The day is cool and overcast, and I am out walking along Grapevine Road, the road right outside our school, with six upperclassmen on a lab. We are identifying plants in the hopes of adding to a database on invasive species. It begins to rain, just a drizzle. We keep working. It rains harder, but it isn’t pouring. We keep working. I say to them, “If you were freshmen, I would have taken you in, but you are juniors and seniors. You can handle it.” They laugh. Hours later, drenched and satisfied, we have identified a number of invasive species on the road, several of which I do not remember seeing there before. The group is pleased, with the slightly superior air of those who have been someplace, seen something, done something hard. I am also pleased — with the group, our work, our potential contribution to science; I am certain that we honor God with our efforts.
Once, in graduate school, I was talking with a professor who said, “I think we should have a group and get together and talk about how hard it is in academia, so you don’t have any false expectations about what the academic life is like.”
I replied, “Every day I am told how horrible it is, how unlikely it is that any of us will ever find jobs. I have seen colleagues on their seventh year of a post-doc. I struggle all of the time to make grad school and family life work and have no idea whether I can do it in the future. No thanks. I have a pretty good idea that it isn’t pretty. But all of you are doing it. Most of you look like you like your lives. So what is it that does work? What is it that you like? What keeps you in science? That is what I need to hear. I need to hear that it can be done and what makes it worthwhile.”
So in case you need to hear it, in graduate school or even in the middle of your career, here is my reminder of the reasons we choose the academic life.
Sometimes, as a teacher, you are very useful to your students, even at times having a life-changing influence. When a student understands a concept not grasped before, finds a direction where there was none, or gets into graduate school or finds a job because of your unceasing efforts, there is an almost immeasurable satisfaction. It is much like parenting. Sometimes that satisfaction is so great that you envision them as standing on your own shoulders, able to reach heights that you might not because you are helping them to do so. Your own frustrations seem smaller when you see the fruit of your efforts in the next generation.
I have had brilliant students headed for promising careers and slow plodders working their hardest for medium grades. I have mentored so many students I cannot keep track, helping them figure out how to form adult relationships with their parents, discover their gifts, rethink their assumptions, grow and blossom as scientists. I have helped learning-disabled students to stay in school; students facing their diagnoses with mental illness to figure out how to cope; and students homesick for their families to keep the course. This is all without being a mental health counselor; my influence has just been through relationships with people I care about.
In classes, I have been amazed sometimes by what students learn. Once a senior business major came to me after a course in non-majors environmental science and said, “Thank you. When I came to Gordon I had very narrow views on many things and thought I knew all of the answers. Now, because of your course and other courses, I have seen the complexity of the world and have grown in many ways.”
Last week, an alumnus stopped by the house to ask my advice about future direction. Many of my alumni keep in touch and allow me the privilege of helping them later in their careers, just as some of my mentors have helped me at later stages.
Teaching has the potential to be one of the most rewarding things we can do in our lives. All of the people I know who are the best teachers have the same deep-seated drive to teach and love their students. I have known academics who took tenure-track jobs with heavy teaching loads even though they hated teaching. Some ended up angry and disdainful. If you do not love students, if you find them irritating, distracting, or bothersome, then don’t teach. You have no business doing so even if it is a requirement for your career track. Find a direction that doesn’t require it. Leave the teaching for people who love it or at least are likely to grow to love it. It will take everything you give it, plus more, and the rewards will be greater than you expect.
In any scholarly career, you probably also are involved in institutional activities and research. I also love research, though I must say quite frankly, that I am less successful at it than I wish to be. Depending on the time of year, this bothers me either greatly or only a little. There are several reasons for this, but that’s neither here nor there. For me, there are still many parts of research that I like and reminding myself of them is a huge help.
First is the intensity. There is something calming and joyful — like lowering yourself into a warm bath, or meditating — in spending an hour, two hours, four hours, looking at something with great focus. The drama of your private life, the politics of your various committees, the difficulty even of some other stage in the project falls away. You are left with one piece of the work. It is something you chose, something you thought was delightful, something worth your time and attention. It might be identifying one beetle, writing one paragraph, taking one set of difficult measurements, correcting one bibliography. For that time, everything else falls away. Musicians experience this in their playing, athletes find this in their sport, and many scholars find it in their scholarship.
Second is the hope of pushing knowledge forward. We ask interesting questions. We look for answers. We collaborate with other thinkers, and often we have greater autonomy than in other jobs. The greatest scientists often describe the sheer joy of figuring something out that was not known before. What a gift to be a part of that!
Third, we think we are helping the world. Most ecologists I know, especially the conservation biologists, are utterly passionate about what they do, not only because of their own intellectual curiosity but because they feel like they are doing something good, in a larger, moral sense of the word. Certainly this is true for many other disciplines. Our autonomy allows us to work on questions that we think really matter. We can ask theoretical questions or solve applied problems. Both are valuable and can result in the satisfaction of having helped your discipline and the world.
Finally, many of you, like me, have heavy institutional duties. These can also be rewarding, particularly if you have actual say in the direction of the institution and its programs, are respected by the administration, and are invested in the mission of the institution. Just as good management skills can make or break the success of a project in industry, having administrative skills and using them well is necessary in academic institutions.
How about you?
If these three things — students, research, and administration — are not rewarding to you, ask whether it is because of the particulars of your institution or because you are not well-suited to those tasks. If it is the latter, you may want to move into a direction that requires less of them, just as you might move if you disliked teaching.
When I am tempted to be discontent in my job, I do think about what other jobs might be better. At this point, I can think of none. I work long hours, but I have some say in when they occur. It isn’t an absolutely perfect career, and I don’t need to be told that. I’m happy to say it is a career that suits me. Discovering new things, changing the direction of an institution, honoring God, even walking in the rain with a great group of passionate young scientists — how wonderful! Of course, there are difficult times, but on the best days it’s hard to get better than this!