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I always hated roller coasters; I remember kids – schoolmates – being excited about these death machines, but just the thought of being in one made me nauseous. What is the benefit of being tied down into a chair of a train-like vehicle that runs at high speed, throwing your body back and forth, upwards and downwards, from side to side, while you are screaming in agony?

Not surprisingly, people use the torturous roller coaster as a metaphor for the emotional ups and downs someone is experiencing, one’s mood swings, or even life overall. There are plenty of other metaphors that express the same analogy. However, that particular one is prevailing since, for most, it captures many contradicting emotions: thrill, excitement, fear, suspense, and so on. Even less surprisingly, many people parallel a Ph.D. program and life in academia to a crazy roller coaster ride, and indeed it makes a lot of sense.

Just imagine; you find yourself in an amusement park; you start easy by winning some prizes in the whack-a-mole game; you feel confident, and you also want a bigger challenge, so you decide to try archery, even with moving targets! And indeed, you managed to win the biggest stuffed animal. Someone would say, “That was enough fun, my friend, get an ice cream and go back home”. But not you! You do get some ice cream, of course, but then you see the biggest installation of the park, the roller coaster track, and you think to yourself, “of course, I can do it!” You go with a plan to control your fear, not to scream – not even once, to let go of everything, relax your body, enjoy the ride and step out at the end with a great smile on your face; the king/queen of the amusement park. People will cheer, and legends will tell about the day this mysterious person went through this ride with one breath and a smile.

So you approach, you pay the fee, and then a person straps you on the chair. You look around and see the faces of people you don’t know, but with expressions, you recognize well. There are some who look terrified already, some look completely lost, there is one person disappointed because he is there after losing a bet, and then there are the ones that walked in with the same confidence as you. These are your people for the next few minutes; you will go through everything together. Then, as you are done observing the people surrounding you, you see the moderator of the machine stepping away, and the first chill of fear runs through your body. “Is this belt safe enough?” someone asks, yelling in panic, and even though you did not let yourself voice that question, you were thinking the same.

Oh, I could continue with the horrific description for pages, and this would be a narration stemming from my imagination, as there’s no way I could ever build up the courage to ride that machine. Nevertheless, I will focus on the peak of the track, because this is a crucial part of the journey – the scariest one. Let’s say that you managed to go through all the ups and downs, without a sound or a tear, and then you reach the highest peak just before the end of the ride. It’s so high that while the vehicle is stalled at the top for a couple of seconds, there is nothing in your range of vision apart from empty horizon. You can only guess how abrupt and fast the fall will be, and the verticality of this line makes your stomach turn. Even though there was no point along the ride that you could politely ask to escape and step out, this point at the top of the peak feels like the point of no return when you regret all your life choices. And then you scream. Hard.

In my opinion, many hard moments might feel like this peak, or many periods of time could be paralleled to the roller coaster ride. Every time I attempt to write an article, I go through a wide range of emotions, from hating whatever I put on page and feeling like a failure to feeling extremely proud of myself and my progress some hours later. However, something tells me that the horror comes near the end of the ride. It is the moment you start thinking about the day after tomorrow, after the graduation and all the celebration and realize that there are so many more games in the amusement park, so many more challenges, and Ph.D. was just the beginning and not the final boss to beat. It is the moment you look ahead and see an empty horizon.

This metaphor and this image tormented me for the longest time. Then one day, while speaking with a great colleague and good friend (Hey, Daria). We agreed on how before enrolling into our programs, we were picturing ourselves in something much like a music-montage scene within a coming-of-age movie. Feature the protagonist being awfully productive while looking sharp, as days, and even seasons go by, with the accompaniment of a slightly dynamic, highly motivating, and very cheesy song. While we both concluded that, in reality, it is a thriller movie we are experiencing full of suspense and fear, this cinematic comparison made me think.

Montage film editing has a similar effect on our perception as roller coasters do; they speed up time – in a way. With the amusement park’s harrowing vehicle, the speed of the trajectory and the sharp turns result in a very fast and agonizing ride, while the movie section edits out huge parts of everyday life, focusing on some peaks within each day, fast-forwarding or completely omitting the rest. The ride of the roller coaster looks notably similar to a waveform of a video clip, especially a sped-up one. However, if you extend this clip, stretch it out, and expand its length, you can see that all the peaks and sharp edges of the wave become soft curves that smoothly alternate between highs and lows. Much less acute and much less intimidating.

The thing is, we tend to think about our future projecting how the peak moments would probably look or feel; we focus too much on the fear of failing and falling down or just the fear of the unknown. However, life and specifically academic life, should not be compared with a roller coaster. It is much more a step-by-step hike through hills and valleys, perhaps in an Estonian landscape where the altitude is not that high. Indeed, some parts might be craggy or precipitous; however, there is so much beauty around, and you take so many small steps, each of them teaching you a better how to navigate in this scenery. You start recognizing the flora, you learn how to collect the nice, sweet berries, and you learn how to walk on all the different surfaces, avoiding falling or sliding. You still get to march along with other wanderers and share moments, and by the end of the road, you are full of images, experiences, and interesting stories to share.

Lastly, when the time comes, and you are at the end of that trail, the horizon in front of you is a magnificent view, empty, but in a good way. A new landscape unfolds before you, and you look to the future with stability, self-confidence, and security. And that’s because the entire journey you took, with its actual duration, with all the difficulties and adversities, even the sudden adventures and misfortunes, taught you so many lessons. Because now you know better, how to maneuver and avoid mishaps, how to assess situations, how to save energy, and be focused.

So, I think that life in academia is my hiking journey that, with every step, is improving me and making me wiser. But also, because I would much rather try to climb an Estonian hill than ride a death machine!

~ The Brave Alpaca