Goodbye Academia

23 02 2018

This is for my friends who are struggling in academia.

Funny how things turn out. A few years ago, well, when I say few, I mean 1994. I had written an essay on “What I want to be when I grow up”. That time, my future was extremely clear in my mind. I wanted to become a scientist. I wanted to know. I wanted to do. I wanted to build. I wanted to help. Of course, like people say, life takes over. It took over for me. But one thing never changed, I wanted to become a scientist. And I worked towards it. And I was pretty good at it too. Mostly good grades in science. Lots of summer projects and internships. A PhD. Great postdocs. A lot of publications. And in all this, without losing the childlike enthusiasm and curiosity. To know. What changed is what I wanted to be – at a finer level. From a nuclear chemist, to a theoretical chemist, to a spectroscopist, to a surface scientist, to a material chemist. It was mostly an evolution and there wasn’t too much to worry about because I had my lab to go to. Somewhere I read the definition of job satisfaction – “Imagine you have 100 million dollars in your bank account and you still want to continue doing what you are doing.” And when I would think of this, of course it was true. I could easily get into an industry and earn a lot more money but I was happy doing what I was doing. My experiments, my instruments, my lab. How could I even sell my soul to a multinational company? I wanted to help people with my research. Expand the human understanding.
And then life did take over. The next step didn’t happen. I applied for faculty position. In a lot of places. In India, believing that a position lay there waiting for me because there was nothing that was missing from my CV. Top of the class in bachelors and masters, a PhD from the best institute in the country, a postdoc from the best place in continental Europe – the places where people like C. V. Raman, Albert Einstein, Wolfgang Pauli and Richard Ernst had walked. Excellent recommendations, excellent publication – in numbers and quality. In fact more than a few of my friends who already had a faculty position. There were new IITs, NITs, IISERs. People were welcoming. Everyone wanted to listen to me talk. Everyone loved my work and told me how they wanted someone with exactly my profile in their institute. I was articulate, friendly. It was just meant to be. Except that it wasn’t. Academia is a cold place if you do not belong. In the end, nobody really offered me a job. At 34, I didn’t have a job. I was doomed. A depression followed. Medicines were taken. And a lot of curses were cursed.

We had joy, we had fun

We had seasons in the sun

But the stars that we reached

Were just starfish on the beach

How could I not get a faculty position. Nobody could tell me what was missing from my CV. There were open positions. How in the world could they not hire me? You know what, Fuck you. And it just went all downhill from there. There was nothing more to be done. Well-meaning people told me to be patient but an year passed and nothing happened. My life was wasted. What else was there to be done than becoming an old postdoc. Changing labs every year or two and hopefully finding a new one. A two-year postdoc. Where you spend the first year in adjusting to the new lab environment and the second year worrying about and trying to find the next postdoc.
But again, and thankfully this time, life took over. Becoming a father sort of changed a few things. Most importantly, taking the responsibility. And selling my soul. I applied for a job in a company. A tire company that was looking for someone who knew about polymers and other materials, about some spectroscopic techniques and few other things. I applied and guess what, they selected me. And here I am. And you know what – it’s not so bad. The pay is good. The job is permanent, as permanent as jobs can be. I don’t have to keep looking for open positions and send them a 200 page application. I am still doing basic research and my soul, is more or less unsold. And then you remember someone like a Shockley, who actually worked in industry. Anyway, my point is it is fine if you don’t get a faculty position as long as you don’t give up. I do not have to complain about lack of funds for my experiments. I am accountable for what I do. It’s not too bad, as long as you get to do what you want to do.

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Cool Physicists and Poor Chemists

8 03 2012

All science is either Physics or stamp collecting

~ Ernest Rutherford, the father of nuclear physics.

Normally when I ask my Physics friends, “what are you working on these days?” they answer something on the lines of string theory, relativistic quantum effects or dark matter or looking out for some supernova or you know, one of those cool sounding words. Contrast that with my Chemist friends who answer me something like, synthesis of second fragment of a taxol or characterizing my sample with IR or one of those things about no one seems to care much.

My Physicists friend might grumble but then isn’t it true that what a chemist does, affects the general public, or aam aadmi, directly? I mean would you rather prefer a cheaper paracetamol or would it be better if someone told you that some star exploded a few thousand light years away? But then ask people names of famous scientists and what you would hear is Einstein, Newton, Heisenberg, Feynman. You would surely not hear them say Langmuir, Fischer, Wittig or Hoffmann. I mean who cares who was responsible for the wonderful windshield of your car that dries off almost immediately when you would rather be happy about knowing that “the force between the elctrons is an exchange force arising from the exchange of virtual photons.”

Not just that. Physics has wonderful jokes too. You have jokes about Pascal and Newton playing hide-n-seek. You have movies on Heisenberg, Einstein. They are natural philosophers who write wonderful quotes about religion and ethics and say what God doesn’t like to play with. Then there are these legendary stories of Archimedes running nude and apples falling on heads. And then those wonderful T-shirt captions on the lines of “Gravity is a myth. The earth sucks.

Meanwhile we are stuck with one single joke that we repeat everywhere. “My name is bond. Ionic bond.” We don’t have legendary stories except perhaps the elucidation of ring structure when whats-his-name was sleeping and dreamt of snakes. The discovery of fullerene, beautiful molecules that looks like football, might make good movie but then do we care? Even the super-villians are more engineers or biologists who don’t have to sit in front of a foot long column separating R and S isomers of some poisonous chemical. Who cares when we say that we have 117 elements on the last count as opposed to the great GOD who has only 5?


Anyway, why am I whining? Hopefully one of us would be the next savior of humanity or something. May be then, we might get a bit of respect. At this moment all that I can do is take a potshot. No, it won’t be directed at my software engineer friends. They earn 10 times more than I do for their “work”. The above quoted Ernest Rutherford who called my poor chemistry as mere stamp collection, got a Nobel Prize in 1908 in, hold your breath, C-H-E-M-I-S-T-R-Y. **** on that.