Wednesday, September 19, 2012

Reading in the Park

Last year, I attended a mini-conference on academia. Professors from various fields came and gave talks on what the academic life is like and how to prepare for it. The session that stuck with me most was led by two self-described academic ‘stars’. They were stars, they said, because they had each published over 300 papers, won a few dozen awards, and secured tenure-track positions by the age of 28. Or something like that. The one guy explained to us how he did it:

I’m up at 5:30 every morning,” he said, “and I do an hour at the gym. By 7:30 I’m at my desk. I work until 5:00, come home, spend an hour with the kids, then head to my study and put in another few hours before bed.”

I’m not sure if it was a speech designed to inspire or strike fear into the hearts of the impressionable postgraduate students sitting before him, but it taught me one very important lesson: if that’s what it takes to be an academic star, I will happily take my place amongst the lesser morsels of space junk. There are far too many things besides scoring publications that I want to do with my life.

I had to remind myself of this last weekend while out investigating the spring flower situation. As I passed behind the Opera House and headed into the gardens, I paused to peer over the harbour wall. I was looking for jellyfish and thinking about the manuscript revisions I needed to do. I wondered how long a pause I could justify before moving on to take my photos and heading home. A couple hours of data analysis before dinner would be more effective than a couple hours afterwards.

But that’s the PhD way of thinking, I corrected myself. Now that my thesis is submitted, those revisions don't really need to get done today, do they? There will always be manuscript revisions to finish. For the rest of my career, assuming I eventually get a post-doc position that allows me to have a career, there will always be data that needs analysing, experimental designs that need refining, and writing that needs to be done.

Spring flowers, on the other hand, come and go. Kittens are not kittens forever. There will likely come a day when I would offer my right kidney for a glimpse of Aussie sunshine.

So I made a plan. The next weekend, I would return to the park with a book in hand, and I would remain there for several hours without feeling like I was wasting valuable life. As though to reward me for the brilliant idea, Sunday dawned bright and sunshiney, and I found myself with a couple borrowed books and remarkably little work to do.

I went to the Botanic Gardens and spent most of the afternoon enjoying fine spring weather and the absence of bat-stink. The cherry blossoms were out in full force and a kookaburra was kind enough to pose for my camera. I forgot my hat and sunnies but remembered my sunscreen and lunch, and it was awesome. So awesome that I’m thinking of instituting a weekly reading in the park afternoon.


I'll rotate between different parks, books, and sandwiches in a randomized, within-subject design. It'll be like my new project, but with no reviewers or ethics committees. I think it's one of the better ideas I've ever had.

I'll keep you updated.

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