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everything, all at once by MG '24

thoughts on science, ambition, and obsession

Earlier this summer, sitting at a bar in Berlin, a friend and I made a bet. I had been telling him about my research interests and my desire to stay in academia at least for a while yet. Hearing me talk, he made a comment, half-joking, something to the effect of “I can’t wait to read an article about you in twenty years.” That caught my ear, though. No way, I said. I’m not trying to do anything extraordinary, I just want to live a calm life and do a little science while I’m at it. We had been talking about ambition, and how its meaning and importance changes over time. I said I wasn’t ambitious, anymore, that I had let go of that in favor of sticking with science, which, for me, was an accessible and emotionally easy life path. He laughed at that, and we made a bet: $20, 20 years from now,01 I wonder how that'll hold up with inflation if he sees my name show up somewhere. I still don’t think I’ll go on to do anything particularly extraordinary, but saying that I wasn’t ambitious didn’t feel true. Maybe the problem is my definition of ambition. Do science and ambition, for me, necessarily need to be opposed? As it turns out, asking that question has opened up a whole can of worms about my approach to work, science, and passion. So, I’ve spent the summer mulling this over and trying to find a framework of definitions and priorities that make sense with where I am now.

i. ambition

Now, in high school, ambition was easy to define. I wanted to excel at everything I did, which was actually within my reach because excellence was so clearly measurable: I got good grades, advanced to nation-wide competitions, won scholarships. Then there was the college admissions process: another easy avenue for ambition. I wanted to get into the best schools, I dreamt of MIT, and, well, here I am. At some point, also, it occurred to me that ambition could be even broader. If I can get into some of the top schools in the nation, who’s to say I couldn’t do well in other competitive pursuits? If I tried, I could probably get a top-tier internship in software or finance.02 is this overly confident? confident, definitely, but it’s not so unthinkable, even now I could have money, be financially comfortable in a way that I’d never even imagined. Or, I could switch paths completely, I could go into architecture, or environmental policy, or something else that I’d never really considered. The world was my oyster, and ambition meant allowing myself to consider the full variety of things I could do with my life, without tying myself to the familiar comfort of science and academia, to dare to dream that the poor existence of early-career scientists is not my only option.

Soon, though, or maybe even simultaneously, it occurred to me that I didn’t even have to be ambitious. I didn’t have to work that hard. I’ll be the first to admit that I worked way too hard in high school, to a point where it was actively harmful and unsustainable. I didn’t want to experience that kind of extreme burnout ever again. I had already made it to MIT, didn’t I deserve a break? Shouldn’t I be able to take it easy from here? I found myself appreciating, for the first time, the idea of an easy life: a 9-5 job, nothing too crazy, no overtime, plenty of time in the evenings and on weekends to focus on my hobbies, to read and write. Wouldn’t that be nice? No more applications, no more competitions, just some job that I don’t care too much about but pays pretty well. Yes, this was the burnout speaking. But is it so bad to not want to work myself to exhaustion?

I’ll be honest: it felt good. It felt good to let go of the ingrained expectations, the drive to be doing the most I possibly could be in any given moment. In this way, my freshman year was restful. I was working again, I was studying and contributing to projects, doing all these things that take effort and energy. But with my new mindset, I cared so much less about my success, and that made all the difference.

ii. science without ambition?

Still, somewhere over the course of freshman year, I had realized that I do actually like science as a type of work,03 see my previous blog about grad school so I felt compelled to keep pursuing it, despite professing that I wanted an easy life. Could these two desires coexist? Could I pursue science while also not overexerting myself, without letting it take over my life? In other words, could I stay in science, but treat it as just another 9-5 job? I tried to answer this question during my freshman summer. Although I was nominally working on two research projects, one for my UROP and one for my internship at NASA, I didn’t really give them my all. I didn’t pour my soul into these projects in the way that I know I am capable of doing. And it was lovely! I had a very nice and restful summer, with free evenings spent lounging about or hanging out with friends without any sense of guilt. I imagined that I could do this long-term: lead a healthy, well-paced life, work on research without completely overexerting myself.

