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

How I feel when I feel rejected

Family gatherings and office situations are the main areas in life where I have to deal with the kind of people I find most difficult, and as Christmas is approaching, I am trying to mentally prepare for this. These people aren’t mean, crazy or unusually aggressive. They are very normal people that most people seem to like, but with me something is just always off, and I cannot avoid them. This stresses me far more than people who are openly hostile or annoying to everyone.

While I would like these people to like me, and get along with them, they have an almost allergic reaction to me and just do not like me whatever I do or say. Since they do not really have a clear reason to dislike me, because I am not behaving aggressively towards them, they do not usually show this openly, but I notice it in details, like how they look at me, how they react to things I say. I wish I would not even notice that they dislike me, but I do.

Nobody stresses me out as much as them. They make me feel like a freak, like something is completely wrong with me. I see myself through their eyes, see somebody unlikable, and I feel so off and unbalanced that I am losing contact with myself, and when I leave the table and look in the mirror I almost do not recognize myself. They make me feel guilty, ashamed and angry.

I recognize that I am the one who overreacts, but this does not really help. Most people probably are able to simply accept that there are some people around them that they do not especially get along with. They just brush it off, cool down their tone of interaction and are in equilibrium again.

I on the other hand immediately assume that I am at fault if a relationship feels weird and uncomfortable, and I have the strong urge to try to fix it, by being extra nice, interested, and in general submissive to them. Has this worked even once? No. And yet I am trying again and again.

These last months, I took a mindfulness class. We especially trained being mindful during social contact. This means feeling your body, your feet, your hands, while in conversation with someone. At first, this felt very weird, really rude, to leave the conversation for a millisecond and feel my feet, but with time, I got used to it and I noticed something changing. When I apply this technique while I am listening to another person, the other person often seems to relax. The connection becomes more natural, and I feel more accepting of myself and the other person. The teacher claimed that this is because we can only really understand, and relate to others through our body, where we mirror, and thus empathize with, what the other person tells us with words and with body language. What surprised me is how the conversation partner seems to notice this change in me almost immediately, although I have the impression that nothing on my outside has changed.

I am usually very tense in social interactions with people who seem to dislike me, and my brain is working very hard. When I feel my body during the interaction, it is impossible for me to also simultaneously listen and think all the typical things I am thinking about while I am in conversation, which is mainly about what the subtext of the conversation is, what the mood of the other person is, and, most of all, what the other person might most want me to say or do. Praise, understanding, supportive words, encouragement. I noticed this very strongly during the exercises in mindful conversation.

Of course, in this way I am not really relating to the other person. Everything the person says and everything I say seems to go through an analytical filter, and because analysis is slow, this often goes wrong, and I say something that in retrospect sounds off and artificial. I dislike my voice in these conversations. I notice that my hands are incredibly tense, and if I have some object nearby that I can secretly destroy with my hands while talking, I will do it.

So what I am going to try this Christmas is mindful conversations even with people in my most difficult category, the category of people that I want to get along with, but that somehow do not seem to like me. This is very hard. I tried it only once until now, and it made me realize my physical discomfort around this person even more, which was incredibly tiring. But maybe it is good if I recognize this strong physical discomfort, maybe that is the right way to finally letting go and accepting that I will not get along with someone for reasons completely out of my control. I did already notice a small difference in how this person reacted towards me, too. Very small, but it was like this person had discovered, on some level, that I am present as a person and not only as a shadow. And again, this is not surprising: when you do not feel your body, you are a shadow.

The thing that I have to learn is not turn into a shadow if I feel rejected by someone, and not frantically try to fix the relationship, but just accept how I feel when I feel rejected, look at it like I would look at an oddly shaped stone that I found in my pocket, instead of fearing it like a landslide that knocks me off my feet.

Posted in Anxiety, High sensitivity, Psychology | Tagged , , , | 5 Comments

Understanding Physics in High School

I am wondering if one of the problems that students with a fear of maths and physics have is that their mental concept of what “understanding something” means is not adapted to those subjects.

For example, I had a very intelligent friend in high school who was extremely bad at maths and physics, despite being able to argue extremely logically whenever the topic was not maths or physics. Once she told me that she did not understand what functions were, although this was something we had been using for a while at that point.
A bit shocked, I tried to explain it to her, making drawings, citing examples like “population of the Earth” as a function of “year”, simple functions like mapping x to x+2.
She understood what I was saying, clearly.
Yet she still claimed she did not really understand what functions were.

