There is something absolutely refreshing and invigorating about being a nobody in an organization. You are not expected to attend meetings, you do not need to make any decisions and basically you are the only owner of your agenda. Nobody expects anything from you and, I would even say, most of the people would not even notice if you are not around. The consequence is that one can focus on one task at a time. And finally focus on something and do real research again.
Being a nobody in an organization
Being volunteers in the conservation organization we are just that: the latest nobody in the organization. A new arrival in a constant stream of short term volunteers which the organization hosts. And in our case, even more since we are not staying at the Piro station, where there is a certain routine for new volunteers (overall presentation of the organization, security brief and a daily schedule of activities) but at the office in town. So, we didn’t even enter the normal volunteer program. No presentation. No security briefing. No schedule. We do not even have an table in a shared A/C office but we are working in the table at the boiling hot kitchen. And yet, I couldn’t be more happy. Why is that?
When upgrading feels like downgrading
I have been puzzling for a long time about the paradox of becoming a professor. At least in theory, one becomes a professor because of a good and proven trajectory as a researcher. In plain words, you need to publish a lot in and in good journals and raise external funding for research to become a professor. Besides having a good teaching track record, of course. Proving a certain level of academic leadership is important but I would dare to say that it is not as important as the publication and external funding track record. So, one becomes a full professor if one is a good researcher. Probably a bit more than good if you are a woman, but that is another story…
And the second that you become a professor, you stop being able to do research and turn into a manager. One of the main tasks of a professor is to devote most of the time to facilitating the research career for others. Mind me, I am not saying that it is not important. It is just that often I ask myself when did I become a research manager?… And, more importantly, is this what I want to do for the next 15-20 years until I retire? As someone told me some time ago…the only way to go upwards once that you are a professor is to become the director of studies, the deputy director or the department director itself. More management tasks. No thank you.
Why a bench, a brush and a bucket are inspiring
The fact is that I was thinking about the blessing of downgrading when Frank and I were scrubbing and rinsing the benches at the Piro station preparing them for painting, as part of our volunteer tasks that day. I think that it is a blessing for two reasons:
Reason 1. What we were doing: It was not only that nobody could give a dime about what the two volunteers where doing with a brush and a bucket. But the fact that after one hour of hard work under the sun, the result of our work was plainly visible. I had to think about how frustrating the academic life can be. Let us say that one spends one year or two preparing proposals until one gets the funding. Then three years doing the research…and then, when one finally has some nice results …the publishing circus starts. Draft, revise, submit, review (or reject), revise, resubmit…and may be, after a year or more, one can see the results of …. wait a minute….6 years of work? may be more?… in the form of a journal article that maybe only three people will ever cite in their work. Depressed? yes, me too. And this is the happy ending story. If you manage to publish. Some papers just end up in a drawer.
Reason 2. What we were NOT doing. I guess that you can understand when I say that seeing the results of one-hour work in front of me felt tremendously rewarding. And the fact that while Frank and I were washing the benches, enjoying the bird chirps around us, most of the station staff were in a staff meeting to which we were not even invited to attend (YES!).
Of course, I am aware that most probably, we would not enjoy being the janitors of the station permanently. Well, to be completely honest, Frank and I are not cleaning benches all the time. Most of the time, we are both doing qualified volunteer work for the conservation organization, which is related to our trajectory and background. Frank is programming a database for researchers and I am doing the socio-economic analysis of the region in which we are staying, including a map of value chains and competences. Basic economist skills, but now applied to conservation and a study of how a protected area will be affecting the economic activities.
But I am sidetracking now. We are still the two new volunteers happily working in the boiling hot kitchen. And it is worth thinking what is it about what we are doing now that provides so much emotional payoff? Apart from the immediate reward and the lack of administrative responsibilities (and time-eating meetings) I could identify some more recompenses of being nobody:
- Being able to focus on just one thing at a time. Since we are going to be in the organization for a short time, we have not been asked to do a thousand things but just one. And, if we manage to finish it, they will think about the next. One-thing-at-a-time. Depth instead of breath. Wow!
- Being able to be the complete owner of my agenda. No meetings that I have to attend because I am so and so and I am expected to be there. I can organize my time however I want, as far as I deliver the report to the organization.
- Because of 1 and 2, I am finally able to devote time to learn new things. In my daily work, I have hardly time to eat, so devoting time to learn a new program or a new skill is completely out of the question. But now….
- Last, but not least, I am doing practical things. Something that has an immediate utility. For real people. To address real problems. I am sorry if some of my fellow academic colleagues feel offended but it feels good to be able to write something without thinking about the theoretical framework and the contribution to science. Just thinking about how to collect data for a project that hopefully will improve the livelihoods of the local communities while protecting nature. Practical. Real. And immediate.
I am sure that throughout this year I will get more insights that hopefully can help me to change directions once we are back. These are just the first sketches. Inspired by a bench, a brush, and a bucket in a research station in the middle of the jungle.