Of course, it’s not that simple. Part of the reason I wasn’t trying too hard in those projects was that I was still exploring what I wanted to do in the long run. I picked the UROP because I felt a need to do research, and it was similar to what I had done in high school. I went to NASA as a last-minute decision, almost, because MISTI got cancelled that summer, and the project was vaguely in my area of experience. I didn’t feel fully committed to the projects because I wasn’t fully committed to the field itself. Then, halfway through sophomore year, I had a realization about what I wanted to do with my life.04 at least, for the next decade or so I wrote about this in my post about deciding to go to grad school. After all my exploration, I ended up right back where I started: wanting to do research, focus on weather and forecasting, and get a PhD.

Now that I had decided that I wanted to apply to grad school, I needed to put myself back into the mindset of applying: working on my resume, applying for scholarships and fellowships, thinking about publishing. All of a sudden, it felt like I was back in high school: I needed to care about my grades, I needed to do things in some abstract sense, I needed to make sure I had something to show for whatever research I did. In other words, I needed to get back on the grind. From my new05 though in many senses it's actually old point of view, staring at my resume, I looked back on the time that had passed since high school. What science had I done? I hadn’t finished06 still haven’t, so maybe it’s time to give up. I’ll give it to the end of the summer writing the paper about tornado forecasting I had been working on since the summer after senior year. I had held my UROP for a year, this is true; and on paper, that UROP looks great: a project in my target field, my name07 at the end of a long list of authors, but still something on a publication and a conference abstract. NASA looks good, too. Still, these research experiences felt… not quite genuine. It’s true that I learned a lot from these experiences. But it feels that I almost learned those things despite myself, just by being there, and not because I came in with any goals or direction. I hadn’t taken charge in the projects that I worked on, so I felt less fulfilled after leaving them. Looking back later, from a mindset of fully committing to science, I felt that I hadn’t done enough. More importantly, I realized that I missed the feeling of diving head-first into a project and making it my own, in the way I had done in high school. I wanted to feel that passion again.

iii. science as obsession

I’ve recently started listening to this podcast, called Night Science, which a friend has been recommending to me for years. The podcast is hosted by two scientists, both of them biologists, and each week they invite a guest scientist who is in some way prominent in their field. They then ask the guest questions about their scientific creative process: how do they generate ideas? How do they come up with interdisciplinary approaches? What does science mean to them? Hearing these people talk about their relationship with science has been fascinating and eye-opening, and I highly recommend the podcast to anyone remotely interested. One theme that seems to come up particularly frequently in these conversations is the idea of science as obsession. Everyone featured on the podcast is, in some way, obsessed with their science. They live it and breathe it. For them, it’s far from being just another job: being a scientist is a fundamental part of their identity.

This is what I’ve been scared to admit to myself: that I’ll never, in good conscience, be able to fully separate myself from my science. I am happiest when I’m excited about my work, to the point where I have to actively stop myself from letting it take over my life. Yes, I could work in science, and treat it as just some other thing. But what’s the point in that? I only do research because I’m passionate about the fields I work in. It makes little sense to pursue science if I’m not going to be serious about it: if I want a 9-5 job that I don’t care about that much, I might as well work at literally any other job that pays better than a PhD stipend. In the end, I think my “big realization” from this winter wasn’t so much about wanting to stay in science as it was about accepting that to be truly happy – and fulfilled – in science, I have to give it my all.

