Diary of an academic mid-life crisis

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I won’t be needing these any more.

In a few weeks I’ll be moving to a new position at University College Cork in Ireland, in the wonderfully named School of BEES. This entails moving home, family and job to another country. Combined with the recent birth of our son, it has been a summer of upheaval, reflection and transformation. It’s a chance to reconsider who I am and what I aspire to do with the remainder of my career. In short, I’m having an academic mid-life crisis.

After 13 years at Nottingham, occupying the same office the entire time, I’ve accumulated a lot of detritus. The last few weeks have been long process of throwing away many things that I don’t need (reprints, project reports, old posters), giving away others (books, consumables) and whittling down the remainder until I only retain what I think I’ll need. After carefully preparing a list of my career objectives, the criterion for whether I pack something into a box is whether it will directly help me to achieve those goals.

This seems like an obvious strategy, almost trite. But the urge to retain only what I need comes into conflict with the things I might keep ‘just in case’ or because they have some sentimental value. For example, should I keep hard copies of the PhD theses of former students? I have them in electronic form, and the only reason they’re on the shelf is for display. I literally don’t need them.* But looking at them fills me with fond memories, so into the box they go.

The other and most difficult set of decisions surrounds datasheets and specimens. Some of these have been in my possession for 20 years or more. Simply being aware of them raises pangs of guilt that they have never given rise to the publications that would reveal them to the world, not that the world would show a great deal of interest either way.** My rule has been that if I haven’t touched them, have no intention of ever using them, and can foresee no future role for them, then they go in the skip.

The idea of disposing of data or specimens provokes a visceral feeling of dismay among scientists. All that work, the long hours in the field, the grant money spent in obtaining them, and it’s come to nothing. No wonder that people have tried to stop me:

Scanning is a nice idea but there are simply too many. I would be spending days that I don’t have stood in front of the scanner, collecting files that will then sit instead on a hard drive and be ignored for another decade or two. Time is my most precious resource and using up more of it on lost causes is Concorde fallacy.

Even in the most optimistic scenario, if I kept the files, what might happen? I would spend still more time entering and analysing the data, then writing and submitting a manuscript, which even if published would simply add to the growing mountain of mediocre and unimportant science that lies unread, uncited and uncared for. It’s not only my time but that of several editors and reviewers. With the best will in the world, these data probably don’t deserve to be published. There are bigger and better things I want to do.

There is an even more powerful case for throwing these old projects away, and it comes down to my mental health. A new job is an opportunity to make a fresh start, to redefine myself. It’s a chance to shed some baggage that I acquired during my PhD, added to over the course of a few post-docs, then shoved in the corner of my office and ignored.

In the same way as there are positive reasons for retaining possessions, such as the warm glow an old PhD thesis gives, there are also negative ones. Data can go bad, and after a while it begins to influence your mental health. I don’t need the guilt to follow me any longer. It doesn’t need to cross the Irish Sea with me, and reminders of previous failures don’t need to take up space in my office or on my hard drive. Some projects are also bundled up with more personal recollections of the people or events they were associated with, and which make them even harder to return to. I’m not the person I was then; I’m not the scientist I was then either.

So away it goes. I can tell myself that I no longer care about the canopy heights which orang utan occupy as they go through rehabilitation; the frequency of leaf damage types in different rain forest environments; the distribution of sub-canopy scrub pine in Russian forests; succession in herbivore exclosure plots on the island of Lundy. It was all interesting to me once and, to be honest, it still is. It was all worth doing at the time and I don’t regret it. But enough is enough.

I’ve got some big ideas and several exciting projects that I can’t wait to start. I’ve made space for them now and I’m looking to the future. Wish me luck.

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For some reason I still had four pre-viva copies of my doctoral thesis. Four! One for me, one each for the examiners, and one spare… All now in the bin.


* The only time they come down is to show a current student the overall structure of a thesis. That’s a very limited task and one that could be accomplished by showing them almost any thesis.

