30 September 2006

Link of the day: Degree of difficulty

I enjoyed reading a post called Degree of Difficulty" on Malcolm Gladwell's blog this morning.

I've caught myself sometimes thinking, "Heck, that job doesn't seem too hard. I bet I could learn how to do it well in a month." If the work is partially related to things I've done before (organization, technical, etc.), that seems legitimate. But there are aspects of life I have very little experience. For instance, I would be a horrible psychologist without a lot of practice. At one time, I thought, "Hey, all you have to do is sit there and listen." But you have to get into another person's head, which seems nearly impossible if there is no cultural/background overlap between the two of you.

Being an expert psychologist, wood carver, children's book writer, circuit designer, violinist, surgeon, theoretical physicist -- all those things are an art. It takes a long time to understand the subtleties, but that's what makes it fun. A mentor of mine from college says that he finds theoretical physics a bit impersonal, but he keeps do it because he loves the "craft."

The craft is what made me consider a career in the academy. As a professor, you have the challenge of research, of course. But there is also the challenge of teaching to students who don't know anything about your subject and the challenge of mentoring students to become critical thinkers and possibly future professors and scientists. So even if you master one area (say teaching), you can still work on research or mentoring. Perhaps the more realistic scenario is that you discover you suck at research and decide to hone your skills in teaching instead. I haven't even covered the area of administration. You could also hone your craft in leadership: running a happy, effective research group, hiring faculty, being chairman of the department, etc. The university is a rich, diverse, vibrant place and there are immense opportunities for changing your career focus.

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