“So, what’s next?”

“In the long run, painful losses may prove much more valuable than wins — those who are armed with a healthy attitude and are able to draw wisdom from every experience, “good” or “bad,” are the ones who make it down the road.”

-Josh WaitzkinThe Art of Learning


Musical influences for this post: “Red” (Phoria);  “Time” (Hanz Zimmer); “Says” (Nils Frahm); “Cello Suite #1 in G Maj.” (J.S. Bach, performed by Ralph Kirshbaum); “Essential Mix – No Voice Overs” (Max Cooper, DJ set)

The first story I’ll tell is my own, at least a portion of it. It’s certainly a story steeped in science, but as an introductory piece I’ll leave discussions of scientific phenomena for future articles.

So what’s next for me? Next, I explore.

I have just finished 24 consecutive years in academia. A few of them were even enjoyable, most notably those for which daytime naps were socially acceptable (one of higher academia’s top selling points). A few of those years were quite cruel, but still taught me deep and valuable lessons.

This congratulatory follow-up question has only been on my radar for a short time relative to my full investment into academics. I should have known I’d be asked this, especially given it was one I often contemplated myself.  But I didn’t, and since summiting the average-completion-time the peak for my particular degree of choice (U.S.), the topic of what I’m doing “next” has found me from almost every direction.  I’m currently asked ~10x per week (or, ∼1x a day), to a best guess, but this rate seems to be losing acceleration and leveling off (see Fig. 1).

Trend of relavent question.
Fig. 1: Trend in frequency of being asked the question in question. Numbers are rough estimates and don’t warrant labeling by noting average graduation time for most degrees is on the order of years.

Such questions would normally be safe to ask someone in my position. I’m not yet 30, have all three degrees offered in one of the world’s most feared (but arguably most useful) subjects, a couple of stripes on my blue belt in Jiu Jitsu, and a voice that projects in two languages. I don’t, however, tend to do things normally.

Here are the current facts: I have two months left on my lease, five for my health coverage, more ideas than I can keep up with, and just enough money to follow me somewhere in between.  I know exactly what I want to do, I know to do it properly will take a number of years and a lot of capital, and I don’t know quite how I’ll make it happen… yet.

It feels, in the best possible way, a little like:

Yes, third from the left is this work's author. Circa 1999.
Fig. 2: Yes, third from the left is this work’s author. Circa 1999.

 

The most common words I heard in middle school were “high school.” The most common words I heard in high school were “SAT” and “college.” And the most common words of college guidance I remember were “GRE” and “grad school.” Yes, well, I’ve done all that now. My choices in these matters never had much care for those oft chanted mantras anyway, and my motivations now point me towards a diverging path. This path doesn’t yet exist though, and I must therefore create it. So now I explore.

I feel pretty confident that in order to do good for the collective, you kind of need to be… part of the collective. (Not a concept that always seems to resonate with larger governing bodies.) With my lab shackles removed, indentured service duties complete, and knowledge pay in hand, I am here looking for the best way(s) to share and grow the pay.

Incidentally, the rate drawn in Figure 1. has the same shape as a measurement of electrical current that jumps through empty space, from certain metal objects, when you crank up the voltage and hit them with a high-power laser. (More about lasers later. Probably a lot more.) I happen to know this because I’ve measured exactly that (Fig. 3, the black curve). The curve probably also matches my adrenaline level during the ride captured in Fig. 2., but I don’t have direct evidence of this one.

IMG_5096
Fig. 3: This is a measurement I took in 2012. My experiment was wiser than I ever realized.

 

If the graduate school vernacular were to dictate what comes next, I would have already had to secure the next leg of my journey, from one of two offered routes, before the ink of my dissertation is dry. For this case, one could expect either: (1) I am packing up, headed for the next ring of my own divine academic comedy, a position known as a “post-doc,” or (2) a five-fold income upgrade from a high-tech company awaits me, having much the same, static office gender breakdown as option (1).

When it became clear exactly what each of the first two options would entail in the short vs. the long run, for me specifically, I went with option (3). Finish what I had already worked so hard for, as fast and effectively as possible, and figure out what to do in the real world when I have the freedom to be in the real world. The worst realistic expectation of (3) I  could expect would leave me in a boring job briefly, perhaps even while sleeping on a parental spare bed, and a Ph.D. I’ve heard of worse possibilities. So I put my head down, allowing only as much school/work irrelevant focus as was necessary to keep sane, and finished what I set out to do a decade prior — for my own set of reasons.

So here I am, making my transition to what is now the real, yet mostly virtual/digital, world. Hello there, world.


Before having to face this choice, I had really only winced at one other question, if asked. It’s a question I found often ready in the chamber of most peoples’ backup chitchat artillery, made popular by its single-word, customizable applicability: “So, what made you decide to do physics?”

I don’t have a pivotal moment in my adolescence I can point to for my physics inception. I don’t have a specific teacher from the nth grade who inspired my love of investigation and understanding. On the whole, I actually had pretty bad teachers. Mr. G. in the 6th grade was pretty good, but the potent lesson I learned in his class was not in the curriculum. I was taught that appreciating an engaging teacher, in the eyes of my pubescent peers, was tantamount to a romantic infatuation. Apparently it wasn’t that I liked learning as much as I  was “like, totally in love” with my teacher (eeeWWwww).

When I attended a women’s high school, enjoying and doing well in academics was lauded for a change. Unfortunately this didn’t imply learning, so much as an ability to conform to irrational ways of thinking and rote memorization. I hold no ill will, but perhaps there should be some time taken to consider the possible implications of the following fact: a school in the U.S. can be nationally awarded for academic excellence, yet its administrators can tell a student, with a straight face, in the middle of a snow storm, they “have to wait until the police call and tell us the roads are dangerous” to release students early. You can tell how happy a student I was…

Fig. 4: Ok, this time I’ll let you guess.

In my defense, I’ll present the following additional yearbook excerpt and its caption, where “Left” refers to yours truly. I think it’s the whole caption that really makes my case, though.

See what happens when you don’t keep a girl who does her homework from disks and men? Let that be a lesson to you all. She ends up addicted to all sorts of incredible music, collecting strange interests like knitting and human consciousness, working mostly in male-dominated fields of study, and living alone with a cat named Professor Chaos. And now she’s soliciting help from the internet.

Yes, I’ll end this installment of your author’s personal story by asking for help. Please sign up and send me your feedback, suggestions, questions, answers, or really any information you find interesting. My plan is to publish 1.0 piece a week, on Sunday evenings, and go from there.

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