Researcher Ramblings : The Metaphor

A PhD Candidate is like an explorer at sea…in the 1500s! You may have a passion for adventure, but you are pretty much stuck with a compass and the stars for guidance! For those of you outside academia, let me paint a picture of what our journey on the turbulent sea is like. For those of you in academia, can I hear a hearty “Ahoy, matey!”. (Okay, pirate lingo is obviously not my thing, but I’m going to use it anyway!)

You start off the PhD journey with so much inspiration. You look at the vast scientific ocean and the scientific stars shining above. You say “I’m gonna get me a boat and plunge the depths of the ocean!” Soon you learn the rules and figure out its not as easy as walking into a boat store! You need to go to the Boat Master…the bad-ass sailor who discovered many islands back in his day, and is now in-charge of all the boats that sail off this mainland! You go to the Boat Master. He looks at the passion in your eyes, the chains around your neck, the parrot on your shoulder; he ties a bandanna around your head and says ‘you’re ready’! He gives you a map, a compass and logs! Wait…logs!? ‘Go build your boat’, he says! Urgh…you thought this was about exploration? About learning to control a boat at sea? About standing in a Titanic pose going “All hands Hoay”! Well first you need to learn how to build a boat ‘matey’!

After a lot of hard work and a Bandanna full of sweat, you build your boat. Proud of your work, you seek the blessings of the Boat Master and set sail. But as you leave the shore your boat starts to break down…whhhaaattt what’s happening? You swim back to the shore with all the logs you can muster in your now brawny hands. You run around the shore asking everyone if they can help you make sense! A more experienced sailor looks down at you from his massive boat and says “Try again and tie your ropes with water-proof glue this time”. What? Water proof glue? None of the instruction scrolls said anything about glue! Isn’t a rope supposed to be steady in itself? Well…okay, you make the boat again, with water-proof glue, and set sail yet again!

You did it. You are sailing…this is what you always wanted to do. You look down at your map. Its blotchy. Yup, blotchy. Parts of it are missing. No worries though, you knew a part of your job was to clear out the blotchy areas of the map. Somewhere in there is an island. The island that holds the key to your expedition. Reaching the island will clear out your share of the blotchy map. You orient your boat towards the blotchy direction and sail off. You sail further, deeper. Slowly you start orienting to the map. You use the sun, moon and stars for guidance. They’ve been around for a long time. You know how to study them. You were taught how to study them.

After a while you enter the map’s Blotchy Area. As you enter this area, your compass starts acting up. You don’t understand. The compass shouldn’t act up. You look up to the night sky and all you see is some lone stars scattered around. No constellations, no patterns to use as orienteering tools, no Pole Star, no Sirius. How could this be? You try to collect as much information as you can, making fervent notes. Exhausted, you slowly head out of the Blotchy Area, back through familiar waters, back to the mainland shore. Knowing that this is a journey you will have to make a hundred times over, from every angle possible.

Every time you come back to shore, you need to go report to the Boat Master. Every time you come back to shore, the Boat Master asks, “Did you find the island?”. At hearing your story he usually does the same thing – take you to the room of scrolls and leave you there to figure things out. You work day and night because you want to go to the Blotchy Area again. You want to make sense of the crazy compass behaviour, the absence of stars! You figure some things out and head out to sea again. Over time you manage not to get lost, but you still don’t know where the island is.

Between your many expeditions at sea and returns to mainland, you try talking to some fisherfolk and other boatmen. They tell you what they know about the Blotchy Area. You realize you have to work with people and talk to lots of them to solve the Blotchy Area mysteries! This isn’t the only thing that is happening though; you also have leads from your Boat Master. Sometimes he gives you more blotchy maps he thinks will help you out. Sometimes he sends you a scroll from someone else’s expedition. You have all of this information and knowledge, but only about 10% of it brings you closer to the Blotchy Area mystery.

There are more troubles than just finding the island though. Some of your fellow boatmen want to find the Island of the Blotchy Area themselves, and before you. Sometimes the Boat Master may just be dissatisfied with the way you are treating the boat and make you do repair work instead of sending you out to sea! Sometimes you may think you’ve hit an island but it turns out to be a very big rock. A rock you need to walk over every time you get to it. And above all, help or not, its finally a journey you have to take alone. Your only solace in the fact that there are other sailors in your position as well. You may occasionally see them floating about towards one of the common known islands; and occasionally these are the people who may come rescue you from a turbulent storm.

Finally, after many an expedition and overcoming many a turbulent nights, you find the island. Its not a eureka moment. That probably happened in tiny phases over the last many years. You probably saw the island on a few expeditions before you could reach to it. But as you climb onto the island, collect its soil as a sample to be tested for verification, and sail back to mainland; you may notice that you now have a beard that reaches your waist.

If you’ve liked reading this ‘Researcher Ramblings’ metaphor, stay tuned. The next few posts of the ‘Researcher Life’ series will talk about understanding progress of the blotchy map and stress management at sea!

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