Saturday, June 3, 2017

in pursuit of peanut butter

“Welcome to a life of the mind”, were the words from our University President upon my entrance to graduate school, which felt both corny and inspiring.

During graduate school I knew that I would miss the days of sitting around thinking deeply about evolution. Days of scribbling down wild ideas, confusing myself, days of re-re-reading articles, and the gentle roiling angst that comes with doing/what-am-I-doing science. But I couldn’t appreciate it. 

Having earned your Ph.D. means a very specific thing. It means you have your Ph.D. It means you came up with an original idea, read the related literature carefully, collected new data (in some cases), wrote about it for more pages than will likely ever be read, and your scholarship was approved by experts in the field. But it also means something else. 

It means that throughout this process of idea generation and pursuit you have developed a habit of mind, that you cannot lose. You can never just read one article on a new topic again and purport to know about it, because behind each piece of knowledge lies a vastness and complexity and nuance that one cannot wholly grasp, unless one really, deeply, years-of-hard-work knows it. It is an intense humbling. In this depth lies confusion, conflicting information, mistakes, and doubt that you have to wade through in order to find your particle of, dare I say, truth. And finding something that no one has before does not typically feel anything like eureka, it feels more like dipping your toe in a freezing cold body of water in the pitch black night; a creepy shiver at best. 

I am acutely aware of not making others who don’t have this degree feel inadequate. People get weird about it honestly. Sometimes people immediately start telling me about their plans for graduate school, which feels less like a conversation, and more of a confession. Other times people puff up and pontificate in order to assert their knowledge. I didn’t ask for that. I do not want to make people uncomfortable. So, I have taken to not telling people most of the time, because I don’t want the weirdness. I believe that many minds have something to offer, and the quality of someone’s ideas is not equivalent to their schooling. The quality of ideas is equivalent to the quality of the ideas, whether it comes from a 5th grader, or a distinguished professor.

But in my hiding, I have lost something. It’s turned into something that feels more like shame. This is my doing entirely, no one asked me to behave this way. I work with many non-academics around me, so this has something to do with it. It’s like I learned how to swim, but now I pretend I don’t know how: why would anyone do that?  So, I am writing to remind myself that this degree is something. It is not nothing. It was transformative for me. And I am sorry if my own personal pursuit has scared you, or reminded you of your own failures, that was not my intention. I ate peanut butter for many years, and thought deeply about things most people don’t care about. And I am not sorry that I love both of those things.