Pearls before breakfast

I am getting ready to leave on a much needed break from work. Strictly speaking, it is not a clean getaway and I’ll be carrying a few trailing ends with me, but this is not the place for discussing that.

As I approach the end of a busy year at work, it is perhaps worthwhile to reflect a bit. This seems particularly apt given that this year, more than the previous couple, was marked by key milestones – my first PhD students graduating, the start of national and international research projects on which I am a co-PI, which brought our group’s first postdoctoral research associate, etc. I finally feel firmly in control of a medium term research agenda that I feel quite excited about.

Amongst all this activity, and the immediate considerations about papers, proposals and laboratory admin, I notice how incredibly easy it is for an academic to get lost in the details – and to be successful without actually doing the things that motivated one to go into this profession. I mean that in a specific sense, which is perhaps best explained by looking outside academia and through an interesting story from the Washington Post, from a couple of years back. The renowned violinist, Joshua Bell, played some of the most exquisite pieces of music in a Washington DC metro station, and nobody really gave a second glance. Here is a snippet of what actually happened:

Now, there is a lot one could say about what this actually means about the people who walked past, why this is or isn’t surprising. I do not want to discuss the reaction of the people in this incident. I do want to make the observation that as I get ensconced in the mechanics of life as an academic scientist, I find myself increasingly at risk of being like those busy passers-by. Everyday, I see people around me exhibit exactly this kind of behaviour because they can’t be sure that stopping to listen is worth their time or consistent with the things they are rushing towards. This is not always accidental and the most disturbing instances are when the behaviour is rationalized away in terms of the way things are.

So, a note to myself is that I should remember to stop and listen when something beautiful calls out. At this early stage in my career, it is entirely uncertain if I can go on to ‘be someone’ or ‘just another …’. However, if that rational calculation gets in the way of doing the kind of free thinking that justified my becoming an academic scientist in the first place, then I will surely only be left embarrassed when I figuratively look back at such a video of my professional life, at the end of my career.

PS: Of course, all of these comments are perhaps even more relevant in the personal sphere. Happy Holidays!


One thought on “Pearls before breakfast

  1. Ram,

    It also depends on what is at stake when such calculations are done. Depending on the system you work at, risks are encouraged or discouraged. Mostly, as a starting researcher in a tenure track university, you are not going to be able to do something completely wild as not even funding is accessible to you. But, if you are too conservative, no tenure for you :).


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