A Year and a Half in Academia

Today marks the first day of the academic calendar for universities here in Singapore. Well, for me, it marks my 18th month here in Nanyang Technological University (NTU). That’s a year and a half! It’s amazing how fast time flies.

When I first joined NTU, I was, at that point, unsure whether or not to take on academia as a full-time career, as a way of life. At that time, I was still recovering from a massive burnout from thesis writing. It was a fruitful experience, but a terribly painful one, nonetheless. I have always enjoyed writing. But this one event made me feel, for the first time, just how painful and unpleasant writing can be. I wasn’t sure if I wanted to continue in academia, where I would perpetuate this painful experience.

The other things that made me so hesitant about academia was hearing from peers, friends, and even professors about how arduous and unrewarding the journey can be, how there is uncertainty over funding and uncertainty about the job market for academics. The old running joke was that the only way you can get a job as a professor at your alma mater is to wait for your professor to die so that you can replace him. I think, the reason why it’s so funny for some people is because it is so painfully true at some universities.

But I guess, despite all the fears, worries, and hesitations about academia, I had to give it a try before giving it all up.

After all, it’s been a life-long dream for me to be an educator. As a child, I always wanted to be a teacher. I thought that I could make a big difference in the world by forming people at their most formative years. However, as I grew up and as went through undergraduate studies, I realised this was not entirely true. I could make a real difference, a real impact on the world if I taught at the tertiary level as a professor.

Sure, you could form people at primary, secondary or pre-university levels, but the only lasting impact you could leave behind on them was a mark on their character and personality, with a few memorable lines that will stick with you for the rest of your life. (This was my experience with good teachers) If you were a good teacher, you would have played a part in forming them as good people. But I think, society has a decent number of good people (of course, it’s always nice to have more). I think many teachers both in Singapore and around the world have done a pretty decent job at that.

What we’re really lacking in this world are people who can really think. There’s just too many people who are great at bluffing their way through, saying the most impressive things (without substance) to wow leaders, but lead society to eventual detriment. There’s too many people who formulate policies (state or company policies) that are not thoroughly thought out and that leads to problems that eventually find their way to affect the families of employees/citizens. There’s too many people who uncritically invent and design tools without thinking about the consequences it has on society at large. These are the things that are changing our world significantly, and often for worse rather than for better. Many of these are done often with good intentions. But when good intentions are not well-thought out, it’ll lead to long-lasting undesirable effects.

If I could educate and form more intellectual thinkers, the world will be a slightly better place as my students would be placed in their respective organisations, questioning and improving policies or designs. Even better if they are able to rise to positions of power or influence, they would be able to make better decisions for others (compared to people in those positions who are unable to think deeply). This is where I could make a real difference in this world.

Very idealistic. But that was the aspiration that I’ve long held in my mind.

Why let that dream die over some fears and anxieties?

Since an opportunity to test the waters of academia was presented, I had to give it a try.

My boss, the Dean of the College, has been most nurturing and concerned with my own development. When I first joined, he knew that I was unsure about academia. So, in the first few days when I started work here, he told me: “Jonathan, NTU is very big. There are many organisations and projects taking place. Make good use of your time here. Involve yourself with these organisations and projects. Explore and find out for yourself what you want to do with your life.”

And explored I have!

I eventually found myself involved with Para Limes (it’s Greek and Latin for: Beyond Boundaries), a centre dedicated to explorations at the interface of disciplinary and cultural boundaries. The Director of the centre is an amazing person who has read a lot and travelled a lot. Since my involvement with him and his centre, I’ve come to meet many great and fascinating people, academics and public servants from around the world, who have made huge contributions to society. It’s amazing seeing first-hand just how people in academia can make a difference. It’s also quite amazing to see how the university works closely with the government and other sectors of society. I’ve always known that it’s one of the things universities do. But for a long time, it has remained an abstract concept. But to see first-hand how all these played out, between top public servants and the upper management of the university, is very fascinating. It certainly gives me an idea of how I can make a difference in the world when I finally become a professor.

In many ways, the experience over the past 18 months has made me realise that the path of academia is far more noble than I had initially imagined.

