Many professors have quirky hobbies. Few involve competing on reality television. And then there’s Christian Hubicki, an assistant professor of mechanical engineering at Florida State University and the Florida A&M University–Florida State College of Engineering,who became a breakout star on Survivor.
A major concern going into the season for Hubicki was whether other academics would judge him for appearing on the show. Hubicki had signed his faculty-job offer the day he left for Fiji in 2018. But he came back from filming with a new perspective on work-life balance on the tenure track.
He also showed viewers the usefulness of being a scientist. He won a contest during one episode by lecturing for hours on such topics as exoskeleton research. He showed that professors know how to navigate big personalities and build teams. And he even explained the ins and outs of a search algorithm. Ultimately, Hubicki placed seventh out of 20.
Survivor’s 41st season premiered this week, three years after Hubicki competed on the show. The Chronicle asked him to reflect on how his academic career has been shaped by his stint on reality television, and what his pursuit of that unusual interest can teach fellow professors about taking time for their passions. This interview has been edited for clarity and length.
You were on the faculty job market. Then you decide, unlike a lot of academics, to go on a reality-TV show. What did you weigh before you applied and then said yes?
Survivor is a show I’d always been fascinated with. The show came on in 2000, and it was a huge hit. I was 14 at the time. It always stuck with me — maybe someday I could do that. I just found the game itself really fascinating in ways that ended up dovetailing with my choice of research. I look into control strategies for complex systems, and I saw a lot of parallels to that in a political game for $1 million. I applied during grad school, many years before I got on the show, and I got no interest from the producers. I just assumed that they were not terribly interested in a robotics Ph.D. student.
I was finishing up my postdoc. In the back of my head, I thought, I’m going to be gunning for my faculty position this year. There’s no good time to take off a lot of time from your career necessarily, but if I’m a tenure-track professor, that might be a harder thing to explain. Could I request a sabbatical on my first year as an assistant professor? I figured, if I want to try, I should try right now.
I made a new video for casting on a Sunday. I submitted it Sunday night, and I got a call on Monday. They called me back immediately. Very quickly, it became obvious that I was a leading contender to be on the show. The chaos ensued from there.
At what point in the job search were you?
I had not even submitted my applications at the time when I was in the middle of casting. The casting for the show lasts months. If you get very far, you get flown out to Los Angeles and shoved in a hotel for a week while they prod you with all kinds of interview questions and various ways of measuring whether or not you’re going to be good on the show, physically and mentally. I’m in my hotel room typing up my applications for faculty positions in between these tests.
I would not recommend doing a job search when you’re about to leave civilization for a month plus.
Months go by. During that gap, thankfully, I start getting some faculty interview requests. Right about when I’m about to do my in-person faculty interviews, that’s when I get the call saying, “Guess what, Christian, you’re going on Survivor in a month.”
I would not recommend doing a job search when you’re about to leave civilization for a month plus. It was a stressful situation. I was flying out to all these faculty interviews, and I was having to tell these department chairs, “Yeah, I like it here, but just so you know, you won’t be able to talk to me for the entire month of April, or later.” I can’t tell them why. I just say, “I have a temporary job opportunity that’s a once-in-a-lifetime job opportunity that I can’t pass up. I’ll be out of contact for that period of time.” A lot of people didn’t know what to think of that. One department chair thought I was going to work on a CIA black-ops operation. I think that chair ended up telling the dean, “Yeah, this guy is a big deal.”
I’m running around giving my seminar, I’m interviewing with people, flying around the country for these in-person job interviews, and I’m knowing in four weeks, three weeks, two weeks, I’m going to be on an island. I ended up signing my offer letter the day I left for Fiji. I was able to at least have peace.
Were you anxious at all about this type of exposure? Who knew how editors would portray you on the show — could that jeopardize your future career in a profession that’s pretty hard to advance in?
I was concerned to some degree about how I would be perceived going on a reality show. I was having discussions with people, kind of cryptic discussions — I couldn’t say what I was doing — about this opportunity. And I heard various voices. Some people told me, “Whatever you’re doing, it’s taking time away from your job applications, so I would not do it.” This is a strong careerist approach: Anything that impedes your career at this stage is not worth it. I had other people on the other side, saying, “This is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity; you will regret it if you turn it down.” I’m glad I sided with that side, because I would have really regretted not having gone, even if it didn’t go as well as I felt my experience did.
But in terms of the reputational risk, I was very concerned. I tried to push it aside because in my head, I was focusing on the positives. I was going to be a real-life scientist on this show. I had talked with these producers during the casting process and I could see the glimmer in their eyes when I was relating the show to algorithms and scientific concepts. There was some hunger to tell a story about the show that they hadn’t told before, about how it relates to scientific concepts.
But there were times where, on the island, it was starting to get to me, the fear of what people would think of me going on the show. Very close to the end of the entire filming, I was in the middle of an interview. The producers will pull you aside for interviews to ask you how things are going. That was the first time that I broke down. It was not over the physical elements, but the career stress.
It was likely that sometime soon I’d be voted out. I thought, There are people out there who will not understand what I am doing here unless I win $1 million. If I come home with $1 million, then some person who judges me at a conference for having done this reality show, I can say, “Hey, I got $1 million, shut up.” But if I don’t have that million dollars, I don’t have that argument.
That was the one time where the academic world just crept in. The vast majority of people find it fascinating and support the fact I did something crazy like this. But in hindsight I learned that I cannot live my life in a way that where I am pre-emptively avoiding the judgment of people who do not have my best interests in mind.
I ended up signing my offer letter the day I left for Fiji. I was able to at least have peace.
For me to break down over anything on the island was a big deal. It was not that I was losing a shot at $1 million. It’s what people in academia would think about me not winning $1 million. I think it says it says something about how present it is in our psyches, the way academia gets to you, and that it’s important to step back and see the ridiculousness of it. And maybe that disempowers that fear to some degree.
When you meet new colleagues or talk to students, or present at conferences, were your worst fears of being judged or misunderstood realized?
I have been overwhelmingly impressed with how positive the response has been to my time on the show. When people hear I was on the show, they’re like, “Oh, that’s really interesting.” And you also get to find out who the closeted Survivor fans are out there.
Does it come up with your students?
Students will often bring it up, especially in a new semester. It’s become a bit of a routine. In the first lecture or two, someone afterward will come up to me and say, “By the way, I just started watching your season.” I will occasionally, maybe once a semester, bring it up. In control systems, which I’m teaching now, one of the things you’d ask is, “Hey, why wouldn’t you just have a computer do all the calculations for you?” I was like, “Well, what if you were on an island and you had to do controlled calculations?” Before Survivor, that’s what you would say. And after Survivor, it’s got an added layer of irony.
How was playing a game like Survivor similar to navigating the academic workplace?
There are clear parallels to how you navigate a social, political game for $1 million and how you navigate through academia. When I was being cast for the show, they’re asking you questions like, “Why would you be good on this show? There are no robots on the island. What are you going to be good at?”
One of the things I explained was that robots are built by teams of people, and these teams of people sometimes do not get along. My role was often the peacemaker in these groups of people. Academia is notorious for having strong personalities of people who may or may not get along. It’s understanding how to find a role for yourself, where you fit in, even though people have all kinds of different agendas. This one person wants their lab to succeed, this other person wants this initiative to succeed. Finding a role for yourself in that kind of situation, I think, is highly analogous to Survivor.
You’re an assistant professor. How do you expect Survivor to play a role in your tenure packet?
I’ve thankfully got another year or so before I’ve got to submit my packet. The way the show comes up directly is through my outreach efforts. Because of the show’s public exposure, I get to talk science to audiences I otherwise would not have had access to. It really is a big service component that I put in there. And I can’t help but be inspired by this really intense competitive environment to refocus my research on things that I thought were really interesting on the island.
Above all else, just having the public communication experience of being on that show, that’s a big boost of confidence when you’re talking in front of a lecture hall, to students, or to faculty at a conference. Media critics are a tough audience. If you can please them, I feel like you can please anyone.
It was not that I was losing a shot at $1 million. It’s what people in academia would think about me not winning $1 million.
What advice you would give to other academics about balancing being a careerist and following an unusual dream?
I had arranged that I would go back to work the day after I got back from the island. Seems crazy in hindsight. I was so worried about getting work done that I had to race to go into lab the next day. I realized in that moment, what am I doing? Take the rest of the week.
After I got back, in my first lab meeting, there was speculation as to what was going on, where I was. They didn’t know. It came time for my lab update. And it just became so clear to me to talk on this exact point, about work-life balance.
So often in academia, we feel we’re on this narrow path. If you step off of it, who knows what will happen? You could be toast in this profession. I was so glad I took a big step away from that. It gave me perspective on my own life. It validated that I was a person outside of my research contributions, which seems so silly to say. We work in academia. We know how all-encompassing it can feel. And so, I just recommended to everyone, it’s OK to take a big step off the path. You never know where it might lead you.
I was so glad that I did, not only for the career benefits, but also, I’ve gotten to experience something that very few people have the opportunity to get. I have stories for a lifetime. I have friends for a lifetime from the show. My prediction that I could do science communication on a big show that is ostensibly not about science came true. I took a gamble, and it paid off. And overall, academia has been incredibly supportive of this decision.