The Ask

This morning, I settled down with my cat, Padfoot, and finished reading Mary Roach’s fantastic new book, Grunt: The Curious Science of Humans at War.

It is, like much of her work, laugh-out-loud funny. My favorite part was the chapter about scents where someone declared a scent titled “U.S. Standard Bathroom Malodor” to be “wearable.” My second favorite part was a chapter where Roach plays on the concept of a “missile defense luncheon” by altering the phrase to describe other unpleasant kinds of luncheons. I didn’t know what was happening until the second time I saw it, but once I caught on, I loved it. I would adopt it for everyday life, if I thought anyone would get was I was referring to.

(Side note, and similar to this: in the book Fourth of July Creek, by Smith Henderson, one of Henderson’s characters uses “Wyoming” as a verb to substitute for sobbing. This made such an impression on me that I remembered that turn of phrase but couldn’t remember the details of the story it came from. I only found it by searching “Best Books of 2015” and “Best Books of 2014” until I saw something that looked like it might be the right book.)

In the acknowledgments section of the book, Roach highlights something that I’ve been thinking about a lot lately. She recounts her many asks that allowed this book to happen. “Hey… could you work me into combat simulations where I don’t belong?” and “Could you find someone to approve my spending a few days at sea…?” among others. She expresses gratitude that time after time, people said yes.

This stuck out to me because, as I’ve been working on blog posts for the past ten days, there have already been a few times where it would’ve been handy to ask someone else a question. I’ve thought about surveying political science professors on Facebook to get their sense of when it’s appropriate to schedule appointments. I have some future posts rattling around in my head that would clearly be made stronger and more interesting if I talked to someone first.

I’ve been noticing that all of the media I consume, at one point or another, requires its author to reach out and ask a stranger for a favor. And then to ask them questions!

To be fair, I’ve reached out and asked random people questions before – and when I did, I hid behind the badge of Harvard University. If you can lead an email by saying, “I am a graduate student at Harvard and I’m researching…” then you’ve bought yourself a badge of credibility. I assume the same is true for the folks at NPR and Mary Roach; they never really need to explain why they’re asking a question. They only need to show that it’s part of their job to ask questions.

All this to say: if I’m going to keep working on this for another 354 days, I’d better start getting comfortable with asking questions. The posts are worse for not interacting with anything.

(My second thought is that if you start asking questions, you have to producing a product that you’d be willing to share with the person who donated their time. I’m not sure that I’d be willing to share this blog with anyone as it currently stands. I can’t tell whether I’m being extra thoughtful here or just being cowardly.)

Hello, World!

I think I should explain myself.

I am a graduate student at a university in the United States. It doesn’t really matter where, and since I’m trying to keep this pretty impersonal and hard to identify, I’ll leave out some critical information. But here’s what I can tell you: I’ve been studying political science for the last three years in the hopes of obtaining a Ph.D. eventually. And I’m thinking of leaving the program and changing my career field altogether.

I’ll probably save what brought me to the point of dropping out of graduate school for another blog post – since I’m supposed to be doing 500 words per day on some subject, it seems like I should be very careful not to use up two subjects in one post. Instead, this post is for what comes next.

I’m taking a leave of absence for the next academic year. That gives me a little more than 12 months to go to work for some firm, outside of academia, and figure out whether I like the work enough to part ways with academia more permanently.

Therein lies the rub. One of the main reasons I’ve chosen to take the leave of absence is that I actually have no idea what I want to write my dissertation on. But the uncertainty doesn’t stop with the dissertation topic – as I’ve been crawling through the muck of Indeed.com, clicking drowsily on entry-level job titles and checking myself against their required qualifications, I’ve found myself equally moved by most causes.

Providing data education for college students in Virginia? Sign me up! Protecting our nation from foreign threats? Why the hell not! Advertising an automated machine learning platform? Wow. Wow, wow, wow.  There are some jobs that sound truly horrific – working for Uber or *shudder* Comcast, for instance – but for the most part the jobs I’ve found sit on this bubble of “yeah, I’d be willing to do that.”

In theory, this should be good news to me. I should be able to genuinely claim interest in a wide variety of causes, making me more flexible in what kind of work I take. But there’s this niggling little voice in the back of my head saying, “Don’t you think it’s time you figured out what you stand for?”

If passing interest were sufficient for choosing something to work on for the next 5 to 10 years, then I could just continue working on my Ph.D. It just seems to me like the threshold for the activity that is going to occupy most of my waking hours should be higher.

Since more than one of my colleagues has remarked to me that passion can grow from doing work, I’m going to use this blog to try and grow some passion by forcing myself to think about different things. My hope is that at the end of a year where I’ve written a single blog post each day, I’ll have a better sense of what I’d like to continue working on and what I’m content to leave behind.

I don’t expect that anyone is going to read this, but if you do – please, leave me prompts in the “Contact” form. 500 words is about one page, and so I expect to write around 365 pages by the end. It’s certain that at some point I’m going to run out of ideas.