studying and working, yes living, in academia is a daily challenge. it can be easiest described by the metaphor of the needle in the haystack. but even this image needs to be enlarged a bit further.
coming from high school, some people are fortunate enough to know their interests, their passions, their desires for the future. this makes the initial step of entering the academic world a lot easier. for all the others, they feel like standing in front of a thousand barns. some are bigger, some are smaller. some are built with expensive wood and golden angles, others look like they are about to break and fall. some are aged over centuries, while others are newly built. but what to trust? trust the old structure that has survived wind and rain? or hope that the new barn is constructed well enough to survive the first storm? yet, these are not the only concerns, troubling an undecided mind. it is also the many opinions of families and friends constantly whispering in your ear to take the gold barn, the pretty one, the one where you come out at the other side and you are “guaranteed a job”. but do you opt for security or do you opt for passion? and what if your passion never pays? or even worse, what if you have so many passions you cannot decide between them?
the choice between the different areas of study is like choosing a barn in which you will look for the needle in the haystack. or at least, that’s what you think until you actually step inside the barn. for once you have entered, you realize that there is not just one haystack within this big and dark hall but there are an uncountable many.
it is during your bachelor degree that the university leads you through the barn and professors talk about the haystack they are focusing on in lectures and seminars. what they are trying to do, is to give you an overview of why this haystack is different than the others and what it contains. they might even show you some tricks of how to dig into a haystack the most strategically and how to spin your ariadne’s thread to find your way back out. they hardly ever tell you, however, that you have to chose one haystack for yourself if you want to continue your life in the barn.
it is the decision between the many master programs there are all over the world that makes the air in the barn feel dusty, the rare light feel numbing and the entire experience seem overwhelming. some students opt for the easy way of staying within the hay balls they have come to known so far and chose between the few options offered by just one university. others opt for the exit right away, hoping that the jungle of employment is more satisfying than the search for a needle in the haystack. some know exactly what they want and are brave enough to put it all on once card. and others again stand between these many choices, not quite able to chose. there are big stacks and small ones. some have a more golden hay than others. some look like they have spiders and nets within them, others look clean but well combed through already. and once again you feel like you are standing outside of the barns, not able to make a clear picking, and overwhelmed by the options. the only thing that did change is that your family and friends remain silent for they most likely do not know the haystacks you have to chose from. instead it is your professors and colleagues that whisper into your ear suggestions about which haystack is more interesting, more exciting, more lucrative than the other.
whether it is reason or passion or predictions for the future that make you pick and dive into one haystack, if you do, you realize that there is less air to breath, less light to come through and an overwhelming choice between options of where to start digging. it is this moment that you realize that looking for a thesis is the hardest part, the hardest decision you have yet to overcome. and there is this pressing realization in the back of your head, asking what happens if you never find a needle at all?
looking at all these challenges, the risks, the decisions, the pressures, one might ask oneself why to go through this process at all? i realize, i can only speak for myself now, but for me, it is the digging that is my passion. it is the process of accumulating information, of sorting it, of rethinking it, of questioning it, of analyzing and abstracting it, that makes my heart beat faster. it is curiosity that gets me out of bed in the morning. it is the questions i want answers to that make me want to dig into the haystack again and again and again. and it is the process rather than the needle that gives me satisfaction. it is the aha-moments, the realization that the puzzle of the big picture suddenly got a little bit clearer, and the new questions that hide behind each answer and enflame a new curiosity, that makes all the choices and looking through the haystacks such a pleasure.