But of course, these past 18 months have not been easy as I fight an internal struggle within myself. At conferences, workshops, meetings, I’m the most junior of them all. I’m surrounded by directors, top public servants, Nobel prize winners, and famous professors from all over the world. These are people who have far more experience, wisdom, and knowledge than me. It is very intimidating to be in a room filled with so much brain power. Of course, in the presence of such greats, one pales in comparison to them in so many ways. Gosh… I find myself so nervous being in their presence, sometimes I find it hard to speak as I struggle constantly with doubt of my own abilities. Can I ever write like them? Can I ever speak eloquently as them? It’s so easy to lose one’s sense of confidence in such situations. Truly, as the famous saying goes: We are our greatest enemy. It’s a struggle I fight with almost daily.

Nonetheless, in meeting many of these great and wonderful people in my 18-month journey is to learn that the process of academic writing will always remain a painful YET fruitful process of learning and growth. It is the process by which we push ourselves beyond existing boundaries to discover new knowledge about the world and of ourselves. The greater the pain, the greater the struggle, the greater the boundaries are pushed. It is reassuring to know that even the most senior professors still find writing a painful chore. It is all in the day’s work.

For a long time, I thought that it was painful because I didn’t have the aptitude for it. But it turns out that it’s more like the process of giving birth to a child. At the end of the lengthy research and writing process, when you’re covered in sweat, panting with exhaustion, feeling like you want to die after hours of intensive typing – at the end of it all – you’d have brought into the world something wonderful.

But of course, after that, there’s the annoying process of peer review. I wished someone had told me earlier that a requirement of being an academic involves having very thick skin. When I submitted my first paper to a journal, the peer review comments were kinda harsh. The one that really ate at me deeply was this comment: “Is the author a native English speaker? The author writes as though English is not his native language. Perhaps he should write his paper together with someone who is a native English writer.”

Wow… Seriously? I grew up in an English-speaking environment my entire life! I’m a native English speaker! I didn’t just pass English, I scored distinctions in school too. I even know how to use those rarely used punctuations like semi-colons and colons! Sheesh…

But seriously, that remark was like a stab to the heart, with salt sprinkled into the wound for added effect. Gosh… Peer reviewers can be so mean. Ah well… Lesson learnt I guess.

Well, this has been my 18 months in NTU. It has been an eye-opening adventure.

Do I want to be in academia for the rest of my life? Having gone through this long yet fruitful journey: Yes!

I am far more committed and resolved. I am fully aware of the pains and uncertainty that this choice will bring for me. But I am also aware that there are so many ways in which I can make a difference to this world, making it a slightly better place with my lectures and writings. Who knows? Maybe I might even get a chance to advise other policy-makers/government too. That would truly be living the dream (of Aristotle and Confucius too).

One day… I’ll be Prof. Jonathan Y. H. Sim!

But in the meantime, there is still much work to be done.

Sure, there is still some naive optimism in my words above, but I guess we all need a little bit of that to keep us going with a smile.

Before I end, allow me to share one little thing which I consider a wonderful achievement. I’m on the Financial Times website (for good reasons, of course).

I'm on the Financial Times Website!
Look ma! I’m on the Financial Times Website!

I’ve been invited to speak on a panel for an upcoming event jointly organised by the Financial Times and NTU. It’s great that they’d like to have a philosopher on board to speak and comment about issues on technology and the future. I’m both nervous and excited.

This is extremely exciting for me, mainly because I’m a huge fan of the Financial Times, I read it religiously every single day while I’m on the bus. It’s the only newspaper out there that is actually intellectually stimulating. Many of the articles, especially the commentaries, make you think. But the one thing I love most is the fact that the articles are so well-written, it is actually a pleasure reading them. I get so much joy reading it every morning.

For me, the perfect morning consists of listening to good music, sipping a hot cup of coffee (while the lovely coffee aroma fills the air), as I lay back on a comfy chair, reading the Financial Times (the Weekend Edition especially)!

To be invited to speak for this event, and to be on their website. Wow… Just wow! I’m honoured! I think this is the greatest highlight of my time here in NTU.

So here’s to another amazing and fruitful academic year! Slowly and steadily, I’ll become an established academic.