Letting Go Of What Now?
Or ( "To Do Science Or Not To Do Science")
Originally published on cingiler.substack.com on 25.02.2023. The French version of the song Let It Go is a bit darker than its English counterpart. In English, Let It Go is more akin to "Born This Way" by Lady Gaga, Elsa lets every obstacle in her life go, decides to live her life as who she is, and tells the audience that the cold never bothered her anyway.
In the French version, she is freed. She is freed from the chains of her past and her abilities, and the cold is the price she pays for her freedom. She is still happy, but she is explicitly aware that she is paying a price.
I think I will need to pay a similar price.
I have somehow have been part of some kind of scientific research since 2017. I did genetics stuff, pen-and-paper Psychology studies, I hand cleaned EEG data, I did computerized studies, I did evolutionary agent analysis, I did BCI product development. I did a lot of science stuff, especially brain science. I didn’t like the fact that we didn’t really have an answer to the question “how does organic matter, or anything, has consciousness associated with it” - i.e. “how do I experience” - and tried to shape my career towards that question. (I think the first thing I realized was basically we knew nothing about Psychology and how humans worked, and then I got into consciousness stuff.) It kind of is part of my identity right now. “Who is Oğulcan?” → “He does brain stuff.”. I also want to think that I like to do brain stuff.
I really like to think about brain stuff. There is no doubt about it.
I even like to get into discussions/fights about it.
But do I like to do the science part? Do I really like to do it? I would like to think I do, but I am not sure I do. I like writing code for research projects, but I usually don’t really like gathering data, especially I even hate some of the ways that one can gather data. I also don’t really like the fact that I need to take courses to further my position in the academia. I feel ungrateful for saying this, as I am able to listen to lectures from people who are excellent at what they do, but I don’t really want to listen to lectures anymore. I just want to do something instead of listening. Even the parts I don’t like of the reseach process are much more attractive to me than going through another school again. And this is just the “me” part of the problem, there is also the environmental factors: Finding and covincing a professor who is doing research on something that is close to your interests and who is also looking for a PhD student, then finishing said PhD and then finding a job in academia.
One can say that it is possible if you are good enough and also willing to relocate? Let’s say I am good enough but not willing to relocate and I am also willing to extend my options for a PhD, I will do whatever that is tangentially related to my area of expertise and found someone to do a PhD project with. This a possible scenario, there are tons of Neuroscience researchers in where I live. Then the question becomes, what happens after you finish your degree and you want to stay in academia? You need to find a post-doc position. How many post-doc positions will be available in your area? For how many will you be able to eligible? Maybe you should change cities. Why? Why do I need to change cities or even countries at this point? I am more than capable of doing my job on my own, why not just give me a place so I can do my contribution?
I had a friend who really wanted to be a musical actor. I feel like her. The chances of being one is so small, basically zero. Yet she tried, tried really hard for a long while. I don’t think I ever asked her why, I don’t know if she knows why. I think I am in a very similar place. Here is this problem that almost everybody who understands it agrees that it is pretty difficult, and I think I am a delusional knight standing in the field and charging against this problem,Consciousness, believing that I may actually solve it. I feel like, in some place inside of me, I really believe I can find an answer to it. If I cannot, at least I can help people find an answer to it, or try to propagate “the right answer”. (It is Integrated Information Theory by the way.)
This seems doable at first, especially testing an already found answer, or doing research about it seems very reasonable, until you realize you will probably never find a job. The number of positions decrease at every step and the amount of work you put in will never be enough. It could be enough of course, but, will it? Is it really worth the effort? Is it even possible to be a musical actor?
There is one question I am actually avoiding to answer: Do I even like it? Do I even like to do science? I like doing many things but do I enjoy the process? If I don’t, can’t I at least do something that pays the bills?
I may be thinking about this question possibly for years and something I should confess to myself is that even though I really like the feeling of discovery, I don’t really like doing cognitive research. I am a computer scientist who likes to play with data. I am a philosophy enthusiast who likes to think and speculate about consciousness. I am definitely not a person who can spend hours to collect behavioral data so that I can separate one small effect between two similar conditions.
Some cognitive experiments are borderline torture and I cannot even stand doing them myself.
