Thursday, January 21, 2010

Focusing on the high order bits

I was flipping through some bookmarks just now and ran across Scott Aaronson's post on Umeshisms, a particular type of exhortation to think about important things and not about trivia. Now, I usually find it difficult, if not impossible, to keep my focus on the high order bits in life, including both the Important Science Questions bits and the Stop And Smell The Roses type of bits. This puts me into a bit of an existential quandary, as it seems to be particularly important for scientists (and scientific engineers) to think Big Important Thoughts and not get distracted by minutiae.

Partly, perhaps, this is because I'm still an undergrad and lack the context to ask the Big Important Questions. (I'm taking a seminar-type course next semester, which I hope will help. But really, at what academic age are you supposed to learn how to ask Big Questions?) Partly also, perhaps, I have been trained all my life to turn every assignment in on time, get every point, answer every question, take every note, and it's proving difficult for me to evolve into something other than a student. I've certainly come a long way since freshman year, but naturally I begin to recognize how very far I have to go. And, anyway, I've been this way all my life. Call me "conscientious" if you wish to be kind, and "neurotic" if you don't.

Today in lab, I was tired and made a conscious decision to stop working on Science and start working on chores like pouring petri plates and unpacking boxes of pipette tips. I'm unsure how much this was due to my being tired and having a mediocre-to-poor week in general, versus being due to my intrinsic inclination toward the more brainless side of technical work. My brain seems to be at its happiest when I'm doing mildly repetitive, not particularly demanding work that is nonetheless not entirely stupid and requires concentration. Despite how tired I became the other week when I was doing the growth curve, I actually really enjoyed it because by the fifth or sixth hour I had the whole process down to an entirely mechanical, meditative series of pipettings and platings. For a further example, in high school I made a lot of chainmaille (both armor and jewelry) -- and it doesn't get much more repetitive than concatenating hundreds or thousands of little metal rings.

For this reason, I'm thinking hard about where I actually want to end up when I graduate. Reportedly, there exist jobs where one is primarily a lab technician but can also do a small research project on the side, and I'm extremely tempted by such a job. But I feel like if I did that, I'd be wasting my education or something. What to think?


  1. Lots of people find technician work to be a good thing to do after undergrad. So why not?

  2. If you're doing something useful for others, and also getting to pursue research, that's kind of ideal. (Putting food on the table is a nice bonus, of course!)