The latest issue of the alumni magazine for the school where I did my graduate work arrived in the mail the other day. In it, they carried the inevitable set of profiles of destinguished alumni. It is a fairly distinguished group: a nationally known TV actress here, an editor a very reputable newspaper there, an astronomer who discovered planets outside our solar system, an Oscar winner for one of the post-production disciplines, a sausage-maker whose product is now sold nationally, an astronaut, and the major of one of the larger cities in the United States.
Of particular interest was the one person in that group who I personally knew during my time in grad school. A student with a rather mathematical bent, she’s been doing very good work in a field related to protien recognition. She and I used to hover in the same computer lab for a year or two around the time I was finishing my Master’s degree. A divorced woman with children, I came to admire her passion for her chosen field of interest… because I had difficulty doing dissertation work without rugrats to worry about. It was obvious when she considered changing schools to get her Ph.D. and other, bigger schools were interested in her. She stayed where she was though; her advisor was becoming a very big “Grand Poobah” in her field and she figured out that staying put meant working with the best.
Seeing her in the magazine made me feel a little sad, or perhaps a little sober about the quality of my graduate research. I’m a bright guy… I know this. I’m also far enough from my days as a graduate student to know that my graduate research was pretty mediocre. I’ve met people who have a lot of “wow” factor with the quality of their ideas. I don’t fit into that category, and I’m not going to be listed as “one of our best and brightest alumni” within 10 years of my graduation. Whatever gifts I possess and whatever my interests are, they are not destined to make me a star in academic circles.
Mrs. Geek got on my case immediately when I told her this. She felt that I was not valuing myself and my contributions. That wasn’t really correct. I think academic work in my field is silly in some ways. It is somtimes more about the ability to solve problems abstractly by writing scary, hairy Calculus on white boards than delivering anything useful to anyone. I like building things and proving a theorem doesn’t quite do it for me.
I think what I actually felt was a sense that if I possess virtues, they are more like the moon that the sun. If I glow, it is reflected rather than emitted light. I’m much better as the able lieutenant, the person working perhaps behind the scenes. I am the analyzer, the devil’s advocate. If I possess any genius, it is more collaborative than wholly original.
This makes me a solid engineer. It does not get me into any alumni magazines. I just accept that.