May 3, 2013
By: Oded Ben David
This is part 2 of my story. If you missed part 1, go read it and get right back…
We pick up the story at the beginning of my 6 years PhD. The first four years were professionally bad. I have set out with clear notions as to what I would do and how I would do it, but from there on it all went south. Materials that were supposed to be easy to get turned out to take many months to get (since we were on a budget). Assumptions we had about the physical system and how it behaved crumbled in my hands. Technical issues crept up to bite us in places we didn’t expect. Technologies we thought would solve all our problems turned out to be oversold by the providers, and ended up near useless. I worked nights, I worked weekends, I sometimes slumped into inaction. But mostly I stubbornly pushed to keep trying. Another idea, another angle, another test, to get something working. The bottom line was we couldn’t get something worth publishing (let alone justify a PhD). And all the while I was making much less than I would have “outside”. My advisor is always fair and generous to his students, but the pay as a grad student is not as high as good Physics graduates with a MSc. can make. And half of it is a scholarship, that doesn’t give you social benefits. And I got married, and started on a family.
What kept me going through those difficult times? Mostly the people. My advisor, the lab team of students, and most importantly my friends, family and my then girlfriend and now wife. People having faith in me. being supportive, helping out where they could. My advisor kept paying me my scholarship, and always let me feel he has full trust in my abilities, that he believes in me and in what we are trying to do. And if you think that’s trivial, then you don’t know people, and you are not aware of the state the Israeli academy is in. I was fortunate. But it wasn’t blind luck. I told you already how and why I chose to stay with that team – it really was all about the people.
Then after four long years of hard work we started getting results that made some sense, were consistent, told a story. We had a break. And it was a good one. The results were interesting to the relevant community and we were able to publish them into one of the top two scientific journals. That fifth year turned out to be a great one. All the work finally payed out. I finally figured out what was the basic assumption we had that was wrong, and it was something so commonly accepted, literally textbook material, that disproving it was both controversial and potentially important. I guess you could say it was disruptive in it’s own little pond of a scientific field, if you are fond of such words. If you ever learnt any physics at all, at high-school or perhaps even before, there’s a good chance that you have learnt it too. Ask me about it if you want to know. Or Google up my research papers, I guess. We published two more papers in that year. One in the other top journal, and one in a top physics journal. I knew I had my PhD then. And that I didn’t fail my advisor, who invested in me both his time and mentorship as well as his research funds, which he works hard to get. Those papers, in their little way, contributed their part, along with the amazing works the rest of my advisor’s lab team published in the past several years, to help my advisor win one of the best research funds around, giving him the funding to finance the lab’s research over the course of five years.
Funny thing, though, the stuff we ended up publishing wasn’t really what my research proposal said I would do. Since the assumptions behind that proposal failed us, we had to change course as we went along. We were still in the same area, even used the same physical system, experimental system and even the same tools we have built for the original research, but we have used them in ways we didn’t think of beforehand, and to go to places we didn’t think of going into.
So why have I left this behind me, to go and start up a company? Other than jumping on the chance to work with my long-time friend and now partner? I wanted to create. And I wanted to create something that people use. To be able to see how my work helps people in their lives. I do believe that academic research on a whole has a wide an everlasting influence on people’s lives, but this is an abstract belief. I looked for a different kind of satisfaction – of building something from scratch, but something “normal” people could see, and experience. Right now, not in a decade or three. Another reason is that through my years of grad school I came to realize that the academic life is not that different, actually. You are always racing for results. The success rates are very low (success being securing a tenured professor position), and even then you need to always work hard to secure future funding. You have to do work that would get published and stay relevant, or the funding stops and the students disappear. It’s true that with tenure you could just do whatever you want and to hell with the world. But, the people that get through that race for a published results are usually not the kind of people that are happy to just sit idly around. They are driven, creative and are constantly looking to break new ground. It’s a personal character, not a situational need. Sounds familiar?
My time is up, and my word count is way too high and I respect your intelligence. So I won’t walk you through each and every analogy I see. Focus, pivot, funding, team, perseverance, MVP, testing, relocation, results driven, roller-coaster, low pay, long hours, family, failure, hope, serial starting up, budget, team again. It’s all in there. And more. I’ll leave you with one warning, or rather a disclaimer. Like any analogy, it’s only partial, and drawing it too thin is risky. Still, I hope you have a different view of what a PhD can be like, and how exploring a new territory can be alike, even in such seemingly disparate fields of life.