Twofish's Blog

December 26, 2006

Moments of self-doubt

Filed under: academia, Career, personal — twofish @ 4:24 am

Everyone in academia has them from time to time.  Moments when you look out and think to yourself, oh my god i’m a complete idiot and totally doomed.

It’s a little worse for me since I’m trying to do something totally different.  There’s something called social validation which is useful.  You think to yourself “what the hell am I doing pretending that I’m a professor” and than you look at your office, your parking space, and the piles of papers on your desk, and you realize that someone is giving you a paycheck to be a professor.

My trouble is that I don’t even have that.  I’m basically forging ahead being a freelance junior faculty member without the normal support structure of a university.  I have to invent things as I’m going along, and no one is telling me whether I’m winning or losing.  So when I have those moments of “what the hell am I doing” I don’t have an organization to fall back on.   The closest thing that I have is the forum at the Chronicle of Higher Education, which is proving very useful, because it tells me that the difficulties that I’m having doing something original, aren’t unique to doing something original.

I miss my mother.  She passed away a while ago, and one of the things that she had was absolute faith in my abilities.  I could talk to her when I had moments of doubt, and just hearing someone that believed that you would pull through was useful.  At MIT, I had a network of people that I could also rely on.  Listening to someone complain about their situation was useful, because it told you that you weren’t unique.  Seeing people  that you regarded as being on the same level as you pull through was also useful, because you could say to yourself, if they could do it, so could I.

What makes my life difficult right now, is that I don’t have anyone like that anymore.  A lot of people have passed away.  I’ve lost track of most of the people I knew at MIT.  I can simulate what some of them would say in my mind, and that helps, until I look at the room and realize that I’m the only one there.

But I pull through.  I’ve done it before.  There’s no reason to suspect that this time will be different.  And ultimately I have history and philosophy on my side, I hope……

What I’m doing is unique for the early 21st century, but there are examples of it happening before.   The sheng yuan scholars of the mid-19th century, and Ludwig Von Mises, who famously was not a paid faculty member or for that matter Confucius. And then there is philosophy, one has to believe that if one is on the side of history, that this will give you power.  The current university structure has only existed since the end of  World War II, but scholarship and learning has existed for a lot longer than that.  One has to believe that there is something fundamental in virtue and scholarship that one can gain strength and power from.

Maybe.  Maybe not.

But I have come to the conclusion that to have a life worth living, you must at some point risk everything for your beliefs, if only to see if they are worth anything or not.

But it is still lonely.  It is still painful.  It is still scary to risk public humilation.

But if you are living with pain.  If you’ve been humilated before.  Then you can act with some boldness that would be impossible for normal people.

So accept the fear and the doubt, consume and digest it.  Acknowledge it.

I am terrified, I am afraid, and I severely doubt my ability to do what I want to do.

But I’ve never let that stop me before……

And it’s not going to stop me this time……



  1. Happened to come across your site today. Arrrggh, thought I’d share what’s going through my head…someone like you may understand, it’s a bit of core dump:

    I just graduated with a Ph. D. in not physics/math/engineering/biology or humanities. I published a lot, I had to switch labs because my advisor was withholding papers. I bravely switched overcame a lot of bullshit, and still had to basically demand my worthless degree at gunpoint, despite having published more than any of my peers (I know I know, counting papers isn’t often fair, but if you don’t work in the kind of place where one 5 year publication is what you need, then numbers are counted). Even advisers who I had published (extensively) with, turned on me when I asked to be given my degree.

    I’ve even been able to publish a computer science paper bymyself…granted it was more of a “vision” thing rather than hard core CS…but it’s got to be worth more than some of the stuff out there (see a recent issue of Science on DNA logic gates…bleh).

    I don’t have the support of my advisers and committee members, despite having worked hard for this thing, and now I want a living wage. I vow not to do a postdoc…I will earn an honest living fixing guitars/washing floors/tutoring rich kids before I do a postdoc. Some of my best friends are postdocs, but it isn’t honest work, “working hard” at this point won’t get me a living wage in academia, the system has already decided not to exclude me.

    At least I got in, I had really bad undergrad grades; I did my best to mitigate them by trying to get into good places for research. As much I’ve always wished I achieved more, I am pretty sure I couldn’t have tried a lot harder.

    I can code (my STL is a little rusty), I can make proteins and molecules and have good insight and vision. Why can’t I earn a living wage that doesn’t embarrass me in front of the people I know?

    I use to always be able to internally fall back on “well if I sacrifice my career for the possibility of finding a new medicine, it will be worth it”. I now questions if medicines (esp. in the 3rd world) are worth it, the expensiveness of clinical trials are making people like me worthless.

    I am trying to figure out if I could be a Quant of some kind, but I am sure the people at the elite firms would post my cv up on the fridge as joke-for-the-day. I come up with good ideas for modelling non-finance stuff and am good enough to implement them (most people from my field wouldn’t know how or when to use orthogonal distance regression)…

    Due to my grades, I doubt I could get into an computational finance masters (they are really bad), I think I am going (grudgingly) apply anyway…why didn’t I just focus on my bloody strengths in college!??
    Weakness will always be weakness.

