Attempts at conversation with other physics teachers

Physics Teacher: How much did you make at the Big Company?

Me: About the same as here.

PT: Only? Why did you leave? It was because everyone only cared about money, right?

Me: Yes.

PT: I hate that too. I calculated that during my PhD I lost about 200 k that I would have earned in any other job.

Me: That did not matter to me either. I even did 2 postdocs after that with very low pay. But it was interesting work.

PT: You did two postdocs? How much did you earn in your postdoc?

Me: 2000 per month.

PT: Only?!

Me: Yeah.

PT: With those 200k I lost during my PhD, I could now make the down payment for a house. I am surprised you didn’t earn more than us at the Big Company!

Me: Well.

PT: I once had a job offer in a place where they said some starting salaries are 150 k. For programming. I’m very good at programming.

Me: Okay.

PT: But those people at these kind of jobs, they only care about money. So annoying. Here, we have freedom and independence.

Me: Yes, exactly.

PT: How much did you make exactly at the Big Company?

Me: 110 k.

PT: Wow, that is not much.

Me: Have you always wanted to be a Physics teacher?

PT: No! I always wanted to be a teacher. But not a Physics teacher! Actually, after high school I wanted to study Spanish and become a Spanish teacher. Because I was in love with my Spanish teacher. I even joined the swimming team because of her. But my father said, my son will not study a language, no way. He will study Maths. So I said okay. Then we went to my uncle, who was an engineer. And he said, no, you shouldn’t study Maths, but Physics, this is more useful. So I said okay. And I started studying Physics. When I came home one Christmas I told my father I don’t like Physics, I am quitting. And he said, we are not quitters in our family. You will get a diploma in Physics, if you like it or not. And I did.

Other Physics Teacher: Wow, you are for sure easy to influence.

Physics Teacher: What are you drinking?

Me: Ginger Tea.

PT: Oh God. This is dreadful. My crazy ex always drank Ginger Tea. I hate this stuff.

Me: …


PT: I read pretty weird books.

Me: Like what?

PT: The Hammer of Witches.

Posted in Leaving Academia, Teaching, work | Tagged , , | 1 Comment

How to survive at a big (financial) corporation

In my observation, there are exactly two basic ways to survive the eco-system of a large corporation in a healthy and long-term sustainable way.

1. The happy underling

The happy underling is a very sociable person. He/she comes to the office mainly to meet their colleagues and friends, catch up on gossip and spend time outside of home. The office is what the local pub is to the old men on a Greek island. Who wants to sit home all day? The office is a convenient way to escape home and kill some time. Miraculously, you even get paid in the process. The happy underling is not one to try to negotiate for more salary unless absolutely necessary, because they do not care about money.

For the successful underling, work is the least of her concerns. It absolutely does not matter if the work is meaningful or fulfilling, if responsibilites are evolving or devolving. It doesn’t matter to the underling if he works on something for a year and then the result gets spat on and thrown into the garbage. Why should it? The fun about work is the office and your friends. Actually, it is a good thing if the work is absurd and going in circles, because this is an endless source of hilarious in-jokes, complaining and justifying the fact that you do nothing all day long whenever you can.

If you run out of tasks, never tell anyone. The trick is to portion your work in a way that you are always busy. If you have as your sole task in the week to fill out five lines in an Excel sheet, fill one line per day, with many breaks in between. Make filling out the lines as complicated as you can, ask follow-up questions to higher ups, then complain that they do not respond etc. If someone asks, you can always respond cheerfully that you are sweating over that Excel. Nobody has any clue how much work it should be to fill it out anyway.

If you get too much work instead, this is trickier. You will spend 12 hours per day in the office, because you still need to do your 4 hours of your usual socializing, plus perhaps one extra hour of complainig about your insane work load. You working overtime will hopefully become too expensive for the company in the long term.

2. The ascending manager

 You’re not as sociable, but rather aggressive and ambitious? Then, there is one other way to exist at the office. You make as your sole goal to ascend the career ladder. Again, as for the happy underling, this requires not caring about the content of the work at all. Forget about this immediately. Instead, focus on being an actor. You need to put a show on every day.

