Are you a student working on your way to obtaining PhD or a postdoc who wants to become a professor? In this post, I want to share some ideas I have ‘extracted’ from my journey in academia. This journey has been relatively short (about 10 years) but I believe during this time I still learned something important that can be of value for the people interested in science and those who want to pursue an academic path (and beyond).
Fight Your Procrastination
A lot of times in academia you float toward the path of minimal resistance. By the time you obtain your PhD, you often become acquainted with some topic/discipline and you keep staying there because (i) you feel expertise in this area (and it feels good to be an expert in something), (ii) it feels scary to go toward unexplored area (and you may think you don’t have enough brains/time to go through it anymore), and (iii) you may have more contacts/connections in the field of your current research (which makes it more probable to stay in the same ‘bubble’).
I meet different people. And I see a clear troubling trend in academia (it cannot be applied to everyone and there are many amazingly creative and smart people) but the trend is definitively there: scientists become more and more incremental in their approaches, ideas, results. Richard Feynman only published about 37 papers (I need to find an exact number but this is about right) during his career but, oh boy, what papers are these papers! True brilliants. Feynman did not waste his time on doing incremental things, he did what he wanted in areas that interested him. Today the urge of publishing consistently new knowledge with high productivity (otherwise what? you are not smart/talented/hardworking-enough?) brings many people in academia – including PhD students, postdocs, and professors – to the brink of the mental breakdown. And fighting the symptoms will not help to treat the disease: the pressure of socially accepted norms does not let us truly develop as a society. This not only leads to the ‘natural selection’ of bad science (the one which is shiny, easy to swallow, extremely promising yet not very well thought-through) leaving many really talented people off the boat of modern academia.
Who are these leftover people? Very often these are truly talented individuals who embrace their curiosity across the boundaries of disciplines. And very often they are less competitive for the academic market compared to their ‘productive’ brothers. And the reason is simple – PROCRASTINATION. These people may very well be extremely talented but because they have a hard time focusing on one topic – they jump from one idea to another, spend hours talking to their friends about science or new paper – they do not make enough of the ‘formal product’. This low ‘formal productivity’ such as low number of papers published in peer-reviewed journals limits their chances for success in classical academia (here, by success I mean landing a professor position; in reality, ‘success’ is a much deeper topic that requires individual definition and separate discussion).
There is nothing wrong with you, it is the system that is outdated!
My long-term vision is to change classical academic approaches to education and science (because science is a derivative of education) (i) by making it more affordable to wider audiences and (ii) by focusing on empowering these ‘procrastinating’ people. There is nothing wrong with you, it is the system that is outdated! For this reason, I came up with 3 short tips which I explain in my short 3-video series. I will repeat them here for consistency.
Tip 1. Don’t be afraid to look stupid
You are already very smart (OF COURSE YOU ARE if you are reading this and especially if you subscribed to my E-mail list to receive this type of content 😉). Starting from this moment, you should STOP worrying about how you may look if you ask (e.g., in the classroom) a question that may sounds ‘silly’. I do not encourage you to become a ‘douchebag’ and start annoying people with constant argumentation and unnecessary questions, but I advise you to let go of the feeling of being ‘not smart enough’ from within you. Once you do that, learning becomes easy. Interactions in the classroom become enjoyable. Yes, it will still require a lot of work to accomplish your goals and to understand complicated subjects but the foundation is there. This simple understanding – of the fact that you are smart enough to comprehend everything we know so far in physics or chemistry (or, in general, in science) given enough time and dedication – will set you up to a very good mental platform to accomplish whatever you desire.
…you are SMART ENOUGH to comprehend EVERYTHING we know so far in physics or chemistry (or, in general, in SCIENCE) given enough TIME and DEDICATION…
Once you have let this fear of looking stupid go – keep working. Always challenge yourself to do interdisciplinary learning and collaborate with people of different opinions. For example, read papers on things that you don’t know and pay attention to connections that arise in different branches of science. Also – don’t be afraid to fail (more about it later). Bridging the gap between disciplines is not easy but it will definitely develop your brain further. In fact, science has no borders, there is no physics or chemistry in nature – these are simply words, a product of our imagination. However, nature can be understood using logic and common sense and by practicing ‘good thinking skills’.
Tip 2. Aim for the top but not for the perfection
I learned this from James Watson, a man who discovered DNA (or even stole this discovery from Rosalind Franklin 🙉, this does not matter as long as I talk about his ideas and not his personality). He said: “Never work to become number ten – work to become number one. But this way even if you end up 2nd – it’s a still great achievement!”. This concept resonates with me. Working to become number one in whatever you do is a great way of being THAT BEST best version of yourself. It is also important to work on your subconscious beliefs (more about it later) and rewriting bad programming. Your subconscious (also often called reptilian) brain remembers/learns from seeing/hearing repetitive messages and this is why things like affirmations work – you program yourself toward positivity and accomplishment.
We all can do USEFUL things for the WORLD and useful things for OURSELVES at the SAME TIME!
I personally struggle with trying to be perfect and this is how I procrastinate. I start thinking that what I am doing is not the best version of it and everything can be improved. It is not yet ready to be shown to the World… BAD IDEA! Show it to the World as long as it is more or less presentable! The solution is simple – set up deadlines and finish things at whatever cost. I am happy to say that at the digital age, this problem can be solved in many creative ways. Take, for example, this blog. I decided to write it not only to help you and give some advise but also to push myself toward writing. We all can do useful things for the World and useful things for ourselves at the same time! Stop procrastinating, just start doing what you always wanted to do no matter how ugly your ‘product’ may look like at the beginning. Aim for the top but not for the perfection!
Tip 3. Go toward uncomfortable
If you feel too comfortable, chances are – you are not growing anymore… Feeling uncomfortable is GOOD and you need to embrace it. I came from Russia to Tennessee, spend there 2 years, then came to the Bay Area for 3 years and I going to Germany in a few months. Not only do I make my personal life uncomfortable – I make it uncomfortable everywhere – language, documents, predictability 🙉! I actually don’t think this type of life is suited for everyone and even do not encourage you to embrace this view. But I do think that feeling uncomfortable MEANS moving toward revealing your full potential and shows the direction of maximal personal growth.
Life is not a zero-sum game! Everyone wins from the scientific progress and collaborations that have solid foundations, i.e., mutual benefit and looking for truth.
Going toward uncomfortable will undoubtedly lead you to interact/collaborate with people you disagree with. This, in turn, will open your mind to more opportunities for growth since you will learn things from many angles and points of view. By interacting with people you will also learn that life is not a zero-sum game! Everyone wins from the scientific progress and collaborations that have solid foundations, i.e., mutual benefit and looking for truth.
How do I stay on top of the game? How do I learn? What do I do every day? Subscribe to my E-mail list to get updates and learn about new products! Let’s crunch the granite of science* together!
*Crunch the granite of science is a good old Russian phrase meaning hard studying