I have experienced something like that repeatedly when I was teaching. It seemed that people could follow what I was saying step by step, but then they still claimed they didn’t “understand” the big picture.
Maybe they expect to immediately obtain something “more” than understanding the explanation, some sort of intuition that others seem to have, and if it doesn’t happen, they feel like they failed.

Something similar actually has happened to me. When I was 13, geometry freaked me out. I had the impression that people who were good at it, and my teacher, were able to “see” solutions in some mysterious way that I did not have. This was also aided by the snarky teacher who continued finding everything extremely “obvious”.
My grades in geometry were bad, and so, afraid I was going to kicked out of school, I started working like crazy. I worked hours and hours, and yet at test after test, my grades remained bad.

Then, after a long time of trying hard to “see”, I finally lost it. Okay, I thought, I would never “see”. So I decided to try the following protocol: whenever I experienced a new problem, I would remember the about 15 rules of construction we already had learned, apply all that I could, and one would probably lead me closer to the solution. I’m still quite proud that the 13-year old me figured this out by herself, because nobody told me.

And that was it. From that day on, the problem was gone, my grades immediately went up. I still think I do not have a natural talent for geometry, like I have for things like algebra and analysis. But in the end, I even did geometry class at University together with the maths students and got through it fine.
But I still do not “see” in the way that my math teacher was claiming that he and the best boys in our class could “see” solutions, which is perhaps related to me having a hard time rotating 3-d objects in my head. But it turns out this isn’t necessary for solving geometry problems in school.

I suspect that a lot of people may have a similar problem with all of maths and physics. They see people around them solving problems and assume that the way this is done is by deeply seeing through the problem in a way that they can’t and wait for the big insight to happen before they can start solving problems.

However, all physics and maths problems can be solved by nothing else than applying the rules and procedures, until the solution pops up. With time, you will get there faster and not waste as much time as in the beginning, but you will always get there if you try hard enough.

And almost everyone who is willing to put in some effort is able to learn the few and simple rules that govern all of high school maths and physics.

Maybe the problem is the word “understand”. Perhaps we should not use it as much as we do. Gravity is not something to “understand” in the sense like you can “understand” the fact that you might hurt yourself if you walk onto the street with your eyes closed. Gravity just exists. It follows some rules. That’s it; nobody know why gravity is there in the first place. In its core, it is mysterious.

I wonder how it would work to teach with this mindset. Would the students feel unsatisfied? Would they say that they want to learn things that enrich them and give them a feeling of “understanding”, not blindly follow a set of stupid rules? Would they feel like they are just “going through the motions”?

However, on the other hand, if people cannot appreciate the coolness of a physics law like the law of gravity that holds in every corner of the Universe and at every time since the beginning of time, then maybe they will dislike physics anyway and we should not worry about them. To like physics, one has to appreciate rules in some way, but the same is true in any kind of advanced learning.

So maybe, it would be okay to start physics and maths with a speech going like this:

“Students, in the following years of high school, you are going to learn by heart a set of definitions and rules. The set of rules will fit onto 3 A4 pages per subject.
This is all you will need to know to do any problem and any exam that you will encounter ever in our two subjects.
All we are now going to do in the following years is to introduce one rule after the other, and then fill them with life by doing one freaking example after the other, and make all the connections to your daily life that we can, until you are 19 years old and can leave high school. We do not expect you to “see” or “understand” a single thing, nor develop an “intuition”, nor “imagine” anything. If this happens, good for you, if not, no problem.
But remember every rule we teach you, especially in maths, because if you do not know the rules of the first year you will fail every single exam of maths and physics you will ever have. And remember to solve the problems we give you, and not give up until you can solve them well, so that your math and physics muscle can grow and become strong and fun to use. Enjoy!”

