“Being Creative with What Is Available”

This is a quote from Simon Dale’s website who has built several eco-friendly ‘Hobbit’ houses. It reminded me of the cave house built into lava bubbles by Lanzarote’s most famous artist César Manrique:

Lava bubble room, César Manrique foundation.

This is very a truly 1970s living room – a ‘The Flintstones’ experience on many levels. (Image: mine)

Being creative with what is available has an appeal beyond economical necessities.

As a teenage hobby astronomer I built a mounting for my small telescope from pieces of wood and metal I found at home. It allowed for rotation about two axes. (I don’t have an image which is probably good.)

As a scientist at the university your labor is cheap but professional equipment is much too expensive. So you have to tinker. My experimental apparatus included a toy motor moving an optical lens, and a water-cooled projector’s bulb was the radiative heater mounted inside my vacuum chamber.

We investigated the growth of superconducting thin films deposited from a vapor ‘plume’ caused by shooting very short UV laser pulses onto a ceramic sample. There was no fancy high-speed device: We took photos of that plume using a normal camera and called it Time-Integrated Photography in scholarly lingo. We found some interesting scaling laws though.

PLD Plume

I am too lazy to scan an old photo of our own plasma plumes. But Wikimedia has it all – this looks exactly as ours did! Oh, the paper authored by The Chief Engineer and myself is worthy $40 today. (Image by Wikimedia user: H. Perowne).

Maybe the desire to build something from anything and to use whatever tool is at hand is the true connection between my diverse activities.

Most IT infrastructures are historically grown and you hardly ever find that green field people would like to install their solutions in. If you don’t like bottom-up tinkering it is just a source of endless frustration. Otherwise it is a noble Apollo-13-like challenge.

The same goes for tinkering with an old house. In the moment we are puzzling about an underground tank powered heat pump system for a house that will be built on top of a high-rise bunker.

Bochum - Baarestraße - Bunker 01 ies

A typical German high-rise bunker, in this case somewhat prettified. Normally they are just bleak grey boxes. (by Wikimedia user Frank Vincentz)

This is not uncommon in some German cities  where unused building land is scarce and thus expensive. Here is an example of a musician’s studio built on top of a bunker in Frankfurt:

… a World War II bunker in Frankfurt that had been previously disguised as a house because it was too expensive to demolish. In a crappy part of town, “a no man’s land between heaps of gravel and dumps, piled-up recycling-products and containers that await their shipping”, the architects decided to rise above it all …

I believe in true innovation driven by necessities and constraints (only). Nassim Taleb’s derision of Soviet-Harvard-style planned ‘research’ struck a chord with me. He challenged the alleged causation usually invoked by politicians and people working in taxpayer-funded committees that ‘steer’ and ‘manage’ innovation at three meta-levels above the ground of honest hands-on work: It is plausible that bottom-up tinkerers trigger innovation which in turn allows countries for building prestigious universities and think-tanks; not the other way around.

Having finished my PhD I saw a report on TV about a mechanic – a craftsman without a degree who was introduced as an inventor. I forgot what the invention actually was but I do remember his apparatus very much reminded me of the vacuum chamber I had worked with – when doing Time-Integrated Photography. I figured: Wow, he calls ‘tinkering’ what we would have written academic papers about! Fast-forward 20 years, I read conference papers on heat pumps and think: Wow, they call research what we call tinkering!

Exit the scientist and enter my subversive, poetic subconsciousness. They are perhaps not that different.

Isn’t this question – What is research? – remotely related to What is art? Or am I just too fond of satirical submissions to academic journals – both art- and science-related ones? It is maybe not an accident that an artist’s cave house came to my mind.

I have called our solar collector Art from Plastic and Wood tongue-in-cheek, here shown in behind another object awaiting further art-ification:

Organic space probe

An organic space probe, sending signals from a distant, ecologically minded, civilization.

Search Term Poetry and Spam Poetry are just another way of tinkering with something at hand. I was recently baffled by academic articles on so-called Flarf Poetry – so there are at least some experts for whom my so-called art would qualify as such. Don’t worry – I don’t insist of this. But I do wonder if ‘serious’ art is always driven by some sort of necessity, too.

By the way, right when I had the linked post on flarf poetry in the making I was invited to contribute some – to a real serious (?) art project. And so I did – consider this a cliffhanger.

