The Virtue of Slowness as a Graduate Student

Carrots, when pulled from the ground, washed, and peeled, are a wonderful late-summer, early-fall snack. (And when you’re young and told that eating the vegetable will improve your eyesight, you can spend many minutes shortly after dusk convincing yourself that, indeed, your eyesight was bettered by eating the carrot for dinner.) Carrots, when put in front of you (or a rabbit), can be an inducer of positive action. However, when the carrot metaphorically takes on the guise of money, the crunchy food turns into a moldy, soggy mess only a maggot could ingest.

I write using such rotten words because only six weeks into my graduate program I can see already how money-in-the-form-of-a-carrot can lead to sub-par work that is guided not by scientific goals or hypotheses, or well-reasoned and explored design methods, but rather by flashiness and superficialities. I hesitate to get more specific here, but let me try and explain further.

Ambitious people create their own carrots. For scientists, it might be called Nobel, Fields, or Cover-Article-in-Science. For writers, carrots become New York Times Bestseller, Pulitzer, or McSweeney’s. Graduate students of many disciplines merely want symbolic carrots called Piece-of-paper-that-says-I-have-a-Ph.D. Yet each of these inducers of action is a combination of a strong internal motivation with a non-monetary external aspect1. When the dollar (yen/euro/yuan) gets involved, covering the crisp exterior of the carrot with the even crisper paper of financial gain, your pace of work inevitably quickens; you begin cutting corners; you fail to step back and reflect on what you have done, what you are doing, and what you will do.

It’s this last point that concerns me the most tonight. On a day dubbed2 Take Back Your Time Day I find that the simple ability to take a day to step back and reflect on the direction I am going is not a normal part of a graduate student’s time in the Lab. Yet at this point in my excursion through low-level academic life I need many times to pause for a moment or two and decide on possible course corrections. Even if I continue unabated the rests will have provided useful instants of potential clarity and coalescence.

I fear that the fast-paced nature of the Lab is its most notable weakness, and such a problem threatens to affect me in ways both personally and professionally that are not desirable.

It’s at times like this that the contemplative music of a number of Icelandic artists provides a reassuring framework for thoughts.

(The title of this post refers to a book by Ayn Rand with a title so audacious that I won’t repeat it here. My not-appropriate-for-children remarks about her philosophy will have to wait for another day.)

Notes.

1 Of course, the Nobel and Fields both offer monetary awards, but the prestige overpowers any financial considerations.

2 Day so chosen to reflect the point in the year when we have worked as much as our colleagues in Europe will work in the entire year.

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