1999 August 3

Two mini-epiphanies and a step towards decision

I get the feeling this has been an important week for me.

Last weekend I went to two parties on consecutive nights: one with Molly's net-head downstairs neighbours, and one with a bunch of postdocs mostly from the Stanford medical school. Molly's neighbours were fascinating, lively, and funny; the postdocs were bland and discontented. It's probably not a fair comparison; the net-heads were having a gathering of friends while the postdoc event was an occasion for people to get out of their labs and meet each other. But hey, it says something that you need an event for that, and I can be unfair if I want to. (The net-heads also had fresh-baked cheesecake, which is as good a motivation for unfairness as any, right?) I looked around the postdoc crowd, saw only two or three people who seemed half as interesting as the ones I met the night before, and had mini-epiphany #1.

It occurs to me that I made my choice of grad schools on similar grounds: the students at Rochester looked like they were having fun, and the ones at Toronto didn't. I never regretted that decision (well, except maybe in failing to have considered the third option, of doing something non-academic for a year or two).

I suppose reflection on that finally gave me the boot to the butt needed to get me to talk to Peter (my boss) about my motivational difficulties. I didn't announce any decisions -- which I haven't officially made yet in any case -- just explained that I didn't feel happy with the work I'd been managing to produce and was wrestling with whether astronomy was the career I should be in. He was sympathetic -- these are not rare problems for young academics these days -- and had half a dozen suggestions. Most notably, that he will try to talk stuff over with me more often, and make sure I have more frequent and specific targets to work towards. This is a good thing for keeping me from drifting along at work, at any rate, which is definitely one of my problems.

So there is prospect of improvement at my current job -- and I am quite aware of how many neat opportunities it gives me. And yet this brings me to my second mini-epiphany.

Last night Molly invited me over again, and I got to trying to explain my work malaise while she was basting the chicken (stuffed with lemons and limes, mmm). I think I've lost count of just how many times I've tried to do that with with how many people in the past six months, but this time, finally, I hit upon a formula that seems to clarify my decision instead of making it more difficult.

I don't feel I have anything important left to prove to myself in academia.

Finishing my bachelor's degree (nearly combined honours in physics and math) proved to me that I could learn the gnarliest stuff anyone wanted to throw at me. Finishing my thesis proved I could take a big ugly project and finish it by my own discipline and on time.

So, if I can figure out what I need to prove to myself now, I will know what I need to do next. Which brings me to another observation that has been nagging me for quite a while: I have only ever held one non-academic job, and I do not think three months at Swensen's should really even count. Since high school I have been following a very safe, well-worn track straight into the ivory tower. At minimum, I need to widen my path a bit, or get off these rails entirely.

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