Friday, April 10, 2009

Why do I do this?

I spend a (more than?) reasonable amount of time complaining. I don't like the town I am living in, the weather or the food, I don't think I get adequate supervision and guidance for a PhD student and I consider the unprofessionalism some people here show to be beyond the pale. But this post isn't about all that. It is about the reasons that I am doing what I do (and loving it).

I was reminded of this when yet another fellow student told me he was considering quitting. In recent times I have had one of our cohort decide to quit and then be talked into finishing a reduced-scope thesis by her supervisor, and another friend just leave. I sympathise and understand their reasoning, but I have honestly never considered quitting.

I had never planned an academic career. After my computer science and engineering undergrad degree, I was quite happy to get out in to the real world, be paid real money and have guilt-free weekends and evenings without homework. I found a programming job that seemed a nice mix between using my current skills and learning new systems and prepared to be an adult. I am a good programmer and I enjoy it. Getting paid to program 9-5 and having all that spare time for my hobbies sounded ideal. Then, after 6 months, I got bored. I had learnt what they could teach me and I had learnt everything else I could figure out on my own. My manager did what he could, and threw me every new project to come in and let me streamline some of the older systems, but I still got bored. My mother told me that work was meant to be boring and I should enjoy the lack of pressure and the free time. Unfortunately, the other thing I quickly realised was this 'free time' in the evenings never materialised because I was exhausted. Apparently my body and 9-5 just don't get on. Even after 2 years of trying to adjust to that rhythm, one 9-5 day exhausted me more than my 11-11 routine every did.

And then, while I half-heartedly searched for jobs that might suit me better, a friend still at uni told me about a new course the CS department was starting: Cupcake Technology. I was intrigued. Cupcakes had always been a hobby interest for me, far outside my background, but something I read a lot about. There was a field that combined my skills and my sideline interests?! In a shorter time than one probably should take to make life changing decisions, I had taken a day off to cold-call the professor who taught the course asking about research opportunities, inquired about reducing my current job to part time, and when I found that was impossible, I put in my resignation. I spent every spare minute outside work during my notice period reading up on the background of this field to put together a Masters research proposal. I found multiple (flexible) part time jobs tutoring, sysadmining and programming and within 4 months of hearing about this field, I started my Masters research.

I had very little money and a constant juggling act between multiple jobs and my research, but I was happier than I had been in 2 years. I was back in an environment that suited me, I was constantly learning and I was able to direct my own work while collaborating with others. It wasn't until towards the end of my Masters that I knew I had made the right decision though. I was spending some time in a research division of a company in Japan thanks to some contacts of my supervisor. Towards the end of my stay, things got very stressful. The group was working towards multiple paper submissions, we were all depending on data from each other and there never seemed to be enough hours in the day. This was also about the time that I started to realise what research was - that no one knew the answers and that sometimes I had to come up with both the questions and the answers. Learning to accept that added to the stress and to feelings of inadequacy. It was as I was chatting online to a friend late at night during this time, telling her about all the issues that I realised something. I was still happy. The pressure was intense, balancing the requirements of everyone in the group was a minefield, I was exhausted (being a company, it was a bit more 9-5 than a university), I had just learnt what I still think is one of the scariest (but most exciting) aspects of research, and all I wanted was more of the same.

This idea re-occurs to be continually, in my own dark times, and when I hear about those of other people. I think that my two years full time work in some way innoculated me against the sort of doubts that would drive me out. I learnt in those two years that the biggest threat to my happiness and fulfillment was boredom. I still have doubts about my competence, I still rail against the lack of guidance in my PhD position, I still stress about actually finishing my thesis, but I know that I am in the right place for me. The excitement, the mental stimulation of discussing research with others, the ever changing nature of my day-to-day activities, the flexibility of the life style, the challenges I can find - these things all make it worth the negatives. I know that I will find different sorts of challenges and obstacles as I go up the ladder, but that is exciting too. Right now, I am sure that I am in the life that is right for me.

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