I want it so badly, I can’t breathe. The last time I had this feeling was right after interviewing at Stanford. My heart ached for the realization that the opportunity to learn informatics was everything I had ever wanted, and the chances were so slim of getting it. Before I had any prowess in programming and didn’t know what a normal distribution was, I had the insight that immersion in the right environment would push and challenge me exactly in the way I was hungry for. It is only when we surround ourselves by individuals who are more skilled, and in an environment with opportunity to try new things and take risks, that we grow in skill and in ourselves. When I compare the kind of “things” that I tried to build back in my first quarter to what I build now, I have confidence that I was right about this particular instinct. Now, in my last year or so of graduate school, I am again faced with uncertainty about the future. I am almost thirty - I feel so old, and in this context a part of me is tired of constantly needing to prove that I am good enough. I am defined by what I like to call the goldfish property. I am so devoted to the things that I love, mainly learning about new infrastructures and creating beautiful applications, and my stubbornness is so great that I will tend to grow toward the size of my tank. I have the confidence that, despite at any moment not having prowess in some domain, if presented with challenge, and especially in an environment where I can observe the bigger fish, I will grow. What scares me is the fact that in order to gain entry to the larger ocean, we are judged as little fish. I am also terrified by a general realization about the importance of the choice of an environment. Each step slightly away from being around the kind of people that are amazing at the things I want to be amazing at is a small dimming of the light insight my heart, and too many steps away means a finality of regret and a present life of doing some sets of tasks that, maybe one might be good at, but they do not satisfy the heart.
This is why this crucial next step is so terrifying. I have confidence in the things that I want to be amazing at. I’m also a weird little fish, I don’t care about pursuring weekend fun, going on trips, learning about different cultures, or even starting a family. I just want to immerse my brain in a computer and build things. The challenges that I want are building infrastructure, meaning databases, cluster and cloud environments, virtual machines… essentially applications. I go nuts over using version control (Github), APIs, Continuous Integration, and working on software projects. I like to think about data structures, and standards, and although my training in machine learning supplements that, and I enjoy learning new algorithms that I can use in my toolbox, I don’t have drive to find ways to better optimize those algorithms. I want to be the best version of myself that I can possibly be - to return home at the end of each day and feel that I’ve milked out every last ounce of energy and effort is the ultimate satisfaction. I want to be able to build anything that I can dream of. To have and perform some contained skillset is not good enough. I don’t think I’ll ever feel good enough, and although this can sometimes sound disheartening, is the ultimate driver towards taking risks to try new things that, when figured out, lead to empowerment and joy. The terrifying thing about remaining in a small research environment is that I won’t be pushed, or minimally have opportunity, to become a badass at these things. I might use them, but in context of neuroscientists or biologists, to already feel like one of the bigger fish in using these technologies fills me with immense sadness. I’m perhaps proficient in neuroscience, but I’m not great because I’m more interested in trying to build tools that neuroscientists can use. Any individual can notice this in him or herself. We tend to devote time and energy to the things that we obsessively love, and while the other things might be necessary to learn or know, it’s easy to distinguish these two buckets because one grows exponentially, effortlessly, and the other one changes only when necessary. Growing in this bucket is an essential need, critical for happiness and fulfillment, and to slow down this growth and find oneself in a job performing the same skill set with no opportunity for growth leads to screaming inside ones head, and feeling trapped.
So, in light of this uncertainty, and upcoming change, I feel squirmy. I want to be an academic software engineer, but if I am rooted in academia I am worried about being a big fish, and I would not grow. I am an engineer at heart, and this does not line up with the things that an individual in academia is hungry to learn, which are more rooted in biological problems than the building of things. However, if I were to throw myself into some kind of industry, I feel like I am breaking a bond and established relationship and trust with the people and problems that I am passionate about solving. I love academia because it gives me freedom to work on different and interesting problems every day, freedom and control over my time and work space, and freedom to work independently. But on the other hand, it is much more challenging to find people that are great at the kinds of modern technologies that I want to be great at. It is much less likely to be exposed to the modern, bleeding edge technology that I am so hungry to learn, because academia is always slightly behind, and the best I can do is read the internet, and watch conference videos for hours each evening, looking for tidbits of cool things that I can find an excuse to try in some research project. Academia is also painfully slow. There is a pretty low bar for being a graduate student. We just have to do one thesis project, and it seems to me that most graduate students drag their feet to watch cells grow in petri dishes, complain about being graduate students, and take their sweet time supplemented with weekend trips to vineyards and concerts in San Francisco. I’ve said this before, but if a graduate student only does a single thesis project, unless it is a cure for cancer, I think they have not worked very hard. I also think it’s unfortunate that someone who might have been more immersed not get chosen in favor of someone else that was a better interviewer. But I digress. The most interesting things in graduate school are the projects that one does for fun, or the projects that one helps his or her lab with, as little extra bits. But these things still feel slow at times, and the publication process is the ultimate manifestation of this turtleness. When I think about this infrastructure, and that the ultimate products that I am to produce are papers, this feels discouraging. Is that the best way to have an impact, for example, in reproducible science? It seems that the sheer existence of Github has done more for reproducibility across all domains than any published, academic efforts. In that light, perhaps the place to solve problems in academia is not in academia, but at a place like Github. I’m not sure.
This dual need for a different environment and want to solve problems in a particular domain makes it seem like I don’t have any options. The world is generally broken into distinct, “acceptable” and well paved paths for individuals. When one graduates, he or she applies for jobs. The job is either in academia or industry. It is well scoped and defined. Many others have probably done it before, and the steps of progression after entry are also logical. In academia you either move through postdoc-ship into professor-dome, or you become one of those things called a “Research Associate” which doesn’t seem to have an acceptable path, but is just to say “I want to stay in academia but there is no real proper position for what I want to do, so this is my only option.” What is one to do, other than to create a list of exactly the things to be desired in a position, and then figure out how to make it? The current standard options feel lacking, and choosing either established path would not be quite right. If I were to follow my hunger to learn things more rooted in a “building things” direction, this would be devastating in breaking trust and loyalty with people that I care a lot about. It also makes me nervous to enter a culture that I am not familiar with, namely the highly competitive world of interviewing for some kind of engineering position. The thought of being a little fish sits on my awareness and an overwhelming voice says “Vanessa, you aren’t good enough.” And then a tiny voice comes in and questions that thought, and says, “Nobody is good enough, and it doesn’t matter, because that is the ocean where you will thrive. You would build amazing things.” But none of that matters if you are not granted entry into the ocean, and this granting is no easy thing. It is an overwhelming, contradictory feeling. I want to sit in a role that doesn’t exist - this academic software developer, there is no avenue to have the opportunities and environment of someone that works at a place like Google but still work on problems like reproducible science. I don’t know how to deal with it at this point, and it is sitting on my heart heavily. I perhaps need to follow my own instinct and try to craft a position that does not exist, one that I know is right. I must think about these things.