I’m older than I’ve ever been

In class Peter Goldreich once said “You don’t get smarter in grad school. You just get older.”  I don’t know if I agree entirely, but there’s a grain of truth in there somewhere.  It is a strange kind of scientific hazing ritual.  An induction and an indoctrination.  Highly skilled and intelligent people, doing difficult technical work, for years, earning something close to minimum wage.  Why?  Is it for a chance to play in the tenure-track tournament, with the odds stacked 10 to 1 against you?  If you win, you can study anything you like (as long as there’s funding…).  Is it because we think having a PhD will get us somebody’s respect?  Whose?  Our parents?  Our advisors?  Society at large?  It’s certainly not because we’re seeking power or riches.  That way lies law school, or the dreaded MBA.  Is it because we don’t know how to do anything else?  Because our self esteem has been so entangled with school for so long?  Because we are a people addicted to understanding?  What fraction of PhD students finish feeling good about themselves, or in love with their research?  Or even learning in general?

The Thesis Cell

I’ll be in San Francisco at AGU during commencement, but for the program, the department asked me, “What are your plans after you graduate?”  Here’s what I said:

I wish I knew!  Actually, that’s not true.  I like not knowing.  No job lined up.  I’ll volunteer on software projects like, and ride my bike a lot, and volunteer with local bike advocacy groups doing IT stuff.   I’ll read and blog about sustainability issues, and study either Chinese and Spanish at the local community college.  I’ll collect free food from grocery store and bakery dumpsters in the middle of the night, eat some of it, and donate the rest to homeless shelters.  I’ll also sleep more, cook more, and give my wife more backrubs.  Take up playing the flute again, and try to find some other people who are interested in doing Celtic music.  It’s a big wide world out there.

They didn’t respond.  I wonder if they’ll even publish it?  Today I filled out a questionnaire that’s put out by the NSF and a bunch of other federal funding agencies, to anyone who’s just finished their doctoral degree.  It had a “future plans” section.  The most accurate option available was “None (family commitments, etc.)”.  As if having a family didn’t count toward having a plan.  When people ask to my face, and I tell them I have no job and no post-doc lined up, I get funny looks.  Mostly looks that seem to convey some sense of horror, or disbelief, or incomprehension.  Sometimes, they can’t imagine not needing to work, financially.  Americans, even with real jobs, only have a few thousand dollars in savings on average.  Something like a month’s worth of backup funds.  They’re probably also not willing to eat out of dumpsters.  Others don’t understand how I can just walk away.  “But, but your career“, they stammer, as if I’ve discarded some precious piece of consumer crap.  It was Made in China.  It was going to break next year anyway.  I did not purchase the extended warranty.

When I graduated from Caltech, it was me that was broken.  I was so happy for it just to be over with.  I didn’t particularly know or care what came next.  I had three job offers.  They all seemed like absurd amounts of money.  None of them was inspiring.  (At XYZ Corp we work hard, and play hard.  Uh huh.  Oh, and can we have a urine sample please?)  I took the one with the funkiest people, in the nicest location (Santa Cruz).  I think that was the right choice, at least on the small scale.  In the slightly bigger picture though, I really didn’t know what I wanted to do.  Or rather, it was unclear whether I actually wanted to do anything.  I think I’d been trapped in a kind of mental and emotional survival mode for the previous five years.  I couldn’t dream anymore.  Not the constructive kind of dreaming anyway, just escape.  No desire to change the world.  Just trying to get by.  This was remarkably similar to my escape from Sanger.  Just get out, and do it fast.

But there’s something in me that doesn’t like that.  Possibly delusions of grandeur.  Eighteen months of maintaining the nightly builds, and source control, and packaging software updates for the rapidly antiquating operating system running all the Taco Bell computers (and also some nuclear power plants in Germany) was all I could stand.  At least I wasn’t the guy who spent six months hacking the € character into the OS.

