|I've been amazed how helpful people have been here to career advice questions earlier, so as I feel I have hit rock-bottom today, I give it a try myself (I am a regular poster, but anonymous this time). I guess others might be in similar situation, so discussing this might be helpful.|
I have always dreamed of becoming a scientist. I always loved maths, sciences, puzzles, theory but also programming and engineering. To illustrate this, I would say that probably I look up to Sergei and Larry more for inventing PageRank, than for building up their company, although I'm interested in the workings of the economy as well, but more at an abstract level.
So getting accepted into grad school in one of the top labs in its field seemed like a dream come true. I really admire some of the professors and postdocs in the lab. Many of them have achieved ground-breaking theoretical results in the past and their groups have produced a great number of widely cited papers, surveys, useful toolboxes, etc. I was anxious to take part in similar work, however small my contribution would be.
I was even excited when I was told that I will work on a newly started, well-funded, "interdisciplinary" project, that will greatly impact people's lives. Well, I was suspicious of the buzz-wordiness initially, but how could I not trust the judgment of such smart people. After almost a year, it is fair to say that I have good view of the project and it is almost surely a giant failure. I am completely burnt out and have given up all hope of getting any meaningful work done in this project. It does not solve any real problem, there is no potential for any good science within it and no-one has the slightest idea what it is about and where it should progress. I can't say exactly what it is, but in scope it could be imagined as similar to the EU-funded Google competitor that has been widely ridiculed before.
On the surface everything still looks good, we have plenty of meetings, senior group members travel to conferences to project partners, we have an active wiki, we make demos from time-to-time, the reviewers are happy, funding is good, etc. etc. However, I find it the most soul-crushing experience to continue working while pretending that the whole thing is getting anywhere. Any attempt I made to point out ways how it could be made more practical have been ridiculed, or even trying to question some of the assumptions have met aggressive reactions from the professor, so I have given up.
Watching my collegues I have noticed different kinds of behavior. Some of them are smart and realize what is going on but they have become cynical and play along, trying to get their own stuff done on the side. Others are just too incompetent to notice something is wrong, and are happy to have a good place where they can surf the net the whole day, while pretending to be scientists. Some of my collegues are completely clueless about programming or engineering, but having good observations, comments on meetings, being generally friendly goes a long way. I have to mention that this is in a place where tuition is free, grad-school pays about 60-70% of what one could earn in the industry at the moment, so it is a safe choice financially. Not much is expected of anyone, I guess if I wouldn't turn up for a few days in a row, no-one would notice.
So what do you guys suggest I should do? I have given up getting anything useful in this project, but still research is my main dream. Is there hope of better in a different grad-school or project ? How can you tell from the outside ? Is this frustration common or is there actually a way to get honest theoretical work done in grad-school ? I consider myself a hacker as well, so working at a start-up or big co. would both be an option, but I would still most love to work in research, in the idealized way that I imagine it. (find elegant solutions to difficult problems that have wide-reaching implications). Should I ignore the environment and just try to set my own research agenda ? Is it possible to do research outside of academia ? (I'm a bit afraid of becoming a crackpot publishing papers on perpetual motion machines on arxiv :-) ? Have you been in similar situation ? How did you manage ?
Sorry for the long rant, and thanks for any suggestion...