    I’ve seen some of the academic superstars, I know I am capable of just as much and more and not only do I already know I won’t get there, I am not sure I will be able to escape into a quiet unknown land with a living wage…

    I think I could’ve had a “fairy princess”, but I’m good at seeing the inevitable and walked away quietly, politely and smiling before I got hurt (I worked so hard to get her too!).

    A true gem has walked into my life now, she almost keeps me happy enough to forget that I am soon to face unemployment, and she hasn’t flinched a bit. I don’t know what I would do without my family either.

    Hopefully it will all work out, maybe the new year will bring some new opportunities. Keep your head up Twofish, you’re doing well.

    Do me a fvaor and delete the post after it’s up for a while.

    Comment by Anonymous — December 26, 2006 @ 11:27 pm

  2. What I think the basic problem is is that academia has no middle class. Either you make it to super-stardom or you get weeded out of the system. The key to making it in academia involves getting access to money and social networks, and once you have access to money and social networks, you get more of them.

    What I find alarming is that as society becomes more and more knowledge-centered that the division between the have’s and have-not’s in academia will start to get reflected in American society as a whole. I’ve been reading Aristole, and he makes some points in Book IV of politics about the necessity of a large middle class to avoid social turmoil.

    The two class system produces a hermetic structure that is resistant to change. If you get weeded out, you are a “loser” and hence have no ability to participate in the committees that run things. The unfortunate result of this is that you have committees talking about science and engineering that are completely out of touch with reality. The whole system needs to be rethought, but unfortunately the people with the power to do the rethinking are the least qualified to do the rethinking.

    I’m working very hard within wikipedia and wikiversity to create an alternative academic structure which I think will support a large middle class. In some ways, I’m the most dangerous type of person, because I have enough academic credentials to be taken sort of seriously, but not so much that I’m sucked into the system.

    Comment by twofish — December 27, 2006 @ 3:17 am

  3. Wow. I just found your blog today, having added the tag “academia” to my tag surfer.

    I just attended the Modern Language Conference here in Philadelphia, and you’re describing something that disturbed me about it a great deal. Several of the papers I heard were full of ideas that would be of interest to a broad audience, within and without academia. But mostly the conference seemed to be populated by superstars and fresh-faced grad students who want to become superstars. Old money and new money; you’re absolutely right about that.

    And what gets lost in all of this, for me, is pedagogy. That actually the who academic structure is supported by teaching–the legion of undergraduates out there taking English 101 or Introduction to Psychology, funding teaching assistantships and faculty positions. True their are the corporations and private funders who change things too, but mostly it seems the large middle, or even below-middle, out there drive the machine. I’m curious about your ideas for a new structure, although the supremely old-fashioned part of me hopes it isn’t a purely online structure. I do think there’s something about face-to-face access that is meaningful and helpful, that can contribute to the organic growth of multiple minds working together. It strikes me that the languages involved in spreading, understanding a lot of complicated thinking are difficult enough without the added literacies of computer and internet technologies. Probably that sounds hopelessly retrograde, but I don’t intend it to.

    Also I can relate to your moments of self-doubt. Especially the section that comes after “Maybe. Maybe not.” All I can think to say is, “Yes.” For whatever it’s worth.

    Comment by lilypagnol — January 1, 2007 @ 9:00 pm

  4. I do agree that some things just have to be done face-to-face but online education and face-to-face aren’t polar opposites. For example, you could have a “traveling professor” that flies from student to student, spending one week each month in one location and in electronic contact the other months. The other thing that I’d like to do is to make professional conferences more of the arena for face-to-face contact than the lecture hall. There are other possibilities.

    Curiously, I think of myself both as a traditionalist and as a revolutionary. The basic principles of education really haven’t changed in about two thousand years, since there hasn’t been that much change in the way people’s minds work in that time. The question is how to adapt those principles to current social and technological realities. What really disturbs me is that there is an “ivory tower” syndrome that ignores how education fits into social and biological systems.

    Comment by twofish — January 2, 2007 @ 12:37 am

  5. Thanks for the clarification. Clearly the two aren’t polar opposites–often that’s how I encounter them in these discussions, and I’m glad that’s not what you meant. I think the traveling professor thing is already on the way, as I know quite a few scholars who commute by air to do their teaching all over the country.

    “The question is . . .” Yes. Absolutely. Also though I think there *is* an awareness of education fitting in to other systems within the administration of especially major universities, but the systems identified are largely corporate, exclusive, and highly specialized. So the ivory tower is protected by its relationship to those systems. Getting everyone to understand the need for dismantling so much behavior is hard, but not impossible, and why not start with this relationship to the online, the electronic? Hm. I’ll be interested in how all of this develops for you.

    Comment by lilypagnol — January 2, 2007 @ 2:30 am

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