Monday 17 November 2014

one step at a time

A month ago we killed had killed some of our ram-lambs for the chops that they bear and now have our freezer brimful of meat. Yesterday being sunny, I dropped a bagful [1 whole lamb, in butchered chunks, less the head and skin but including kidneys, liver and lights] down to one of our friends / customers, and paused for a cup of tea.  We fell to talking about students, ex and current and wished that some of them were less caught up in their future/career because it can get in the way of getting there. Look at me; I've been 40 years in science and still don't know what I want to do when I grow up. It's been easier for me than for some other people because I realised a long time ago that a lot of the goals we set ourselves have rewards [a fast car, foreign holidays, promotion, a bigger house than the Murphys'] that mean nothing when you achieve them. You don't need a million dollars to do nothing.  One of the problems is that the traditional career-path [BSc 3-4 years; PhD 3-4 years; Post-doc researcher 3-4 years; Principal Investigator with own lab 30-40 years] has all gone to hell in a bucket not least because in a steady state over those 30 years a PI might supervise 30 graduate students and only one can inherit the mantle. The excess PhDs have to seek other ways of making their PhD training work for them and their employers.  It takes them a while to realise that these other opportunities are not a step down but finding a better fit for their own skin.

One of the events that I caught during Science Week at The Institute was a panel show in which our students who were also sports stars were interviewed about the pattern and process of getting to the top of their profession. These students, who play for their county and in some cases for their country, somehow fit in a gruelling training schedule in the evenings and every weekend as well keeping their lab-books up to date, writing assignments and swotting for quizzes and exams.  Now I am religiously unsporty but I respect anyone who will work at their craft.  One of the panel was a slight young woman who is the European champion at one of those martial arts which is hard for me to distinguish from assault and battery.  The interviewer, acknowledging that in class she was almost painfully shy, asked how she could switch from mousy quiet to being out there and literally in the face of someone else. Ms Handstrike said that, when she steps into the ring, she becomes a different person.  It's not even a conscious transition any more after so many years of training and being. I could relate to that because it's very similar to what some actors and especially comedians say: it's like shrugging yourself into a overcoat of shape-shift as the curtain rises. Lecturing is just like acting except there is more scope for ad-libbed lines and I try so that we all get a laugh out of it occasionally.

After a small pause and before she handed the microphone on to the next chap MsH. said "It's okay to lose . . . you can learn something if you lose . . . if you care less about winning the wins are more likely to come".  (!) I was enchanted that this not particularly articulate, rather shy, young woman could offer something so profound and self-revealing to a room full of her peers. If you just stand up intending to do the best you can - or perhaps a little bit more - then you aren't intimidated by the size or reputation of your opponent.

That's the advice we should give to our students: one step at a time but make every step count in and of itself.  Don't do grim or boring things in order to achieve some more distant goal. Do the best you can, and try to do it better each time. Give it socks to your current position and the next position will open to you.  You may find, like me, that you've skipped from short-term contract to shorter-term contract for 35 years and had a [mostly] great time putting one foot in front of the other. Or as Thoreau put it  “I went to the woods because I wished to live deliberately, to front only the essential facts of life, and see if I could not learn what it had to teach, and not, when I came to die, discover that I had not lived." If that's a bit woolly, try Aldous Huxley  "It is a bit embarrassing to have been concerned with the human problem all one's life and find at the end that one has no more to offer by way of advice than "try to be a little kinder."

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