I quit my job as a Linux Kernel Engineer at IBM on July 20th 2010 to enroll for the Integrated Ph.D program in Computer Science at the Chennai Mathematical Institute. I will be working in the area of Theoretical Computer Science.
And for the past two weeks or so, I have been getting various questions. Mostly along the lines of the ones mentioned below:
- “Why go to the academia after spending four years in the Corporate world ? Does the job suck ?”
- “How does it feel to not wake up, go to the office and check your email and get to the daily routine of meetings and work ? Must be enjoying the feeling, no ?”
- “But don’t you feel sad when see that your bank account is not growing at the same rate at the end of the month ?”
- “Why Chennai ? Why not Bangalore?”
Interesting as they might seem, to me the answer to these questions are rather obvious. And here’s why.
For the past four years, I have been working in a department that paid me to work on the Linux Kernel, something which I had wanted to do since college. The job was great, the people were really interesting to work with. The workplace was conducive for learning new things and doing well. In other words, to me it was the place where I could find a fulfillment for one of my desires in an honourable way while being able to pay for my expenses. Now, I have come to a stage where I want to learn more! And the subjects that I want to learn are a little more abstract and theoretical than the kind of work I have been doing. In some sense they might not have any immediate application at all. Attempting to do so while still doing my current job, would be asking too much from both IBM as well as myself. So, it was a natural course of action to seek how I can go about obtaining this knowledge, at the same time being able to pay for my expenses. An Integrated PhD program seemed to be a nice way to go about it.
And about the fact that now I must be relishing the fact that I don’t have to wake up and check emails and go about the routine job, it’s not so. Because even though I may not have to do that, I have to still check my emails to see if there are any important announcements regarding the course schedules, the seminars and other academia related stuff. I still have to spend close to three hours of doing my own study for every hour of class that I attend. Plus there are assignments and tests. Even if it’s not for the marks, I wouldn’t be doing justice to the fact that I have quit my job for gaining knowledge, if I were not to put in the same kind of dedication that would be expected out of me in the corporate place. The fact that there is no manager or team-lead to make sure that I put in this kind of dedication implies that it’s an additional responsibility on myself that I have to be disciplined and try not to slack off. The freedom is not actually free!
About the money, yes. In absolute terms, I am taking a huge pay cut. But then, even while I was working, I had other expenses to pay for which I don’t have now. Like the house-rent, house-keeper’s salary, the weekend outings and so on. And given that my needs and wants are somewhat minimal, the additional money that I would earn in the corporate life would have been invested for a secure future. But come to think of it, what am I doing now ? I am investing in my future by arming myself with knowledge and building my credibility so that my word and work will be valued. What’s money after all but a pointer promising this value ?
Regarding Bangalore and Chennai, yes Bangalore is pleasant in terms of the weather. I know the language well, and I did get a PhD admit at IISc Bangalore. Chennai on the other hand is hot and humid. I don’t know the language all that well, and Chennai Mathematical Institute is not as well known as IISc. But then I am interested in knowing the concepts which make most of what we do in Computer science tick. Concepts which try to answer questions such as what’s the necessary and sufficient price that one must pay to get some job done, how can these jobs be classified so that we can take better decisions, how is valid knowledge obtained, how is any information tested for it’s validity, and so on. In some sense, trying to find out if all of what we do mean anything at all or are we just trying to be consistent with what we have been so far ? These are questions that are dealt in the area of Theoretical Computer Science, an area in which Chennai Mathematical Institute has made a name for itself. On the other hand, the PhD admit that I got in the IISc was to work in the area of Systems. Given these facts, it was not hard to choose CMI over IISc. The decision again was quite obvious!
Finally, there are those who talk about how noble an act it is that I am indulging in by quitting my high paying job to study for a measly stipend. They feel that it would be really nice if other people were to emulate this.
In my opinion this would be an incorrect way to view the whole thing. Because, then it would imply that going for higher education is somehow more noble than working in a corporate world and that in the past four years I have been living this somewhat ignoble life and now I want to purify myself. However, this is not true at all. I don’t think the time I spent in the corporate is any less valuable and had nothing to teach me than the time I would be spending here in the college.
In some sense, by quitting my job and taking up higher education, I might be doing exactly the opposite of what is usually considered as an act of nobility. See, different people value different things. At this stage of my life, I value knowledge, and I am doing all that I can inorder to achieve it, while making sure that my decision doesn’t cause a conflict for fulfilling any other desires and responsibilities of mine and the people around. If it means quitting a job and some of the contact with the real world, then, so be it. My actions are motivated by my desire. And so are the actions of those who desire money, fame and other things. So how does it make me any better or worse than them ? In my opinion, we must not forget that desires or “kAma” is considered to be one of the purushArthas of life. Our rShis only suggested that we purify kAma by bringing it under the purview of dharma. If I am being noble because I am making an attempt in this direction, then so are several others who are earning their livelihood and honourably finding a channel for the fulfilment of their desires, whatever the nature of these desires be.
Anyways, after the first week at the college, I must say, I am thoroughly enjoying the experience!