Your goal is to always impress superiors. The higher up, the better. Study their speeches and memos in detail, and remember what their main concern is. Then make a huge show of trying to solve exactly their main concern in exactly the way that they might want. Be tough; this might involve firing people, taking on unethical customers, evading taxes etc.

Be aggressive, overly confident. Be rude to underlings whenever you can get away with it; this helps build your reputation. Always walk fast and with loud steps. Dress above your position. Work until late, write e-mails at night. Be very jokey and funny with your competitors. Be extremely friendly and sociable to people who might be of benefit to you. Be cold to those who don’t. If you are a manager, absolutely find somebody to fire, this looks excellent and will help you to ascend further. And above all, do not trust anybody. Note that you cannot survive in this niche for a day this if you cannot handle intrigues and read people very well, and if you are an expert bullshitter.

Privately, you can still be the sweetest person on the planet, donate for good causes, love puppies.

You will be rewarded by what you like: increasing salary, increasing power. And whenever you’re fed up, you can throw it all away and do something else, and everyone will be super impressed with you for the rest of your life (this yoga teacher was once a high level manager at superbank will always sound good).

You’re none of the above? You care about the actual content of the work? You would cry if your years’ work was thrown away? You would hate it to do something unethical? You’re introverted, loyal and serious? Then please do yourself a favour and do not accept the job at a big corporation. If you do not believe me, then ask yourself: who would enjoy working in a huge open office except those two types of people?

Posted in Leaving Academia, work | Tagged , , | 3 Comments

Working at a big corporation

So my 6 months at a large financial corporation have been interesting. The difference to a research environment is huge.

People are extremely well behaved. As of now, I have never heard anyone scream. Nobody throws things, I haven’t encountered any crying and up to now I have not seen anyone leave because of a mental breakdown or a burn out. People are quiet and work hard (although often very inefficiently). They are very polite, keep doors open for you even if you are 50 meters away, and seem to work steadily and without rush but also without idling, good old traditional protestant work ethics style. It feels like I have woken up in the past sometimes, in the era where my parents worked, despite the constant restructuring and reorganizing by management, and the big words about how things need to change now for real, it feels very old-fashioned.

I am not used to working in such an orderly and reasonable way. I feel like working like crazy on some days and not doing anything on others, like I am used to, but there is no reason to, I only rarely have deadlines and work is never exciting, there are no real breakthroughs, but also no disappointments, no rejected grant applications.

People are like clockwork here, they come at 8 and leave at 5, one hour lunch break spent wisely on sports or on networking, hairs always freshly washed, clothes freshly ironed. There is no craziness, passion, no chaos visible (although if you are close to the IT and data landscape of this corporation, there is chaos like I have never seen, and an extreme amount of illogical and wasteful procedures — but this is all under the surface, and mostly patiently accepted by those who have to deal with it). On the surface, there is a ballet of typing, walking, meeting, thinking, planning, phone-calling of serious, but friendly people in somber clothes who all constantly observe and watch each other in the shared office space from the corner of an eye, which is probably the reason that nobody seems to come late or leave early. Carpets are cleaned every single evening, so if heaven forbid some breadcrumbs fall under my desk they are magically gone in the morning. Windows cannot be opened, so that no outside craziness can get in, instead we probably get the same air for months which circulates through the ventilation, smelling more and more chemical, which makes the building feel completely sealed off from the rest of the world. From where I am sitting, far from the windows, it is impossible to make out what kind of season it might be outside. I feel like I am in some sort of eternal, timeless place where emotions and weather and smells and sounds are all damped to a degree that one just wants to lie down and not move anymore for years and years, because nothing will ever change, no bad thing will happen and no good thing, ever.

Still, from time to time some task comes my way which is intellectually slightly stimulating, and if you saw my brain on an MRI you would see some firework and some experiencing of short spans of flow-like states. Then it fizzles again, the problem is solved, and I just have to wait and wait and wait for the next mildly interesting thing to come, while I do some routine work that I can do with both hands tied on my back and eyes closed and I still have to do it, it takes time and every second of that time I am present and bored, there is no flow, no thinking, just smelling of chemicals and hearing of coughs and the slow, high-pitched words that the secretary behind me is producing that unfortunately are impossible to tune out, talking of children suffering and mean people always asking her the same thing which she has told them she can’t do for Christ’s sake.

