Postcard From the Mountains: What Hiking Taught Me About Science

November 08th, 2014

 

Career Development, Productivity

This text was fully written by humans.



  • In this article, I discuss the frustrations and challenges of pursuing a career in academia, highlighting the multiple roles and responsibilities researchers must take on.
  • I also draw parallels between mountaineering and a career in science, emphasizing the importance of self-awareness, teamwork, adaptation, and enjoying the process rather than solely focusing on the outcome.
  • I talk the significance of trust, patience, and perseverance, while also cautioning against routine, panic, and comparing oneself to others. I stress the value of building strong relationships with colleagues and cherishing the support and companionship they provide.

Hiking The Academic Ladder: A Long and Frustrating Process.

The right title for today’s post should be “How Not to Become a Frustrated Scientist.” Contrary to appearances, this might be a topic for many best-selling books that could be successfully written. 

This is one of the most frustrating professions possible. A profession in which only two percent of people training for their profession, namely the doctoral students, will ultimately be professors. 

A profession in which you have to be a good researcher … but also a manager, seller, creator and executor of projects, student, mentor, writer, storyteller, speaker, friend, competitor, role model, motivator, graphic designer, negotiator, leader, businessman, and preferably a sociopath plus someone with an athlete’s determination and a talent for using elbows. 

Something that no one mentions to graduate students while signing the contract — even in small print. If I ever have my own students, I’ll tell them to watch all seasons of Game of Thrones and then decide if they really want the job.

Do I Stand a Chance In Academia?

In fact, I believe I have quite a few of the above qualities. And that, as long as I’m lucky enough to produce good and successful publications, I’m probably tough enough to get somewhere in academia. I often hear complaints from the PhD students I work with, and these are typically problems that I would deal with immediately. 

For example, their problem is that the boss first says A, then B, then A again. I would just grab the boss by the hand and remember what he said before, instead of wasting my time and nerves on it. 

Or: they get stuck because they feel that the project is not advancing and that they have nothing to do. And whose responsibility is it: to take time? I can’t imagine sitting empty-handed and waiting for the boss to come up with the next project. 

Or: they get stuck because the boss is sometimes wrong. Sure, every boss gets it wrong sometimes, so you have to tell him that and he or she will yell at you, and then improve.

Well, I manage somehow, but it wasn’t always the case. I was a very shy and shy child, and it took me a long time to grow this skin. I learned that from many experiences, and one of them was hiking. I wrote down how. This is a list of twenty-one things that mountaineering has taught me about science so far. Some are obvious and cliché, but I hope some of them will be useful to you.

21 Things That Hiking Taught Me About Science.

1. Enjoy yourself and your own accompaniment.

You will have to be alone with your thoughts both in the mountains and in science. After all, you will be alone with your project for most of the day — even if you sit in a room with 20 other persons, you will still be alone with your thoughts. So, if you need to work in a team, the job called “researcher” is not for you.

2. Success is 1% of talent and 99% of hard work.

As Edison liked to say, “genius is one percent inspiration, 99% perspiration.” Or, alternatively, you need to work for 10,000 hours in order to master any skill. Patience and perseverance are the most important traits on the way. Always.

3. If the mountain is ugly, stand on the top and you won’t have to watch it.

Sometimes, a part of the project just is boring. Or, the whole project is boring! Go quickly through the projects you don’t like doing, otherwise they will always be a pain in the ass, and they will only consume your working memory.

The difference between the successful and unsuccessful researchers is that the successful ones can get over boredom and push themselves to go through boring and unrewarding projects quickly, while the unsuccessful ones drop them.

4. Look into the mirror.

What would happen if I lost it all? People often don’t appreciate enough what they have because they never experienced a loss. Are you truly unhappy, or are you just a complainer? 

If you put yourself in a situation when you are close to death, you will most likely love your life again. People who survived jumping off from the Golden Gate bridge in San Francisco were reporting that at that very moment, just after they had put their feet off the roof, they were already regretting what they did. The same with the mountains — the thrill that you get while putting yourself to the limits, and the feeling you look death in the eyes will make you enjoy your life again. 

And if you are bored in science, maybe it is time to stand out from academia for a while, and look at it from a distance? My personal belief is: the ones who enjoy science the most are those who almost dropped out. When I was finishing studies, I went to a neuromarketing company for a month-long internship, to check if business is what would fulfill me better than academic life. 

But I met really dumb and greedy people there. And then I realized that academia is the way for me. I could stand the fact that I have a boss younger than me, but stupider than me? Never. Some time later, when I was fired from a PhD, it didn’t even come to my mind to give up. I just applied for another academic job. Which turned out to be much better for me after all.

5. Deal with risk.

Even if you do your best and you have real potential, you will still need some luck to ever succeed. Your job is to increase the probability of success, namely to collect equipment and skills and do your best, but it still depends on the weather if you will make it or not.

6. How your body will react is unpredictable. You need to try.

In the mountains, it happens that marathon runners drop out while middle aged grannies make it. In a PhD project, you will sooner or later exceed your supervisor and dig into something that nobody dug into before. Maybe you are the one who will get the sparkle of a genius, who knows? Maybe you were made for this project and not those who had better grades on studies / read more papers / code faster and so on? Do not underestimate yourself.

7. Know yourself perfectly, with all your strengths and weaknesses.

Even weaknesses will not prevent you from getting what you want, when you realize what you have, and what you don’t have. Drop wishful thinking. If you are better craftsman than artist and creator, just execute projects that others developed. If you are a better writer than researcher, write grants. If you are good at animal care, but you don’t have manual skills, share your responsibilities so that you are the animal caretaker and somebody else does surgeries. And so on and so forth. Self-navigation is not as much of a deal once you get to know your limits.

