11

Imagine "a person" who may or may not be brilliant in her field, but certainly has new things to contribute, some of them (in her opinion) fascinating.

Imagine she adores her field, relates to it spiritually, and has been convinced for years that her life purpose is to do this research. She cannot imagine spending her time on this planet in any other way.

Of course, she has poured hours into it already, devoting her undergraduate career and much of her personal time to her area of interest. But she knows that it takes years of full-time commitment, study, and mentorship to become an expert in a field and to become qualified to break ground in a specific area.

But suppose it is not in her nature, nor particularly within her abilities, to meet the demands of today's academic culture. She is absent-minded and spacey; she is idealistic; she is in certain ways immature. She crumbles easily under stress and is psychologically vulnerable. She has difficulty making time for everything even without the demands of a graduate or postgraduate workload. She hates filling out forms and (especially) soliciting recommendations, even though her kind and charitable professors are always eager to write for her.

Please answer one or both of these questions:

A.

Should the person in my example "go into academe"--that is, should she go to graduate school for an academic PhD? If not, what should she do?

B.

Does the "absent-minded professor" exist anymore, and if so, how do/did they get through the hurdles?

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    She is absent-minded and spacey; [...] she is in certain ways immature. She crumbles easily under stress and is psychologically vulnerable For which other career do you believe this is not a problem? – Cape Code Nov 18 '15 at 21:59
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    You don't know whether you can take the heat until you try. – user37208 Nov 18 '15 at 22:26
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    She crumbles easily under stress and is psychologically vulnerable. — I recommend therapy. – JeffE Nov 19 '15 at 13:15
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    @CapeCode No, of course not. But "crumbles easily under stress and is psychologically vulnerable" are not words one normally uses to describe healthy adults. There is no shame or selfishness in seeking professional help for mental health issues; that's what therapists are for. – JeffE Nov 25 '15 at 18:09
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    The world (and in particular academia) has never been "what it used to be". The shining city of Academia Pura has always been a myth, except for a rare privileged few. – JeffE Nov 26 '15 at 21:43
8

I think the heart of this question comes to what this hypothetical person actually wants when it comes to "doing research." This could mean a lot of different things, but when I hear people speak vaguely in this manner, the notions often roughly categorize into three clusters:

  • Exploring ideas relating to a field of knowledge: To explore ideas and communicate about them a person can readily participate as an amateur, working at whatever level of intensity and engagement makes most sense. There's nothing wrong with engaging on this level, and it can actually be quite important, especially when it comes to communication of scientific ideas (e.g., many science journalists can be considered to engage with research in this way).
  • Doing work that supports the advancement of knowledge: One can do work that supports research without actually signing up for the full primary investigator load. Lab technicians, amateur astronomers, and industrial researchers are all people who "get things done" that directly contribute to research and the advancement of knowledge, yet rarely or never need face the challenges associated with publication and funding. The bigger the research project, the more space there is for people of this sort: most of the people working on the Large Hadron Collider, for example, probably fall into this category. Depending on the particulars, contributions might require no formal education at all anywhere up to a doctorate and postdoc specialization.
  • Organizing and leading investigations that advance knowledge: Leading research as a primary investigator is where the serious "heat" comes in, and where a doctorate is definitely required. Here one needs to have not only the technical training but also to be able to deal with strong criticism of one's ideas and to be well organized and capable of communicating scientifically. Note, however, that "dealing with criticism" should not mean putting up with verbal abuse and ad hominem attacks.

Now, relating this to your hypothetical person. The two key warning flags that I see in your statement are "crumbles easily under stress and is psychologically vulnerable" and "difficulty making time for everything."

