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?
While we were both in Colorado last winter, Michelle and I talked a lot about the emotional and physical logistics of moving back there permanently. Our two body problem. Location, career or love, (like sleep, good grades or a social life): pick two. We tried to write an outline of all the decision points we might face. A decision tree. It became a mess. Then we started writing it as a Python program, with
michelle objects, and method calls like
zane.findjob(loc="boulder"). But it’s not really that kind of problem. It’s not deterministic. This is decision making under uncertainty. Strategic and emotional, not entirely susceptible to reason. It really stopped being an academic problem when I got the interview with NREL, and it seemed to go well. Even if I don’t get the job (they still haven’t said one way or the other, as of mid February August), it was certainly a useful exercise in the sense that It made us think and feel through the realities of what doing something like that would mean.