8. There are two things that kill the most: routine and panic.

Keep yourself in a state of mind that doesn’t make you stiff. You have to have a craft, but you also need to have a fresh and flexible mind. If you fall into routine, you will easily make stupid mistakes on the way. 

The same with panic. Don’t panic. Sometimes projects do not have an easy solution, so do not kill them by running away too soon.

9. Trust your intuition.

The fact that you don’t have much experience does not mean you will not find the right way eventually. At some point, you know your topic better than your supervisor does. Therefore, trust your own ideas and defend them. It might be just great ideas.

10. Good team is 80% of the success.

If you meet the right people at the right place and time, you are almost certain to succeed. The important thing is: you have to have a common goal. If you have a good guide but this guide is going to hike another mountain, you won’t get where you want to get.

You also have to remember that a good guide or supervisor is the one that will tell you the truth, and not necessarily what you want to hear.

But you also have to remember that no one is irreplaceable. There is one mountain but many guides to pick from. The same with science: one god of science, many priests. If you don’t match well with your supervisor, just find another one.

11. Look after the others.

Both in science and in mountaineering, it is NOT true that nobody judges winners. Winners are even double-judged. People will remember for a lifetime if you rip them off and leave them alone right below the peak. They will also remember for a lifetime if you publish your common work and don’t add them as coauthors to your paper. People will also remember the way you treated them on the way, not only the final outcome, and they will always enjoy and remember a good companion.

Also, care about others because their success enlarges the probability that you will succeed. Just imagine that you are climbing a mountain in a team with other people and you want to be better than them and climb a peak before they do. 

Just imagine that all of you think like that. Do you think you will hike this mountain? … You are a team, you should want the best for your fellows, the same as they should want the best for you. This is the only way to succeed. I often see PhDs that perceive other PhDs around them as a competition. PhDs from your lab are not a competition, it is your team!

12. Don’t pay that much attention to what others do.

There will always be someone with better equipment or stronger. Also, every single person will have something you don’t have. So, do not get overwhelmed by looking at others. Also, there will always be a lot of people who tried to do what you do, and didn’t make it. Believe in yourself, do not freeze while looking at other people’s failures. Just learn from them.

13. Patience is gold.

In the mountains, there is a period when you acclimatize, just before you attempt the peak. You don’t even feel that your own body is getting stronger within that time, but it does. 

Acclimatization takes days, weeks or even months, depending on the altitude but it is an essential phase. In the PhD program, you will also have long periods of time when you are only getting skilled and don’t produce papers, but it is absolutely necessary, so be patient.

14. Trust.

For most of the time, you don’t see the peak, you are just walking in the woods. You have to trust your guide that you are going in the right direction. You do not have any better choice. Trust the people you work for. They want the best for you.

15. The higher you get, the less people and the less help.

As mountaineers like to say, “the closer to the sky, the closer to hell.” If you don’t take an important item with you and you realize it early on, while you are still in the base camp, you will get help. If you are already very high, no one will help you.

The same with learning skills (presentation, programming) — if you miss something, don’t postpone learning. Work on your weaknesses as early on as possible. The higher you get, the more will be expected from you. And if you are high enough so that you work on a difficult problem, there might be nobody in the whole world with expertise good enough to answer your questions.

16. Those who reach the peak are often not those with the strongest bodies.

The way you prepare your tools and your body, the way you make up your tent, the way you cook, your patience, the way you communicate with your guide will get you there — rather than the fact that you are a born athlete. 

The same in science. There are plenty of geniuses who dropped out because they didn’t learn English, presentation skills, or grant writing. Or who were not patient and organized enough. They thought that shear talent will solve everything, and that’s the mistake — only planning and self-discipline work in the long run.

17. Adapt to the weather.

Weather is moody in the mountains, and you have to adapt your behavior to conditions. The same in science. If the sentiment in the field goes into a bit other direction than your project, you will need to adapt or otherwise, you stay on the sidelines. Don’t be stiff, reshape your beliefs and your projects so that they match the current trends.

18. 80% of the accidents in the mountains happen during descent.

Nobody will cheer for your success if you die on the way back. The same, no one will cheer your Nature paper idea if you cannot come back to the society with it, and communicate it. Most of the researchers whom nobody ever heard about are not those who didn’t have results but who couldn’t sell them.

19. The closer to the sky, the closer to hell.

The same in science. We all dream about independent projects and tenure track positions but  in reality, the higher you get, research life only becomes more and more pressure and isolation. The higher position, the more expectations from you, the more stupid beaurocracy, the more responsibility. You have to accept the pain and even get to like it, otherwise you will have a miserable life as a researcher.

LAST TWO POINTS, MOST IMPORTANT:

20. Enjoy the process, not the outcome.

Mountaineering is not for someone who only likes standing on the peak. You plan the expedition for months ahead. You prepare. You train your body and complete your equipment. You make a huge effort ascending towards the peak. Lots of effort, lots of physical pain. If your happiness and satisfaction are only dependent on whether you stand on the peak or not, you will have a miserable experience. 

The same in science. You have to enjoy the process, otherwise you will suffer. This job means working without gratification for a long time. If you need gratifications to proceed, find yourself another job in which you have little gratifications every day rather than big gratifications once in a while.

21. People are your biggest asset.

What you will likely remember 30 years after climbing your dream mountain is not a physical pain and not the landscapes… but the people you hiked with. And also, the thing you will remember best from working in your institute is the people you work with. My observation is that there are two clusters of really great people: sports and science. People are your biggest asset so enjoy their company every day.

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Please cite as:
Bielczyk, N (November 08th, 2014) Postcard From the Mountains: What Hiking Taught Me About Science. Retrieved from: https://nataliabielczyk.com/what-hiking-taught-me-about-science/



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