If you read my previous blog post, “Becoming an Independent Researcher and getting published in ICLR with spotlight,” you will know how much I struggled to enter the world of machine learning research. However, you will also know my struggles ended on a positive note, “there is light around the corner,” or so I thought. Well, it is complicated. — Vancouver, Canada

9 months after my ICLR spotlight award, as an Independent Researcher.

A real story of having succeeded, to then have promises broken and dreams crushed, and feeling sorry for yourself when others have it worse.

In December 2019, I got published at ICLR 2020 as an Independent Researcher and received a Spotlight award for my publication. The goal, to get enough recognition to become a Research Software Engineer at a known industrial research group.

My blog post on “Becoming an Independent Researcher and getting published in ICLR with spotlight” that went viral on Twitter.

Many like to think, that success, especially earned success, is followed by more success. But success is followed by reality and reality can be cruel.

In this article, I don’t just want to tell you what happened; I want to give you a sense of how it felt. This is not a success story; I could have framed it that way, that would likely have gotten me more Twitter followers. However, I always want to be honest, and the truth is this year has been emotionally very painful. I hope it will help you, or someone else you know, who may be going through the same, and this will make you feel less alone. — So please bear with me while I explain something fundamental to me: 1) my struggles with pain and 2) my dreams.

What am I allowed to feel?

This question is always on my mind whenever I feel hurt. I know it is silly; there is no law that prohibits what I can feel. However, due to my childhood, this question is engrained in me.

My love for science is a love for truth-seeking. Formed by being constantly asked to question, if my headache were real.

Family of sheeps looking relaxed.
Family of sheeps looking relaxed.
I don’t want to change my past. I value my love for truth-seeking, even though I know there is rarely such a thing. Don’t feel sorry for me. — Greater Copenhagen, Denmark

Why I want to be a Research Software Engineer

I used to think that academia had only pure intents. Listening to my friends outside of research and academia, I think many share that belief. However, once you become a part of academia, that illusion fades, and we see that academia is not an excellent implementation of science.

Becoming a Research Software Engineer has become a dream. A job where I get to be involved in research and science, through programming, but leave some of the academic parts, that I don’t like, to others.

Bridge in a forest over a tiny river. The bridge is build from stacked branches and looks unsafe.
Bridge in a forest over a tiny river. The bridge is build from stacked branches and looks unsafe.
The destination for me has always been clear to become a Research Software Engineer. How to get there has never been clear. — North Zealand, Denmark

January 2020, so many emails

During January (and some of February), I received nearly 2000 emails from many aspiring researchers. Most either congratulating me, offering me advice or needing a shoulder to cry on. I spent all of January and some of February just answering emails. If you didn’t get an answer from me, I’m so sorry; it was impossible to keep track of everyone.

Many professors struggle just as much with getting into top-tier conferences and journals, as young students and researchers do. We just don’t notice them, the same.

The job proposals were mostly startups. There is nothing wrong with that but I’ve been in 3 startups, I don’t really want to do that anymore. I also think it is rare that startups would prioritize the kind of research I like.

DeepMind; hope like never before and the careless hands

Among the many emails, I did get one offering me a shot at achieving my dream. It was from someone above Senior Research Engineer at DeepMind, offering me a recommendation for a Research Software Engineer position at DeepMind. They would personally hand over my CV with their recommendation. The message was, “I should get an introduction call from HR within two weeks, after which they could start interviewing.”

Your hopes and dreams are held by invisible hands, that can carelessly drop you at any time. Affecting you forever.

Maybe you recall, I had a similar experience with Google in 2019, after my Distill publication, as I now had with DeepMind. Every time I go through this, a part of me is chipped away and a wish to never hope or dream again emerges.

No matter how good you are, the invisible careless hands are just that; careless. Not because you are unqualified. Don’t think any less of yourself because of them.

Google AI Residency; promises, a virus, and tears

I try to always have a plan B. I don’t enjoy it. To have a conversation with someone, expressing my genuine excitement for a job opportunity, while knowing I’m engaged with another party. It feels I’m cheating on the ones who recommend me. But I also know, far too well, how careless the invisible hands at play can be.