** There is the remote possibility that someone might read the appendices of one of my minor papers and demand to see the physical evidence. This is a moral reason for retaining specimens but not, to my mind, a strong one. It happens so seldom in the career of any scientist (and never yet to me) that I doubt it will ever occur. And one day I will inevitably die, retire or leave science, at which point they will be lost regardless. Pretending that anyone will mourn the specific loss of my collections is just vanity.

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6 thoughts on “Diary of an academic mid-life crisis

  1. sleather2012

    When I moved form Silwood I went through a similar process. One of the piles of things I threw out was all my copies of Antenna. After all, why would I need them? A year later I had to go down to the Royal Ent Soc HQ to look through the back numbers to find a particular reference I needed! But I survived 🙂

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  2. jeffollerton

    Hi Markus – I do hope that my visceral reaction to your tweet didn’t put added pressure on you! It was, literally, a gut reaction on my part.

    These sorts of changes are never easy and I understand how you feel. Over the summer I cleared my office in preparation of our move to a whole new campus on which we don’t have offices: all academics are hot desking. It’s meant that my office at home is full of crap that I need to find a place for, despite the fact that I also left a lot of crap behind in the recycling bins at work. Like you I’ve kept some for sentimental reasons , but unlike you I’ve kept a lot of old data sheets “just in case”. Some of this is going into the book I’m writing and no doubt some will never see the light of day, but I don’t feel as though I’m in a position to judge.

    Related to this I was intrigued by your comment about the “growing mountain of mediocre and unimportant science that lies unread, uncited and uncared for”. I hear these sorts of comments a lot and I’m not sure how I feel about them. “Importance” and “mediocrity” in science seem to me to be a very subjective terms, specially so in ecology, where we can argue endlessly about the relative importance of one group of organisms over another as far as ecosystem function is concerned. But ultimately any published (or unpublished) study, no matter how small scale, mediocre, or unimportant, has the future potential to be included within a meta-analysis or quantitative review that provides macroecological insights into how the world works and what we are doing to change it. That may not happen for decades (some of the data in our recent review of Apocynaceae pollination systems are over 100 years old!) which means that only future generations can decide what is important.

    Anyway, that’s a conversation best had over a beer or two at a future conference. The very best of luck with your move, Markus, I hope it all goes as smoothly as these things ever do!

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    1. Markus Eichhorn Post author

      Thanks Jeff, and I didn’t mean to single you out. Yours was simply a concise expression of the knee-jerk response of almost any scientist. The problem is that we all value data in abstract terms, but then have quite clear opinions about the worth of any particular study.

      As for whether a hypothetical future ecologist might value the data more than me, I don’t think that’s a helpful perspective. I’m sympathetic to the argument that all data should be published, and anything can be published somewhere (even on a blog). The more helpful comparison is whether my own time is better spent rescuing flawed studies from the vault for the sake of posterity or doing something of more immediate interest to me personally.

      I’m so glad that I’ve never been in a department that has succumbed to hot-desking or even open-plan offices. Good luck…

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  3. jeffollerton

    No offence taken Markus 🙂 Yes, I agree, it’s always a trade-off between devoting time to task x or task y and I hope your fresh plans work out.

    We’ve been in open-plan offices for some time and I quite like it as I’m one of those people who can focus on what I’m doing and exclude noise or disruption around me, plus the people I’ve shared with have been considerate on the whole. Hot desking will be an interesting experiment; I think that many of us will spend more time working from home (as I am this week) coming on campus only when we have to. I know that some people believe that it may reduce the sense of collegiality, but then having people in individual offices also affects collegiality unless you have a well established routine of coffee and tea breaks, etc., and I wonder how many departments still maintain those kinds of traditions when lunch for most academics is a sandwich in front of the computer?

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  4. Pingback: Pick and mix 22 – making connections | Don't Forget the Roundabouts

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