  • If "difficulty making time" means the person cannot really commit to things, then only amateur work is likely to be a good path.
  • If "crumbles easily" means "cannot handle people challenging ideas", then leading investigations is definitely out, and any sort of doctoral program is likely problematic. On the other hand, if it means "is easily hurt by verbal abuse" then graduate school is entirely possible---it would just be important to find a good advisor match and some sort of supportive personal network.
  • Thank you. I wonder how this all would translate into humanities disciplines. Let's say my great love is Chaucer. I know Chaucer front and back; all my time goes to Chaucer. My goal in life is to learn everything there is to know about Chaucer. Additionally, I think I have a new way of reading Chaucer. So I suppose I want to "lead my own investigation" in a sense. How do I do that? Can I? – SAH Nov 19 '15 at 1:07
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    @SAH Loving Chaucer, learning everything you can about Chaucer, and even reading Chaucer in a different way is not the same as leading scholarly research on Chaucer---everything you described is the first "exploring ideas" category. Scholarly research on the subject is more like these references you might find on Google Scholar, which dig deeply into the relationship of the Canterbury Tales to other aspects of the era, development of ideas, or the human experiences in general. – jakebeal Nov 19 '15 at 1:12
  • Humanities scholarship need not be about the things you mentioned (although it often is). Reading texts themselves is a huge part of what humanitarians do. (Just see page 2 of your link!) – SAH Nov 19 '15 at 1:15
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    @SAH Not sure what you mean by "reading texts themselves"---typically "a reading" is actually an examination and interpretation of a text in service of some goal, even if that goal simply be to construct an experience for the modern reader that is equivalent of what contemporaries would have had. – jakebeal Nov 19 '15 at 1:36
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    @Ooker A few of (many) examples: you can make a career out of it in science journalism or publishing. You can get a comet named after yourself as an amateur astronomer. You can improve your parenting of your children by being better able to find good advice and ignore bad advice. You can participate politically in a better informed way and improve the community in which you live. There's really no end of ways in which amateur engagement with science might be of value to a person, depending on their individual mix of goals, desires, and circumstances. – jakebeal Nov 27 '15 at 13:32
4

Before anyone becomes an "absent-minded" professor, they have to pass certain stages, including PhD, (several) postdocs, assistant professor role, associate professor and then full professor. The responsibilities, demands and dynamics in these roles is very different. Many people find it hard to cope with pressures and demands in competitive academic environment; many people really struggle to adjust when it comes to transition between roles.

For a person you described, I see no reason why she could not have the same difficulties as many people in academia have.

On the other hand, for someone "idealistic" and "slightly immature", academia is probably a better place than a position in competitive industry or business. Many academics are (to some extent) disorganised, many academics don't like doing their paperwork, many are idealistic or shy or introvert. However, despite these personal quirks, they managed to do some important contribution to the knowledge in their fields and convinced their colleagues and their universities that they deserve a place in academia.

Maybe to answer your question, you need to assess the ability of this person to "do the job", including research (can she write a paper and get it published), teaching (will she prepare for her class and show in time for it), and knowledge dissemination (can she explain the results to colleagues in conference). I think it can be in fact more important, that the personal features you described.

  • i don't think Freeman Dyson ever got an earned PhD. (maybe some school by now gave him an honorary doctorate, just before he gave a commencement address.) – robert bristow-johnson Nov 26 '15 at 3:07
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    @robertbristow-johnson I don't think Isaac Newton has got PhD either. And Galileo Galilei has not got any degrees. But times are different now, aren't they? – Dmitry Savostyanov Nov 26 '15 at 7:47
  • yes they are Dmitry. in some ways for the better. – robert bristow-johnson Nov 26 '15 at 20:49
4

There's a third path possible here. As an example -- I know a guy with a PhD in linguistics, who did his research on an obscure aspect of an obscure language. He found it very satisfying. But after graduating, he got a job as a database manager at a university. I was surprised to hear that he likes the job!

Another example -- how many people went to school for music or dance, but ended up working in something either slightly or completely different?

Please don't feel that you have to work in the field that you pursue your studies in.

On the other hand, if you find that the academic environment is a mismatch for you, to such an extent that it makes you unhappy (despite the intellectual satisfactions it brings) -- then please first take care of yourself by getting yourself out of a destructive environment.

3

Should the person under question "go into academe"? Let us preserve the (probably-fictive-here :-) use of the third person and refer to our subject as the PUQ. The question as asked presents a 3-relation between

  • the PUQ (a bundle of abilities and preferences)
  • a "field" (implicitly presented as a bundle of conceptual content and interests)
  • a role (called "academic," implicitly tenure-track but presently post-/graduate) "contributing to" or "participating in" that field

The dilemma as given is that the PUQ is strongly conceptually aligned with the field (pun intended :-) but strongly behaviorally misaligned with the academic role within that field. Yet the question as presented is merely, should the PUQ adopt that role?