On Learning

Some years ago I was busy with projects that required a lot of travelling but I also needed to stay up-to-date with latest product features and technologies. When a new operating system was released a colleague asked how I could do that – without having time for attending trainings. Without giving that too much thought, and having my personal test lab in mind, I replied:

I think I always try to solve some problem!

tl;dr – you can skip the rest as this has summed it all up.

About one year ago I ‘promised’ to write about education, based on my experiences as a student and as a lecturer or trainer. I haven’t done so far – as I am not sure if my simplistic theory can be generalized.

There are two very different modes of learning that I enjoy and consider effective:

  1. Trying to solve some arbitrary problem that matters to me (or a client) and starting to explore the space of knowledge from that angle.
  2. Indulging in so-called theory seemingly total unrelated to any practical problem to be solved.

My post about the positive effects of reading theoretical physics textbooks in the morning was written in the spirit of mode 2. The same goes for cryptography.

I neither need advanced theoretical physics when doing calculations for heat pump systems, nor do I need the underlying math and computer science when tweaking digital certificates. When I close the theory books, I am in mode 1.

In the last weeks that mode 1 made me follow a rather steep learning curve with respect to database servers and SQL scripts. I am sure I have made any possible stupid mistake when exploring all the options. I successfully killed performance by too much nested sub-queries and it took me some time to recognize that the referral to the row before is not as straight-forward as in a spreadsheet program. One could argue that a class on database programming might have been more effective here, and I cannot prove otherwise. But most important for me was: I finally achieved what I wanted and it was pure joy all the way. I am a happy dilettante perhaps.

I might read a theoretical book on data structures and algorithms someday and let it merge with my DIY tinkering experience in my subconsciousness – as this how I think those two modes work together.

As for class-room learning and training, or generally learning with or from others, I like those ways best that cater to my two modes:

I believe that highly theoretical subjects are suited best for traditional class-room settings. You cannot google the foundations of some discipline as such foundations are not a collection of facts (each of them to be googled) but a network of interweaving concepts – you have to work with some textbook or learn from somebody who lays out that network before you in a way that allows for grasping the structure – the big picture and the details. This type of initial training also prepares you for future theoretical self-study. I still praise lectures in theoretical physics and math I attended 25 years ago to the skies.

And then there is the lecturer speaking to mode 2: The seasoned expert who talks ‘notes from the field’. The most enjoyable lecture in my degree completed last year was a geothermal energy class – given by a university professor who was also the owner of an engineering consultancy doing such projects. He introduced the theory in passing but he talked about the pitfalls that you would not expect from learning about best practices and standards.

I look back on my formal education(s) with delight as most of the lectures, labs, or projects were appealing to either mode 1 or mode 2. In contrast to most colleagues I loved the math-y theory. In projects on the other hand I had ample freedom to play with stuff – devices, software, technology – and to hone practical skills, fortunately without much supervision. In retrospect, the universities’ most important role with respect to the latter was to provide the infrastructure. By infrastructure I mean expensive equipment – such as the pulsed UV lasers I once played with, or contacts to external ‘clients’ that you would not have had a chance to get in touch otherwise. Two years ago I did the simulations part of a students’ group project, which was ‘ordered’ by the operator of a wind farm. I brought the programming skills to the table – as this was not an IT degree program –  but I was able to apply them to a new context and learn about the details of wind power.

In IT security I have always enjoyed the informal exchange of stories from the trenches with other experienced professionals – this includes participation in related forums. Besides it fosters the community spirit, and there is no need to do content-less ‘networking’ of any other sort. I have just a few days of formal education in IT.

Your mileage may vary. I applied my preferences to my teaching, that is: explaining theory in – probably too much – depth and then jumping onto any odd question asked by somebody and trying something out immediately. I was literally oscillating between the flipchart and the computer with my virtual machines – I had been compared to a particle in quantum mechanics whose exact location is unknown because of that. I am hardly able to keep to my own agenda even if I had been given any freedom whatsoever to design a lecture or training and to write every slide from scratch. And I look back in horror on delivering trainings (as an employed consultant) based on standardized slides not to be changed. I think I was not the best teacher for students and clients who expected well organized trainings – but I know that experts enjoyed our jam sessions formerly called workshops.

