Justin Li


The Uncertain Future

2008-09-24

For the past few years, at least since I've entered college, I've always told myself that my dream job is to do research and teach at the university level. The exact topic of what I would research has changed over the years - such as strong artificial intelligence, or evolutionary computation - but for the most part it has remained within computer science. This summer though, when I started contemplating the coming year and the decisions I have to make, I started feeling a little less sure.

My first worry is whether I'm smart enough for a career in research. I know I'm smart in general (please... there's not point in arguing this :D), but I don't know if it's enough to be on the leading edge of human knowledge. I think there's also more to it than simply being smart; there is some creative genius involved, and I'm not sure I have it. I know I may very well be romanticizing about scientists, or else believe (or at least want) myself to be the next Newton or Darwin, and yet these fears lurk at the back of my mind.

The second thing is, even if I decide to go on with research, I'm not entirely sure what I want to do research in. Well, that's not entirely true. It's more the case that the topic I'm interested in is not strictly within computer science. There are certainly parts of it where computers play their part, but the idea is more abstract. One problem with such an idea is that I lack the additional background to complete grasp the other aspects of it. While I'm not that afraid of having things to learn, it does mean I can't exactly go to grad school in those areas.

Together with the above, I've increasingly come to view computers as a tool, and it seems silly to study the tool and not use it. The analogy I use is that studying computer science is like learning how to make a hammer, but not actually using the hammer to make anything.

All these things, I think, stem from my have really having been challenged before. Because I've always managed to take things in stride, when faced with the immense decision of deciding the rest of my life, I'm a little hesitant to act. In other words, I'm not ready to face the real world (given, of course, that if I do go into research I won't be facing the real real world...)

The alternative to research, for me, is teaching. Having done CTY this summer, and finding it to be everything I thought it would be and more, makes the decision a harder one to make. If I cannot make it as a professor (for reasons above), I would rather choose teaching than research. I don't, however, know what level I'll want to teach at. CTY was for middle school students, but I know for a fact that the students will be very different outside of CTY. In fact, I almost consider the kids at CTY to be high school level.

If I were a teacher, I would still tinker with computers. Nothing can change that. But if I do, I would like to know more, and therefore go into a bit of research... I'm a little torn over this.

In the end, I'll probably go with research for a university. It's not that it's hard, but that I don't know myself as well as I perhaps should.

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