Digging my way out of the industry and paving it to the academia, or rather to the unknown?

A father-son conversation like no other

In 2006, in one blistering day of the sizzling hot summer of Egypt, I was visited by my father in the university campus. It was the first time, and the last, he ever paid me a visit in the campus. At that time, I just had finished my 1st year as a student in the Faculty of Engineering, Ain Shams University, one of Cairo’s two biggest public universities. My grades for the 1st year were below average, a shocking result for a father with very high aspirations for his eldest son. Wandering around campus, he started our conversation by commenting on the architectural style of the 150-year old main building of the campus. Then, he argued about how good this faculty is for my future. He was desperately trying to convince me how valuable is the opportunity I was given. From what I remember being a tenacious teenager at that time, we were not on the same page in that discussion. I wasn’t buying his words and I wasn’t paying attention to his advice. I was not convinced that my graduate studies are of any benefit, for I had already experienced how the whole educational process at the faculty was nothing but a big hot mess.

Birth of a dream

My reflected on my grades and encouraged me to improve them in the upcoming years. One particular sentence I still vividly remember when he said: “Look, my son, 4 years from now, I want you to see you sitting on a desk in one of these rooms, with your name written on it!“, while pointing with his index towards the windows of the staff members’ offices. To elaborate, that means I should rank on top of my class in order to get appointed by the faculty as a research and teaching assistance. However, little did he know that his words started the yet-to-be biggest dream of my life. His words stormed my mind, and his deep-voiced fatherly advice at that day made a long-lasting effect on my future, personal and professional sides alike.

Realized reality, but not my reality

Six years forward, not only did I failed my father’s hopes to grade on top of my class, but also I took more years than planned to finish up my studies and graduate. Boy, oh boy, our endeavors in life come in all shapes and sizes. But my shape and size were not particularly the ones my father envisioned nor expected. Simply, I took a different path during the university. I focused little on academic studies but more on activities and competitions. Upon graduation, I found myself in a not-so-pleasant situation. On the academic level, not surprisingly I achieved below average GPA score. But on the professional level, I won 3 international competitions in software development for students, finished 3 stellar summer internships and participated in a dozen of student activities. All of which paved my way to land a UK-based software development position very shortly after I graduated. For an Egyptian graduate with a third-world, publicly-funded higher education, this was quite a success. What might be better than a well-paid office job in a developed country to start off your career and your future with? right?

Seeing the naked truth

So, for one year, I lived and worked as a software developer in England. It was a reality, a very pleasant situation and a favorable condition for the next step: to make get married and make a family. Indeed, except it was not the reality I dreamed of. I didn’t see myself working in the software development industry. But the life in England looked like a heaven for the Egyptian me. It took me good six months to perceive the striking difference between England and Egypt, get over the culture shock, sync in the whole experience and get myself together. It took me another good six months to realize the new situation and see the naked truth. I asked myself a simple yet profound question: what the heck am I doing in England?

Industry vs. research, the trade-off between reality vs. dreams

I was in a tough situation having to choose between two dramatically different career paths: either to continue working for the industry and just live and enjoy the life or quit my job at all costs, dust off my old dreams and peruse a career in research and academia. The pros and cons of each choice were equal, at least for me at that very time. Going for the industry choice: on one hand, a job in the UK can provide good earnings, it’s taken for granted that I finish work by 5 PM and be free to enjoy life, and above all, it’s by far a less risky choice. On the other hand, I didn’t enjoy software development that much, my old dreams of doing research were nudging me from time to time, and I thought I can afford the price of making a mistake as I was still young. And going for the research choice: on one side, research is a very exciting career with more freedom, it will satisfy my intellectual curiosity, I’m more likely to change people’s life, and after all, that was my dream career. One the other side, jump-ship from a guaranteed job into the unknown of the research, paying top dollars for master’s degree and the uncertainty of what to do after finishing the master’s were all legitimate reasons to think twice before quitting my job.

A successful attempt to change this reality

At that time, while wandering lonely around the English countryside, I thought long and hard about this decision and its implications. These two choices kept storming my mind by day and depriving me sleep by night! But as time passed, I became slightly more likely to move to the research than to stay in the industry. By sheer magnitude of luck, I stumbled upon The Alchemist, a novel by Paulo Coelho. It wasn’t until I finished it that it became very clear to me that I’d choose the academia over the industry, for the later is a complete sacrifice to my dreams. I learned earlier in life that success and dreams walk hand-in-hand, for the former are the passion and fuel for the latter. As time went, I became more determined about it. I told myself: I’m quitting this routine 9-to-5 job, I’m investing in my higher education, I’m putting my hard-earned money in a master’s programme, I’m shifting from an ill-fated career in the industry to a more promising one in the academia, and above all, I’m perusing my goals in life. That was easier said than done. But what happened between quitting my job and landing a fully funded doctoral position in a top-50 university is a story to be left for another occasion. In sum, this move was relatively more straightforward than I thought. But the moral of this article is:

Since you are to live only one life, and you are too scared to let go of your ugly reality and pursue your pleasing dreams, then tell me at which other live are you exactly going to do so? The truth my dear, I guess, is that there is only one life, and there is only one chance!


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