form of safe and comfortable intellectual escapism, curiosity-driven but also having that delightful feeling of being allowed to not think about what next? for the following three years. But here I am again: what’s next?

Instead of what, George Whitesides recently reminded a group of us over lunch – you should ask why? Why are you doing what you’re doing now? And so in that next step, what is your Big Why? Is it because you’re on to the next best thing after sliced bread? Because your research is going to save millions of lives? In both cases: quite unlikely. But what’s wrong with because I like it, I hear you thinking. Sure, but what if your research does not serve any greater good than feeding your curiosity? I guess that is not wrong per se. But should society pay for a lifetime of this? Should society pay for you (and me) wanting to escape from society, hoping that somehow, some day something will come out?

Anyhow, an interesting lunch it was, with more food for thought than actual calories. Until the 1950s – George-the-walking-encyclopedia lectured – the vast majority of research was done with a practical purpose – think Bell labs, NatLab, cold war, etc. All fine, but should research always have a direct practical purpose, as many politicians these days advocate? Isn’t that a one-way ticket to short-term goals and stagnation, to a modern medieval era?

For George, his answer was clear: the bigger why is making a lasting contribution to society, as most of us witnessed during his talk in the Atomium in Brussels. Then again, the bigger why is a lot easier to fill in when you do not have to worry about job perspectives. And a lot easier in hindsight, especially when you’ve become an established George-type big shot. Again, food for thought. Talking about which: I suggest talking over the whats and whys over dinner with my direct peers: I call for a last years’ grad student dinner club. And my word of advice for younger grad students: enjoy your intellectual retreat while it lasts!

 Published in the 11th Kavli newsletter of October 2014.

Images from phdcomics.

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