And then I was transfixed.  I blame the books.  And the drugs.  The writers, they got inside my brain.  Visions of Martian sugarplums, dancing across Vastitas Borealis.  They made that red place real, and it’s only gotten realer ever since.  More real than a dream, however, can still be far from real, depending on what you have to compete with.  Next to an imploding bubble of millennial vaporware, Mars and the long term plan were plenty concrete.  Compared to the 2000 election, 9/11, my mom’s death, a shockingly jingoistic America, and two wars, all of which seem desperately disconnected from solutions to our species very real resource problems (which we like to pretend do not exist), Mars had some trouble staying relevant, but inertia is a powerful thing.  However, not powerful enough to keep me from getting diverted to Europa by a combination of personality conflicts and attractions.  And then, damnably, diverted back to LA as well.

I have just been along for the ride.  At 33, I still don’t know what I want to be when I grow up (I have successfully ruled out Unix janitor and anything having to do with Europa, though).  I’ve been following the shiny-shiny like a raven or a raccoon.  Making commitments based on ephemeral intellectual infatuations, with no wide angle lens.  Not even going for the shiniest thing in the room.  Dick Hamming at Bell Labs gave a speech entitled You and Your Research, on how to do great work.  It is, in some sense, an exhortation to become the archetypal scheming, cloistered, workaholic mad scientist.  Work harder.  Work more.  Refuse to work on anything that you know is not one of the great problems in your field.  Let that which does not matter truly slide.  Including, not incidentally, your family life.  I think he’s probably approximately right, but he presupposes that his audience is actually ambitious enough to think these sound like good ideas.  That doing Great Work is really worth this asceticism, or that those he is speaking to would not consider it a sacrifice.

I can relate to those people, but I don’t want to be one of them.  The visceral joys of life are too alluring.  Freediving with a baitball; watching a glacier calve into the sea; watching the stars wheel overhead from the bottom of a red rock canyon; potluck dinners and bicycles on country lanes; the miracle of peas climbing a trellis: these are not Great Work, but they are great.  Somehow I have to strike a balance.  Getting my PhD is in a lot of ways to me a failure.  A failure of conscience; I knew I didn’t care about what I was working on, that it wasn’t important or enjoyable, but I kept working on it anyway, to get the letters, to put them on a business card or resumé, to play the social bullshit game, to let me say “Look at me, I’m smart on paper.”  I gave in to peer pressure, and laid myself down on the altar of authority.  If it didn’t suck, they wouldn’t have had to make it prestigious. The same conscience makes it hard for me to imagine actually using this supposed advantage.  At least, with anyone I actually respect.

So I have two problems.  One is to find something I actually want to work on, and the other is to figure out some way to combine that work with the rest of life, in proportions that I can enjoy.  By happy accident, I find myself with some background in computing, a domain that has broad applicability to most if not all of the interesting science and engineering problems of the day, and more and more, also to social and political problems.  More than anything else, in this coming year, this is what I see as my job: finding something I feel good about working on, that makes reasonable efficient use of the skills that I have, and learning how to work productively without entirely cutting off the rest of the world, or at least, not for more than 12 hours at a time.  One might have hoped to learn such things in college, or grad school, or in a first job.  One would have been disappointed.  Almost nobody has any idea what they really want to do when they get to college.  Even if you can narrow it down to “science or engineering”, there’s still a lot of space to explore.  At this point I can’t believe how focused the curricula were at Caltech.  Why don’t they just try and give everyone a great set of tools for learning, and an overview of what there is one could learn?  Tell me, what are the great problems of our day, and what are the great tools we have at our disposal?  Why don’t we work harder to arrange our society — even just our tiny scientific subculture — in a way that makes us happier?  That lets us be joyful primates, as well as part of the huge evergrowing pulsating brain that rules from the center of the ultraworld.

By Zane Selvans

A former space explorer, now marooned on a beautiful, dying world.

Leave a Reply