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Choosing Sanity Over Security

Posted on 29 August 2008

Last fall, I was working for a large university, doing computer security and wondering where my life was going. My job was fine – uninspiring, though often fairly interesting. I’d taken the position straight out of college, mostly because it was available and I was overwhelmed by the idea of choosing a career.

There wasn’t anything wrong with my job. Computer security is a growing field, and I was pretty good at what I did. I loved my coworkers and enjoyed the office environment. Working for a university had it downsides (particularly bad institutional politics) that were more than balanced out by some attractive upsides (like flexible hours). I had a good apartment, many friends in the area, and more than enough money.

The problem was, I wasn’t satisfied. When people asked if I liked what I was doing, I had to think about it. I didn’t dislike it – but did I like it? I wasn’t sure. I’d end up saying something like, “I like it, but it’s not where I see myself in the long term.” Work seemed detached from the rest of my life; I kept thinking of the daytime hours as what I did until I could get back to my real life. Gradually it occurred to me that eight hours a day is a lot of time to spend doing something I considered separate from my life.

That summer I turned twenty-three, and it got me thinking. Twenty-three seemed too old to be set in a career track I didn’t plan on staying with, and too young to be settling for a job I wasn’t passionate about. I started looking for other options.

The first big step was applying to graduate school. Not everyone enjoys academic work, but I loved it -everything from looking for things in libraries, reading books, taking in huge gulps of information and sorting it back out into papers. I also missed the research work in history I’d started doing as an undergraduate, and realized that I still talked about it all the time, over a year after leaving college.

When I applied, I didn’t entirely expect to be accepted. I was looking at some fairly prestigious programs; the acceptance rates for graduate programs in history are usually fairly low, and I wasn’t sure that I looked qualified on paper. I wasn’t honestly sure that I was qualified. But I took the leap, sent all of the admissions materials off, and spent a few long months waiting.

The answers came in the spring. Some programs said no, but miraculously, some (including my first choice) said yes. Then, of course, I had to face another set of choices. Computer security was not only stable but lucrative, and history graduate students don’t exactly bring in the big money. Did I really want to give up a sure thing to enter a Ph.D. program and eventually face an uncertain academic job market? I was living at the time in Boston, and the program I wanted to attend was in California. Was I ready to leave all of my friends on one coast and start over on the other? What if I didn’t like graduate school? What if I wasn’t any good at it?

They weren’t easy decisions. I can’t say, even now, that I’m absolutely sure I did the right thing. I’m watching my money more carefully than I have in years, and doing without a lot of the treats and toys I’d gotten used to. Every day I miss my friends back in Boston, and sometimes I get very scared when I think about the long road between me and my degree (not to mention what comes after the degree). But every day, I love what I do. My work isn’t something that I have to get past before I can start enjoying myself; I honestly take pleasure in the work that I’m doing (even when I complain that I have too much of it). And that’s the only truly important thing.

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