But I didn't


[[!meta title=“But I didn’t”]]

[[!tag career life research]]

Our society frowns on people who set out to do really good work. You’re not supposed to; luck is supposed to descend on you and you do great things by chance. Well, that’s a kind of dumb thing to say. I say, why shouldn’t you set out to do something significant. You don’t have to tell other people, but shouldn’t you say to yourself, ``Yes, I would like to do something significant.’’

Richard W. Hamming, You and Your Research

I am sorry, Dr. Hamming. Although I read your talk “You and Your Research” as early as I was 18, but when the choice is present to me, I didn’t choose to do the significant. Instead, I become an office clerk.

I just find my current job intolerable that I need to quit in 6 months. I realized that in the past few years, I am slowly, gradually becoming depressed because of it. More importantly, I am wasting time that can be invested in doing significant things.

I should have realized earlier that I have a very peculiar approach and attitude towards teamwork, and therefore need to pick the work style more carefully. I was wrong to jump at the first opportunity that looked good enough.

There are signs indicating that working in an “open” or cubicle office won’t do me good:

Exhibit A: I was very accustomed to work alone to solve those difficult problems at school, even when the problems become so hard that my classmates are more and more giving in to the temptation of group discussions, which I find inefficient, and completely deprives one of the joy of problem solving;

Exhibit B: I believe that in a team the team members’ job is first doing their own parts well. Better cooperation comes from the team leader’s coordination (that’s their job) and team/task design, not from people pestering others with requests, inquiries and compliments;

Exhibit C: My first year as a PhD candidate was in a shared open office, i.e. without cubicles separating my desk with other postgraduate students. I tried to focus on the screen in front of me but couldn’t. After those months I only produced some sham literature review assignments to satisfy my supervisor. Then I decided to work from my dorm. I wouldn’t say my productivity skyrocketed, but they did point to a more concrete direction as I felt I could think again.

Looking back to that office where I unhappily hit Alt + Tab, switching from Endnote, to Erdas Imagine and to Firefox with Twitter and Facebook on then back again, I even find it acceptable compared to my current work environment. When I join my current organization my desk was in an office with 7 other colleagues and our department chief. It can get quite annoying when the latter meets some guests in her working area, or arguing something on the phone. Each syllable pronounced drives my attention away.

Ugh, colleagues discussing what to eat after work now. Your may call it a day but I have a writing on hand.

This unstoppable attention to my surrounding environment is a trait that I can’t shake off, and I can see there are some evolution reasons behind it. Back in the Mesolithic Age I must be a very good hunter/gatherer. In a lab, that may also make me an exceptional researcher. But in a modern office, I am feeling constantly bombarded by distractions due to my perk. I would be grateful if these noises are somewhat relevant to my line of work. But here is the problem: me and my 7 colleagues, we are only nominally a team. The 8 of us work on 6 to 10 projects with minimum overlap.

If I was not showing symptoms of depression, I must be quite repressed then. Remember I was just starting. Given the challenge of working on my own project, surrounded by people working on barely relevant things, my reaction was to figure out things on my own. But my department chief told me to “communicate” more with my colleagues.

On what?

Actually, few people can tell me what to do, saving trivial details of common tasks. Have an idea about my project? I can only talk to my chief, as she is the only one with enough understanding of each person’s work. But each time my attempt to start a discussion was dismissed because she’s so busy. Email discussion is out of the question. She overlook them so much that people writing to her have to call her to bring her attention to the matter.

In the end, I default on the project design because following what everybody else does is safe; I default on my work load as doing more doesn’t bring satisfaction; I default on my career goal as I see no light at the end of the tunnel. I was repressed and could not think.

Just when I think it couldn’t get worse …

Our office had an rearrangement in this year. Most of the 8 people who shared the office with me moved into a larger office. Combined with the original workers in the office, there are over 20 people, working on projects even more distant from each other, in the office now.

I have been relieved from one project, and was assigned another. This time I have support from 3 persons from another organization, who works right next to me. Two of them are very helpful, but the third is as new to the project as I am. One of my colleagues back in that smaller office got a raise and is now deputy department chief supervising me. All of these don’t bode well.

After the initial excitement of working on a new project, soon I find both the new deputy chief and the new helper coming to me for communication a bit too frequently. The former comes to my desk two or three times a day, calls 5 or 6 times, and send me 5 or 8 emails that needs my attention. I find myself constantly trying to work on her newest order or request, without figuring out which is exactly the most important. The latter frustrates me with her confusions about very basic understanding of the project we are running, although to be fair she has improved lately.

