November 18th, 2005

me: ooh!

Extracted from my brain with a little help from omniana

I recently received a series of e-mails from my former lackey about the kinetics experiment I worked on at JPL. I was able to answer them in detail, which brought me a certain amount of satisfaction. I also realized I didn't miss lab very much. I enjoyed it, but being there isn't essential to my wellbeing.

I know I was pretty good at scientific research. I also know I was exactly that: pretty good. The community isn't suffering hugely because I'm no longer involved in it. I know what scientific brilliance looks like and I don't pretend to have it. There are very few who do. I'd say I knew one graduate student in all my time in academia who had it. We began graduate school in chemical physics at the same time. When we were fourth-years, he was giving seminars to the mathematics department. Not only was he amazing at science (and maths, apparently), he was also a kind and humble person. I'd consider it positively criminal if he hadn't been handed a tenure-track position at an R1 institution.* I don't regret not having tried to obtain one myself, not because I think I wouldn't have gotten it, but because I didn't want it that badly. Of course, that doesn't mean I couldn't and didn't make my own worthwhile contribution to scientific progress, just that I don't see it as a big deal that I'm not planning to devote the remainder of my existence on this earth to it. I think fictionalizing it is a better use of my particular set of talents.

* As an aside, I think a lot of people enter graduate school with unrealistic expectations about acquiring professorships at the most prestigious institutions. Advisors who want to see as many of their students as possible follow that path encourage them to maintain these aspirations, despite the statistical reality that there are usually at least 200 qualified applicants for each available position. Even if a person is lucky enough to land a tenure-track position at a less prestigious place, it's likely that they'll have to relocate to Sticksville, Arkansas or someplace equally appealing to take it up. So I don't think it's necessarily defeatist, once you understand how far your own abilities and desires are going to carry you, to re-scale your expectations.