Our indomitable avatars

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Cover of “Watchmen” by Dave Gibbons.

One of the most common tropes in art is about people following their dreams, or being encouraged to do so. There’ll be a scene with a chance encounter and a conversation that eventually arrives at the question: what did you want to be? Why did you stop trying? And then: Why not try now?

We celebrate these stories, because they provide an example we can all yearn for. They show people doing something not because they have to or they need to, but because they want to, because it’s a passion. They show people not giving up, no matter what the odds and how insurmountable they at first seem. Film is replete with these narratives. “Field of Dreams” is rightly remembered as a classic because Kevin Costner, a nobody farmer in Iowa, goes and builds a baseball diamond in the middle of a cornfield…because it’s his dream. Even “Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them” – a film with a target audience still too young to be ground down by life – showed an everyman character finally doing what he’d always dreamt of and opening a pastry shop. The ambition doesn’t have to be vaulting, it just means that people have to take a risk and seize the chance to do the things they’ve always wanted to do.

In real life, few people do this. There are too many responsibilities, too many other things to worry about, too much risk…but then again, why not? As in the movie scene, what’s to stop us from trying? We quite rightly celebrate the stories of people who jack in their humdrum careers (no matter how financially rewarding) to pursue the thing they’ve always wanted to do, and achieve success in doing so. We conveniently overlook the people who jack in their humdrum careers (no matter how financially rewarding) to pursue the thing they’ve always wanted to do…and fail to achieve success.

Academia is an unusual career for many reasons, but one enduring reason is that it still remains a vocation. People certainly don’t pursue academia for the financial rewards, and the work hours are frequently high due to the almost unavoidable blurring of work time and personal time. Professional success is hard to come by. Anybody who is smart enough to be an academic is certainly smart enough to get a well-paying job with a permanent contract doing something else. 

So what we forget is that everybody pursuing an academic career is, in a way, pursuing a dream. In the UK and USA in particular, the many many routes out of academia tend not to be signposted as clearly as they are in other countries (such as Germany, where industry is the default path pre- and post-PhD), and as such it’s easy to forget that we are making active choices. At every step in an academic career you are saying – consciously or unconsciously – no, I will not walk away just yet, I will follow my dream. I will risk the insecurity a bit longer to have a chance of making it. 

This doesn’t mean that anyone who goes into industry is giving up on their dreams (a dream can be founding a successful company) – just that those who stay in academia should recognise that they are like an aspiring actress, an aspiring writer, an aspiring pastry shop owner. This is not some thankless and depressing death march that must end in professional and psychological ruin for all but a lucky few, but should be more properly seen as a risky, idealistic, and brave choice. It’s one that – for most – won’t end in tenure. But that needn’t stop us from trying, and we shouldn’t be afraid of things not working out.

And we should celebrate that bravery. It’s only because we’re surrounded by people making the same choices and doing the same things that we forget how insanely courageous and uninhibited and outright free we are in going down this road.

We hear about the successes, and we hear the gripes. We perhaps don’t hear enough about people hitting setbacks, and carrying on. And we don’t hear about it because we’re all doing it, all of the time.

Good luck!

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