When I embarked on another degree program myself three years ago, I stopped doing any formal teaching myself – before I had given a lecture on Public Key Infrastructure for some years, in a master’s degree program in IT security. Having completed my degree in renewable energy last year I figured that I was done now with any formal learning. So far, I feel that I don’t miss out on anything, and I stay away from related job offerings – even if ‘prestigious’.

In summary, I believe in a combination of pure, hard theory, not to be watered down, and not necessarily to be made more playful – combined with learning most intuitively and in an unguided fashion from other masters of the field and from your own experiments. This is playful no matter how often you bang your head against the wall when trying to solve a puzzle.

Physics book from 1895

A physics book written in 1895, a farewell present by former colleagues in IT – one the greatest gifts I ever got. My subconsciousness demands this is the best way to illustrate this post. I have written a German post about this book which will most likely never be translated as the essence of this post are quotes showing the peculiar use of the German language which strikes the modern reader quite odd.

Stargate: Succumb to the Power of the Ritual

Thanks for your prayers, voodoo magic, encouraging tweets or other tweaking the fabric of our multiverse:

Yesterday I have passed my final exams and defence – I did very well, and I am a Master of Science in Sustainable Energy Systems now. As the sensationalist title indicates I tried to play it cool but finally was nervous as you simply have to be nervous. Exams like this are setup as rituals and you should take the chance and feel the illusion of passing through a wormhole.

Edit: The title of my thesis was Security Architectures of Smart Metering Solutions. I add this based on a question in a comment as I had forgotten to mention it. So the following statement has been proven correct.

I am too exhausted to write anything coherent so I will provide you with some random factoids and opinions:

Rumors. People had speculated on G+ if my degree is in physics or ‘some sort of rocket science’. Unfortunately not – just down-to-earth engineering peppered with law and politics. I graduated in physics a long time ago.

Vanity. Many Austrian technical or science programmes continue to issue the traditional title of Diplomingenieur instead of Master of Science. I assume the rationale is to distinguish technical degrees from so-called post-graduate MSc degrees which don’t require you to hold a bachelor’s degree (similar to MBA degrees). DI has ever been a shortcut for ‘this person passed something hard and quantitative’. I am biased enough – I happily agree with this practice. So in all its glory my set of titles reads now:
Dipl.-Ing. Dipl.-Ing. Dr.

(Did I tell you that this is going to be a rather self-serving post?)

Random Reference to this Blog’s Title: Preparing for exams and defense I got as close as possible to combining anything: I really enjoyed reading old physics text books and popular science books on foundations of physics in parallel to engineering text books and legal texts.

(Did I mention I hate anything close to ‘teach to the test’, standard questions, minimizing learning efforts, centralized quality management of education and the like?)

Fluffy Ideals. I strongly believe in the vision and the necessity of combining a well-rounded education with learning down-to-earth skills while keeping your curiosity and at the same time meeting formal requirements and having to prove yourself.

Self-Made. Contradicting myself – blame it on residual adrenalin! – I am also an advocate of learning-on-the-job, being not at all impressed by degrees and judging others based on demonstrated skills. After all, I have worked successfully in IT without having acquired any formal qualification. I don’t count vendor-specific multiple-choice based certifications – yet I still think that people who make fun about those exams should take the tests themselves in passing if they believe it’s so easy.

Education. Probably ‘education’ will become a future pet topic of mine on this blog – I have been a life-long learner, very often in a formal academic setting, and I have been some sort of (part-time, moonlighting) teacher since nearly 25 years: starting as a tutor as a physics master student, teaching all kinds of physics lectures and hands-on labs as a graduate student, then working as a trainer in IT for very diverse audiences – from unemployed people with no technical background to international IT experts in a very specific field –  until I gave an IT security lecture at a university until 2011. Despite my horror of participating in anything resembling an association or a committee I even served on boards concerned with curriculum design and strategy for two times. I should have to say something about education. But for now I have decided that I am more than happy to being neither a student nor a teacher in any organized settings – no classrooms, no agendas, no exams!

Freedom. I am grateful for the freedom I had in picking the subject of the master thesis: I wrote about smart metering and security (thus deliberately not picking anything directly related to the heat pump stuff I was working on). I think I have now – once for all – reconciled all my ambitions in IT, physics and engineering.

