Yesterday I mentioned something about the "fire" that some of us have for research. If you have this "fire" it means that you are deeply fascinated by research and discovery; you are motivated by a strong desire to investigate and answer questions; you are thrilled by new results and ideas.
Perhaps some people have this fire always. Definitely some never have it. For others -- perhaps most of us -- the flame flickers and may even appear to be extinguished at times.
If I were to graph my research-fire level vs. time, the time averaged result would show a steady presence of research-fire. If you looked at specific data points, however, you would see some extreme wiggles in the curve, including some very low points (though nothing like what one of my PhD students experienced in the lead-up to the defense). In my academic career, there have been months/years, especially during my student years but a few in the post-PhD years, in which events conspired to squelch my enthusiasm for science, research, academia or all three.
The research-thrill always came back. Typically the fire-squelching was driven by some sort of harassment or by major problems with co-workers or students. Through the bad times, however, I never completely lost my interest in research; sometimes it just seemed like the interesting parts of my job were overshadowed by the awful parts. On a few occasions I wondered if it was worth it to keep going or whether I should figure out a new career plan.
I haven't felt that way in a long time. The curve on the research fire level graph has defined a rather high plateau for the last 10 years or so, with only one valley of any note.
I think that once you find a good environment and are fortunate to have the opportunity to do the research you want to do, the research-fire level can stay high and can withstand the occasional negative things that happen in the course of any career and life. After a while, something that would have been a crisis or at least the cause for major anxiety and/or sadness doesn't have such a significant or sustained effect anymore.
Tenure helps with this, of course, but so does knowing that you have written successful grant proposals, you have successfully advised grad students and postdocs, you have received good teaching evaluations, and you have published papers (that were cited). Then, even if a proposal is turned down or a paper rejected and even if a vindictive student writes a scathing evaluation or a grad student flames out, you know that life goes on, the research and teaching fun will continue, and the disappointments will be interspersed with more happy events.
That perspective is one reason why I like being middle-aged. Perhaps it is the only reason, but it's a pretty good one all the same.
Tonight my mood (but not fire-level) has taken a minor hit because it turns out that the exciting research results I was expecting have been postponed for a couple of weeks. Unlike holidays and birthdays, which come on schedule, research results can be delayed, alas.
10 months ago