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Tuesday, March 22, 2011

Arbeit macht frei; Work sets you free

A.k.a. "Another bunch of comics"

Nothing much to blog about lately – it snowed again last week; the streets are mushy with melting, dirty snow so we haven't began our outdoor activities; I'm doing most of my exercise at home with a yoga ball, dumbbells and an exercise bike, and it's kind of just a work-home routine for now. "The daily grind," if you will.

It suits me right now. They say that the PhD years do the best and worst for your self-esteem. Most PhD students question if the academic career really is the thing for them, while also trying to do the biggest research project of one's life so far – not to mention dealing with method / theory of science questions like the nature of knowledge and the knowledge production while doing your research – and having lots of other things going on in one's life, to boot. Four to five years is a long time in one's life after all. That's a lot of time to ponder in and out of questions like, "is this the right thing for me?". My thesis advisers attest that things can go up and down; you can reach periods of hybris as well as self-doubt. The best and worst period of your life, basically.

Thankfully, I'm in an inspiration phase in my thesis work at the moment. I'm in the middle of writing what may be my first thesis-related articles, so I'm quite happy to live a work-home life and I'm appreciating the lack of other extra-curricular activities. Who knew? About a month and a half ago, while sorting out what to do with my interview material and trying to come to terms with puzzles like the nature of "scientific knowledge" in the social sciences and the place of pre-understandings in study design, I was just about ready to apply for a more practical job (I even rang them to inquire!). At that moment, I wanted a job that at least didn't leave me pondering about epistemological-methodological questions ("what is the foundation of knowledge?") when the whole task of the job and the academic enterprise is to gain knowledge and, in some ways, profess your own results as important knowledge so that it can in turn be reproduced in classrooms and cited by others.

Another one of the seemingly contradictory things about this PhD job (technically we're not "PhD students" because we get paid according to a pay grade and get pension benefits) is this: On the one hand, there's a lot of freedom that comes with the work, both intellectually, creatively and time-wise. But on the other hand, since getting the job done is all up to you (your research plan, your data collection, your analysis, your writing, your conference presentations), there is simultaneously a pressure to be productive – "there's bound to be something that can be done, written or read today; how can I ever be an expert on this thing?". The difference with other types of work is that you don't have a real "limit" as to how much labor you should put in your work, since you drive your own project. Technically, we should work only up to a certain amount of hours a year, but it seems that we can work as little – or preferably, if we want to build up our portfolio to get a position beyond the PhD – as much as we like or feel that we need to to become "experts". But the thing is that most of the work product is not even tangible, nor does all work lead to direct results in terms of something that can be evaluated. On the contrary, it sometimes feels that all the day's "progress" in reading just make you end up getting more stumped.

Striking a balance regarding how much work to do in a day is not that easy (too many articles to read to reach "expertise," for example, especially if you really want to engage in the debates in the field. Did you know that a quarter of a million academic articles are published each year? Most get cited only a couple of times, except for the big names. We are reassured that we'll see a distinct part of the research field picture as we go along). Sometimes though, like nowadays, I manage to find it and go home thinking that I could leave stuff unread or unwritten until the next day and still meet a deadline. I even feel that it may be within reach to write a more-than-decent article after all and even have time for a couple of other things, which is really a good feeling (Another segue: Most universities today highly encourage their researchers to publish in the most popular journals to increase citation incidence, which is taken as a sign of research quality. Now that there are too many articles being published, a problem of "quantifying quality" now exists. An understandable goal, but a skewed way of gauging quality at the same time).

All this got me thinking about the love-hate nature people in general have with work. You want it badly when it's not there (reminds me of this blog entry from 3 years ago); it gives you a sense of purpose and an identity. Yet, when we do have work, we sometimes wonder why we do it besides for its own sake or the obvious need to earn, consume and save for pension "in the hamster wheel". We can even think out ways to work less and still get the same life satisfaction, or wonder if working less actually gives more life satisfaction – despite less money – if we just have our needs covered and can think of other interesting things to do for self-realization than "a job" in the standard sense. But that would be kind of contradictory with the feeling that having work automatically gives one a sense of purpose, wouldn't it?

Most of the time, I really appreciate my job for being as close to "being free" from the constraints of a bundee-clocked job as I can get. I plan my own workday and the job content is challenging to say the least, even if the job comes with its own special problems. I still have some issues to resolve about the "why's" of my job sometimes, but overall, it's not so bad. I'm not really sure if I'd want to seriously work outside the academe either. Despite my weird relation with research, I kind of enjoy it. My approach for now is try to do as much as I can while I'm still on an inspiration moment – who knows how I will feel about the thesis work a year from now! (Fingers crossed, I'll be maintaining my sanity.)


Anonymous jeline said...

hi joy! glad you wrote this post. i'm only in the first sem of my phd (4 years / 7 sems to go) and i'm already feeling pangs of uncertainty and insecurity. one of my profs said that 700-800 is a "conservative number" of citations (by others of works you've done) for consideration for a professorship. my reaction: "holy cow. i don't think i've even been TAGGED 700 times on facebook!"

that just shows how in academia (or any kind of non-acad job where your phd would actually be relevant), publishing is really linked to postdoc job prospects. and teaching/policy/research posts and fellowships are hard to come by as it is, what with the increase of "supply" (unemployed phd grads) and decrease of "demand" (teaching posts, etc).

it just gives me a really queasy feeling that even 4 years of hard, mind-numbing, best-worst work won't guarantee any sort of financial or professional security.

with that, i shall resume cramming a paper for my class. haha! time to go back to the present. and in the present, maybe the only thing that matters - the only thing that'll keep us steady on the path we've chosen - is the sense of fulfillment and fun we create for ourselves. so, freedom indeed, even if it is temporary.

big hugs :)

12:55 AM

Blogger Ahoy! said...

Hi Jeline! Good to hear from you and good to read that you identified yourself in my post too. :-) I'm replying from... work! But it's after 5 now, so it's OK. Heheh. I could probably talk to you about this for hours - or at least write a long reply! I need to go to the grocery and buy yogurt though. Back to the rael world! :-P Glad you dropped by though, and it feels nice to vent out these things sometimes.

5:08 PM


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