Then at some point I usually snap and know I have to leave immediately in order not to sustain brain damage from boredom. But I don’t leave because everyone would notice, including my boss and team colleagues who sit nearby, quietly looking at their screens, and I see that they are not on Facebook, they are looking at Excel files, because everyone’s screen is visible by someone else from some angle. I still sit there, looking at the clock below the damn excel file, wishing for the day, the week, the month, the year to be over, and I know it is not healthy for me to think this way, but I am not sure how it is possible that people live an entire life inside this freaking office building, stay there for 20 years, until they retire. But people actually do this. People actually live and work this way. I am still amazed at this, and am grateful for the life experience, which seems to teach me something although I do not yet know what it is.

It is curious though how my life turned out, I worked so hard and it got me a job where I have to debug excels that were programmed by brain-dead economists who have absolutely zero analytical talent but think they do, and almost nobody even notices the difference between me and them. But I am okay, because I think it is interesting to experience life from different angles, I knew the academic angle and now I start understanding the big finance corporation angle, and I really hope I will leave again and see something else soon.

Posted in Leaving Academia | Tagged , , | 10 Comments

A complete list of things that I am not interested in

  • Collecting things
  • Organizing events
  • Bringing a cake or any other type of food anywhere
  • Listening to people talk about their stomach flus, and how they get passed around in their family
  • Negotiations
  • Workplace politics
  • Following arbitrary rules
  • Doing things last minute
  • Most types of powerpoint slides
  • The opinions of most liberal arts students about art and science
  • People complaining about how bad everything is done except the things they do themselves
  • Religious people
  • Noticing and greeting people that I do not know well and do not care about
  • Listening to people ramble about detailed problems in their work
  • In general listening to people ramble about their problems that they claim are absolutely insolvable
  • People apologizing for the food they have cooked
  • People talking about restaurants in places that I have never visited
  • Detailed accounts of weekend plans including people and places I do not know
  • People telling me details about the problems of other people that I do not know, and expecting me to react empathetically or impressed
  • Being diplomatic towards assholes
  • Answering phone calls
  • Opening my mail
  • Sorting out paperwork
  • Doing household work
  • Buying clothes
  • Stories about small children, cats and dogs and other pets particularly if I do not know them personally, particularly when involving gross mishaps with food or bodily fluids
  • In general: gross and/or cute stories of any kind that seem to warrant some empathetic reaction on my part
  • Construction sites and any related issues
  • Cars, motorbikes and any related issues
  • Cosmetics, anti-aging and in particular cosmetic surgery
  • The year you traveled around in South America, and how much it widened your horizon, before you came back and continued your life exactly as it was before
  • Your amazing holidays in boring location xyz
  • The health problem of your greatparents, great-aunts etc. that I have never met and never will meet
  • The state mottos, state flowers and state cacti of American states
  • Local traditions and local sayings
  • Americans and their special kind of sports
  • All conversations about how expensive something is
  • All conversations about traffic
  • All conversation about home renovations
  • Furniture, especially designer pieces and how much your designer chair costed
  • Your expensive kitchen and how long it took to get it installed
  • Antiques
  • Open-Air Festivals
  • Sailing
  • Team sports
  • Pets and anything related to them
  • Theme parks
  • Skiing
  • Biking
  • Oral recounts of youtube videos
  • Expensive gourmet restaurants and the kind of rare snail tartar they offer only on the first Wednesday of the month
  • Where someone lives exactly if I don’t plan to ever visit them (no, it is the 5th floor, on the very right!)
  • When something happened exactly, when the exact time plays absolutely no role for the story someone is trying to tell me
  • The history of the arbitrary workplace rules that we are following at the moment
  • Political opinions that come directly from the right-wing pamphlet.
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Leaving academia: Whether or not to work in a large corporation

I had two job interviews last week, and I am currently trying to figure out whether or not I want to work in a large multinational corporation. At least one of the jobs sounds very attractive, with a likable boss, a nice team, and an interesting and complex topic to work on. The working conditions would be really nice too.