Strangely, although this speech is highly uninspiring, and I would not give it to students, it would probably have helped me as a high school student. For me, the fear of geometry, and later of physics, was the main obstacle to overcome and the fear was always that I would not manage to understand or “see”. I would never have obtained this stupid fear if it had been clear to me that physics and maths is a game with rules one can simply learn, and that a feeling of “understanding” might only come later, or never, depending on how high your bar is for saying that you “understand something”, and that this is okay (and, btw, one reason that boys are less afraid of maths and physics because their bar of “understanding something” is often much lower than the bar that girls set for themselves, which due to girls often being raised to be more self-critical than boys).

Posted in Physics, Teaching, Uncategorized | Tagged , , , , | 8 Comments

Rant about Interstellar (with SPOILERS)

Yesterday, I went to see Interstellar, Chrisopher Nolan’s new sci-fi movie that sounded very interesting to me, as it features a wormhole and travel to another galaxy, and a dystopian starting point. I was very disappointed though, both in terms of Physics/Logic, storyline and underlying ideology.

So here is what annoyed me:

  1. The movie fluctuates between attempting to be “hard sci-fi” on the one hand and totally cheesy fantasy on the other hand every few minutes. This is extremely annoying. I would have found it easier to just watch a cheesy fantasy. There seemed to be short spells of the movie where I almost found that the physics made sense, only to descend into complete bullshit again. Each time this transition happened, I was completely catapulted out of the story, which was very hard to stay engrossed in anyway.
    There are so many mistakes in logic and physics on so many levels, and the main characters behave absolutely idiotically. Even the most basic plot of the movie suffers from the most simple, stupid time travel paradoxon (person goes back in time in order to tell himself things that will make it possible to go back in time! Some people from the future made us a wormhole that made the future they live in possible!). People behave absolutely idiotically (Just one example: “Going to that other planet will cost us several months of time and fuel! Let’s instead go to the planet where due to time-dilation an hour-long excursion will cost us 7 years, because the planet is closer! Why go there in the first place? Because communication with this the person sent to this planet just broke off recently, and so was sending for several years, so the planet must have great conditions! And we forget conveniently that this means she only sent for 1 hour in her time before she probably died! And we forget to actually take an image of the planet to find out it is completely covered in water and plagued by absolutely impossible waves!” Urgh. So many things like this, it is impossible to list them. The robots are awful. And there are frozen clouds that shatter if you hit them!

3. The neo-conservative, backwards, strangely patriotic (?) ideology behind the movie is what irritated me most though. Here’s some of it:

  1. Earth is becoming inhabitable. This is apparently not because of climate change, no, don’t worry! Everyone in the movie is still driving with huge trucks that seem to burn oil. Conveniently the problems come from some kind of biblical “plagues”, that apparently are impossible to fight, because the bacteria/bugs involved breathe nitrogen, but also produce nitrogen and remove oxygen (how ?!), and somehow there are large dust storms on top of it, who knows why! We don’t see anyone attempting to do anything against these problems.
  2. The only place where anything is apparently still happening on Earth is the American midwest. Here we have the corn fields, the brave farmer that is going to save the world, the physics professor, NASA (by coincidence located nearby the farmer and somehow secretely sending rockets into space) and everything that ever makes an appearance on the scene on Earth. The rest of the world, play absolutely no role, except for a pointless Indian drone. Maybe they have all died? Who cares about that though. At least the first outposts of humanity in another galaxy proudly fly a large American flag.
  3. Apparently, there is no way that the future of the human race can be saved by boring things like climate protocols, biologically fighting the plagues, moving food production to the oceans or underground etc. No, the only way we can be saved is by magic, thinly disguised as “crazy physics” mixed with five-dimensional love, which will enable humanity to colonize a planet in another galaxy. Yes, another galaxy. So the underlying daydream of this movie is that we can gladly devastate Earth because quantum-gravity-love-craziness will teleport us into absolutely crazy distances, leaving behind Earth as far as one could possibly imagine. Our galaxy contains hundreds of millions of stars and planets, but apparently, they are all not suitable and not far away enough. We need a wormhole to another galaxy, that was put there by ourselves from the future, who have apparently managed to map out our galaxy and even other galaxies and found nothing better than the rocky barren planet that is sold as the solution to all problems in the end.
  4. Thanks to an absolutely crazy, wrong scene in which the main protagonist maps out the inside of a black hole, humankind can advance to the next stage and now move in five dimensions, transcend gravity etc! But somehow, all they seem to do with it for now is build big space stations close to Saturn, where they (of course) play baseball! Yes, that is right. We are now being able to manipulate time, gravity and space, but who cares, the most important thing is that we can play baseball on green lawns without those annoying dust storms (phew!), and apparently it was easier to make this happen inside a space station instead of on Earth. Yes, great news, the American sports have survived even though Earth has become inhabitable and our potential new world looks not very inviting either. This is a happy ending, or not?

