The Reluctant Researcher — Becoming a Determined Researcher

I came to the School of Computer Science and Statistics, Trinity College Dublin to pursue my post-doctoral research fellowship in the Corais research group. As mentioned earlier, the reason for taking up this research job were not completely the right one. Yes, I wanted to diversify and build my research career, but there were some strings attached to it as well as other reasons as outlined in the previous blog.

From the very beginning of this venture, I started to struggle. I struggled to concentrate and wandered off on to internet browsing, which has always been my escape route. This coupled with the initial difficulties with settling Dublin led to more depression and frustration.

The culture and society from which I come from, there is a pressure to settle in life quickly. Study, graduate, marry a beautiful girl, get a good job in an multinational company (MNC), buy a car, buy a house and live happily ever after. That’s what is supposed to do and there was pressure on me as well. To add on to that pressure, a number of my friends were pretty much ticking all these boxes.

As I had written earlier, I did PhD to do such that. I can go into a teaching job in any university, earn well, buy a car and eventually do something about buying a home and then live happily ever after. During my PhD I had already married a beautiful girl and was already father of two beautiful kids. So, I had checked few of life goal check boxes. But settling down and living happily after seemed a bit too much far off than initially thought and imagined.

But I failed to realize that life as a PhD graduate is very different. All universities, institutes and colleges expect you to conduct research, no matter how little resources and time you have and whether conducting research is the primary need of that organization.

Further, I failed to truly appreciate what is meant by being a researcher. Being a researcher means one is inquisitive, curious, hungry to learn new things and is always on the hunt for new knowledge. It means thinking and brainstorming for a number of hours to come up with innovative ideas, be it small or big. It means not being afraid of failure and trying new things if old things fail.

All the things that researcher should have, I didn’t. The question to ask is why? Why was I like that? Why didn’t I enjoy learning new things? Why did I give up so easily when anything difficult came up? Why was there a lack of passion to learn new things.

To untangle this mystery, one has to look at the education system of Pakistan. The society and the education system through which we are brought up bemoans failure. One is not supposed to fail even in class test or assignment. The whole education system is geared towards grades, rote learning, reproducing things in the exam in an exactly a manner that is liked by the graders and examiners. Failure is not an option.

In such a system, risk taking is loathed upon. One always has to play safe. Furthermore, belonging to a typical middle class family where everyone studies and then does a 9–5 job, playing safe becomes second nature. Playing safe also means that studying only for the sake of exams because doing any other than what is needed for good grades will be seen as a waste of time. In such an environment, learning and studying is seen as a burden and not an enjoyment. And I became bloody good in that. Always the topper in class, getting good percentages and grades was never a difficulty.

Even intriguing subjects like Math and Physics were dealt in the same way. Learn the techniques to solve questions and problems and rote learn the theories, laws and procedures and you hit the jackpot of 90%+ marks and the best grade achievable.

The subjects of language and literature, which can evoke great feelings and emotions and help one to learn about the inner self and provide a fresh perspective, were reduced to rote learning notes on questions and answers. I am not demeaning rote learning completely. It is needed to a certain extent, like remembering laws and techniques, but not for learning 10–11 pages of the qualities of a poet or a writer.

This has had an effect on the attitude of students, including myself and my peers. Education was never seen as a means to learn something new and having fun. Even when we were pursuing professional education, it was again the same, passing exams and getting good grades. I struggled in courses that needed imagination and certainly the teachers themselves lacked invoking those imagination.

And we used to make fun of students who were actually trying to learn new things and enjoy their education. I was made fun of when tried to enjoy and study from the beginning rather at the end only for exams. This was not the right attitude towards education, but the seeds were sown way earlier and peer pressure and lack of quality teaching did not help.

This was completely different from what I observed during my stay in Sweden where for students, learning was fun. They enjoyed doing their projects and went beyond what was required to just pass the course. Not all teachers were brilliant, but their whole perspective of education was vastly different. They would also put maximum effort in project based courses where the only grade available was a pass grade. We Pakistanis used to put minimum effort as the only grade available was a pass grade but when I happened to ask them about all the things they were doing, the response I got was…”this is fun”.

But the question is, why didn’t I learn all these things during my MS or PhD? My supervisor had all the good qualities of being a researcher but why didn’t I learn from him? I had the experience of observing Swedish students and fellow researchers and I admired them, but why didn’t I took inspiration and adapt and change myself?

I am an introvert and during my MS, did not interact much with Swedish students. During my PhD mostly worked alone in an office in which I was mostly alone. Obviously this is not the only reason. I was afraid myself, afraid of failure, reluctant and afraid to take risks and used to easily give up but there was easy escape for me as well when all alone in the office.

In my research lab in Trinity, I did not have a separate office but I was sitting in a large room with an open plan office. All other post-docs, PhD and Masters students were sitting there. This was a rude shock to me when I first came but this helped me realize a few very important things.

I saw their enthusiasm and passion at first hand and saw it every moment and every day. I saw their curiosity, their desire to learn new things, to enjoy what they are doing, to discuss with others their achievements and to listen to their achievements. I witnessed their excitement in doing something new and innovative.

Working with them every day and seeing their passion and work ethics forced me to think and reflect. It is certainly true that passion is infectious. It forced me to ask questions to myself, answers to which have resulted in this blog series. If I have to continue as a researcher, I need to change myself. I need to change my whole perspective of life, my work habits and what should I expect from life in future, period.

To begin with, it was important for me to let go of the notion that it is important to settle down quickly in life. One can experiment in life, certainly much longer than I have. There is certainly so many countries to explore. Yes, it takes time to move places and is not the nicest of experience, but my and my family’s life experience is enriched by living in different places which is definitely worth the hassle involved in moving.

To pursue a career in research, I need to be passionate about it and to enjoy innovating, searching for new techniques and discovering new ways. I need to let go of the fear of failure, rather embrace it. I need to cherish the opportunity that failure provides to look for more innovative solutions to the problems I am working on. I need to come out of my lethargy and actively participate in the discussions within any research group I am working in. I need to come out of my shell.

It is certainly easier said than done but I am certainly beginning to have clarity about my career as a researcher. There is a strong possibility that I may go for another post-doc if an opportunity comes that suits me and my family. Change in work habits will be a challenge but the clarity will certainly help it. I am beginning to have days where I enjoy my work but there are still days where I do not. I try to spend more time understanding a non-trivial topic rather looking for an escape route. I still wander off to browse the internet but I try to keep a track of the time I spend there which helps in getting back to work sooner rather than later. I am trying to redirect the time I spent on internet on things that actually benefit my career, like reading a research article, listen to interviews and discussions of researchers and learning new things to augment my skills.

This will be a long journey and it will have its ups and downs. Some days will be good and some will be bad. Some days will be filled with passion and excitement and some with frustration. God willing, there will more of the former than the later and I hope this journey from a ‘reluctant researcher’ to becoming a ‘determined researcher’ will be, with the grace of the Al-Mighty, a successful one.

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A reluctant researcher, making the transition to industry. Opinions expressed in my posts are mine and not of my employer.

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Syed Asad Alam

Syed Asad Alam

A reluctant researcher, making the transition to industry. Opinions expressed in my posts are mine and not of my employer.

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