We're a little crazy, about science!

The uncharted paths

Change, it’s basically a constant. Unfortunately, for what feels like forever, I felt stuck. Progress felt non-existent, papers weren’t being published, data processing wasn’t happening, and that may have just been my personal feelings, but everything I was doing felt wrong. Days turned to weeks turned to months and after a year or so of this things started moving forward. It was a night and day change, now it feels like things are moving so fast that it’s hard to keep up with it day to day, which is probably why I keep writing about all the changes. Now I’m at a point where I have too many options to count.

It’s funny, in school we’re often taught that there is one correct answer to a problem. In math, we’re given a very singular way to find a solution. Solution manuals give you THE way and that’s it, there’s no other way to get the correct answer. Granted that’s not always the case, but in a lot of ways that’s how we get taught. If there are other ways to get the solution we are taught the single way to get there because that’s the way we’re currently being taught. That changes when you start doing research, or life in general I suppose. In research we often have a very clear and well defined endpoint, answer this question, design something that does X, etc. There’s a single solution, but a near infinite solution space. The problem goes from solving a very mechanical book problem using the one tool you just learned to finding the best solution to get you to that end point.

That feels like where I’m at, at the moment. I know what the next step is for me, I graduate and move onto the next phase of my career. It’s the, what feels like, infinite solution space for what’s next that’s the problem. And the more I look for the right (for me) answer, the more answers to the problem I find. There’s something called the paradox of choice, in psychology it’s explained, by me poorly, that the more choices you have, the less satisfied with the choice you make. The road less traveled I guess. But the other problem is that with so many choices, it’s hard to spend enough time weighing each of them. It goes from a very calculated choice to something akin to speed dating your possible futures.

One of the latest paths that have appeared is ARPA-H. Haven’t heard about it? It’s okay, neither had I until the DARPA Forward event. ARPA-H is basically the DARPA approach applied to healthcare and currently there are like three people working there, I’m only exaggerating a little too. It’s new, so new there’s no money being given out yet and it’s one of the new options I could take if I really wanted to do it. It’s not exactly DARPA, but it’s not as morally confusing as working with an organization that looks specifically for the military applications of the technologies you want to develop. Which, for someone like me, who doesn’t like the idea of whatever I make being used defacto as a weapon or advancing warfare, I think it’s a tailor-made solution for me.

The problem is I’m not sure it’s what I want. I enjoy research, being a program manager means that I would have an incredibly large pot of money to dole out as I see fit, but it means that I would only be funding the research, not doing the research. A small, but to me, important distinction I guess. It’s one I hadn’t really thought about until discussing the role of a program manager either. On one hand it wouldn’t be a bad thing to be the guy who gets to shape the future by throwing money at people, it’s like being a philanthropist, but with someone else’s money. On the other, it feels a touch hands off so I’m not sure it’s the thing for me.

Of course, if I was a PI of my own lab, the role would be roughly the same, if not on a smaller scale. Most of the time as a PI is directing the research, not doing the research. Especially as you get more established, starting out you definitely get to be hands on with the research, but it changes the more established you get. Upon further reflection, it would appear that either way I would be taking a more path planning and not doing role.

Anyway, ARPA-H isn’t the same as the DARPA Fellowship, it’s not a fellowship, it’s an actual job. Not that both aren’t a job, but one (the fellowship) is designed for people just starting out. The only reason ARPA-H is even a maybe for me is thanks to the DARPA Forward conference. I’m not a huge social person, but apparently +I got incredibly lucky with the people I met and the impressions I made. One in particular was someone who had an uncanny amount of information on ARPA-H and who recommended I look into it. We exchanged cards and they offered to send further info about the program. After the conference I expected to never hear from them again, things like that happen because people get busy, forget, etc. But I got an email.

They passed along a ton of info that wasn’t on the website and thanks to the impression I made apparently, they are sticking their neck out for me and know not one, but two people who are helping setup the ARPA-H program. So now I’ve got two people who are offering to reach out to the acting deputy director to make sure that they see my application and that feels like a big deal (it’s a huge deal, I don’t know why anyone would ever do that for me). It also makes it a hard offer to pass up, being a program manager is a huge deal and afterwards you are forever known for that job. It’s not a sure thing, even with the recommendation, but it is an amazing benefit.

In any case it makes deciding the future a little harder. A program manager job is anywhere from 4-6 years depending on how you do, that’s not an incredibly long time, but it would be a good way to make a name for myself right out of the gate assuming I could do it. The DARPA fellowship is two years, shorter, but still significant. Since one of the wants on my checklist of future stuff is to minimize moving the ARPA-H route has that going for it as well. Then again, I could just go the route I’m still working out through the hospital, but that’s hard to decide. There are a few things that are coming from the lab I work in that I’ve helped shape, stuff that — if it happens — will be hard to say no to sticking around for.

Ugh, so many choices. Now I’m missing the feeling of being stuck (not really).

2 responses

  1. My dad always used to complain that he didn’t like eating at Denny’s because there were too many things on the menu. I never understood that haha. But I guess I can see how too many choices could reduce satsifaction – it creates some fear of missing out, and some fear of your own freedom. If you’re a victim of circumstances then you can blame the circumstances, but if a choice doesn’t work out well, you’ll be tempted to blame yourself.

    I think all the options you’re getting are good options, though! So if you don’t pick the one that is 100% optimal and perfect – that’s not your fault and you should still do great. Getting in on something like ARPA-H early sounds wonderful actually. It might not just be a job, you might even get to exert some influence over how the program develops.

    I understand about the manager vs. hands-on researcher tradeoff. Sometimes I am tempted to feel jealous of somebody like Elon Musk – I wouldn’t want his personality haha, I just mean the “organizing and funding SpaceX” part. It feels like I might have the talent to accomplish something equally huge, and instead I’m plodding away designing one little piece of one satellite at a time, and nobody knows who I am. But then I think about the fact that what I’m really good at is engineering, and Elon is probably doing little if any of that himself. He’s just providing money and PR and some degree of direction, while the real work gets done by a bevy of other people. So maybe I’m not so badly allocated after all. Someday I might hope to get into a “technical lead” role, but being a PM (which in our company means schedule and budget and diplomacy with the customer) is probably not my forte.

    As always, good luck. I hope you find the right mental levers to pull so you can pick something and feel peace about your decision. If it gets too hard, at some point you might have to decide based on something that feels a little arbitrary, and ruthlessly cut options out for being just slightly wrong – like NASA telling people they can’t be astronauts for relatively minor health reasons, just because they have way too many high-quality applicants. Do whatever you have to do, and try not to worry too much!

    Liked by 1 person

    December 12, 2022 at 1:01 pm

    • Thank you! Yeah, too many choices. ARPA-H is definitely on the maybe list, but so is a lot of other things. I’m probably going to have to start cutting things like you suggested since I’m (maybe) at the point where I’ll have to choose.

      I’m still trying to pin down my exact graduation date though, I’m hoping today will bring answers, but who knows. I have a meeting with school-PI today to discuss everything, so we’ll see how it goes. I’m a little anxious to find out what he thinks. Based on previous talks, he things end of summer, but I still want to try for end of spring or I would have a winter graduation, which isn’t bad, but it feels like a whole other year at that point! Not that I wouldn’t officially have my degree before then, I just wouldn’t walk until the end of next year. Anyway, that’s now the worry at the moment, haha.

      Liked by 1 person

      December 16, 2022 at 11:51 am

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