T: Amazing Husband ST: Three-year-old Wonder Prof. G: Advisor I Prof. C: Advisor II Julie: Stylish Sister Rob: Awesome Brother Belle: Our Cat Bill: Grumbling BIL Rita: Uncomplicated SIL SMU: Smallish Midwestern University Doctoral University: where I got my Ph.D.
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Quote of the Day
Tuesday, May 16, 2006
As I was making dinner yesterday, the doorbell rang and an acquaintance of ours, "Susan," stood outside. She had come to drop off some papers for T, who is assisting Susan and her husband with some Important Business. I don't know Susan very well, but I do know that she's incredibly smart, witty, and is about to move to a new city five hours away where she will begin her dream job. Her husband is already there, having found a job in the new city several months ago.
I talked to Susan for a few minutes about her work, and about her impending move to the new job. Susan is an oncologist at Doctoral University Medical School. She does breast cancer research and is apparently very, very good at it; she's won several fellowships, has done research everywhere, and she was heavily recruited for her dream job. After chatting with her, I listened in a bit as she and T discussed the details of her Important Business. It's always interesting for me to listen to T when he's in "professional mode," using language reserved for the office and sounding so confident and knowledgable, answering complicated questions with ease.
Later that night, I retreated to my office to finish up revisions to a chapter I'd been working on and collecting important bits for my conclusion. I labored over a few paragraphs and re-did some of the figures to make them easier to read, and then I just stopped and thought, "What's the point of all of this?" I couldn't work anymore after that. I went to bed, feeling hollow.
I've always wanted to be the type of person who makes a difference. I've always wanted to help people, to make a contribution. And sometimes, as I sit in front of my computer and type up the results of my research, I feel like I'm not making a contribution at all. Sure, I'm making a contribution to my field, but it's not like I'm helping alleviate the horror of breast cancer or resolving complicated financial, legal, or business problems. No one's life (except mine) is going to be measurably better because of what I do. At least, I won't be able to point to a group of people and say, "These are the ones I worked for all those years."
I'm a social scientist. I study a small sub-group of people and the effects those people have on the lives of others and on the institutions of social life. (Those of you who actually know what my research is about realize that this is and incredibly vague statement!) I have friends who are social scientists about whose research I feel the same sense of emptiness: their research will have little impact on real life. And then there are social scientists like my friend Jared, who does amazing, policy-relevant research that has the potential to get to the heart of a major world problem (HIV/AIDS). After this dissertation is completed, I feel like I have to shift my research focus to something with a few more policy implications instead of pure academic implications.
Don't get me wrong: I like my research. I think it's important, and my advisors do, too. I'm sure there are implications for it that I cannot see; indeed, Prof. G. continually has to remind me that what I'm doing is relevant, that what I'm doing is a continuation of what he has spent his successful career doing. But right now, the research feels a little self-indulgent. I'm hoping that next year, when I have dozens of students waiting to hear from me, I'll feel like I'm actually contributing something real.