Thursday, October 18, 2012

on survival and risk, academically speaking.

// originally written: 16 october 2012

one of the risks in staying in this business ..
.. not that i ever had a backup plan or anything ..

.. is that one grows older, more young people arrive into the game, and by default one's status becomes a more senior one (even if not formally so).  like it or not, we become role models of a kind .. especially in university environments, where one encounters a lot of students.

i wonder how often others meet us, and we are immediately viewed as "old."

this very phenomenon played a decisive part in my decision to extend this postdoc position for another year .. not the "old" part, i mean.  (i'm fine with that.)  rather, the seniority and responsibility seemed very real to me.

i still don't know if it feels right to be Professor Geminus yet instead of just Janus, but i can't put it off forever.  we all need to grow up, i suppose .. or at least enough of us, if only to make sure that the world keeps turning.

--- o ---

i don't think i make a very good role model. [1]  it's not just the circumstances of my last talk, either, though that was a rare exception.  there's more to it.

some mornings, as the coffee slowly wakes me up, the thought occurs to me:
i can't believe it: despite all the bad strokes of luck,
all the stupid mistakes i've made .. i'm still in the game
i dwell on this a while, honestly stunned.  (then, of course, i set aside such thoughts and get to work .. but you get my point.)

maybe i've met too many talented and well-organised mathematicians, which probably warps my sense of what "average" means in this business [2].  at any rate, many of my colleagues have successfully applied for research grants, make excellent mentors, give fine presentations, and work on many different sub-fields.

in contrast, to this day i still don't feel like i know what i'm doing.

every few months, sure: i make headway into a new project, even manage a new pre-print, but none of these are predictable.  it's not like i can really plan out the next five years, as some of my peers seem able to do in their own research plans.

maybe i'm just nearsighted .. in more ways than the literal one.

lately, in fact, my own results surprise me.
it's like being an adult for a while and suddenly making a new friend,
as easily as you would have done so at the schoolyard, and just as fun:
happy coincidences, you know?

the only real principle that i follow is a recent one.  maybe i picked it up unconsciously from the advisor and only remembered it recently:
when i have an idea, often it doesn't matter whether it works or not;
i just want to know.

if it works, then great!
if it doesn't work, then i want to know why it doesn't ..
.. because at least i can then learn something from my shortcomings.
maybe, just maybe, i'm slowly becoming an optimist.  stranger things have happened.

[1] if you (the reader) can get anything out of this blog, then i hope that it shows you that:

(A) there are plenty of ways that one can screw up in graduate school and ακαδημία [3] in general,
(B) despite the myriad of ways one can screw up, the system is surprisingly stable, and these points being established,
(C) if you can learn from my mistakes without making the same ones, then maybe they were worth making

[2] strictly speaking, the faculty one meets in any academic department are the "survivors" amongst their generation of first-year graduate students.  the pool is already biased, when you think about it. since those students and postdocs that chose other career paths are simply not around, one can easily get the illusion that "why is everyone doing well but me?"  the truth of the matter is that attrition is high: in the same year that i started my ph.d. there were 30-31 students and at last count, at least ten of them left mathematics .. most of them for industry.

[3] i can't figure out the modern ambiguity between "academe" and "academia" and "the academy" .. but i suppose nobody can argue with the original greek spelling.  after a fashion, aren't we all descendents of plato, aristotle, and the ancients anyway? q-:

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