Following your fascinations for a fulfilling future!
How chasing his curiosity fulfilled a 13-year-old’s dream
From the moment I realized the significance of the sequence of events I am about to narrate, I wanted to save this story for my thesis defense speech. As I start the 6th year of my PhD, however, I can’t contain the excitement anymore. When I learned this blog post would be read by hundreds of aspiring PhDs, I realized my story and the takeaway would be far more useful for you than my defense attendees. So here it goes — the story of how every single decision I have made in my career brought me back to the very thing that fascinated 13-year-old me the most!
I have always been good at computers, or at least that’s what my teachers told me. After all, I was the only 13-year-old in my class who was writing C++ in his spare time. Now, this wasn’t because my parents specifically wanted me to learn computers; if anything, like many Asian parents, they were very cautious of the amount of time I spent in front of the screen and not studying for school. We bought a personal computer in around 2007 when my dad went back to school to get a mechanical engineering degree and had to take some computer science classes as part of the breadth requirements. Suffice it to say, this wasn’t common at the time, since more than half of my peers had access to a computer only in the school lab. The novelty of the whole situation, combined with the fact that I was 13, meant I was immediately smitten and wanted to spend as much time with the computer as I could. My mom was very much against me playing games but would let me have extra computer time if I was learning something from it. This is where Dad’s programming books came in – I distinctly remember spending hours after school and on weekends flipping through books on .Net, ASP, SQL, or whatever he was learning at the time.
I don’t remember exactly which book it was, but I remember the preface of one mentioning that this language was developed at the “Massachusetts Institute of Technology.” Now, you have to understand – the wonders of programming, and what you can do with it, were already very fascinating to me. But to create a programming language itself was an idea so mind-blowing, I remember the immediate thought I had was “The folks at this school which I cannot even pronounce correctly must be so smart that they create their own languages.” I quickly then moved on to making games or websites or whatever I was learning and forgot about MIT for the next 10 years.
Fast-forward to 2018. I had finished undergrad and spent 2 years working on compilers and programming languages at Microsoft Research when I decided to apply for grad school. One of the schools I ended up submitting my application to was MIT, because I was really into the kind of research a professor here (my current advisor) was doing in the field. I accepted my offer for the same reason. It was only after being here for a year and spending my time researching new programming languages that I finally remembered my original encounter with “The Massachusetts Institute of Technology.” The light bulbs in my head went “I am now at that MIT developing new programming languages.” At that moment, I felt satisfied and fulfilled knowing that the 13-year-old Ajay would be so proud of what I had become; he would look up and think it was worth all the hard work over the years.
I have now spent more than 7 years working with programming languages. As a further nod to the original story, my thesis topic is centered around making it possible for folks to create their OWN programming languages without knowing much about how compilers work. My goal is to make creating programming languages accessible to beginners and maybe contribute in a small way to another person who is fascinated by programming languages achieving their dreams.
Now, like I promised in the beginning, I am going to turn this story into unsolicited life advice — I think the biggest decision you as an academic have to make is not what school you go to, or whom you work with, but choosing the exact topic you want to work on. You have to make this decision not once or twice, but every single time you start a new project. Don’t worry, I am not going to tell you any versions of “let the universe decide for you” or “the right path will magically emerge”; in fact, I am going to tell you the exact opposite — to be very deliberate about your choices. Now, I did not deliberately plan for everything so I ended up at MIT working on Programming Languages, but I deliberately made choices along the way that allowed me to follow my fascination. Of course, I needed to be relevant in the field so I could find a job, and plan a career so I could feed myself, but I never optimized for that. Instead, I optimized for what satisfied my curiosity the most and fascinated me the most. Given that, I don’t think what happened in the story above was a surprising coincidence. If anything, it was the most likely outcome.
Now, everyone is different, and some of you might want to just do something that gets you the best job and gets you out of here, but you have to realize that you are going to be in your graduate program for at least 4-5 years. You cannot force yourself to wake up every morning to work on a problem that doesn’t fascinate your inner kid! Before you convince others that your research is important, you have to convince yourself that the problem you are solving is worth solving. You HAVE to follow your fascination!
I will leave you with this visual of the “spherical frontier of human knowledge” that I often use to describe the reason I got into research. If you imagine all knowledge that we as a species have acquired so far as this green sphere, the goal for my research and my life as a whole is to make a teeny tiny dent in it. Like an explorer driven to the sea seeking adventure, I started this journey following my fascination with programming languages and I hope to discover a new island I can proudly put my name on.
I hope you too are excited to leave your mark on this sphere with the chisel and hammer of your curiosity!
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