Academic dreams

Many of the research students I work with aspire to becoming academics. However, it’s a difficult time to be dreaming about a career in academia. At the moment, there are far more PhD graduates than jobs available. The research environment is increasingly competitive, fast-paced, high-pressured and output-driven. For those just starting out or who aren’t leading the race, it’s a space that can, at times, feel unforgiving. Yet every year ushers in a new cohort of students bright with academic dreams.

I’ve noticed that the goal or expectation of getting an academic position in today’s job climate directly impacts students’ experiences of, and attitudes toward, the research process. There are two effects that stand out: a persistent feeling of pressure associated with an anticipated outcome and/or deadline, and greater focusing on the thesis and managing distractions or commitments. In other words, difficulty keeping attention in the present moment. In my role, I’ve been developing resources to help students stay connected with their work and themselves despite or within these systemic pressures.

Academic dreams or aspirations describe the relationship between what we’re doing now and what comes later. I’ve noticed that dreams (goals or expectations) can work in two ways. They give us with a necessary sense of direction and purpose and remind us why we’re doing what we’re doing. Dreams offer us inspiration and encouragement to stick with the task of producing a thesis – they foster a hopeful attitude. Without a strong motivation driving the research process, such as career goals or a question that really matters to us, many would struggle to complete the degree. However, as easily as they create hope, dreams can also inspire fear. If I’m not at my best or have experienced a set back, my dreams can quickly turn into a bar set out of reach, a goal at risk of being unfulfilled. They can become a source of unhelpful pressure. In other words, what I want can equally fill me with the confidence that I will succeed or the fear that I won’t.

For example, as a PhD student I was very future-oriented. My supervisor told me that to get an academic job I’d need to build up a CV with publications, teaching, research and conference experience. I applied myself to these tasks. I loved the teaching, thrived at conferences, learnt a lot as a research assistant and managed to publish a little. None of these activities were a waste of time. But like many of the students I see today, I took on too much. I said ‘yes’ to almost every opportunity, and stretched my time and energy between too many commitments. My mind felt pulled by an invisible current toward the things I imagined I 'should' be doing to make myself employable. This emphasis on the future made it harder to be with my thesis, especially through the difficult patches. My imagined success became a psychological obstacle to simply being with the writing in its drafty, imperfect and vulnerable state. It didn't once occur to me that the most basic criteria for an academic job is a strong PhD.

There’s nothing wrong with aspiring to an academic career. It’s important to know what you want and have a sense of where you’re heading. I’m not suggesting we try to get rid of the experience (an impossible task anyway). But it’s important to see dreams for what they are and be clearly aware of how we relate to them. Dreams are pleasant, future-oriented projections of what we want, hope for or expect from our efforts. They are stories we nurture about the future. There’s a crucial difference between knowing this and being deeply caught up in or rigidly attached to ideas of success.

In Buddhist philosophy, dreaming is a mental state otherwise known as sense desire, wanting or grasping. It is the first of the five hindrances, which are mental factors or states that obstruct our present moment experience. Sense desire – or simply, desire – refers to wanting pleasurable experiences. It is the feeling of wanting any experience other than the one that’s happening right now. For example, if I’m hungry I start thinking about what I'd like to eat. If I’m bored I automatically reach for an experience that’s more stimulating - my phone, the TV or fridge. In each case, I mentally move toward an experience that is more pleasurable than, or that alleviates the discomfort of, my current experience (hunger, boredom). This impulse often takes the forms of thinking, fantasising or daydreaming. As a reaction, it is literally impulsive in the sense of being automatic or habitual. One of my teachers likens the feeling of sense desire to being caught in a rip and dragged away from where we are without even realising it.

When we dream, our attention is not in the present moment. It is lost in thoughts, projections and ideas about the future. In the case of academic dreams, we’re focused on the end goal or product rather than the day-to-day, moment-to-moment process of doing the research. Too much focus on the outcome makes doing the work harder because we cannot occupy these two places, or senses of time, at once.

To my students, I’d say two things. First, be aware of how you relate to dreams. How tightly or lightly do you hold them? How often are they a source of nourishment or a trigger for distraction and doubt? Second, when you notice yourself getting lost in the future in any form, pay gentle attention to the experience. If dreaming is happening, observe it. If fear is present, lean in and be curious about it. What do you feel? What are the characteristics of these experiences? Just let it be. Then return your attention to the task at hand. Again and again.


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