The sense of entitlement and vulnerability that I see especially in the younger “socially conscious” (between quotes, because I consider myself pretty socially conscious) or the older self-righteous generation reminds me of things we all need to do, well… to live. Yes, to improve, to excel, but even to just get by. Most of the stuff we do is actually not supposed to make us feel good or give us any special sense of satisfaction, which doesn’t mean one shouldn’t pursue one’s dreams. Let me give you some examples:
- Washing glassware – in my days, in the most prestigious university in the continent, if you wanted to be a real biochemist, you started by helping the lowest level technician wash the glassware. She didn’t even need to have high school: you were her assistant. Yes, ma’am. Rinse seven times with bi-distilled water. Yes, ma’am. One day I graduated to putting the other researchers’ tubes in the centrifuge and I forgot to screw the lid. One older researcher saved me, otherwise I’d be kicked out.
- Graduate school. I saw so many people have nervous breakdowns in the graduate office because of bureaucracy that I lost count. Also, your first shock is the discovery that your dissertation is not the opera magnum of the millennium, but probably a small, extremely circumscribed, quite uninteresting theme. It’s up to you to grow interested in it and understand that it is just the beginning of an lifelong journey. A journey into something that has to make existential sense to you. Otherwise, you really shouldn’t do it. There are more interesting jobs out there, most of which far more useful.
- Still about being a pariah before the degree: in my first international meeting, graduate students sat on the grass and got drunk. The table was for the professors. In 1995, I was formally invited to sit on the table. Before that, I got drunk with the other graduate students. The professors barely looked at us.
- Writing. The first academic papers are usually rejected. When they are not rejected, they come with three anonymous peer review letters, one worse than the other. Some people cry reading them. Others give up the paper. If you have an experienced advisor, it’s easier not to take the letters as personal diagnosis of your mental retard condition.
- Other writing jobs. I once had a column about sports. I wrote about ultimate frisbee, about knucklebones, about hopscotch, about Parkour (that’s when I learned what it was and became friends with the owner of a Parkour gym) and about all sorts of ethnic sports. It was fun. But it was up to me to find it fun. Most people would find it horrible.
- The academic job search in many European and South American countries is an inheritance of the XIXth century. One of the five stupid tests is to draw one out of 25 themes that are considered basic for the field and prepare a job class in 24 hours. One of mine was “the evolution and contradictions of the welfare state”. Couldn’t be further from what I studied. In my Master’s thesis, I got “mimicry”. Also: nothing to do with what I studied, which was chemical ecology.
- You get hired to teach. At least 50% of the classes are introductory. If you are expecting to teach only what you like, teaching is not for you. Same thing for strength training: most of what you need to teach is hard to teach and not fascinating.
- Sometimes you get such a cataclysmic blow in life (guess where I am now?) that you will have to take jobs that are anything but glamorous and give up your old consumer habits. I know a geophysicist that is doing translation. I have lost all my stuff: I bought fantastic shirts and gloves in the Salvation Army.
- In organizing a powerlifting meet, which – surprise, surprise – I hate, 90% of the tasks are nothing but stressful and uninteresting. Yet, if they are not done, the meet doesn’t happen.
Bottom line: you really don’t have to like it. You have to do it.