The Dark Side Was Strong in Me

Once in a communication skills training I learned: For each of us there is a topic / a question / a phrase that will turn us raging mad or leave us in despair, or both. The point the trainer wanted to make, of course, was to use your combatant’s topics to your advantage.

There are mild variants: Topics you cannot read about without feeling this urge to comment on. This happened to me recently when reading some excellent blog posts on academia – and leaving thereof:
7 Myths About Academic Employment*), The Cult of Academia*) and A Nerdy Break-Up: Leaving the Academic Life. (*)Offline as per 2019

These blog posts refer to the humanities, but according to my anecdotal evidence the situation is not that different in physics. The Career Guidance section of is highly recommended reading for physics graduates.

I would like to share my experiences – biased and anecdotal (please imagine your favorite disclaimer inserted here) – in dealing with my need-to-comment-and-make-me-cringe-question.

It’s a small-talk question, innocent and harmless. I have worked in the IT sector for about 15 years, about 10 years specialized in a very specific niche in IT security.

In the coffee-break during the workshop or when indulging in the late night pizza after 14 hours in the datacenter … you start talking about random stuff, including education and hobbies. And then you are asked:

But why is a *physicist* working in  *IT security*?

Emphasis may be put on physicist (Flattering: Somebody so smart) or on IT security (Derogatory: Something so mundane). The profession of a physicist might be associated primarily with Stephen-Hawking-type theoretical research. In this case the hidden aside is: Why did you leave the ivory tower for heaven’s sake? Or simply put:

Young Jedi, why Did You – The Chosen One – Succumb to the Dark Side of the Force?

I have probably given different and inconsistent answers, depending on details as the concentration of caffeine or if the client was an MBA or a former scientist.

This iconic computer virus was pictured on my very first small business website in 1997, showing off my expertise in IT security. Image credits mine.

This is the first set of arguments was as follows – the first line of defense so to speak:

Studying physics does typically not qualify and prepare for a specific job – unless you remain in academia. (Of course this triggers or reinforces the question: Why did you leave? Bear with me!) So physics in this sense might resemble humanities. There is broad range of areas physicists end up with and which that overlap with engineering (electrical, mechanical) or computer science. But there are more and more interdisciplinary fields emerging like biophysics, quantum computing etc.  that require the infamous analytical problem solving skills of the physicist. Thus it is not that strange that a physicist ends up as an ‘engineer in applied cryptography’.

Cryptography is based on mathematics (number theory in particular). If you want to understand why an algorithm is secure you need to understand the math behind. In contrast to a mathematician, a physicist might bring additional practical skills to the table, e.g. skills concerned with thin films and electronics.

Corporate IT systems are comprised of lots of interfaces between systems (hardware / software) provided by different vendors. They are complex systems. Although I do some software development, I am not a programmer – I am more like an experimental physicist exploring these interfaces in terms of black boxes and reverse engineering / educated guesses. This is in many cases easier than trying to find the particular developer that know about what is going on in detail. Having forced to find vacuum leaks in my apparatus some time ago had provided the best training for debugging and troubleshooting problems in IT systems.

When I design, envisage and build IT systems I am translating requirements into a formal structure – I am projecting a new picture of the infrastructure (based on certificate trust paths) on the existing network topology. This is very similar to the thinking that is applied when a physicist ‘explains’ / models the world.

The longer I worked in this area, the more I focus on technical ‘low-level’ stuff – especially on hardware-related things (smartcards, hardware security modules). It took me some time to get over advice from people that told me that every technician needs to become a manager some time. I had my share of company politics and management – but I returned to the world of technical details.  My first IT job was a real break: I went from analyzing the microstructure of materials to helping small and medium enterprises with their IT problems. But the longer I stayed ‘in IT’, the closer I got to physics again.

I am utilizing applied classical cryptography, based on computational security. One threat to these technologies are posed by quantum computing techniques. So I am interested in progress in these areas and in contrast to many physicists who have ‘gone into IT’ I have tried to keep my knowledge on theoretical physics alive. Actually, quantum computing and cryptography is fascinating because it is an interdisciplinary field connecting some of my former and current areas of expertise (laser physics, quantum statistics, IT security). I had actually had a chance to become a post-doc in that field – several years after having left academia, but finally I declined.

Second round.

The next questions might be tougher. Most difficult interviewers are persons who are aware of my academic track record.

  • Question from former colleagues: You had been the smartest of our class – I was shocked that you in particular left academia.
  • Advice by former professors: But you should know that the best people stay in academia! An answer is not expected, rather regrets.
  • People with no clue about physics and/or what I actually do ‘with computers’ ask: But for doing what you do now – you would not have needed to study physics!
  • People who think my job is about the same as configuring their home WLAN: But configuring computers networks, especially in Windows isn’t that self-explanatory and can’t that be done using some wizards… next-next-finish’? There is no need for a physics PhD here.
  • People in IT (like network admins) are sometimes quite impressed by my CV. In case I can I talk a bit on my personal history of jobs and change of jobs they ask : Yes… OK…so public key infrastructures were more interesting than quantum physics, really?!?

