Just a few years ago, had someone told me that I would be a researcher today, I definitely wouldn't have believed them. I remember, as if it was just yesterday, I was in my undergrad, on the path to a career in software engineering. It wasn't until my one-year stint in the corporate world, that I realised, pure software engineering wasn't for me. I packed my bags, moved to Germany, to dip my toes into this beautiful ocean of AI research.
From the process of birthing one's research projects through brainstorming potential research topics and questions to seeing one's project grow is amazing and joyous. Writing and talking about my projects makes me feel like a proud mama (granted, I am not a mother, but that is how I imagine moms feel as they see their babies grow in front of their very eyes 😅).
Okay clearly, I love research, at least right now I do. But the past few days have found me questioning my future direction, wondering if my interests in research stems from it being the shiny new thing in my life or if it really is what I want to commit to for the rest of my life. I have been struggling to find a way to balance my two main interests — AI research and travel and to justify spending more time on exploring the world. Between pouring over RL papers and drooling over Sam Kolder's travel videos (you have to check them out, if you haven’t already, start with this one), I am feeling extremely lost. With my current research fellowship being only a year long gig, I am not sure what to do next.
"Oh my God, Saasha, get to the point already. We aren't here for a therapy session!". I hear ya Jen, I hear ya. I know that got very real very fast, that was definitely not the intention of this post. This was meant to be a fun light post. Apologies. 😅
Having lived a fairly nomadic life since birth (hmm, probably that's where my love for travel arises from 🤔), I feel traveling, when done right, can make you a better, more open person than when you started. But it might make you better at research as well, through these transferable skills: -
- You are forced out of your comfort zone: Will this tweak to the algorithm move me towards solving the research question I started with? Will this research direction be the breakthrough that will push the edge of science? How will I buy my favorite yoghurt when I can't even understand what the label says? What if I end up being lonely at this new location because I don't speak the language? Travel and research have a way of making you feel comfortable with the unknown. As you put yourself out there and deal with the uncertainty of your actions, you eventually become okay with not knowing if your current endeavor will succeed or burn and fall. You come to recognize that not knowing is a part of the process and you come to appreciate it for the lessons that you’ll take away from the experience.
- You learn to adapt quickly: Your tools will die on you, your plans will fall through, things will not work out. But you know what, it's okay. Over time, you come to realize that nothing ever works out as you had intended it to, but you start to believe in yourself. You learn that you are capable of solving the issues that come up, as long as you don't try to hold on to the original plan. You realise the key is to steer around the obstacle. The plan is just in place to guide you, and can be adapted as needed.
- You learn creativity and resilience: The skills you acquire transcend the tasks themselves. Challenges, even something as small as not being able to check directions on Google Maps due to your internet not working, get your creative juices flowing, as you think of new ways to solve the problems. Additionally, the dopamine hit of overcoming the challenges forms a positive feedback loop for you to learn that ups and downs are part of the process, and that you just need to power through the challenges to reap the benefits.
- You meet new people: The part that I love the most about travel and research has definitely got to be meeting new people (ofcourse, your safety is priority one, so exercise caution). The Romanian lady sitting across you at breakfast at the hostel where you are spending a couple of nights while exploring Madrid could give you a fascinating look into Romanian culture and the country. Your Protuguese cab driver could turn out to be a part-time actor with interesting life experiences to chat about, who points you in the direction of the best non-touristy dessert shop in Sintra. The PhD student who you exchange greetings with in the hallway every morning, but haven't really spoken with, might be from a field that you have always wanted to learn more about. The researcher you meet at the conference might have years on you, and might help you avoid the mistakes they made when they were starting out. I remember, at all the events I went to last year, the common thread of all my discussions was related to PhD programs (I was grappling with the decision about what to do next even then 😅), and has given me data points and interesting insights into what to look for when applying for a PhD. Every interaction that you have with some one has the potential of teaching you something new, and making you a better person/researcher. Talking to people from different cultures and backgrounds makes you better at communication. But most importantly, meeting new people can help expand your worldview, and consider ideas/thoughts that you wouldn't have otherwise.
At the end of this post, I just want to encourage you to explore the beautiful world around you. You do not need to feel guilty about spending time away from your research projects. Leave that itinerary behind. Be willing to wander the random tiny streets, because when you least expect it, you might chance upon the most beautiful mural or the tastiest gelato (and yes, by that I was referring to finding insights on solving your research project when you least expect it 😋). Be open to new experiences, be willing to walk into the unknown, embrace the fear, and without realising it you acquire the skills that might help you get better at your research projects.