What do I do, with a bachelor’s of arts in physics? What is my life going to be? I’ve been asked and have asked this question so many times lately it feels like my recent life is encompassed by this rendition of Avenue Q. To be certain, I did plenty of things these breaks. But as I lay in bed half-watching some Netflix show I’ve already seen, or as I sat in the bathroom counting the tiles on the wall, or while I walked from one of those locations to the other, I was always turning the same question over and over in my mind.
I could complete a doctorate. Engaging in the pursuit of truth and knowledge, yes, furthering technological progress, yes, perhaps even shaping and inspiring young minds. But what does it really entail on the day to day? Placing orders for screws and fiber optic cable and mass spectrometers to build some oversized vacuum chamber? Staring at fixed-width typefaces as I run simulations on some remote server and check that the outputs are exactly as expected? Negotiating some back and forth with a journal’s review board over whether or not my null result is worth publishing? Coming up with novel ways of tricking undergraduate students into actually doing their problem sets?
I could go into scientific journalism. I would make science “cool” and “accessible” to the people while informing them of all the exciting developments in our technical infrastructure. Most of the time, I would write fluff pieces on stage one clinical trials offering a “promising new treatment” or some other speculative technology that probably won’t pan out in development.
I could go into science policy. I could work for the Department of Energy, making prudent investments in clean energy research and helping secure a functional ecosystem for future generations. Filing paperwork all day, sifting through technical reports and navigating the petty game of office politics to please my boss and climb the bureaucratic ladder.
I can sell my soul and go into finance. I can engage in the pursuit of money and more money, finding my way into the top 1 percent by running the numbers for some bank’s ethically dubious business strategy while I’m slowly corrupted into moral bankruptcy by society’s unfortunate economic dependence. Seeing as I’m monetarily satisfied with an Internet-connected hole in the ground and a large bag of lentils, this is the only choice I can dismiss offhand.
“Oh, woe is me and my myriad shitty choices,” I bemoaned as I prepared for a big move from bed to chair. “Scrubs” whizzed past me, so did “Master of None,” “Louie,” “Bob’s Burgers.” I consumed these slices of mundane lives until realizing my profound arrogance in assuming it was only me. In my narcissism I forgot the fundamental truth unifying all of us starry eyed college students, the youthful blessing of open doors that we naive souls mistake for an existential curse: None of us know what the hell we’re doing.
Looking on a broader scale, I challenged myself to find any occupation that doesn’t consist largely of day-to-day doldrums. What lawyer isn’t entangled in reams upon reams of largely standard legal documentation, what developer doesn’t spend hours laying out pages of code and optimizing and debugging for a one-page or one-sentence idea? Even the new breed of YouTube superstars waste away editing, exporting, uploading and staring at progress bars. The Pixar animators spend more time setting thousands of slightly different individual frames than drawing out storyboards or basking in high Rotten Tomatoes scores, and after 20 takes of the same scene that just aren’t quite right, Andrew Garfield eventually finds the Spider-Man suit is just an obstacle to his ability to shit.
There isn’t a job in world that’s glamorous every day and that realization is, oddly enough, a relief. As UC Berkeley has taught me, all that matters is where you stand relative to the average, and it seems that everyone’s career drowns them in tedium. Every jigsaw puzzle has only a few final pieces where you can see the big picture fall into place; most of the time it’s a nondescript mess. But we still tolerate and even enjoy the first 500 pieces of nothing for their role in the coherence of the image, because they keep those last few pieces sacred, and for their simple tactile satisfaction.
A career choice is complex and multifaceted; I’m not about to spit some trite platitude about it being “the journey, not the destination.” Someday my parents will be dead, my friends will be dead, my wife will be dead and I will be dead, so I’d certainly like to to leave the world, in some small way, better off than where I started. Whether I’m working for environmental sustainability or to get my kids a nice, stable childhood, the scattered victories, the milestones few and far between, will still be the moments that are most worthwhile. But the relentless monotony of almost identical day after day, the legwork we don’t post on Facebook or on the billboards at career fairs, and the tiny pleasures to be had therein, will necessarily, thankfully, always be there.