13. March 2023

Growing up in Academia with Ophelia Deroy

Ophelia Deroy today ...

Ophelia Deroy today ...

...  and in younger years at a sailing event in Porto Rotondo, Costa Smeralda.

... and in younger years at a sailing event in Porto Rotondo, Costa Smeralda.

What is it to be a scientist? How does one become a scientist? Growing Up in Academia is a conversation series with academics at different levels of their career focusing on the sometimes short, sometimes long and winding roads behind the “official CV”.

Each event features an open conversation (interview) with a different faculty member, representing the broad spectrum of academic life. We will cover topics such as dealing with expectations (your own and others’), the role of luck/coincidence in scientific discovery, impostor syndrome, procrastination, and conflicts with advisors. Join us for a conversation about the human factors that universally inform the profession, but that too often remain unspoken. These events will be hosted and presented by Lucia Melloni (Max Planck Institute for Empirical Aesthetics). 

On Monday, March 13, 6 p.m. CET, Growing Up in Academia features Ophelia Deroy, Professor of Philosophy of Mind at Ludwig Maximilians University Munich.

You can register for the event by using this link.

The Official CV

I am the current Chair for Philosophy of Mind at Ludwig Maximilian University in Munich and an expert in the fields of philosophy and cognitive science. Holding a PhD in Philosophy from the Institute Jean Nicod in Paris, I completed two post-doctoral research projects, one at New York University and one as a Marie-Curie fellow in London, where I was trained in cognitive science.

In the course of my academic career, I have contributed extensively to both theoretical and experimental research, particularly in the area of how information from multiple sources can be integrated or shared. My work has been recognized for challenging the notion that sharing between the senses and people can lead to genuine integration and unification, and instead proposes that our minds and brains negotiate divergence, rather than build convergence. My group employs a range of methodological approaches, including conceptual, behavioural, neural, and computational, to explore new problems and solutions within this framework. Our research group has now 20 doctoral and post-doctoral researchers, as well as 4 senior scientists, and is supported by a combination of national, European grants and foundations, such as the Volkswagen Stiftung, the Vaccine Confidence Funds, and the NOMIS foundation.

Before moving to Munich, I have been a Principal Investigator in a large interdisciplinary centre and then serving as Deputy Director of the Institute of Philosophy in London. I remain the director of CREATE, a research centre also based at the University of London.

As a member of both the Faculty of Philosophy and the Munich Center for Neuroscience, I continue to make significant contributions to the field of philosophy of mind and cognitive science, and also to work towards a more evidence-based and interactive approach to the sharing of science (also known as science communication).

The Unofficial CV

Growing up on a sailing boat and constantly moving from one island to another,  it is safe to say that my childhood was anything but conventional. My upbringing has also made me view research and academia from a different perspective - much more like something to navigate, rather than climb or progress into. It is that perspective that I like to share - with all its possible merits but also  probable blindspots - with students and collaborators, and I would like to share also here two things, with the same caveats. 

Academic institutions have always been for me a world apart - like harbours, they occupy a specific part in cities, and people go in and out constantly. The rest of the city or society depend on them, because they bring unique skills and resources, but many people won’t wish to be the ones embarking on a PhD or a ship. They are not places of permanence - which should not mean they have to be places of precariousness. This was for me a difficult lesson : I never saw myself attached permanently to a given university, but like every young researcher, the lack of financial stability made me see applying for permanent positions as the core goal, and only solution. I remember applying for lectureships and permanent positions that I didn’t really desire - but also somewhat suffered from not getting. I find this tension - between the mobility of people and ideas  and the need for safety - still at the core of what researchers, especially early-career, struggle with.  Universities here should be more like harbour: places of safety, but also places where people continue to see as places of exchanges, happy to reach and excited at times also to leave.  

This perspective also explains why I am not a great fan of parochialism and immobilism. I value traditions and the fact that institutions in different places do things differently and with a distinct signature. A harbour in Brittany is not like on the red sea. But academia suffers and academic as well from the confusion between safety and permanence.

As I entered the academic world, I also realized a big contrast this time between sailing a boat and doing research. Labs, departments, committees are made of people who are de facto co-dependent, and yet the system keeps rewarding individual achievements. There is no such thing as an individual achievement in research. The focus of some fields on single authorship and distinction always struck me as out-of-place, something like a weird illustration of a Bourdieu-like logic more than a meaningful recognition. I don’t want to be “distinctive” when I write a paper (which in 90% of the cases will be co-written anyway) - I want us to say something interesting, novel, justified and correct. Self-focus and fears of social evaluation is something that growing up in research curates in people. The truth is, nothing is about us - as individuals. No one is essential, no one is original and unique. Together though, groups and ideas grow to be original and eventually distinct. We are here to make ideas grow, not to grow our egos or CVs - and yet, I constantly see that I have to do the latter, rather than enjoy the former. 

What I have found wonderful is to interact with people - I don’t think I would have stayed in academia from starting my PhD in 2005 to now, if it was not for the incredible human relations and interactions I continue to find only in research. First, you are part of a crew, and then you may become responsible for one. But in all cases, you only cross an ocean with people you trust will take their nightshift and remain calm if there is a tempest, but also only with people you will enjoy staying and interacting with for weeks and weeks. We don’t share all roles, but we all share responsibility.  

Many of us have to ask themselves these days whether the path that led and so far kept them in academia has been easier or more privileged than that of others. Mine had some challenges, but it has been exempt of many of the challenges that I hear about from colleagues, friends and students. Among many other things, I reflect a lot these days about nationalities and social backgrounds - how privileged I was and still am by comparison with so many individuals who are trying to enter or stay in academia. I am a French national, and I can travel in many places without visa. I never missed a conference because my visa application was not accepted. I didn’t need to face or fear dictatorships, wars or violence around me. I always could count on affordable or free health care, and, though I was sometimes anxious to be able to support myself, I did not have to support my family financially.  There were some risks, obstacles, but almost all of them, ahem been chosen. This is what I keep thinking even now, when I get frustrated or receive a rejection letter.

As of today, the best I can do is to remind people who struggle with their academic path that they always have some freedom to choose. It is more about keeping a course than following beaten tracks - we do not all have the same difficulties or privileges, but if we have got so far as to be in a university, or do a PhD, we are all resourceful. We can navigate this, and the changing conditions ahead.

The event will be held on Zoom. Pleaso note the Data Protection Information Regarding Zoom Webinars.