06 June 2012

Motivations for a Doctorate

People have asked me and I have asked others undertaking the road toward a doctorate: “What motivated you to do this?”

It’s a legitimate question. A doctorate is a gauntlet that you enter naively, regret while pursuing it, and with any luck at all, will think was worth it when you emerge from the other side. I can’t know yet whether that last part will be true, but I do hold out hope that I haven’t wasted my time.

But when asked directly about my motivations, I’ve always been tempted to give glib answers. I wanted to learn more. I wanted a better job. Yadda, yadda, yadda. But my motivations were real. I didn’t really enter this lightly. I was already out in the working world and could have remained there and made a decent living, probably a better living than I will end up with following all this education. Consider that I was making more money at my job that ended in 2000 than I made in my first year of teaching in 2012. I had better job security. I had lifestyle stability. I could have had a job for life. I gave it up.


The reasons are many and I’m going to try to give you a picture of what drove me back to graduate school.

My job was unsatisfying. Don’t get me wrong. I was good at my job. It was interesting and I was well paid. I was a writer and an editor for a variety of science organizations. I interviewed a lot of people about their work, about their specific knowledge, and then I interpreted that to the broader public. They had knowledge and skills. I had knowledge and skills. But, with each passing year it seemed to me that the work they did was real, and that somehow I was simply an observer on this train called life. Those I interviewed were saving species and traveling to spectacular locations, and making a difference in the world, and when they got back from their Indiana Jones lives I interviewed them and went back to my 1970s paneled office and wrote about their adventures. They were having all the fun. No one was ever going to pay me to go to Hawaii and study plants that grow on the slopes of volcanoes, or to South America to search for trees containing anti-cancer properties. I wanted adventure. I wanted to be more than a groupie for scientists.

I got a divorce. I married a lunatic and while we were divorcing he threatened me, harassed me, and generally made my life miserable. I knew if I stayed where I was, I’d never get any peace. I was unhappy and needed a clean break from the past. Starting a new career in a town where he couldn’t find me seemed like a great way to put it all behind me.

Which brings me to the next point.

I wanted to reinvent myself. When I left my job and got my divorce, I was unhappy. No. Not just unhappy. I was depressed. I had gained substantial weight during my marriage and I felt and looked awful. In that state, I simply could not tackle my physical issues, but I could begin to change my state of mind. In one defining moment, I decided to take control of my life. I decided that I was going to live my life for me. Not for my parents. Not for a husband. Not for my friends. Not to meet society’s expectations. For me. I found my passion and I went for it.

I wanted more control in my work life. One of the most attractive things I envisioned in an academic career was the elimination of shame and humiliation in the workplace. People make mistakes. I made mistakes. But there were times in my career when a boss would call me on the carpet. It wasn’t enough to point out my mistake and to ask me to work more carefully or to suggest methods of improvement. No. I was treated like a child. I was shamed and humiliated, sometimes in vast disproportion to the magnitude of the mistake. And I felt badly. I was shamed. I was humiliated. I was also distracted, unfocused, and unproductive. All the time spent feeling shame and humiliation, I was not being getting work done. So what place do shame and humiliation have in the workplace? I was not working with gross indifference to my performance. I was motivated to do a good job without shame and humiliation. People make mistakes. They make mistakes when they are stressed or hurried or overworked or tired. Compounding my dissatisfaction, I was expected to take responsibility for mistakes that weren’t my own. Not even mistakes made by my staff. Mistakes over which I had no input or control. As though I had a cloud of influence that radiated perfection in every direction. I had no respect for the bosses laying the guilt trips. I do not believe that shame and humiliation have any place in the workplace. In fact, I don’t believe they have any place in our lives. I wanted a job where very few people had the right to comment on my behavior. I wanted to be at the top of the heap. I wanted that feeling to be expelled from my life forever. Academia was the one place I thought it possible to reduce or eliminate the shame and humiliation from above.