Add to that a twisted, slightly repulsive love story between father and daughter, whose problems are largely caused by bad communication (why did the father not tell her that he is talking to her from the future directly, and save everyone a lot of time and effort?), shallow and unlikable protagonist, and an over-the-top lenth of 169 minutes.

P.S. Here are  sci-fi/time travel movies that were far more consistent and interesting (all curiously with lower ratings on IMDB than Interstellar): Moon. Primer. Oblivion. Gravity.

Posted in Physics, Uncategorized | Tagged , , | 2 Comments

Existential crisis on Linkedin

Isn’t it interesting how the big life insights of people always sound trivial? Like “and then I realized it doesn’t matter what others think.”

This kind of insight is everywhere, in every second self-help book and motivational poster. And yet if people think they have finally understood it, they talk about with shining eyes, like it was a message from heaven that suddenly hit them.

The point is of course that while it is easy to understand intellectually, it is very hard to obtain emotional understanding. This is why preaching to others they should not care what other people think is useless, and why it is also stupid to think that this is a trivial insight. It is trivial intellectually and non-trivial emotionally.

I recently visited a job counsellor who told me that getting yet another degree at my point in life was a bad idea, and pushed me in the direction of getting some kind of quant job in finance, insurance etc, the normal thing that people with my background do. He also strongly advised me to get a Linkedin profile, which I really didn’t want to do because the entire social media crap makes me very tired and annoyed and Facebook is already annoying enough.

Yet of course after a few days of internally debating with him I decided it could not really hurt to try, made a Linkedin profile and started to find out where all my colleagues that were part of the mass exodus that my field recently experienced have ended up.

Yep, practically all of my former colleagues have some kind of quant job now: Most work in data science, data analytics, some in technical consulting. Many of them have profile pictures where they suddenly look very business-like and wear suits, and blab about the usual things one blabs about on Linkedin profiles, and they look like they have become different people and claim to be excited about adding value to their companies while a short while ago they claimed to be terminally excited about the exotic subfield they worked in.

While this irritated me, I still felt a sudden and strong pull to follow in their footsteps. I couldn’t fight it and started to frantically search for job ads in big data. I noticed that the prospect made me  unhappy, but I was unable to weigh my unhappiness higher than the fact that everyone else with my background is seemingly doing the same thing, and it is not what I do. I also felt I really had to hurry up and get a job like this now, possibly before I could think about it too much. I found lots of reasons why this was a good idea. I like data and statistics, really, I miss analyzing data.

Yet looking at the typical, incredibly fake and cheesy ads of the kind of company my colleagues now work at makes me want to curl up and forget that the world exists. God, how I hate this kind of consulting/management/huge company which changes the world for the better bullshit. I get so tired thinking about it. I have always been this way; as a teenager, when I looked at typical job ads in the news paper “sales regulation software management technician for a consulting company specialized on textiles” I decided I did not want to grow up and instead hide in a hut in the wilderness somewhere.

And probably this extreme nausea about typical job ads made me want to do something radically impractical, which I did; for me having a job in a relatively esoteric field has always partially been a protest and escape from the kind of jobs that most people seem to do, although of course I intellectually know that this is the way the world works and that if everyone thought like me blabla etc.

The more I look into jobs in the quant field the more depressed and tired I feel, and yet I am still not sure if maybe I am deluded in my wish of not wanting to be a data analyst or technical consultant.

I am not trying to claim that I had a big insight along the lines of “It does not matter what others do”. I didn’t have this insight on an emotional level. I understand intellectually that I need to find out what is right for me, and that what others do should not matter, but still I suspect that they might know something that I don’t and are ahead of me.

My conclusion for now is that other people’s actions seem as foreign to me as the migration of salmon and yet I want to be like them and really migrate with them wherever they go.

Posted in Anxiety, Leaving Academia, Psychology | Tagged , , , , | 7 Comments