Another Pearl of Wisdom from the World of Academia
Would you rather design rocket ships or waste treatment facilities? Don’t ask your adviser.
As a 30-something cubicle dweller at a large east-coast chemical manufacturer I once car-pooled with 4 chemical engineers in their 50s and 60s. Between them they had logged 100 man-years in “the golden handcuffs” at high-paying but not particularly satisfying jobs.
Listening to these guys who had financially rewarding but mind-numbingly tedious jobs during the commute was an unvarnished and frightening education. One morning the conversation steered toward a daughter who was considering a change in her academic goals. She was getting advice from her academic adviser.
“Hmph,” snorted Bob. “I’ll tell you about academic advisors.” And he did.
The year was 1949. Bob had just completed his Masters degree in Chemical Engineering and was considering staying on a few more semesters to get his PhD. Then he got a phone call from an old friend. “Bob—you gotta come down here now. They’re looking for engineers. It’s in Alabama, and—get this—they got a bunch of Germans they brought over after the war. We’re going to build rockets to go into space!”
It sounded intriguing so he went right to his faculty adviser and explained the job excitedly. Then the academic calmly pronounced his opinion. As we in the carpool listened to the 60 year old Bob recall his advisor’s words, it was clear that he had revisited this sentence many times over the years. The advice was: “Son, once you get your PhD those kind of offers will be a dime a dozen.”
And so Bob the dutiful student told his friend no thanks. He would continue with school. As fate would have it, the sure-thing job opening had been at the Redstone Arsenal in Huntsville, Alabama, and the Germans were Werner Von Braun and his team. Bob read with interest of their advances in rocketry as he continued his studies. Finally, PhD in hand, he called his friend to see about that job. Sadly at that point everyone in the engineering community was trying to join the project that had become quite literally the white-hot center of the engineering universe–the most engaging and high-profile project of the century: the effort to put a man on the moon. And at that point he couldn’t even get his friend to return his phone calls.
I’ll let the 60 year old Bob finish the story. “So that’s why I spent the next 35 years building waste treatment tanks instead of rocket ships. Another pearl of wisdom from the world of academia!”