I found the subject interesting. When I returned to school, I found the more I learned about plants, the more I wanted to learn. I found I had an aptitude for this work. I found that I truly enjoyed it. I found that I liked being around others who enjoyed it. I thought it was a supportive, interesting, mentally stimulating career choice. For the most part, it has been.

As Paul Harvey used to say, “And now, for the rest of the story….”

Hindsight is 20/20 and with that I will now detail why I think academia may have been the wrong choice. Granted, my experiences are limited to my work as a graduate student under the mentoring of an academic, but I have seen a little of the inside as well when I was a Visiting Asst. Professor for a time.

The Scrabble Paradox. I’m not good at Scrabble. I have an extraordinarily large vocabulary, but it seems that people—regardless of their education, level of proficiency in the English language, or age—are able to thump me unceremoniously. I draw all vowels. I draw all consonants. Someone uses the space I had earmarked for an 8-letter word worth 4000 points. I lose and lose often. Luckily, my livelihood and my self worth are not tied to my Scrabble performance. Not so much with academia. My area of specialization is not in favor with funding agencies at the moment and, if I am honest with myself, is unlikely to be popular during the totality of my career. It’s considered marginal work at best. I find it extraordinarily fascinating and it has great potential to benefit the human condition, but pollination and reproductive biology isn’t sexy. And funding is the name of the game in academia. Promotions, tenure, bragging rights, stature…everything depends on your ability to attract research dollars and the bigger the payoff, the bigger the professional rewards. I don’t enjoy a game I can never win. My choices are to pursue research that doesn’t interest me but is fundable or to languish at the bottom of the food chain.

The profession creates assholes. University professors have an obligation to train the next generation of scientists. Training generally entails learn-on-your-own, on-the-job training with students doing the grunt work of their advisor’s research. Students are regularly abused from a legal standpoint. In return for this dedication to their advisor’s research, do they receive quality training and mentoring? Oh, hell no! I once pointed out to a professor that a student needed a particular class to qualify for the career he desired. The professor emphatically stated that the class in question did not support the student’s research project and would not result in publishable papers, so why should the professor support the student’s taking an unrelated class? As though the student’s career needs are solely defined by the parameters of a single research project! When I pointed out that the student was here to get training for his career, the professor seemed unfazed. I can only hope the professor advised the student to take the course.

Undergraduates are like face-eating zombies. More specifically, it’s those pre-med students who nickel and dime you for every point, eat up your time with their incessant need to discuss their grade. Most of these students are doing exceedingly well. Their problem is they are unable to accept anything less than perfection in themselves and they will gladly impose that impossible standard on you. They will gripe and complain about assignments, tests, grading, lectures, labs, and anything else that diverts attention away from them. Don’t’ get me wrong. I am willing to offer advice, help, assistance, and additional time so that a student can get up to speed, improve study habits, or learn something they don’t understand. However, I can’t fix a problem that doesn’t exist. I can advise students who don’t test well, don’t study, don’t want to come to class, wants something for nothing, or simply wishes to blame me for their poor performance. I will work with the folks trying. I can’t abide the folks complaining because their success isn’t successful enough. It’s a constant battle to keep the zombies from eating you alive.

The profession is your life. I hope you are already married and have a tolerant spouse. You’ll work long hours. Mostly alone. You have an impossible workload. You will submit subpar work because of outrageous deadlines. You will feel frazzled. You won’t have friends outside of work. You will panic a lot. No one can help you. They are feeling the same pressure. You better love it. This is your life.

Collegiality is absent. There. I said it. I don’t think academics are particularly friendly. There is no love lost between the old timers and the newbies. You are lucky to find one colleague you can tolerate and work on making that person your best friend for life. Good luck.

Overall, it would be a great profession if I could be excused from bringing in my own research dollars. If I could just go out and do research on the cheap (luckily, my research can be done cheaply). Because grant writing is a bitch and I’ve not been very successful.

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