Subversion. Officially I am not allowed to use the new title until the graduation ceremony. So probably this post contains illegal content. But after picturing myself as such as conformist collector of degrees I need to throw in something subversive.

More Rituals and More Subversion. The graduation ceremony and related culture might deserve a post in its own right. You (American readers) might be surprised to hear that students here had not worn academic gowns until recently. We re-imported that tradition from the US as young people enjoy graduation ceremonies in US movies – as those students are unaware of the history of the European student riots in 1968 that have eradicated academic icons and symbols. In Germany there even weren’t any ceremonies at all. Currently I think I will not wear that fancy costume as I don’t open the door on Halloween either.

Pendulum 90 degree

A pendulum swinging 90 degrees to the left and right. Sorry, this is the most unconventional image related to ‘degree’ I can come up with now. My subconsciousness might have selected it as I will return to more no-nonsense physics and science posts.

Edit: Oh wow – this was the 100th post on this blog. I haven’t noticed that before! There is something like true coincidence!

Edit 2: I did not mention what my thesis was about – thanks Dave for asking. The title was: Security architectures of smart metering solutions.

Do I Have an Opinion on Education at Large and on MOOCs in Particular?

Something education-related seems to have hit the blogosphere – many blogs I follow cover online-courses, teaching and education yesterday.

My feelings are mixed.

Important note: Though this was intended as a balanced review. But it ended up as one of my usual posts attributed to this genre I have no name for. I could invalidate most of my own arguments – however, I don’t want this post to become even lengthier.

WP Space Ship Control Panel

Alien alert. If you are not prepared for that, don’t continue reading.

I am a dinosaur. I finished my MSc in physics at a time when the concept  of a bachelor’s degree was unheard of in my country. I admit that I did not get even over the fact that reasonable technical degree programs have been cut into 3+2 years to comply with the so-called Bologna process.

I should have an opinion on education.

I have given lectures, labs and problem solving courses at the university in a former life – mainly on superconductivity and laser physics. I have designed vocational trainings for aspiring IT engineers as well as train-the-experts no-nonsense hardcore workshops on Public Key Infrastructure.

Most recently I had given an academic lecture on PKI for five years – including an “asynchronous online learning part”, and currently I am also a part-time student again myself in a (down-to-earth) renewable energies program.

In my online course – which was not massive – I have handed out virtual machine computer puzzles to students and required them to solve those within several months – supported by scheduled online discussions. Every year people badly need the looming deadline to get working two weeks before due date.

Corporate professionals who are students at the same time demand rules and deadlines to be imposed on them – in the same way as it happens in The Corporate Borg Sphere. I can relate – too much. As usual, I am also part of the target audience of this post.

Unless non-interactive lectures are MOOCs my own MOOC student experience is limited to a programming course – company internal, but rather massive though – I took before MOOC was an acronym. So I am not qualified to write this post; I just cannot resist.

Ironically the field of expertise I had been most “renowned” so far was one I had zero formal education in. I learned from the IT hacker community to judge people only on skills they demonstrate right in front of me. Hackers detest bragging with degrees or  – worse – certificates issued by market leading technology providers, based on multiple choice tests. One of the main decoders of Stuxnet, the worm that aimed at damaging the nuclear facilities in Iran, is a psychologist by education.

I dare say that real hackers are 100% self-educated – no matter if they put some formal education on top of that later. The latter is a hidden mega-trend in my opinion: More often than not I saw experienced professionals going for a degree – in a program they knew more about than the teachers – just because they wanted that piece of paper giving proof of what they already knew.

I see strange contradicting trends in education and I don’t think that Massive Open Online Courses are a disruptive new way of education per se.

They are a symptom of changes in educational systems or society at large – of which I am not sure if I like them all.

As I said I am still baffled by the Bologna standardization process and associated splitting up of study programs. It is like neat little boxes that can be attached to each other in a compatible way – called “modularization”.
The upside: Cross-country recognition has been facilitated finally and you are more flexible to craft your own degree program.
The downside(s): The bar has been lowered in order to provide more cross-discipline / cross-programme permeability. The latter is a noble goal of course, in order to solve the complicated interdisciplinary blah blah issues that an interconnected global blah blah society faces.

