Letters to a young engineer
My journey from school to industry, and back again
Well, you finally made it. A well-paying job at a world-renowned company, a 9-5 (ish) lifestyle, actually having weekends — weekends! — to spend on life rather than homework, all conveniently located in one of the best cities on Earth. It’s what your parents always hoped for you, what your professors always promised was just past the hill of that final semester, and you made it. Sure, it cost you a few sleepless nights here and there, not to mention having to turn down a not insignificant number of social outings in your late teens / early twenties, but you’re finally out of the tunnel, basking in the light of corporate America.
So why doesn’t it feel right?
I spent months asking myself this question during my final semester of undergrad. I’d accepted a job offer to work as an engineer at SpaceX, deferring my offer of PhD admission to MIT for a full year. And to be honest, I kept on asking it months into my time in industry while I debated whether to forgo grad school and continue working.
I’m afraid this “grad school or industry” question is one of the most important ones you can face in your professional life as you near the end of college, and even more afraid that it’s one you’ll need to answer for yourself. But to help push you along towards that end, I thought I’d share some of my own thought process, hopefully turning my indecision into something you can benefit from…or at least take solace in, knowing that no, you are not alone.
In his masterpiece How Will You Measure Your Life?, Clayton Christensen (may he rest in peace) famously wrote that the opposite of unhappiness is not happiness, but rather, is simply the absence of unhappiness; simply put, being “happy” and being “not unhappy” are two very different things. So, for example, having a subpar salary and brutal hours can easily make you unsatisfied, but high pay and a decent work-life balance alone will never satisfy you. They’re dealbreakers, but they’re not dealmakers, and you need a little more to find fulfillment — namely, a job where you believe in the work.
Keeping this in mind helped me rationalize what I was going through, and why I couldn’t shake that nagging feeling that there was more out there I could, or should, be doing. I thought back to high school, and why I chose to study engineering in the first place, as opposed to chemistry or physics. Even back then, I knew I loved science – I’m sure you did too, or you wouldn’t be reading this – but wanted to apply it towards improving the lives of others.
While nobody can tell you what it means to improve the lives of others, or, at the risk of cliches, “make a difference”, you can tell when you’re doing it. The pride you feel in your work, that feeling of walking on air as you come home at the end of the day, the smile that sneaks up on you as you catch yourself thinking of a recently solved problem — these are all the signs you’ll need.
But still, it’s hard! Pulling the plug on a corporate lifestyle you’ve grown accustomed to and voluntarily returning to the demanding lifestyle of higher education is scary, and it’s easy to slip into the curse of constancy, letting inertia keep you where you are, even if your dreams and ambitions are elsewhere.
In my case, I found it helpful to outline what these ambitions of mine were, pushing myself beyond vague notions of “a more technical role” or “something in sustainability”, and to really focus on the “why” behind it all. After all, you don’t need a PhD to perform technical work in sustainability; a simple job switch would suffice. It took me some iterating, but I realized the simplest way to put this is to ask, “what would you do if nobody was watching?”
Sounds simple enough, but seriously, when you take away the pomp and circumstance of having a successful job at a prestigious company or of having a doctorate, you’re left with nobody to impress, and only yourself to answer to. Do I really want to dedicate the next chapter of my life to putting people in space? Or for other industries: towards mass-producing cars, or tweaking algorithms, or optimizing chemical production? There are absolutely no wrong answers here, but I realized mine was “no.” I wanted to create something new for the world, to discover something and think thoughts nobody before has. In order to do that I needed to perform research, and for that I needed a PhD. And with that, my mind was made up.
There are no bad options, and you’ll be making a sacrifice either way; at the end of the day, the decision is yours to make, and the attitude yours to define. Sure, uprooting your life to move thousands of miles away for roughly a 50% pay cut and double the hours can be devastating, if you let it be… so just like. Don’t. This is your own personal hero’s journey, it’s Lord of the Rings, it’s a trial by fire after which you’ll be wiser and more equipped to go boldly into the world of science and technology.
It’s important to remember it will be difficult. To say the first semester of my PhD was difficult is to say Boston winters are cold — the understatement of a lifetime (but that’s a story for a later blog post), and I’d be lying if I said taking time off before grad school didn’t make it worse. You won’t remember much about molecular thermodynamics, or reaction engineering, or whatever other advanced courses you took, certainly not after spending months or years in a job where everyday reality is removed from academic studies. You’ll feel frustrated with yourself as you struggle in some classes and are rusty on your math, will have to adjust to spending far more hours on homework, lectures, and studying than your job ever demanded of you, and might even have a hard time connecting with your peers, especially if you’re a bit older.
But what you lack in memory of course material, you’ll more than make up for in your ability to problem solve, communicate with a non-technical audience, project manage, and every other skill you refined in industry that absolutely defines the research experience – the bulk of your time in a PhD. Just as all knowledge is good knowledge, no time spent learning is time wasted.
I still don’t know for sure what I want to do with my life (and spoiler alert, you don’t have to), though I feel a National Lab or corporate R&D role may be in my future. But as I sit here writing this article at my desk in an MIT research lab, a framed photo of my former SpaceX coworkers beside me, I know I made the right decision to work before grad school, and I know I made the right decision coming back. After all, it’s only a year, but the learnings will last a lifetime.
See pictures below:
Caption: My colleagues, old and new.
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