ISTM the analysis provided ignores a dimension of the field which is strongly relevant for optimizing PUQ-role (and -life) outcomes: what is the resource-intensity of the field? Notably, does contributing to the field tend to require significant external resources, as with (e.g.) most computational or experimental physical science, or heavily-archival social science? Or not, as with (e.g.) much of humanities and mathematics?[1]

If the field is resource-intensive, the PUQ might seek a non-academic or non-TT-academic role within an organization able to provide the necessary resources. E.g.,

  1. Find someone who is
    • researching in the domain
    • needs additional staff
    • can "make it rain" sufficiently to pay her bills
  2. Work for them. She may need to volunteer for them first.

The role-containing organization will hopefully also provide sufficient personal income. If not, this role may require (as, increasingly, may the academic role) reducing personal expenses and (on conventional measures) standard-of-living.

If the field is not resource-intensive, the PUQ might seek the role of independent contributor, by

  • Working as little as possible at one or more temporary or permanent "gigs" used to "pay for the passion."
  • Fundraising to {add to earnings, create more spare time, fund contribution}.
  • Contributing (e.g., researching, publishing) "in spare time."

[1]: Note that resource-intensity is obviously a continuous dimension, not a discrete one. The binary analysis is presented here simply for brevity; extension for continuity is left as an exercise for the reader :-)

3

Imagine "a person" who may or may not be brilliant in her field, but certainly has new things to contribute, some of them (in her opinion) fascinating. Imagine she adores her field, relates to it spiritually, and has been convinced for years that her life purpose is to do this research. She cannot imagine spending her time on this planet in any other way.

This sounds like someone who is passionate about research.

Of course, she has poured hours into it already, devoting her undergraduate career and much of her personal time to her area of interest. But she is wise enough to know that it takes years of full-time commitment, study, and mentorship to become an expert in a field and to become qualified to break new ground in a specific area.

This sounds like someone who has already committed significantly, and who is fully aware of the long and arduous road ahead.

But suppose it is not in her nature, nor particularly within her abilities, to meet the demands of today's academic culture.

This would require some elaboration. But I sense a bit of an idealization of what professors are (see below).

She is absent-minded and spacey; she is idealistic; she is in certain ways immature. She crumbles easily under stress and is psychologically vulnerable. She has difficulty making time for everything even without the demands of a graduate or postgraduate workload.

I want to be cautious about interpreting this one. But it sounds like your typical overworked young college student.

She hates filling out forms and (especially) soliciting recommendations, even though her kind and charitable professors are always eager to write for her.

This sounds like someone who already has a good rapport with her instructors, and whom such instructors have a high opinion of.

Am I too off the mark so far?

To your questions:

Should the person in my example "go into academe"--that is, should she go to graduate school for an academic PhD?

Sounds like she might enjoy it very much.

Does the "absent-minded professor" exist anymore, and if so, how do/did they get through the hurdles?

I've gone to school wearing mismatched shoes; would that qualify?

Academics are people. Many, but not all, are very capable in and passionate about what they do. But without exception, they all have weaknesses, they all question themselves from time to time, and they all have had their confidence shaken in the face of adversity and/or criticism at some point.

2

If she were my constituent

We all only get 1 life to live - the most intelligent of us have a duty to our fellow man not to waste that time focusing our energies on anything other than solutions to life's big problems. In the words of Horace Mann: “Be ashamed to die until you have won some victory for humanity.”

If she were my friend

We only get 1 life to live - and we have a duty to ourselves to spend that time in accordance with our own beliefs. In the words of Vincent Van Gogh: “I put my heart and my soul into my work, and have lost my mind in the process.”

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    I love your answer. But do you have any tips on how to make this work against all odds of success in the 'biz? – SAH Nov 26 '15 at 2:03
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    P.S. I'm sorry but the jury is out about whether VvG spent his life well... – SAH Nov 26 '15 at 2:05
  • I'm sorry - I only know of the problem, not to solution :P – Wetlab Walter Nov 27 '15 at 14:40

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