Some little side notes:
I realize that maybe the problem is not science. I always liked working in the scientific establishment as a software developer. However, the gathering data part, the difficult part, has always been painful for me. If I could do one thing , I would rather find a way to speed up all this process. If I could save hours from an EEG researcher’s and their participants to their experiments’ lives, I would be a very happy person.
I also realized that I really like the fact that when I do research I am at the edge of the human knowledge for a while, until someone passes that, and it feels nice,cool, possibly glorious; but also this seems a bit unhealthy, it is like searching for this itch to scratch, this feeling of firstness. Is it really necessary to have this feeling to lead a good life? Or have I been too scarred from the unfathomable competitiveness of the Turkish National Education? Do I really need to feel special all the time? Is this what all this thing is about? I kinda feel like I will lose the spark of this distinctness if I get an industry job. I kind of feel like this is an implicit lie academia sells willingly or unwillingly -or maybe it is just a delusion I wanted to believe in- : “Here, take your place here and you will not be like anyone else. You are a pioneer, you are different. Yes, now work overtime for free, you are special.”
The French version of Let It Go, Libérée, délivrée, is a more honest representation of reality than its English counterpart. A decision concerning leaving behind what you know and try to build a new life comes with its prices to pay.
I came to write this essay to conclude that maybe it is my time to be liberated and leave academia behind with whatever price I will pay. Yet, I leave it inconclusively. I am as deluded as before as I still imagine a future in academia, yet now I think maybe I should be more careful about what I will do with my life. Maybe I will figure out something new to do in academia, maybe I will not.
Every decision I take will come with a price, but a life spent miserably should not be one.
P.S.: This was my third attempt to write a post on this topic. The first one was 12 page essay, where I presented an autobiographical portrait of my academic life and how I thought I lost my ability to study and ended it with a call for Slow Science -a movement which I didn’t know existed- . The second one was shorter, a 7 page summary of Turkish National System and how life and education in Turkey can put a person in “survival mode” which results in unreasonable expectations of oneself and also a sense of self-worth based on external validation and metrics. That essay’s main message was one should get out of this survival mode and realize that there aren’t any monsters chasing them after. It was essentially a call for a well-being approach for myself and other anxious academics.
I needed to write that second essay because before starting my Master’s degree, we had a slight mishap with my wife, our visas came basically a month after the semester started and I didn’t and couldn’t really keep up. I still feel guilty about it. I am not even sure why I am feeling guilty about this. The feeling of guilt comes from the idea that these courses were my responsibility and I haven’t fulfilled that responsibility. I think there is this nice area where responsibility and mental health clashes and I was in the middle of that. Yeah, but now writing that I realize there is another question that needs to be asked: What responsibility? I feel like there is none. For all my non-adult life, I was told certain things were my responsibility but now I realize, my academic obligations are truly optional. What I want to do with my life and actions that I need to take to be able to do those things are responsibilities: Making money is a responsibility, providing a livelihood in other ways is a responsibility, taking care of my cat is a responsibility. My master’s courses are completely optional.
Well, I didn’t publish the first essay because of personal reasons, and I didn’t publish the second one because it wasn’t really good to begin with and also it was more like a crash course on Turkish National Education system when I was between the ages of 11-17 - which I may publish at some point, it was crazy stuff-. I am publishing this essay because I think it is more relevant to anyone who may be going through something similar to mine and may help them cope. Also maybe someone write a response so that we may have a nice discussion.
Now why am I writing this endnote? Well, after I wrote the piece above, I was editing it and I realized I didn’t know how the academic system worked in Germany and checked, and realized that it is basically impossible to find a decent academic position. So: In the end, there isn’t even a choice. I have been liberated by the job prospects of the German academic establishment. Maybe I got something wrong from what I read but as far as I understand the most one can reasonably get as a job is a six year contract after PhD, then probably you get nothing as there aren’t that many professorship positions. That’s kind of a relief. I should have checked that before. The most relocation I was willing to do was in Germany itself and even that would have been mostly meaningless. Cool. ( https://echer.org/navigating-the-academic-career-system-in-germany/, https://echer.org/welcome-to-germany-95vswisszeitvg/ , https://www.eui.eu/programmesandfellowships/academiccareersobservatory/academiccareersbycountry/germany )