November 19, 2011

Let's Get Angsty

There's always the gutter
Two-thirds of the way through an engineering PhD, figuring a little more than a year till defending. Add on a couple months for an approved sabbatical, but more on that later. The contents of my thesis will come from working in a wet chemistry lab. The results can be exciting, the analysis entertaining, but the work I find boring. Experiments are quite tedious. In reality, it does not take that much time to setup and execute the experiments I do. It's just remarkably boring to me. The ennui of doing this type of research makes it very difficult for me to get motivated to start. In physical chemistry terms, I have a high activation energy. Perhaps the closest thing to a catalyst is the possibility of having everything work and getting to author a scientific publication with the results. The currency of basic research consists of articles and citations, and publishing is very much the payday. It's actually a pretty nice incentive. Given the strong ties between employee happiness and recognition of contributions, being listed as an author on a publication is hard to top.

The issue I run into concerns the impact this work has on society. I consider basic research very important (certainly I'm bias, but there's an unbias argument for it), but I have difficulty motivating my myself to action when I feel the questions I'm asking and answering have grown increasingly confined to a narrow slice of scientific inquiry. Furthermore, I have increasingly wondered about the relative importance of uncovering new knowledge to solve problems, versus applying existing knowledge. For researchers purely in basic science, the point is to find something new and understand what's not currently understood. I've discovered knowledge for the sake of knowledge quickly grows unsatisfying. Without the context of having it somehow assist society, as altruistic as that sounds, I'm left to wonder what's the point? Attempting to apply this knowledge to make money strikes me as an even less interesting pursuit, although succeeding in this regard certainly has its fringe benefits.

So that's where I am, walking a path I have difficulty finding internal motivation to continue down, with the typical career trajectories of academia or industry not providing external motivation. Not exactly the most hopeful of situations, but not entirely bleak. For starters,  I am highly educated (some would say overly so) and that education has largely focused on problem solving. Sure, the topics actually had names like Thermodynamics, Kinetics and Heat Transfer, but the concepts apply to essentially any situation: indentify and isolate the problem, consider the resources and information available, determine the best approach based on the desired criteria. Furthermore, I have proven capable of working with a variety of people and teams, leading groups (still learning!) and independently generating ideas. Thus it would appear that the key to my future is finding the right thing on which to focus my efforts and stop holding myself back.


  1. At least you have some semblance of what you're doing and you could easily get a good job.

    I have no idea what to do with my degree after I graduate.

  2. @DWei: True, you're correct on both counts, but the obvious career paths have dimmed in my eyes, which complicates the next step. What are you studying?


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