Yesterday, I picked up the alumni periodical for the University where I did my graduate work and found profiles of two people I knew fairly well in a “best and brightest alumni” article about the graduate program that trained us. It unexpectedly gave me a twinge of panic, of regret, of something. Perhaps it was simply the recognition that no one would be writing a “best and brightest” article about me anytime soon. Or it was the recognition that my career as a graduate student was decidedly mediocre. While I am not usually one to be overly competitive, there is enough of the overachiever and straight A student to ask “why can’t that be me?” and “why didn’t I do better?”
The answers, of course, are rather straightforward. I’m a smart man, but I’m a much better engineer than a scientist. Academic work in the sciences involves making up tractable problems and then publishing ways to solve them. I hate that part of research. I’m much happier having someone else bring me a problem than making one up on my own. I’m also a little weak when it comes to advanced theory — my idea of a fun afternoon is not standing in front of a white board coming up with equations that define statistical models to describe machine performance. I did enough of that for my Ph.D. dissertation to last me a while yet.
All that aside, however, perhaps the thing that bugs me is simply that I didn’t keep a better sense of perspective about my career and career options. Others made sure to get a multiplicity of internship experiences, where I stayed at the University over the summers and helped engineer, then helped re-engineer, and finally administered a complex data acquisition system for the government. I did spend one summer working for NASA, but, nothing came of it… because, well, the work was something of a dead end. I also did little to keep my eye on publishing. While my vita doesn’t look awful, there are no citations for papers in top rank journals or at top rank conferences.
No, I was a pretty mediocre graduate student in the sense of preparing myself for a life in academia. The thing is, I knew this when I was in graduate school, but stuck it out long enough to get my Ph.D. I knew that the goal was eventually worth reaching as a personal achievement. I know that sounds odd to some… but being able to haul out the title “Doctor” to me is a profound achievement. The other two “best and brightest” obviously feel that too, but, embrace the academic life in ways that I can’t; they are assistant professors at big name institutions — true feathers in their respective caps as we all did our graduate work at good, but lesser known, school.
I guess I’m left wondering why, given that I know all this and have known it for a long time… what is bothering me? Maybe it’s that I started my current job three years ago tomorrow, and I’m uncertain about my future with it. I don’t mean that in the sense that I’m worried about being fired. Rather, I mean that I now know the dimensions and boundaries of what is possible in my current job… and I’m not sure what it has to teach me. I feel like I am growing slightly stale and repeating myself. I worry slightly about this because it is not conducive to maintaining a career over the long haul. One must always be growing and developing new skills. To do otherwise in a field like computers is to plan for your own obsolescence.