I suspect many PhD students know a classmate who will gleefully engage with any topic of research except their own.

Peering into their office, you’ll typically find them dawdling, restless, absent, scratching at empty ideas. But they are no idler; nor is their mind dull. They just need the right provocation. For the instant a colleague mentions some trouble with their own work, our lethargic friend, the explorer, will come to life, mind flaring, reaching to grasp the problem, to hold it this way and that.

Through careful and incisive questioning, they contextualise the problem. They know that no research difficulty exists in isolation, and few can be solved in isolation. Those unacquainted with a specialised topic need some grounding in a work’s significance, its relation to prior findings, the trajectory of ideas that lead to its conception, the field’s prevailing paradigms.

The explorer gladly thrusts themselves into this unfamiliar terrain, tracing its contours, always on alert for familiar features, seamlessly formulating abstractions to strip away the overgrowth of detail obscuring the heart of the matter. Science, they’d say, makes so much progress through the revelation of patterns, connexions, symmetries – “Ah-ha, this is very much like the quantum harmonic oscillator / the protocol for extracting tubulin / the formation of ijolite!”. Hence they extol breadth of knowledge, insightful analogy, and the agility to project new problems onto old ones.

Thus the hours of the week pass, each day plunged in discussion with a different colleague. Each day a new map to extend; a new gust of intellect to blow away the fog. And it is these conversations which leave our friend the explorer feeling invigorated and worthwhile. They are pleased to have learned, often to have helped; they are pleased to have exercised their minds.

This high lasts until they spot their own notebook. Then that once-fierce wind barely stirs a leaf.

The explorer’s syndrome cannot be explained away with trite references to the search for greener grass (though that undoubtedly contributes). The more delicate truth is they cannot master their dread of intellectual confinement. As an undergraduate, they flourished on a daily fare of novelty and possibility, a seemingly endless space of discovery, and the freedom to move within it. These luxuries have grown scarce in research: now our friend feels rooted, and can only dig in the dirt.

The pity is that when they started their PhD, they knew these things would change. Mistakenly, they expected to adapt. Sure they are smart enough, and they have the passion for learning. Yet they lack that fundamental brand of courage, or maturity, or imagination needed to find joy in depth.

Soon they realise they’re spread too thinly; their colleagues’ problems have become too complex and involved to see those beautiful connexions with any clarity. The explorer could not follow every path at once.

Academia is inhospitable to those who offer nothing but vivacity. It demands substance, and our friend the explorer has produced little. They’ve exhausted their quota of indulgence – and while they shrank at first from the constraints of depth, now they must scramble for the self-discipline to embrace them.

So here they sit in a new cave hewn from their books and apparatus. Those colleagues who were so recently greeted with enthusiasm are now intruders greeted with tired blinking eyes.




This portrait was inspired by Santiago Ramon y Cajal’s 1897 book, “Advice for a Young Investigator”. In a chapter entitled “Diseases of the Will”, Cajal humourously reflects upon the intellectual and human pathologies which prevent scientists from achieving their full intellectual potential. Here is a scan of the chapter – well worth reading!




Comments

Roc 23 November 2016

The hunter-gatherer of ideas became a pastoralist, then a farmer, and is now working in a factory.
Andrew N. 31 January 2017

Thanks for writing this piece, Cato. Your words have their resonances.