I feel that in 99 of 100 discussions I failed to come up with a balanced, well-crafted reply quickly quickly. Probably it is because this topic is important for me – it is about my personal and professional identity. I am not good at elevator-pitch-type replies in general – I am rather a waffling story-teller (which is proved by this post again).

But if the coffee break or pizza dinner lasts long enough I might get to the following:

Trying to Combine Just Anything

I always had been interested in many areas. In high school it was not all clear that I would become a natural scientist or technical expert. I had also been strongly interested in literature and philosophy. Though calling myself a nerd today I was not at all the math-physics-computers-only type.

My goal had always been to find an area of expertise and a way of working that allows me to combine all those interests.

I Am a Slacker

I admit that I was probably too lazy in the sense I did not follow the advice / command of working all weekends.

I had endless discussions about the significance of the ratio of output and time (my theory on the economics of academic work or work in general) versus the absolute number of working hours (the alleged goal). I was finally defeated by: Yes, but just because the results you achieve in minimum time are so great you could achieve so much more if you would work more!

If you think this sounds a bit like Pointy Haired Boss and Dilbert you got the message.

What versus How

It took me years to find out that the way of working might be even more important to me than the subject as such. It is not only about an interesting subject (‘Doing nice physics’ as we used to say in the lab) but also about the personal freedom to decide on a specialization. I did not feel that I have this kind of freedom in academia, but it seemed very difficult to me to ever leave the niche of expertise again that you had carved out before  – and filled with a respectable number of publications.

Thus the very pragmatic conclusion in hindsight was: Rather specialize in an area of expertise that give me, say, 85% personal satisfaction in terms of penchant for *the subject*, but 100% score in terms of this is *how I wanted to want*. So I  enjoy reading papers and text books on theoretical physics (like quantum field theory) in my spare time. But  I selected another field I made a living of – a field that allows for the greatest control on my valuable time.  Nobody should control what and when and where I am exactly working – as long as I deliver the results promised. And it is solely me who commits to results – there is no manager who motivates to deliver more billable hours and there is no funding agency who expects a progress report every three months.

If There Is Risk I Want Freedom, too.

So I sacrificed so-called job security for personal freedom and risk which did work out great in the commercial world so far. Back in academia I was not willing to spend years as a travelling and underpaid postdoc. This may sound as a contradiction. But if I need to take a risk, I also want to take all the decisions. Being a temporarily employed postdoc seems to me combining the disadvantages of being an employee – following supervisor’s or agency’s guidelines for grants – and being self-employed, lacking security. I felt the same about working in long-term full-time projects as an IT consultant which is the normal thing to do as a so-called specialist. I was only working in short-term, special engagements I had picked carefully.

I Don’t Want to Beg for Taxpayer’s Money

I did not want to apply for postdoc positions and write applications for project grants. I hated writing those applications – it made me feel like a submissive petitioner. I think I already felt like an entrepreneur back then though at time I did not have a clue about working self-employed. I strongly wanted to be paid for something that somebody else really wanted *right now*. As a logical consequence I state: I rather prefer so-called mundane work that is in demand over fundamental research whose value to the society is debatable.

This does not mean that all fundamental research is of no value to society and I do not want to discourage anybody else from doing it (but I do not want to water down this lengthy post with all kinds of disclaimers). Actually, I had always considered myself to be the I-rather-do-fundamental-research-than-applications-type. I am still interested in it and as a ‘consumer’ I am perfectly fine with public funding of arcane fields of physics. I just do not want to be the one whose existence depends on that funding, and I needed to give it a try to come to that conclusion.

Pride before the Fall?

As a highly trained specialist  (I thought) it was just not acceptable for me that the first job as a freshly minted PhD would not provide some improvement in terms of both income and job security. Yes, I was probably too proud. More than 15 years after completing the PhD I can safely say that this was the right decision. I was able to select between different options I had and I judged and mitigated risks realistically.

I Do Not Want to Be Part of Any Collective

It took me some time to learn that I am not willing to work as a part of big system built on strict rules – be it academia or a big corporation. I learned to play, obey and fulfill the rules too well.

I slightly preferred the world of corporations because they are at least honest about (financial) goals. What made me sick in academia were the proposed goals of pure science, research for the good of the world and trying to understand the secrets of the universe etc. If it was about just popping out papers with your name as much as possible to the left of the list of authors than I would have felt better if somebody said so. However, today’s corporate world is undergoing an interesting twist – companies become green, social and whatnot. This is putting me off for the same reasons.

The Journey Does Not End Here

So what I actually wanted and needed was to create or invent my own environment of working, my own framework, my own rules. Fulfilling the not unimportant boundary condition that I want / need to earn money. It was an important step for me to work as a self-employed IT security consultant.

I  admit I also needed to proof to myself I can make it and achieve some metrics set by myself. However, ‘having been there and done that’ priorities have shifted again and I have decided to make yet another leap-of-faith-y change this year.

