Musings from astrophysics to ecology

Let the ego go

Flames on a wood log in a stove

It was to be expected but as the end of year holidays unfold, I’m finding myself processing a lot of thoughts about my professional life the decisions I made in 2023. Some of them make me uneasy, and I think I know why: they have to do with letting go of a professional experience and knowledge carefully crafted over 25 years, and of the ego and recognition that unavoidably comes with them.It is one thing to decide to move way from a research field and career, but another one to actually take the plunge and leave behind so many years of work, encounters, as well as a comfortable academic reputation.

I have been fortunate, in my life as an astrophysicist, fluid dynamicist and plasma physicist to meet, and work with truly exceptional scientists – among the very best in our fields – in a few prestigious academic places. These colleagues and mentors have taught me so much, and we have become so close in some cases, that I find it really hard to leave some of these connections behind (I have already started in recent months to experience the reality of these connections fading ). I am going to miss my colleagues insights on hard physics problems, on the world of research, I’m going to miss interacting scientifically with them, I’m going to miss feeling like s* when I get in front of a blackboard with them once or twice a year…and I’m going to miss the feeling of being somehow part of the game and of this small group of people.

I had cultivated many of these relationships since my postdoc years, first through several schools in UCLA in the mid 2000s; then through winter schools in Les Houches I helped to organize, and which contributed to form a new generation of plasma astrophysicists; and finally through yearly participations in workshops, since 2009, at the Wolfgang Pauli Institute in Vienna. Without these colleagues, I would probably not have reached the required scientific level to get a tenured research job in the first place, and more recently I would also not have ended up writing review papers, serving as a reviewer of some cutting-edge work, writing high-profile commentaries, and being invited to select conferences. Yes, ego…this s* is like an addictive drug poisoning the academic self. Our training, selection and survival in the current system always depend on it one way or the other, and so much that we are conditioned to it despite our best intentions. So, leaving this comfortable intellectual bubble and cosy ego niche is going to be hard, as I find myself waking up at night thinking about all these past moments, encounters, experiences, and everything they brought me in terms of knowledge but also academic reputation.

Living a comfortable life in a good group of people.

Similar regrets come back to haunt me at night when I think back of all the craftsmanship, experience, skills and hindsight I have personally carefully accumulated over the years in theoretical astrophysics, some of which I am not going to have anymore in my new position, at least for several years. This is probably the most dramatic part of the issue. It takes so many years to become a knowledgeable academic, to develop good insights, to learn to take a step back to ask yourself the right questions, deal with tough problems, to avoid becoming a hamster running in the more-of-the-same wheel, and to finally get to a stage where you finally start to feel that your ideas and approaches become matter worth sculpting, and contribute to the development of the field…it is unavoidable that you develop pride in that (encouraged by an ever more competitive research system), and it may occasionally grow outsized. Yes, ego strikes again. I think it is legitimate to feel destabilized by the idea of leaving a position of knowledge considering all the efforts and time that go into becoming a seasoned researcher, but I would do without the ego afterthoughts if I could.

So how do I get out of this trap ? Well, probably like with drugs: first, by talking openly and honestly about it publicly. Recognizing the gratification quirks of the academic mind looks like a necessary prerequisite to let these nasty habits go. Second, by reminding myself that I did not initiate this transition by chance, that it follows from some deeply rooted aspirations that in the end are much more important than all I wrote about above. I am still 100% convinced that it is the right move at the right time for me, to be at peace with my own mind and to recover a sense of purpose. Finally, by reminding myself that, although some of the experience, connections and intellectual comfort are going to disappear, all the past is not lost. The ego part of it is pretty bad, but it didn’t grow in a vacuum either. As I explained in an earlier post, I do have plenty meaningful research knowledge and experience to build on in the future, and I do not think it is particularly egotic to acknowledge this either.

Confronting my own dark side and writing this post was not easy. I’m glad I finally did it, and I hope that it will help me keep the nasty inner academic gratification monkey poisoning my mind in check in the future.

2 responses to “Let the ego go”

  1. @Francois congratulations. Many experts , having not done the same effort, do not even acknowledge it.

  2. Congratulations for your inner trip and your honesty. You’ve got balls, to say it clear.

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2 responses to “Let the ego go”

  1. Fklv2 Avatar

    @Francois congratulations. Many experts , having not done the same effort, do not even acknowledge it.

  2. Niavy Avatar

    Congratulations for your inner trip and your honesty. You’ve got balls, to say it clear.

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Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *