White Spires

What am I doing with my life?? Like a weevil gnawing through a woven sack of white rice, this question hatches as a larva of an idea and can eat its way to the outside. Its final form: an annoying, buzzing bug that is the existential crisis. Anyone can experience an existential crisis, wondering what impact their life could have, why they have to tirelessly grind through the same job day after day, or what else is left after graduating from high school or college or beyond. It’s so rife in the graduate student community that it has become a running gag; future PhDs must go through at least one existential crisis during their studies, some contemplating their existence monthly or even weekly. If you’re not familiar with the path to a PhD, you may not initially see why this would be such an easy pitfall for PhD students. Hopefully, I can explain this a little bit.

There’s a web comic about graduate students that highlights this idea, and it jokes about the contemplation of life by PhD students. You can see the comic here, but it uses an infograph to highlight the path of despair that accompanies a typical existential crisis. On one side, you can be jaded by your job, wondering what more there could be. On the other side, you could be a student stuck in school with no direction, wondering what will happen next. As a PhD, the comic points out, there might be a time when you realize that you’re stuck in school with no direction and you’re working on a project that has you jaded and brooding.

A PhD itself is a fairly new concept. It seems like medieval scholars once conducted scientific research as an almost-frivolous time waster, where a romanticized outlook can imagine ideas being exchanged by monocle-donning mustachioed gentlemen shouting arguments across long wooden tables filled with livestock cooked whole, heaping plates of nearly rotten steamed vegetables, and generously-filled mugs of brew. Research was conducted only if there was extra money lying around and a wealthy man had a desire for tinkering around. Modern research is highly structured, and it’s not a far reach to say that all of the “easy” scientific endeavors have already been explored (“easy” being in quotes because of course it seems easy now that we know it to be true, but still, as we go deeper and deeper, research requires more and more specialized knowledge and a higher entrance barrier for the modern scientist). And so now, the pejorative symbolism of an ivory tower, the symbol for academia’s elite, is constantly used to decry the abundance of obscure, over-specialized, and sometimes useless research.

Whether the ivory tower, which serves as a visual of the inaccessibility and noses-up-in-the-air haughtiness, and the veracity of the claims of “useless” research (see: IgNobel Prize) are accurate or not as a depiction of academia is not the argument here. Instead, they’ve been referenced to highlight how easy it could be for a PhD student to get lost while attempting climb the spiraling staircases of said ivory tower (or whatever symbolism you might prefer). Some paths are fruitless, leading to the wrong door; others can look promising but have booby-trapped steps that require Indiana Jones’ cunning and dexterity. And the perception that the ivory tower is impenetrable to the layman can be overwhelming for some students. In addition, it might be really difficult for some students to really understand how useful their research is.

It is better to light one candle than to curse the darkness. I think that this quote attributed to Peter Benenson succinctly sums up why research is important. Nearly every day that I am in lab, I am in the dark. No one has stepped into this new world before, and I am fumbling around, exploring. I might bump my shin on low-lying obstacles, slip and slide and lose my footing in the invisible muck, or just run into a dead-end with nowhere to go. My options: light a candle or curse the darkness. Through my research, I can discover a layout of this darkness; shine some light on a new topic. It is the logical solution to the problem of “darkness”. However, some may argue that this “darkness” doesn’t exist; it’s possible that we aren’t lost wondering if students are bored in class or whether obesity is healthy or not.

Even if that’s the case, intelligently-designed research is useful, and while the candle-in-the-dark metaphor works well for me, the slightly grotesque bubble-and-pimple analogy also explains this well. I’ll give credit where credit is due; Matt Might came up with this idea, and I recommend checking it out. I’ll try to explain it in words, but the visuals are much more compelling. Imagine a bubble. Inside this bubble is the entirety of human knowledge. Throughout your education, you start to learn things within this bubble; elementary school teaches you about basic language, math, and science, and later, high school and college fills in the gaps as you learn more and more. Eventually, you pick a “specialty”, and your own bubble of knowledge grows a little pimple poking out off the edge. Further and further you dive into research, learning about tiny details and obscure theories until you are at the very edge of human knowledge in your own specialty. This tiny pimple extends to the edge of the bubble, showing that you know a lot about a little bit (nearly reaching the limit of where you know everything about nothing). And with a little push of creativity, the edge of the bubble gives. You are at the boundary of everything that anyone has ever known, and you just pushed it a little further. It’s only a tiny blemish on the giant bubble of human knowledge, but if everyone keeps pushing, it’ll continue to expand. And that’s how Matt Might ends his short analogy: “Keep pushing.”

Now, maybe I’m inexperienced or naïve or just lucky, but I have yet to have any existential crisis hit me. I constantly keep these things in mind, a candle in the dark, pushing on a bubble, and maybe that helps. But it could just be that I haven’t even spent two years in a program, and I’ve stumbled upon a great research project. My hope is that I won’t ever have to face and contemplate my own existence. I’ll just keep stumbling in the dark, hoping to find something good. I’ll continue to push outward, redefining the limits of human knowledge. And I’ll keep climbing this mountain to a PhD. I believe that the experience won’t be about the difficult climb but about the view from the top and what I’ve learned along the way.

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