In Austria you can be awarded your PhD with special honors by the president of Austria, it is called Sub Auspiciis Praesidentis Rei Publicae. This year (2012) about 1000 people have been given this award since about 1952. I am not adding this explanation to impress you - this should rather set the stage for the probably unexpected message I sent to the guests of my graduation ceremony. On October 1996, we had been 4 awardees, me and husband being two of them.
I thanked the representatives of academia for their kind words, they gave us the feeling that we had been rewarded for our perseverance and our talents. Nevertheless I believed that an award like this imposes some accountability on us - we had to prove that we are not intellectuals or nerds only, but that we have some social skills too. Update: According to feedback I frequently got from customers I think I have done fine on this.
But... then... BANG....(paraphrasing my long-winded German sentences) there comes the eye-opener: There is something like real world and real jobs and nobody has waited for us. It was 1995 and there was something like a micro-crisis on the job-market, at least for physics PhDs. Update: I did not research that thoroughly in recent times, but I think that has not changed so much.
I still like my speech, but there was too much self-pitying. I belabored the point that as a high school I had expected a grown-up physicist's biggest ethical dilemma would be to choose between working for the evil military or searching the solution to the unified field theory as a lonesome wolf. Then I found out that your biggest problem was to find a job. Actually, in hindsight the situation was not that bad after all - rather the opposite. I did write only a few job applications in order to get a decent job, shortly after my husband ended up with the same employer - a national research center. And we had ditched the scientific career deliberately and knowingly before. And I pitied to be just a small and unimportant part of world's scientific machinery and I would just work on something unimportant. Recently, I had read Thomas Kuhn's Structure of Scientific Revolutions for the first time (shame on me) and it came as relief that this was normal. As normal as it can get - I did Normal Science.
(Oktober 8, 1996, University of Linz)
I added a small rant that I would phrase harsher today. I had been told - repeatedly - that excellent people stay in academia (mediocre ones join industry). Back then I felt that this was BS - though of course I phrased it more politely. What I did not dare to say: I had also been told that there will be so many academic job openings for physicists in the near future. Today I have been confirmed by lots of credible accounts by other physics PhDs and by simply statistics, that this is what students have been told since the 1970s. And since the 1970s the number of physics graduates kept growing and exceeded the demand.
I had also ranted (a bit, in too timid fashion - but stay tuned for an article that I had written two years, to be re-published soon) about the metrics of scientific community - survival of the fittest AKA the person who managed to out his/her names on most papers and to minimize real contributions at the same time. I generally criticized the importance of "selling yourself". This is quite bizarre actually. This is self-irony, but in a subconscious fashion - I meant what I said. The truth is: I had an impressive record of publications - obtained by honest work. And I always had the talents to market myself - that I was not aware this this was self-marketing. When you tend to over-analyze things - as I sometimes so - then it is best to simply stay with the facts: I did get any job I ever wanted. I changed my expertise, my fields of work several times. My track record in terms of metrics (grades, publications, performance data, revenue, customer feedback) had been successful. It took me some time to find out, but I enjoy being an entrepreneur - and I would rather work "mundane tasks" in a self-employed way than being "part of the system that imposes its arcane rules on me. So back then was probably just lacking a bit of self-esteem and self-awareness.
I was proud of the fact that my husband and I merged our PhD theses into a single book. This is an option (though an uncommon one) as long as you denote who has been responsible for which part. I had also enjoyed of being supported by gifted technicians. And I really detested the attitude of not giving enough credit to other persons who had delivered valuable contributions. So I did not take the acknowledgement section in thesis too seriously, as I thanked my friends "how to use the pipe wrench" - which was an allusion to using that tool to open coke bottles every afternoon in the workshop. I could have phrased this a bit crispier in my speech.
Thus in summary the speech was not to bad (it felt good to receive standing ovations), the topics addressed were fine. Today I would:
- rant a little more, more sarcastically, more witty on stuff that deserve being ranted about.
- remove all the self-pity and replace it by the enormous chances that challenges actually bore.
As for the second item, wallowing in self-pity was probably also due to the fact that I did not get over the fact I did leave academia though it a deliberate choice and I have always considered it right - absolutely, positively. At that time I worked in a national research lab, but already felt separated from true science. More realistically (as explained in the posting linked above) also my academic existence was "more engineering-like" and more routine development grunt work than pure science. But there are two catches:
- The menial engineering stuff plus the project management experience I gained during my PhD work was what made me employable in the real world while still keeping some relationship with the academic world over the years.
- It all - and I really mean IT ALL including the negative experiences - prepared me for the final step I had taken recently: returning to research and development (OK, it's more development), to physics and engineering - and being able to afford a smooth an gentle migration to a new career path.
So after all - it was all worth it.