Finishing my PhD in 2016 was the end of a career as a university student that lasted a whole 14 years. I started out thinking that it was quite obvious that I would have a career as an academic: most members of my immediate family are university professors, and even those that don’t, lead primarily academic professional lives.
But during my PhD studies, perhaps the most important lesson I learned was that, while I could carry out a research project from beginning to end, I certainly did not want to do that full time for the rest of my life.
I like the research, and I like what the university itself stands for. But there are aspects of life as a researcher that certainly do not appeal to me. And there are aspects of it at which I am simply not good at.
Where academia and I parted
I remember thinking that that would be my dream job: working at a university, supporting the work of academics, but not actually … being one. Focusing on the technical problems of getting the research done, and then moving on to the next project. That is something I was already kind of doing: I was happiest in my department when people came to me with questions about the best way to make a particular measurement, or asking for help debugging some awful piece of legacy research code1. And I was good at it too.
Part of a larger conversation
As it turned out, that conversation was part of a much larger one, taking place in a number of academic institutions all over the world, with the purpose of slowly shaping the role of what would become known (at least in the UK) as the Research Software Engineer, largely through the work of folks like those at the Software Sustainability Institute
And this is also what lead me to take my first (and hopefuly last) post-doc position at the University of Sheffield, fresh out of my PhD.
That was a position that had little to do with what I had considered my research interests, but had a lot of what I saw myself doing if I followed along the lines of this new type of role. And indeed, a lot of the people I met while there were people who were doing this sort of job, and had been doing it for years. It was while in this position that I attended my first technical conferences, including one exclusively for RSEs.
But when I started browsing the positions that were available, I realised that this role is still too specialised, and the demand is still too narrow. Most of the position I found were for people who could assist in high performance computing, for running what is, in fact, a very specific kind of research. The need I had seen many times over in Linguistics and Speech Sciences departments was still not being taken seriously enough to justify hiring.
So I decided to start looking outside academia.
And lo and behold, I found a new job, and now I’m a software developer.
My new job
It’s still early for me to know exactly how any of this is going to pan out. And it is entirely possible that in a couple of years I’ll look back at this time feeling that I didn’t really know what I was getting into, etc.
But right now, I feel that there’s a lot to really like of this change of pace.
Perhaps more than anything, I like how (unlike in academia) I don’t have the feeling that the work that I do defines me. And together with the fact that work stops at 17:30 sharp no-matter-what, that makes me feel that I can pursue all my other interests completely guilt-free (before, even during holidays, it was easy to feel bad about not working, it was hard to turn off).
We’ll see how this pans out in the future, but for now, I’m enjoying the ride.
While most people who work with software have horror stories with legacy code, I feel academic code deserves a special mention: more often than not, academic code is code that is born as legacy. Coded by non programmers, who are not paid to learn programming … and with the hubris of the University Professor Who Knows Better. ↩