Tuesday, May 24, 2005

First-year recap: was it all worth it ?

Consider situation A:
- a well-compensated career that's going well
- toys
- hobbies [no, that's not me, and, no, I'm not even close to that good]
- an established network of friends and family
- beautiful scenery [in all directions]

and situation B:
- living on a student stipend
- an insanely expensive city
- pretty damn crappy weather [now experiencing a "spring" that's breaking records for cold and rain]
- no social network
- starting at the bottom again

which situation would you rather be in ? If you said 'B', you're a liar, or a masochist. Forget all the "fuzzy" stuff about hobbies, friends etc and just look at the economics of it. Just doing a rough back-of-the-envelope calculation puts the opportunity cost into almost seven figures. In other words, this move was non-optimal in so many ways, it's hard to even count them, which brings me to the question:
was it worth it ?

Short answer: yes.

Longer answer: The first 5-6 months here were pretty damn tough emotionally. Having lived in Boston for a year after graduation and having liked it, I figured I'd still like it. Well, turns out that it's all relative: I initially moved to Boston from Philadelphia, so it was definitely a step up. However, after spending 7 years in Seattle, coming back was a rude shock and made me realize
how attached I'd become to Seattle. And it was even tougher for poor Christina, born and raised in Seattle -- talk about getting dumped into an alien environment. The transition was made tougher by not having a network of friends and family, although once again Christina got the short end of the stick -- I at least met people through school, but until she found a job she was pretty much totally cut off from contact with anybody except me [and her job hasn't really helped either]. Not that meeting people through school helped all that much, because I'm 6-8 years older than the vast majority of people in my classes; add the fact that I'm married and you end up with relatively little common ground between my classmates and me in terms of how we like to spend our free time. That's probably why most of the friends I've made are also married =)

There was also the lifestyle adjustment, having to cut down on the non-essentials; we never really realized how much money we were spending on non-essential stuff until we moved here, and that took a bit of getting used to. The toughest bit, though, was the feeling that, for the next 4-5 years, our lives were going to stand still in terms of taking the next step towards "adulthood" -- having kids. This was compounded by the fact that just about all of our friends have been insanely fruitful in the last couple of years, having kids like they're going out of style, which made us feel rather left out.

All this made me seriously consider whether all this was really worth it ie how badly I wanted to switch careers. At one point, it got bad enough that I got in touch with Werner Vogels, who was
recruiting people to come work at Amazon on building real-world distributed systems, since I had experience with just about all the stuff he was looking for and it sounded like an interesting gig. It was indeed an interesting gig, and I was sorely tempted to take him up on his offer to come back out to Seattle for interviews. In the end, I didn't, for a couple of reasons. First, I felt like 6 months wasn't really long enough to make an informed decision about whether I really wanted to do this and, more importantly, it came down to the realization that I could always go back to being a software engineer, but in order to go into biotech I really need that PhD. In other words, sticking with the PhD expands my universe of "adjacent possibles", whereas bailing on it is a one-way street.

That still left open the "life standing still" issue, which was a biggie and appeared insoluble. However, most "insoluble" problems are only insoluble given a particular set of constraints, so it was a question of figuring out what constraints we were willing to relax. It took a bit of hard thinking, but in the end we came up with a solution that we like. With that, I think we turned the corner in terms of not having overwhelmingly strong reasons to leave.

From a more positive perspective, being here is also doing good things for both of us: Christina's photography school is
going well -- she's getting a chance to do something she loves, she's making like-minded friends and totally geeking out with Photoshop. I've found a lab I like and research areas that I'm looking forward to diving into for my PhD. And if I ever lose interest in those research areas, there's a whole slew of other things I find really cool, and I'm sure more interesting areas will continue to crop up. I feel a bit like a kid in a candy store -- too many good things to try at once. When I contrast that with the fact that I don't feel even remotely as excited about anything in the software industry as I am about biology, I'm convinced that I/we made the right long-term choice. We're both getting to do something we're excited about, and expect to be excited about for [a good chunk of] the rest of our lives, so dealing with some short-term pain is worth it.

I couldn't have done this without Christina encouraging me from the get-go, being supportive when things got tough and generally just being the best partner I could wish for. Big ups to my elder wife ;-) !

3 Comments:

Blogger JoJo said...

Way to go to both of you and looking forward to see you gradute soon.... Docteur Mallet!!!!

4:42 PM  
Blogger Kristofer said...

Interesting read, hope you make it. I'm doing a PhD in computational biology but I'm doing ok in terms of social life and salary. Trying to get published is what makes me frustrated most of the time.

Kristofer

2:51 AM  
Blogger Corey said...

I know it's been a struggle - I knew it would be, but what I didn't know is that it was so much of one emotionally.

We miss you for sure. I'm still like "my friend Alex this" and "my friend Alex that". I'm proud of you, man. Keep up the good work.

And I think it's totally awesome that Christina found something she's in to. I know her to be one to adapt, but it seemed to take a while.

As soon as I can scrape together enough for a trip back east, we'll be there!

//bikerscum

1:31 PM  

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