A dead naked tree, completely covered in spider webs, somehow consumed by inspects and arachnoids. There are green trees arou
Sometimes nature shows its ugly side, kills the beauty that once was, and there is nothing you can do. — Copenhagen, Denmark.

To have ones dreams come true, to feel sure that it would happen, then to have it all taken away by invisible hands. It makes you wish to never dream again.

You might think: well, I could just apply for next year. If the committee found me qualified once, they will do it again. But these positions aren’t just about qualifications or skills; they are about being lucky, and luck is something I can’t depend on.

Other promises

There were other promises. Promises regarding interviews and jobs, but that all felt apart and not just because of the pandemic. I don’t want to name the smaller companies. Some of the larger were Salesforce and Huawei, just to name a few.

A church on a clif, at a coastlike that is slowly being taken away by the ocean.
A church on a clif, at a coastlike that is slowly being taken away by the ocean.
There is much beauty in life, but it is also very fragile. Anything can be washed away, by nature or mankind, at any time. — Stevns Klint, Denmark

Mila; becoming a Ph.D. student

By now, you likely understand that becoming a Ph.D. student was not my first, second, or third choice. However, after so many broken promises, it became the last option that could move me towards becoming a Research Software Engineer.

This conflict of “I’m not as grateful as I should be”, is something I struggle with daily.

I’m not feeling particularly grateful because I don’t really want a Ph.D. or to be part of academia. I know I’m qualified for the positions I want, I passed the interviews, I have been recommended plenty of times, I have the publications, I was promised the jobs. But somehow, by circumstances, by nature, or by the carelessness of invisible hands, I didn’t get those jobs. Now I’m spending 4 years of my life in an environment I don’t really like, just to become overqualified.

Success does not always follow success

I want to get back to my original statement:

Many like to think, that success, especially earned success, is followed by more success. But success is followed by reality and reality can be cruel.

Hopefully, you understand why I say this now. I think, in particular, it is crucial to anticipate some cruelty. If I had assumed that DeepMind, Google, or one of the other companies I didn’t mention by name, kept their promise. Then I wouldn’t have made the plan B, C, D, E, and F; and I wouldn’t be at Mila, which is definitely far better for me than the alternatives, such as doing trivial statistics or basic programming.

Dealing with loss, when others have it worse

It’s an obvious truth that COVID-19 has caused a lot of deaths. Even without COVID-19 true loss is inevitable. In the past, I have lost people too. I know that in those dreadful moments, concerns like career and opportunities are not on anyone’s mind. So who am I to feel sorry for myself?

If there is one thing I have learned, from living a life with chronic headache, migraines, and a few cluster-headaches, it is that; comparing pain is completely meaningless. What we feel is relative to what we have experienced, learned to deal with, and what is important to us in the moment.

So if you find yourself feeling sorry when others have it worse, know that you have my permission to do so. Use that permission to talk to your support network, use them to validate and process your feelings.

A palace and grass field. The sun is behind a cloud so everything poorly lit.
Right now, the sun doesn’t shine on us, let’s not lose hope. — The Hermitage Palace, Denmark.

Q & A

  • Q: Do you plan on finishing your Ph.D.? A: Well, I’m giving it an honest chance. I think both Mila and my supervisors are on the better side of the academic experience that I have otherwise learned to expect. However, the financial situation provides an upper limit on how long I’m willing to continue.
  • Q: Do you still think publications are necessary to get into a Ph.D. program? A: Your best chance is to do an MSc+PhD program; those are much easier to get into. If you, like me, were outside academia for at least 2 years and already had an MSc, then I think getting into a Ph.D. program without a publication is still very hard.
  • Q: What unexpected challenges are there in getting a Ph.D., after having been in the industry? A: Recommendations! Ph.D. programs don’t care about industry recommendations. Even if your new supervisor approves you, professors’ recommendations are still bureaucratically necessary. — After 3 years, it is tough to get more than 1–2 recommendation letters, and many programs require 3–4 recommendations. I had to camp outside a professor’s office for an entire day to get one of them.
  • Q: I’m from the future. What is this coronavirus? A: Hi, good to hear it passed. It was a pandemic, look up COVID-19.

Ph.D. Student at Mila, researching interpretability for Machine Learning because society needs it. Published in Distill, SEDL|NeurIPS, and ICLR (spotlight).