Saturday, June 28, 2008

Am I crazy?

Throughout my recent trip to Ukenzagapia I thought to myself several times, Am I crazy? I've swayed back and forth between thinking I'm totally nuts for wanting to do my research in Ukenzagapia and feeling that working there is the right decision.

On the one hand, I'll be working in a totally foreign culture with a foreign language. On my graduate student stipend I am wildly wealthier than the vast majority of population and I am confronted with poverty every day. People there suffer from things that are easily treated in U.S. hospitals. HIV/AIDS is a big problem. You can't help but feel guilty for your privileged life. Electricity can be unpredictable, water has to be boiled or filtered, and the internet is universally slow when it's accessible. For several months over the next 4 years I'll live there, separated from Jon for some of that time, and my family and friends for almost all of it. Getting, staying, and researching there requires significant funds that I will have to acquire with my own grants because neither of my advisors work in Ukenzagapia.

Is it better to work in a place where I am familiar with the culture and natural history? Am I being unrealistic or too ambitious with my project? Is it better to stay within my comfort zone, where I don't have to see children and adults with club feet and deformed limbs begging on the streets?

When I consider all of these factors and queries, the idea of working someplace near Big City where I could be gone for hours or days instead of weeks or months at a time sounds very appealing. ScienceWoman is having a similar dilemma trying to decide how to progress in her field of -ology without jetting all over the place. I've moved a significant portion of my belongings at least once every year for the past 8 years, and I'm looking forward to staying put for a while. I also think there is a very good argument for working locally in a community or region with which you are intimately familiar, especially in conservation.

On the other hand, I came to graduate school because I wanted to lead foreign study programs for undergraduates. Why? Because I think it's important for people to see what life is like in other places, for better or for worse. During the process of intentionally developing a research question that allows me to work abroad, I think I found a good one. I see great potential for growth in the little research niche I've discovered, and it's probably unlikely to come from Ukenzagapia or elsewhere in Africa without external resources (i.e. from The West). I can easily envision three Ukenzagapian Master's theses that would be able to share field work and equipment with my research. I feel, perhaps naively, like I can make a difference here, if only through the addition of scientific literature to a relatively sparse field in an understudied continent.

But life in Big City is so comfortable. We have a nice apartment, friends, nearby family, and Jon has a job he loves. Do I really want to travel as much now as I did two, four, or six years ago? I'm not thinking of abandoning Ukenzagapia by any means, but I'm trying to think where I want to be working (physically and intellectually) a few years down the road. How can I direct my graduate research and ancillary experiences to prepare me for a job that I'll enjoy? How will my desire to have kids after my Ph.D. shape my research direction? Is there anyone out there who is further along the academic trail that wants to offer advice?


DancingFish said...

I don't have much advice but struggle with the same questions. My research is currently 3000 miles away from my home (but still in the US) but I am considering a postdoc that would require extensive time in a remote foreign country.
I chose my remote research area because the other research options I had at the time were not the asking the type questions I was interested in. For me, the distance was worth it. A non-exciting phd project would have been torture.
It sounds like getting established in the area now may allow you (and students) to continue the research program with less travel on your part in the future.

I'm a new reader but your blog is fantastic!

Paulina said...

I am not sure how I would feel in your situation, but from the outside your life/future look pretty cool. As always, I am a great admirer of your enthusiasm for life.