Should I accept the job if I get it?

This is what I imagine working for a big corporation feels like:

You’re somewhere in the belly of a huge ocean cruiser, making sure that some aspect of the engines run smoothly, but you do not see where the cruiser is going, why it is going where it goes, and you are not sure whether it might currently be in the process of running over a small fishing boat or polluting the sea with oil. But at least someone is paying the cruiser for what it does. You feel some loyalty to the rest of the huge crew in the cruiser and you know that they all depend on the engines working well, maybe you also feel loyalty to the passengers who are paying your salary, but the captain and his plans are extremely far away from you, and you suspect the captain may be evil, you don’t know, you will certainly never meet him except when you see him in the news.

But you are surrounded by a nice team of specialists working on the engines with you. You have fun together and you can use your talents and capacities really well. Your direct boss is likable and praises you for your effort. You earn good money and you can live a life in safety.

Is that good enough?

There are other types of jobs possible, of course, besides working in a huge corporation. I could teach, work in some small start-up, maybe even in non-profit organisations, in applied research etc.

But now the big shiny cruiser does look beautiful to me in some way. I am not entirely sure why. Maybe it is because I would be working in a team with female economists and law specialists, instead with again a majority of men, like would be the case in most other jobs I have been considering. I would really like to work closely with people with a completely different background than me, I would really not mind to learn about law and economics.

Another suspicion I have about the jobs that seem more meaningful than working for a large corporation – like working in a start-up, or in a non-profit, or some king of research institution – is that those jobs want you to give yourself to them entirely, and get very little in return in terms of stability and money. I have had enough of this in research. My effort was partially paid in me “feeling I was doing something useful and noble and meaningful” (which I am not sure I did in retrospect). And looking back, this payment was clearly not enough and still makes me feel cheated somehow. I feel I have been giving much more than I got back. In teaching, the ratio between giving and receiving seemed somewhat more fair to me, although it is still a job that wants to eat you up if you take it seriously (and I can’t avoid taking teaching seriously).

Maybe every job everywhere always wants you to give it everything, and what you have to do is simply to fight back as much as you can. Maybe my positive feeling about the corporation job partially comes from a vague idea that it is easier fighting back if the job is less idealistic. Perhaps it is easier to not work on the weekends if the job is not about “expanding the human knowledge” or “looking after the new generation”, which are really noble goals, but “letting a huge, very profitable cruiser make even more profit”. Is that the reason I am considering it?

I am someone who can get very obsessive, very driven, and who can easily give up her well-being in order to reach some goal that I find meaningful. Is the solution to that to have a work that is not too meaningful?

I once read a story about a guy who was a successful theater director. He was so passionate about theater that he became manic during work-intense persiods, following by depression, and so developed the full-blown bipolar disorder that was running in his family. He then realized that it was impossible for him to be a sane person while doing something he cared about so much. And he actually got another degree, became an accountant, and lived happily ever after.

This story is absolutely the opposite of what you read in every career-counseling book, about “following your passion”, even when this means living in poor conditions and working like crazy, because “work will feel like free time” in this way, and also “success will magically happen if you do whatever you are really passionate about”.

First of all, this is not true, but even if you manage to be successful with your passionate about, at what cost will this success come? If you are doing what you are passionate about, but are so stressed and driven that the seasons go by without you noticing, and the friendships feel like a chore, then something is wrong.

Of course, something might also be wrong if your work feels so pointless that the pointlessness of it starts to infect your personality, your outlook on life, and your mood. But I am not sure if this actually happens if the work is challenging and your colleagues are nice. Maybe then the eventual pointlessness is something you do not care about.

I think the type of work I would be doing is not unethical, but it is also not especially ethical. I guess it is neutral. And that feels a bit weird. But I have to admit that most of my research has had an entirely neutral effect on the world too, and it ate me up completely and made my life very hard. And so my net effect on the world, if I include myself and the people closest to me in the calculation, which I should, might be more positive in the big corporation than it was in academia.

Posted in Leaving Academia | Tagged , , | 20 Comments