Lots of big adventure video games have a couple of different modes. There’s a story mode, where you have clearly defined objectives, whether they be called “goals,” “quests,” “missions,” or something else. Each one advances the narrative. You can have side missions or random encounters along the way. There may be a lot of different ways to accomplish a task. But essentially you are working towards some sort of conclusion.
(As an aside, if you have never worked through the story of a big adventure video game all the way through to the end... I recommend trying it at least once. The feel of accomplishment is very satisfying.)
But, to help games have replay value, lots of games also have a free play mode.
In free play, you get to play in the sandbox. You get the virtual environment, the random encounters, and you can roam around and do whatever you want. There are treasures to find, badges to collect, achievements to earn.
That’s usually the point I stop playing. Free play tends not to interest me very much. As the actors say: “What’s my motivation?”
Most of an academic career is like story mode.
- Mission: Obtain Ph.D.
- Objective: Find supervisor.
- Objective: Pass qualifying exam.
- Objective: Write dissertation.
- Mission: Obtain tenure.
- Current objective: Secure external funding.
- Objective: Publish papers.
Today is my first day as a full professor. And I feel like I’ve just entered the free play mode of academia. Full professor is... the top of the heap. There isn’t any promotion for regular faculty after that point. (That is, unless you go into administration. But that’s a different story.)
This is not to say that I feel like I am about to stop. Far from it. Sometimes, there is a perception that faculty get lazy after getting tenure (hence this sea squirt joke), but I was pleased to realize that when I got tenure, I put my foot on the gas, not the brakes. I published a lot more as a tenured associate professor than an untenured assistant professor.
Being out of quests to pursue means that I’ve got to do some pretty significant psychological recalibration. It can be easy to wander around in the sandbox in free play, looking for something to do, but not accomplishing much.
Like the first day of my first promotion (to associate professor), I’m wearing a kilt today on my first day of being a full professor. Because a man in a kilt fears nothing, and that is still my reminder to be fearless. Since I am at the point where I need to set my own mission objectives, I want them to be good ones. Time to raise the difficulty setting off “easy.”
Additional, 2 September 2015: I wrote too soon. I didn’t get the memo below memo until after I posted this: