It is October 2020. I graduated from Brown in May 2020 and have been working as a software engineer since June 2020.
I love how research makes your life into a beautiful narrative arc of professional achievement. The lives of scientists are strikingly linear. You found yourself in a PhD and eventually a researcher job. Your first paper, your first award, then hundreds more papers and awards. There’s always something new in the world, new collaborators and new projects and even new fields, but science stays mostly the same beast. There will always be PhDs, advisors, professors, papers, conferences.
It’s really romantic. I want to be someone who wants to work until they die, doing something they love—something that doesn’t drain all their energy until there’s nothing to do but retire. I see professors who are going on 80 and still teaching, happy to still be running labs and driving innovation in the world.
But the thing about romance is that it’s not always realistic; in fact, it can be so unrealistic that clinging to it deprives you of real world happiness. Not a dream, or a fantasy, but the feeling that you had a good day when you go to bed, thousands and thousands of times.
Here are the facts. I hate moving, and I deeply want to settle down somewhere and not move for a long time. Future researchers often steel themselves to move for their PhD, a post-doc, and a research job, and maybe more research jobs until they eventually find stability. I don’t know if I can wait for that long of an eventually.
I also don’t know if I only want to be around scientists all day. The most unintuitive truth I know is that putting a bunch of bright people with similar goals and ambitious natures together tends to make them miserable. They are wildly productive in such company, but also petty and narrow-minded. I’ve noticed that scientists only really compare themselves with other scientists, and dead scientists as well. Good luck feeling good about yourself next to some of the smartest, most ambitious, most societal-good-minded people in the entire history of the universe.
The nature of the work is also emotionally difficult. Grad school has a reputation for creating or accentuating anxiety or depression. While most students come out the other end of rough patches of uncertainty, rejection and confusion better for it, I worry that I would not. It only takes about 2 weeks of bad days for me to start sinking into depression, and about 2 years of bad days to start wishing I were dead. I might just flop over, drop out, and take the rest of my life to get over it.
Another thing: my ideal weekly social calendar includes a deep conversation with a good friend, at least an hour long, every single day. I’ve never thought of tech as a particularly social industry, but I’ve had much better luck finding friends there than in a university or otherwise research-y setting. And beyond that, I’ve discovered that being on a team with daily communications feels magnitudes better to me than working on a project alone. Even with advisor meetings and such, it is chilling to be truly alone in understanding your own work. I’m a lot more extroverted than I realized.
And, honestly, I am truly okay with building something that’s not novel in its design, but novel in the amount of positive impact it makes. That is the bread and butter of software: using the innovations and advances that already exist to do more than ever before. I don’t think that the only cool work out there is research-y work.
I feel a lot of comfort and safety in knowing that the ocean of software is so vast. There are a lot of jobs I could take in a lot of different industries and product areas, and I think I’d be reasonably happy in many of them. It also helps that market forces make it a great financial situation. I recently found out that it’s particularly easy for people in this discipline to retire early, given that you can afford a seriously big investment portfolio.
To be fair, there are plenty of problems for engineers too. Job flexibility comes with job instability too, and the same market forces make changing jobs a better growth opportunity than promotions. Management can be brutal about deadlines and expectations, just like shitty advisors. Corporate complacency can quickly turn a chill job into a tedious one that sucks away your drive to achieve. Even so, I like this set of problems better than the researcher ones.
I’m sad that teaching isn’t an easy thing to integrate into an engineering career, and that writing and speaking are also add-ons that you have to seek out yourself. I miss the romance of a predictable and extremely structured career trajectory. My current job makes me a lot happier than I thought possible, though. I’ll find ways to teach, write, and speak without going back to school for the time being.