Research & Play

Research is not Academia

After a few years of a rather painful experience as a PhD student, or should I say Engineering Doctorate (EngD) student, which is even more demanding, I have some thoughts I’d like to share. I do not wish to be ungrateful for the experience and support I have been given, financially and on an advisory level, but there are some things that have changed my feeling towards what I though academia was.

Firstly, why do I say doing an EngD is even more demanding than doing a PhD? It’s because after one year of confusion, where you’re deciding on which topic you would like to pursue, you end up doing something marginally close to your heart. Don’t get me wrong, I have colleagues who absolutely love what they do and it is a pleasure to see their progress throughout the 4 years. But these cases are very rare and often people settle to working on a project they like, but don’t feel passionate about. One year at university, one year where you make friends and where you find out what makes you tick and then you move to a different city where you have to start over. When it works, it can be miraculous and you also get industry experience, awesome! But when it doesn’t work so well, one can feel very isolated.

I feel I’m complaining a lot these days and I do not like this sobby version of Ana, I do apologize. I wish I could restore myself to a previous version, the version that fell in love with animation after watching Finding Nemo in 2004. My life, unfortunately, does not have version control so I have to keep overriding my mind with happier experiences. If doing an EngD isn’t hard enough, try adding a broken relationship, changing supervisors 3 times and your company shutting down after 2 years on placement (for an EngD, placement lasts for 3 years).

The biggest obstacle, however, is realizing that there is a huge difference between research and academia. The word itself, “research” means to search again, to fail a lot (Thomas Edison comes to mind), to discover, to explore, to create. Academia means to publish. Research is, or at least should be, the biggest part of academic studies. Students should be encouraged and helped, especially at the beginning of their PhD to “do the scary thing, fight the monster” (Jacob Banigan) and fail happily. Linking in to the philosophy I have learnt in improvised theatre, “There are no mistakes, just opportunities.” (Tina Fey).

Constraints like time running out, feeling guilty for wasting resources, the impostor syndrome generate fear or at least stress. A mind subdued to long periods of negative emotions such as these will not be inclided to create. I am currently talking from personal experience and from what I have observed, but I am sure there are a lot of references out there, for the more scrutinous amongst us. The high level of depression in academia is very real and has been overlooked far enough.

I believe there should be a change, a revolution even, in the way academia is structured. My inspiration is improvised theatre (impro), where I have found a supportive and fun atmosphere to explore storytelling and ideas. Keith Johnstone, one of the founders of this art form introduced the notion of “happy fail”, where we actually celebrate failure. In impro, people say “yes and”, in academia people say “yes but”. In impro people collaborate, in academia people compete. In impro people actively play and interact, in academia people sit at conferences with an invisible wall between them and the presenter. Lastly, in impro, people feel happy to explore, in academia, people feel fearful to share their work.

I don’t know about you, but I am starting to see a pattern emerging. Academia should be about research and research should be about exploration, collaboration, discovery, creation and, most importantly, happy fails. Results should be just as important as failures. Ideas should be just as important as publications. Funding shouldn’t be seen as a salary, but as support towards the creative process. People shouldn’t be telling audience members what they’re doing, but should be actively showing them and bringing them into their circle.

Alas, where are the days when pubs used to be public places, where people would share their amazing discoveries informally, where the truth really comes out? Of course, some level of formality is required, we don’t want a group of drunk academics playing football with the audience, while explaining relativity. But we do need to make research fun again and only then will it become truthful, because “the truth is funny” (Del Close) and also memorable.