I have the perfect backup material for all readers who prefer to hear opinionated rants rather by somebody with substantial experience in education – unfortunately it is in German. Austrian philosophy professor Konrad Paul Liessmann has written a book called Theorie der Unbildung – Irrtümer der Wissensgesellschaft which roughly translates to Theory of Non-Education – Misapprehensions of the Knowledge Society. Actually Unbildung is illiterateness, but it is meant in a sarcastic sense – so I believe non-education is a better term.

Liessmann calls it a polemic himself. He rants in a most entertaining way – appealing to anybody who appreciates Dilbert cartoon humor – on:

  • Sociology dropouts turned management consultants who give seasoned university professors patronizing advice on didactic concepts.
  • Management consulting mantras flooding academia, backed by their infamous management and controlling software and the involved gamification … sorry… enforcement of metrics, benchmarks and other silly rules.
  • The mantra of playful learning based on interactive media. Unfortunately you won’t be able to get rid of the need of the efforts of thinking hard. I am at a loss for translating his brilliant and subtle sarcasm in the way he oppose the naive mantra of anything being fun and play opposed to plain hard work.
  • Standardized, quality controlled exams that fosters Teach to the Test mentality. In my most recent encounters as a student and a teacher I have been stunned by new levels of optimization of the credentials collecting process – illustrated by collective group work on the pre-defined catalogue of potential examination questions, or asking The Most Important Question in the first lecture which is How many XY do I need to submit (present, solve…) in order to [paraphrasing] barely scrape by with PASSED [/paraphrasing].

This is my summary of the most conflicting trends I conclude from my anecdotal experiences:

1) Free information for a networked society:

Endless valuable information is available for eager learners – if you know how to google and how to tell pseudo-science and marketing from the real stuff: Scientific publications, lecture notes and text books. I am not sure if we need all that re-packaged and sold as “courses”.

An economist might reply: If there is a market(*) for that – why not? And don’t that material exist only because of the universities’ outreach progams – initiated by management consultants who were criticized by professors?

Do we need coaches who help us to navigate through the vast universe of knowledge? (Not a rhetorical question).

2) Gamification and edu-/info-tainment garnished with corporate-style deadlines for a society built on the mantra of the ever reducing attention span:
We as a learning society seem to need: infographics, videos, blended learning, Facebook-like discussion groups. As odd as it seems we – the free people of earth – rely on triggers, pop-up messages and arcane rules designed by others more than ever. And in contrast to cyberpunk stories – we are aware of it and we like. (“We” does not exclude “me”.)

I am intrigued by this ambiguity – as I feel free information on the net and corporate strangeness / gamification have common roots. These roots seem to be tied to technology.

Falla Tetris

Computer games go real live.

Nicholas Carr who analyzed our relationship with reading in his book The Shallows: What the Internet is Doing to Our Brains: We have gained the ability to skim, scroll and evaluate content fast, but we lose the ability to read linear, long-winded text. Research has shown that students allowed to click on videos and other material related to a specific article remembered less than students who had to focus on the text only.

As I said, I am subject to that as well. I have turned from a voraciously reading teenager – capable of immersing in long-winded wooden existential philosophical prose – to a constantly distracted channel hopper.

I have been conditioned by multi-tasking to the extreme, always in firefighting mode, with several pop-up windows of the corporate equivalent of social media fighting for a small time-slots of undivided attention. I have learned to learn on-the-fly and on-the-job for years until I decided I wanted to reconnect with the old silent learning experience.

Thus I started re-reading and re-learning physics nearly 10 years ago – for the pure enjoyment of escaping multi-tasking hell. It was fun but it was hard at the same time. It took me to overcome an activation barrier to get “into” the linear, gradual absorption of knowledge again.

I am a strong advocate of learning alone – the very old-school concept of the problem-solving strategy attributed to Richard Feynman (by Murray Gell-Mann): Write down the problem – think hard – write down the solution. I would like to add: Bang your lonely head against the wall in despair until your brain grows some new synaptic connections. I could never get the concept of “learning in a group”. Probably I have now finally revealed that I am a sociophobe introvert, but anyway: This should make me a MOOC advocate, shouldn’t it?