As I badly need a recovery from a noisy environment and my chief’s attitude (who now thankfully has her own room, separated with our office with a 5 cm thick plaster wall and 8 meters from my desk), I again need to face distractions that I cannot politely turn down. I still manage to process tasks and requests, in a robotic manner. I can’t think or reflect as I can’t decide where my attention turns to. There is no happiness or reward in this.

A bit more than 4 years ago, when I joined this organization, I was at least a bit inspired to be out of the comfort zone of the academia, and to be able to make some tractable impact by managing engineering projects. Now, 4 years later, only a bitter, exhausted, underachieving person remains.

This is the damage done if you put a sensitive and eccentric person in an office environment described above.

Problem with my job choice

If I can time travel back to the days when I was looking for a job and wag my tail to anyone kind enough to offer me a place, I will say to that low-esteem and misinformed myself:

Acknowledge your strength and weakness, esp. your strength. Don’t do a job that you know you wouldn’t like so much, because those years are supposed to be when you do your most significant work, or at least lay the foundation for it. You may think that a job is a job providing money for you to do things you like, and you still have plenty of time after each day’s work. But this may not be the case once your responsibility as a spouse and a parent kicks in.

Realize that you are different enough to question things that may satisfy other people. Is small talk during work your thing? Are you okay with doing the minion’s job and letting the bosses take the spotlight and the risks? Is the promise of career advancement really fulfilled? Are they recruiting you because they need you, or because they want some hands for errands and you happen to be qualified?

My unhappiness with my job has two causes: a. I misunderstood the “out of your comfort zone” thing and put myself in a type of work that I can do, but never would enjoy; and b. my employer managed to attract high-calibre talents (PhDs from leading universities around the world) with their government background and international ties, but squandered the fortune.

Being one used to solitude and works best with large chunks of time, the last thing I need at work is the “communication” my coworkers are used to. Each verbal exchange costs me and sometimes them more time than simply writing an email, or better yet, creating a card on Trello. After we speak, I have to log the gist of the conversation, add an entry in my task management system, and then, hopefully, begin the 15-minute recovery of my previous line of thought. At this rate, I can do exactly two things in an 8-hour work day, max.

Unfortunately, that seems to be the common and normal practice in our office, and millions of other offices in this country. My preferred way of text- and Web-based communication, despite being more efficient, clear, and traceable, is seen in this business as too nerdy, impractical, or just too new and flashy. After all, some of the people in my organization and our client companies still have trouble understanding what a server is. They belong to a generation of people who are not encouraged to learn and try new things.

That leads naturally to my second reason for disliking my job. The year I took the job, my organization recruited over a dozen people, all with PhDs. We were told vaguely at the job interview that the organization is contemplating creating more research positions, but research what? No one has an idea. Later, some high level staff in the organization had a slip of tongue, revealing that they recruited only PhDs that year because some higher level people were pulling strings to get their children positions in the organization, and the children in question have at most Master’s Degree.

Oh, so in order to refuse the cronyism attempt to inject the organization with incompetent persons, you raised the bar to only recruit people who are trained to do original research and make contributions to human knowledge, and saved these people from the humiliation of not finding a job? Thank you very much, that’s a noble job well done indeed.

On such a premise, it is not hard to imagine what idea the organization has about what PhDs can do. The answer is, just what people we replaced do. Mundane clerk work. Not only so, the organization’s culture forces PhDs into a mold and average office workers comes out. There are people who are more successfully converted than I am.

A wish is a wish

At the point I find it very difficult for me to take another “office” job where I have no privacy nor the freedom from being interrupted. The luxury I wish seems to be only offered in some rare academic settings, or in the line of remote work and self-employment.

I wish that I have time to think and write, not to picking up again and again what I dropped. I wish my work brings satisfaction of seeing something I like take shape, instead of becoming a cog in a machine so huge that I do not recognize. But that’s that — a wish. If I get anything from the 4 years of wasted time, it is remorse. I should have had courage to break with this job that sucked time and energy from me. I should have had courage to turn down this offer in the first place and look for what I have always liked.

Now, everything seems to come to a dead end. I am stuck with a job that is demeaning. I have no research track record to boast, and I don’t even know what’s the important question in my field now. I have paid a terrible price for not standing up to challenges. This time, I am not giving myself more alibis for not try and change what is difficult.