iv. science and ambition

I think this is my new definition of ambition: one that’s compatible with the pursuit of a career in science. Maybe all being ambitious means, for me, is allowing myself to dream big within the context of science, to take on harder projects in more impactful fields. Being ambitious means not being scared of difficult work or of new research areas. It means daring to dream that I can do work that matters. Moving forward, I resolved to find again the drive that had powered me in high school, and turn it back to my research and my love for science. Sitting in my childhood bedroom over winter break, starting a new research notebook, scribbling down all the directions I wanted to explore and fields I wanted to read more about – all of it felt incredible. It felt good to care again, to feel excited about the research I would do in the coming years. I applied for a long-shot research fellowship,08 I ended up getting it, actually, more about that in the future :) I found a new UROP that would challenge me to learn new skills and think in new ways. I then proceeded to spend the entire spring semester whining about how I didn’t have enough time to work on said UROP, because, well, it’s MIT and the firehose of classes/clubs/psets is real. So, I committed myself to making this summer my summer of work and passion for research. I had three major pathways to work on: my MISTI project, continuing my UROP, and finally finishing writing that paper from so long ago. Letting myself dive fully into science this summer felt incredible. I found myself excited about the projects I’m working and on, and motivated to work on them even at odd hours.

v. burnout & having a life

Now, that’s all well and good, and I’m glad that I’ve rediscovered my drive and reframed my ambition to be directed at something I’m truly passionate about. But doesn’t obsession lead to burnout? Didn’t I have good reasons to avoid this kind of work-centered lifestyle in the first place? I think the short answer is: yes, absolutely.

Although I’ve been happy to be able to focus on research this summer, I sometimes feel like it has come at the cost of “having a life.” Most weeks, I wouldn’t really go out on weeknights, choosing instead to stay in and work on one project or another (and I of course have plenty to choose from). At the very least, I committed strongly to not working on weekends, which I am proud of. Still, I feel like I haven’t made the most of my summer living abroad, while also feeling like I haven’t done enough research, although I know all of that is foolish. I’ve fallen back into my old trap of feeling like I don’t have enough time to do everything that I want to do, because I don’t. I want to do so much science, I want to learn so much, I want to get better at math and CS. But I also want to travel, to read books, to write poetry. I want to explore the city I’m in, I want to spend days sitting at cute cafes and people-watching in parks. And I feel like these two desires are at odds with each other.

The truth is, I can’t be happy with just one side of this equation. I am, on some fundamental level, a workaholic: the happiness I derive from working on projects I’m passionate about is often greater than the happiness I get from relaxing or doing something fun. As much as I might wear myself out, I also become unhappy if I don’t do good work for long periods of time, so the solution can’t be to just chill. Which is, of course, not the healthiest approach, but that doesn’t stop it from being true. I’m prone to working in ways that lead to burnout, and I’m already feeling that this summer. How unexpected, that giving myself the expectation that I should work on my projects for five days straight each week would be unhealthy and unsustainable. Who knew that three separate research projects would be too much for me to focus on at once? Totally unpredictable…

vi. in conclusion

I don’t think I actually have a good answer to the question of how to balance my passion for the science that I do and the desire to have a somewhat healthy lifestyle. I think I am naturally predisposed to go through cycles of extreme motivation followed by burnout, and I don’t think this is good. But I also just don’t know how to break out of this while also embracing the obsessive nature of science, and I do want to embrace it. If I’ve learned anything from the past couple of years it’s that my love for science is one of the most fundamental parts of my identity, and I am happiest when I let that side of myself thrive. I don’t know if I’ll go on to do extraordinary science, but that’s really beyond the point. I do, however, want to do the most and best science that I can, and I need to accept that and find a way to make it work long-term.

  1. I wonder how that'll hold up with inflation back to text
  2. is this overly confident? confident, definitely, but it’s not so unthinkable, even now back to text
  3. see my previous blog about grad school back to text
  4. at least, for the next decade or so back to text
  5. though in many senses it's actually old back to text
  6. still haven’t, so maybe it’s time to give up. I’ll give it to the end of the summer back to text
  7. at the end of a long list of authors, but still something back to text
  8. I ended up getting it, actually, more about that in the future :) back to text