I have watched a lot of physics lectures online, I enjoyed in particular David Tong’s QFT lectures – awesome blackboard & chalk style, no Powerpoint. But I enjoyed it because there were lecture notes as well. After watching some videos I started reading the notes in advance. I had always felt the most awesome physics video lectures were those that gave me a fresh perspective on something I had learned the old school way before – by solving lots of mind-numbing problems.

If this (non-interactive) lecture counts as a MOOC – I am a big fan. However, I am a dinosaur travelled to the future – I am not the one to judge on how well a MOOC-only learning environment would act on a digital native’s brain.

On writing this post I was struggling with my desire to let all those weird thoughts running wild – associations between cyber economy and cyber learning. I failed to establish any balanced angle.

In summary I feel uncomfortable about turning the process of learning into something that is built on instant gratification, game-style motivation resembling the tools we are tortured with the corporate world, social-media-style interactions, packaging and standardization of microscopic units of knowledge, and gradually replacing linear text by visual aids.

But there is more substantial criticism I can also relate with:

The market might be dysfunctional. For well-paid professionals the pay for teaching courses in a moonlighting fashion payment does not matter – you would do it for free because pay is low anyway compared to your usual rates (I speak from experience, and this holds for online and traditional courses). So you might lose money already by having to postpone more lucrative assignments because of teaching –  you do it due to idealism and/or ego.

Quote from this post: In other words, while a few already well-paid superprofessors get their egos stroked conducting experiments that are doomed to fail, “second- and third-tier universities and colleges, and community colleges” risk closing because Coursera and its ilk have sent higher education price expectations through the floor and systematically devalued everybody else’s work.

Philosophy Degrees are Undervalued

This is a vain and self-servicing reblog. I really like the figures in this post (as a physicist).

Edit (2017): It seems that unfortunately the original, reblogged post is not available any more. It featured a diagram that visualized the results of GRE tests: Verbal and quantitative skills of graduates – as discussed also e.g. here (also showing the diagrams, for 2010) and here (diagrams lost, but links to original PDFs with data) and reviewed critically here.  The diagrams looked very flattering for philosophy and physics majors ;-) Dan had written a thoughtful analysis which – if I recall correctly – also included arguments used in the critical review, like the self-selecting nature of degrees versus the alleged training you receive.

As physics undergraduates we used to joke (black humor) about why in hell we are studying physics when the corporate world (the world as such?) is ruled by people in the lower left quadrant of the skill matrix. OK, we used stronger language than ‘people in the lower left quadrant’.
Now and then I stumble upon anecdotal, yet powerful, evidence that this is true. Sorry Dan for using your thoughtful post for a rant of a reblog, I might add a more balanced update someday though all the business administration degree holders who will unfollow now are not going to read it.

Recommended Listening: The Unemployed Philosopher’s Podcast

In 2012 I have shared some of my memories on career-related decisions and transitions I had made. With hindsight I can say I would not change a thing – but I would have wished that resources such as Dan Mullin’s Unemployed Philosopher’s Blog or Julie Clarenbach’s site Escape the Ivory Tower would have been available back then.

Comment from the future: Most links don’t work anymore and I don’t want to archive.org-avize so many links to a blog that the owner chose to “unpublish”. So do that yourself if you like :-)

Dan publishes podcasts on alternative jobs for academics regularly, mainly targeted to humanities graduates. However, I am always astonished by how well the advice and insights given by Dan’s guests would have applied to physics at the time I had graduated and would still apply – based on my anecdotal evidence from discussions on alternative careers in physics.

I like this Episode 6 in particular, as Julie discusses ‘career versus skills’ and the overarching but underestimated role of culture.
[Is ‘Episode’ alluding a bit to Star Trek? SCNR]

Above all, she encourages graduates not to be too modest and she tells you that some grieving and ‘panic’ is normal when you make a transition.

It’s simply good to know that a transition that might feel strange, alien and disturbing is very, very normal after all.

I would even extend the scope of this discussion and validity of advice to any major transition, that is associated with cultural changes – such as: leaving the global corporate world and turning to run a mainly local business, changing industry sectors, working self-employed after a longer period of employment or vice versa.

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 physicsforums.com 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 as pictured on my very first small business website in 1997, showing off my expertise in IT security. Credits mine, don’t steal.

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.