Ambition and Contentment
Ramblings on a mental battle occasioned by ambition in academia
When I started my PhD, I was modestly ambitious. I wanted to be a somewhat-better-than-average researcher offering some insights into video game engagement and well-being. Our doctoral training center is relatively industry-facing, and talks a lot about “impact”—in my case, I thought my work might help designers and developers make better and more well-being supportive games, in some vague sense. As with many PhD students, I’d been academically successful in high school and university, but was wary of being surrounded by people who gotten past yet another series of selection effects. I’d heard the countless warnings about impostor syndrome, and knew to temper my expectations of myself in light of that.
In my first year, however, I discovered that I was pretty good at this whole research thing—even relative to the other extremely smart people around me who had chosen to pursue a PhD. I attribute this largely to having stumbled upon the open science movement early, essentially through a chance series of encounters and a single off-hand remark made while I was still applying for positions. I took Daniël Lakens’ now-famous Improving your Statistical Inferences course, and I found myself asking questions about how we generate knowledge in a way that was extremely helpful in planning my early work and navigating academic structures. That I had highly invested supervisors, stable funding, and am a cishet white guy from an upper middle class background with no care responsibilities no doubt helped tremendously as well.
So over time, my goals became more ambitious. Looking back, I might even describe these as bordering on delusions of grandeur: I wanted to be publishing cutting-edge work in the biggest venues, and I wanted to be known as a leader in the field. I hoped my work would inform policymakers, clinicians, parents and players, but above all else, I started to think about how the meta-scientific and methodological aspects of my work might influence other researchers, contributing to a change in how an entire problem is understood and studied (see the work of one of my biggest sources of both inspiration and envy, Amy Orben, for a perfect example of this). For a good chunk of my second year, I felt like I was making good progress towards these goals, and having that corroborated by others like my supervisors, was deeply validating. My self-confidence, both in and outside of work, was probably as secure as it has ever been.
Fast forward to now (halfway through year 3), however, and things have changed rather radically. While some of those ambitions still seem within reach, others do not, and I’m not sure if I value them in the first place. I’m proud of (most of) my work, both in terms of published outputs and non-research activities, but no longer particularly believe in its impact—even within the academy, much less outside of it. I see a generation of researchers born and bred in the open science movement, leaving me with no doubt that in 5 or 10 or 20 years the social sciences will be in a much, much healthier place, and I’m glad to participate in it. But I no longer believe that my contribution is of note.
This newfound dispiritedness is closely tied with my changing thoughts about academia itself. After a few years of being convinced I’d apply for academic jobs, that path now seems increasingly untenable. Research is still, for the time being, often low quality and unverifiable. And even the highest quality work in my field struggles to demonstrate its value outside of the ivory tower. Salaries are not just stagnating but decreasing in real terms, pensions are being threatened, and the competition for places is growing ever more fervent. I’ve tried my hand at teaching (albeit online) and grant-writing and have found neither very enjoyable. Put all those things together, and is the trade-off justified? For me, at the moment, no.
The problem is, academic research was the first activity where I thought I could be better than “pretty good”. It has felt like my first opportunity to maybe be great at something. The activity that, for a while, was more intrinsically motivating than any other such endeavor I’d undertaken, where I could actually envision doing the work necessary to truly stand out. And as someone who is naturally competitive, placed into an often viciously competitive ecosystem, I’m not ashamed to admit that I wanted that greatness. (Note: I’m not talking about competitiveness at Queen Mary or with my cohort—everyone there has been nothing but supportive and mutually uplifting—but rather in the atmosphere of academia more broadly). If I leave this path, what other opportunities to be great do I have left? What if that answer is none—is that okay?
When I look at the people I most admire, I see greatness in all of them. I see people getting recognition at the highest levels of scientific achievement. I see prolific open source contributors, and community organizers who at the drop of the hat are ready to help impoverished people in the neighborhood, or refugees. I see fitness enthusiasts in the gym 10 hours a week. I see people who relentlessly gobble up knowledge from newspapers, or books they finish in a day. I see artists and designers with phenomenally creative ideas. I see chess players studying for hours for the most incremental improvements to their play. Maybe most impressively, I see people doing several of these things at the same time, investing themselves deeply in multiple activities at the highest levels and still keeping all their balls in the air.
On the other hand, I also see people who are deeply content with more modest ambitions. People who don’t care about doing an exceptional PhD, just a finished one. People whose free time is spent playing video games, watching sports, going out with friends, cuddling their cat, and occasionally reading when they manage to forego the easy allure of screens—not constant self-improvement. People who work a job where they’re valued, but that doesn’t demand too much of them. People who work to make the most of a relationship with a person who loves them, or to be the best parent they can.
Without being invested in my academic work in the way I once was, I don’t see myself in this first type of life. I have hobbies, but few that I would tie my identity to. Rather, it is in this second type of life that I see myself more—and maybe, just maybe, that’s actually all the life I want. A life with quiet, rather than overt ambition. But I would be lying if I said that this is an easy mindset to adopt. Because for all the positive things academia has given me, it has also given me a deep-seated inclination to compare, compete, and strive endlessly for the next achievement.
And so for the moment, I’m left feeling uneasy and unsure. As much as I’d like to offer something more useful to you, dear reader, this post is more therapy than wisdom. I’m grappling with the relinquishment of a core part of my identity, and it feels to a degree like starting over: either I have to be great at something else I haven’t discovered yet, or I need to be content with not being great at all. Adam Ragusea, a wonderful culinary YouTuber, said recently (of fancy knife skills): “I don’t need to be a badass at this, I’m a badass at other things.” It’s time for me to figure out what, if anything, those other things are.