The Straightforward Academic (or: Your advisor also poops)

This entry is part of a summer series over at the wonderful My Scholarly Goop, featuring true tales of early career researchers’ scholarly paths. Read my contribution here, and head over to the series to get a new essay each Friday, the whole summer long.

Not pursuing a PhD was, frankly, never part of my thought process. My parents are both researchers (albeit, in Biophysics and Physical Chemistry), and I grew up spending Sunday afternoons in the lab proudly reproducing the Briggs-Rauscher reaction in my own little lab coat while my parents were working. I’m a bit like the medical doctor who became a doctor because her parents are also MDs. You could say I tried to be a bit different and decided to become an opthamologist instead of a dermatologist, but that’s really about how crazy I went.

I’ll keep the narrative of the why and how of my trajectory short, since it’s really a straightforward story. As to the why, what lead me to studying cross-linguistic phonological acquisition in my PhD is based on an organic, but logical thought process incorporating various autobiographically motivated interests and inclinations, namely cross-cultural and cross-linguistic comparison and a reasonable degree of directly measurable scientific precision in terms of speech sound waves. My switch to the role of interactive social cues in language acquisition thereafter was a mix of personal affinity to robots with an ethically and pragmatically based wish to tackle more applied questions.

With regard to the how, in my experience, the best you can do is to talk to many people all the time as well as to systematically scroll through web resources. I, for instance, got the idea to work with Reiko on language development in Tokyo after telling someone I wanted to do cross-linguistic phonology; and found a grant to go there through the intranet of my undergrad scholarship organization. I then pursued my PhD in the Netherlands because Reiko knew Paula, my PhD advisor-to-be, who told me about a grant I could apply for. After that I went to Paris because of Alex, my new advisor I had met during her postdoc in the Netherlands, on a French grant she had told me about. Finally, I came to the US to work with Dan, who had been on my PhD committee, and who suggested to apply for a grant together.

Now, this is the end of my formal story, and there are not really any juicy details that I left out. There was, really, little to no drama and doubt and disappointments.

But I want to tell you an anecdote. After undergrad, I did an internship with a big strategic consulting company. I was intimidated by all the suits and neckties and business talk, and I was incredibly awkward talking to all these CEOs I was supposed to help consulting. My fellow intern was the daughter of the CEO of a large company, and she was amazingly smooth talking to all these people. As smooth as I have become talking to academics by talking to all these professors on private occasions during my childhood. Sometimes, when I see my colleagues being insecure around big shot professors, I think back of me in the consulting company, trying to talk to the industry big shots.

I do believe that my background has made many things easier for me than for some others. Moving into new countries by yourself is easier if your parents have moved across the globe 30 years before you. Finding basic research in itself valuable and rewarding is easier if you’ve grown up with these values and the enthusiasm for such research.

But it’s not only that. I find the people around me very relatable, and this, so I believe, makes me view and evaluate them in a very intuitive and human way. Do you remember your elementary school or even high-school teachers? To me, most of them did not really seem like human beings. That is not meant in a dismissive, but rather respectful sense. They were simply not the same kind of people for me.

My impression is that many of us see other researchers, especially those hierarchically above us, like I used to see my teachers. Maybe I am wrong, but I do think this is the source of a lot of misunderstandings and subsequent stress and frustration. From choosing an advisor, where we young researchers often focus very much on the research that person has done and not on the fit of personality, to addressing issues during work, where we often do not speak up in a way that could be constructive to both sides, finding other researchers very relatable has helped me make good decisions.

The knowledge that people I relate to, with all their flaws, have made it in this world of academia, also gives me a basic trust in whatever is to come. Now, I see how this sounds like a stupid and naive comment if you are just now in a situation where whatever is coming is obviously not great. But. It pains me to see how so many of my fellow postdocs are insecure and worried about their job prospects, although they are brilliant and amazing and hard-working people. Whenever I’m stressed out and the imposter syndrome is lurking around the corner, I can think about how my dad, the physicist, is very bad at mounting a Christmas tree in a way it does not fall over, or how I had to explain to my mum, the chemist, that the homeopathic cream her doctor prescribed her was probably not going to help her rash.

Of course, I cannot transfer my early life experiences to anyone else, nor do I want to by any means advocate doing as your parents did. I just want to share a feeling and attitude that has helped me to navigate this world.

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