This has at times hurt my career

I came across an interesting statement on the website of professor Victor Saouma, a leader in the field of fracture mechanics and nonlinear analysis of concrete failure. Before listing his detailed research interests, he interjects the following:

I have resisted the pressure to remain focused on one or a few research interests during my academic career, and have always sought to pursue what I perceived to be particularly interesting at a given time (a delicate balance between opportunity and interest). This has at times hurt my career, but I had fun in “escaping the reality” of academia and have always tried to think outside the box. [Via Saouma’s faculty website]

I love this … probably because it struck a chord in me.

My graduate school tenure has outlasted most of my friends, a regular source of introspection for me. Yet, I have experienced many interesting things during graduate school that most of my friends haven’t—commercial software development, teaching continuously for several years, taking on consulting jobs, and becoming active in industry committees—all of which have been rewarding, despite the research opportunity cost.

The exchange rate between these activities and the standard academic currency isn’t great, since much of it is proprietary or otherwise hidden behind an NDA and therefore unpublishable.

So is it a waste?

These excursions have (a) overall been quite fun, (b) helped support my family, (c) connected me to the wider community, and (d) given me much broader experience in my field of structural modeling. So no, I wouldn’t characterize them as a waste.

Has anybody else out there chosen the interesting over the academically ambitious? I’d love to hear your thoughts and takeaways from the road less traveled.

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