This Is My Journey and Nobody Else’s

Quoting (paraphrasing) from The Monk and The Riddle: The Art of Creating a Life While Making a Living. So I am fully aware of the fact and I accept, acknowledge, appreciate differences between all of our journeys. This is my story and not a piece of advice to physics graduates, scientists, employees of corporations or whomever I might have seemed to address in particular. I am mainly addressing myself, I guess. But amazing as it may seem it took me quite a while to fully embrace simple, basic lessons such as:

  • If you are good at something, this does not mean you have to do that forever. Do not get carried away by all this talk about ‘your potential’
  • If there are other people doing the same but having more fun at doing it, you should consider a change. Work needn’t be fulfillment of duty and/or challenge all the time.


Sort of the next episode here.

8 Comments Add yours

  1. M. Hatzel says:

    I relate to this in so many, but different, ways. I spent 10 years getting my undergrad degree, mostly due to financial restrictions. By the time I was finished the faculty who had known me for so long insisted I pursue graduate work, and kept telling me I was already performing at Ph.D. levels… the next theoretical superstar, blah, blah, blah (but my strengths weren’t to follow prescribed paths and traditional disciplines; I combined, overlapped, and set things together in strange ways to discover what you can’t when you’re committed to a particular political view… why give that up to stew in frustration for the rest of my career? I would never have achieved the potential they thought I had, because I didn’t work the way everyone else did… here in Canada the interdisciplinary dream is dying, because funding is being cut from all directions and not even traditional departments are feeling safe these days).

    While I was studying, I also spent 5 years working for the faculty collective bargaining unit at my university, part-time, and had the inside view of academic life, politics, and the illusion of academic freedom. Thus, I did know what to expect, and was fully aware of the ivory tower rat race. I LOVED the learning, the exploring, and would do more study in an instant, but I couldn’t work in it and be happy.

    I spent quite a few years uncertain of what I really wanted to do, knowing options were limited with only a BA, so I focused on raising a family and in work I always ended up under-challenged and over-qualified. I completely agree with your last points, that just because we’re good at something doesn’t mean we have to do it… and there must be an equation out there that connects joy and energy, as work without pleasure soon drains us.

    I had read some of your older posts before I began following your blog, but it has been nice to spend this evening reading more of them.

    1. elkement says:

      Thanks – again! – Michelle, for taking the time and reading and commenting on such an ‘old’ post!
      It seems there are many people out there with similar experiences related to academia, but in contrast to the time I graduated their voices can be heard today on the net. These are called the the ‘alt-ac’ and ‘post-ac’ movements – I learned a lot of stuff like this from Dan Mullin, who runs The Unemployed Philosopher’s Blog I linked at the top of the post.
      I like this statement of yours – sums it up perfectly: “I LOVED the learning, the exploring, and would do more study in an instant, but I couldn’t work in it and be happy.”

  2. Milwaukee says:

    I really enjoy your thoughts. Thx! I work in corporate IT security too. It’s not my passion, but it solves economic problems for me & my kids.
    I’m fascinated by the search for freedom, for uniqueness. Lots of biographies for me, lots of research on 14th century zen monks, 18th century philosophers, 19th century composers, 20th century novelists. The goal is ephemeral; it won’t fill you with happiness. The journey is the reward. How do i come to this conclusion? Many artists who reach their peak die soon after from violent suicide or slow addictions. There is no peak, there is no there there.

    I’ll limit my comments to the many, many thoughts you raise.
    You said
    “Question from former colleagues: You had been the smartest of our class – I was shocked that you in particular left academia.”
    This implies that their right an you’re wrong. Did they ask “So, what reasons led you to this choice?” Because if you were the smartest, maybe you saw something they missed.

    Advice by former professors: But you should know that the best people stay in academia! Really? Let’s define ‘best’. Do the current ‘best’ people always follow the path that the previous ‘best’ people chose? Isn’t that a non-thinking response?

    Personally, i feel if you are able to self-sustain financially, don’t have to engage in situations you find humiliating, and feel emotionally alive, then go for it. The massive break-throughs of the past are forgotten after a few decades except for the priests of that speciality. And the irony is that the priests only know they break-throughs of their specialty. Do they know the creative innovations of other specialties like poetry, architecture, politics, psychiatry or the many other wonderful intellectual goldmines that have aided humanity?

    1. elkement says:

      thanks for your reply! It is always good to know that somebody with similar experiences can relate to what I wrote.
      Actually, IT security even was my passion – for a while, as was my academic research before. But it took me a long time to learn that it is perfectly fine to switch fields of expertise, to ‘switch passions’. Looking back, I would not change a thing, but I would simply worry less.
      I fully agree to this – very well put: ‘if you are able to self-sustain financially, don’t have to engage in situations you find humiliating, and feel emotionally alive, then go for it’. And I believe we should use our alleged ‘smartness’ to obtain this goal, no matter how prestigious or not this may seem to others.

  3. bert0001 says:

    … and what about the most honest answer: ‘I like doing what I do … ‘

    1. elkement says:

      Or: I want to do what I really like ;-)

  4. Certainly sounds like a journey and a half. Looking forward to reading about your leap if faith.

    1. elkement says:

      I will raise the curtain ;-) slowly although I tend to tell stories in retrospect. But probably I should take another leap of faith here and start telling an open-ended story! I enjoy the ride so far.

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