Note: Today I present to you a guest blog post by Ondrej Cernotik. Ondrej Cernotik is a PhD student based in Hannover, Germany. HIs field is theoretical quantum physics and he hopes that his contributions will be used in building quantum computers. You can get to know Ondrej better on his blog at http://cernotik.wordpress.com and on twitter where he tweets as @cernotik.
Why do I want to be an academic? I asked myself the other day. It’s hard, I’m constantly doubting I can be a good researcher, and it doesn’t bring a lot of money. There’s plenty of other things I could do with a graduate degree. So why do I find academic career so appealing?
Research can be frustrating. It often consists of finding gazillion approaches to a problem that do not work, only to find out that the gazillion and first idea does. If you stop a little earlier, you won’t solve your problem. And every sane person would give up very soon; nobody wants to experience failure after failure.
But the feelings of frustration are an important part of the scientific process. Without them, the joy after a breakthrough wouldn’t taste half so sweet. And the triumph I feel upon solving a problem and understanding the whole issue makes my research the best job in the world.
I’m not saying there are no other professions where I could be solving complex problems and having fun while doing so. But academic research has other enjoyable facets. Discovering the work others did. Sharing what I found with others—be it through academic papers, via social media, or at conferences. The simple pleasures of solving a problem—an interesting insight, a fascinating special case, the beauty and elegance of the maths I can use. Meeting other people who are as fascinated by physics as I am. Standing at the very edge of human knowledge and broadening our understanding of this world. It’s impossible, at least in my eyes, to find another job that can give me such fulfilment.
There is just one problem—as researchers, we don’t share the joy academic work brings us often enough. Our writing is dry: “We would like to note that the importance of this result should not be underestimated. Our work can be connected to these earlier works in this way and, additionally, opens new possibilities of studying similar kinds of problems.” That’s all well but where’s the curiosity that caused us to dive into the problem? Where’s the fun we had while solving it? Or the satisfaction we felt when we found the solution?
I am guilty of this, too; it is hard not to be. We learn academic writing by reading hundreds of papers and mimicking their style. If all (or most) papers are unnecessarily complex, our own writing will be as well. Only after developing our writing skills can we start and experiment with the form; by then, it is so ingrained in our own writing that it’s hard to see it as a problem.
I don’t want to imply that research papers have to be littered with anecdotes describing our emotional journey through the research problem. I don’t want to read about scientists trudging on the path through the dark woods of Not Knowing when they suddenly reach the Glade of Enlightenment. Sure, many papers could be better; some are barely legible, some are written almost entirely in the passive voice. But the main point of a research paper is to present the result, not write an autobiography.
If we don’t write our research papers as novels, full of metaphors and digressions, what can we do?
First of all, we can write differently. Academic prose doesn’t have to be as dry as it usually is. Instead of reporting what was done, we can say what we did. The joy can still have its place in our writing—we can write with the same emotions we felt when making the discovery we’re now writing about. We don’t have to mention all the sleepless nights, endless frustration, and the eureka moment that suddenly changed our despair to triumph. But if we don’t forget these emotions during writing, they will be present. They will not be directly visible but hiding under the surface. Those who look for them will always be able to find them.
And then there is blogging. Here, we can let go of all the rules that bind us when writing academic texts. We can talk about the pleasure that research brings. About the long and winding road that leads from a vaguely formulated research question through the fascinating process of discovery to a solution for a problem that can be very different from the one we started with. We can complain about having been stuck for weeks. Or write about all the little victories we experience when we understand some small parts of the problem.
It is important that we share these stories. Research isn’t only the enormous database of facts. The generations of academics who never stopped in fear of their ignorance and continue unravelling the mysteries of this world are just as important. Because without the curiosity and persistence of the researchers, we would have no database to fill.