Friday, April 13, 2012

An Academic Career

"Don't! It is the least profitable way to be miserable!" advised Max Shtein when asked about academia as a career choice, during a "preparing future faculty" seminar. This was slightly more than half a dozen years ago at Michigan, when I was one of the many PhD students in the room.

Clearly, I did not take his advice.

Today, as I sit on the cusp of tenure, I thought it might be worthwhile to take a look back, and assess how relevant much of the advice I sought or received was.

Consider this the first installment of an ongoing travelogue.

Anecdote is not data. But sometimes, it can, like a parable, be quite instructive.

My path to academia was hardly linear. Sure, I entered the PhD program in chemical engineering at Michigan with the single-minded goal of becoming a scientist/professor. From that point on, I seriously toyed with several potential career choices (industrial research, investment banking, plant/process engineer, consulting etc.),  before the pendulum swung all the way back.

By my final year in the PhD program, I had rediscovered my single-minded goal of becoming a scientist/professor.

Parenthetical Remark: While this is not atypical, many of my current colleagues have traced a more "linear" course. Some others have taken far more convoluted routes, and their final arrival into academia was more an accident, than an act of design.

Why did it take so long to figure out?

For one, each time I contemplated an alternative career choice, or met someone in the field, some part of me got genuinely excited at the prospect. I had no clue about many of the choices before. So a lot of this was the usual "let me check what's on the menu before I order my chicken-sandwich" kind of exploration.

For another, I had not yet finished the process of soul-searching that is a necessary part of taking on any major challenge. I wasn't completely sure if I could hold my own ground in a field that was dominated by other people who (i) knew more, (ii) were smarter, and (iii) worked harder than I did.

If this came to a boxing slugfest, I had no chance. But, as I have subsequently discovered, boxing is a terrible metaphor. It is too much of a zero-sum game.

So I spent a lot of time introspecting, trying to ask myself "what's my edge?"

And then all of a sudden, like one of those "aha" moments, I just knew. I wish I could say that the decision was the inescapable conclusion of a long rational deductive process.

But it wasn't.

All I knew was that somewhere a red traffic light turned green, and I decided to press the accelerator.

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