Friday, December 16, 2011

Weird like me: one of the dangers of being in academia

One thing I've come to realize is that the more you specialize in whatever it is you are doing, the more you limit your human exposure to people who are increasingly just like you. It's great because you can talk to them about whatever comes up in your mind, and not have to waste time filling them in with the background information first. Also, when you confess to having done something that makes you feel weird, you often find that they have done the exact same thing! And you can talk to them freely about whatever geeky thing is on your mind and feel zero embarrassment.

For example, the place where we dry cabin dwellers buy water for some reason only accepts quarters and nickels; no dimes, nor pennies. So I always keep a stash of quarters and nickels in my car. After a while, the nickels always run out, and I have to get a roll from the bank, but the quarters never run out! I always end up with plenty of quarters in my change as I go about my quotidian life. I scratched my head over that one and opened the conversation at my friend C's house, and we all sat around and crunched the odds of getting quarters versus nickels, and that you could get more than one quarter per transaction, but never more than one nickel, etc, until I was reasonably satisfied. And see, this is why it's so good to have like-minded peers. You can talk about what you like to think about.

But it's also very dangerous because it removes the normal societal correction factors that would stop a quick descent into crazy-town. After all, it's not particularly healthy to think about such things too much. We have, after all, normal lives and the rest of society to deal with. Very few people are meant to be true hermits, no matter what they might think of themselves. So I try to maintain my friendships and relationships with folks who are non-academics.

It was easier when I was working in industry, where my daily interactions forced me to socialize with, for example, the administrative assistants, the purchasers, the business development folks, the managers, the human factors folks, etc. Heck, even engineers in a different field of engineering add to social diversity. But here, my 'boss' (adviser) is a nerdy academic just like me, and my 'colleagues' (other grad student friends, who are all in the same field as me) are all nerdy academics, just like me. Almost everyone I see on a daily basis is just like me!

That's part of the reason I make a deliberate effort to get to know my neighbors, and other people I see on a daily basis. They add to my social diversity and give me gentle pokes when I start to go all whacko. :) As BT's brother once said to her (and she subsequently reported to me), "you can't just launch into a problem that's interesting to you just because you find it interesting... you just got back from Hawaii. Welcome f*ing back. Hi! I missed you too! Nice to see you!"

It's also the main reason that after I graduate, I want to return back to industry and work with other people again, and not take another academic position.


MP said...


mdr said...

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Debs said...

That's really interesting - because the only places I've really, really felt at "home" are universities. I've been increasingly thinking of returning to study to find more people like me, and to have those sorts of conversations again as I really miss them. I suppose it's all about finding your balance, mine is too far the other way at the moment.

Arvay said...

Debs, I'm sure you'll do fine; just beware of the slippery slope down to full-fledged whackodom. :)