Why I’ll be a Student as long as I can

If you are an up-to-date reader of this virtual publication, you will surely be aware by now that I currently find myself without any long-term employment. After having undertaken and completed 5+ years of school, I find myself thrust upon the world with plenty of knowledge and experience, but little that entices most employers to drop me into the ranks of their company.

I put half a decade, tens of thousands of dollars and calories, and innumerable millions of neurons into my desire to better understand our world and the things within it, with little pragmatic thought as to how this could be applied to the world outside academia. Realistically speaking, my colleagues and predecessors who are now professors and researchers never left that world, and they continue to receive money from the government, as I did, for decades after completing their “education”. Now I don’t want to imply that privately funded research doesn’t happen, but the fundamental understanding of our universe that has been gained (and its current real-world applications) are almost without exception publicly funded, in full or in part.

Our current government in Canada is actively trying to slow this apparent flushing of money, while showing their severe lack of forward-thinking and lack of understanding of innovation and research. With little or no funding, the progress our country makes in medicine, technology and industry will surely stagnate, as is happening or has happened across the United States. There are past, present, and future generations of brilliant and imaginative minds who are excited about the history and prospects of scientific endeavour, and who are ready and champing at the collective bit, but who face larger and larger barriers to continuing to learn and understand and explain the world we live in.

In that I am one of these people in the present generation, itching to find a job to be able to develop and apply new and exciting ideas to novel research, I will always consider myself a student. Even though I am no longer formally enrolled in a university program, I continue to be fascinated and perplexed by science, but I do not fear this, but aim to wrap my head around its intricacies and its wonderful complexities. In this way, I will always be a student, in that I will continue to learn, and better understand our world, life and the universe we live in.

I am currently unemployed, and trying to find a way to start repaying some of the money government has been so generous to devote to my education, and to show them that their investment in me and the countless others like me can pay dividends if they will allow us to mature.

And so, for the time being, if you ask me if I am a student, I will undoubtedly reply “Yes, absolutely!”, especially if it gets me a discount on groceries on Tuesdays. For the foreseeable future, students will undoubtedly be poor, social sponges who have curious minds and learn new things at every opportunity, but have yet to find and be at home in their calling in life. In that way, I perfectly fit the definition of a student, and in my mind, I will always be a student of the universe.

No Hope for the Future

I spend a lot of my time just thinking, mostly about ways I could improve the world, though sometimes I’ll admit I get a bit selfish and worry about my own needs. However, most times when I reason out different problems with the world as a whole, there are some very important reasons why things really aren’t going to get much better than they are now.

Generally speaking, when I talk about being able to vastly improve life, I am referring to potentially paradigm-shifting technological advancements. Almost all of the advancements in technology over the last 15 years have been huge improvements to communication technologies. Facebook, Google, Twitter, the Internet itself, cell phones, all of these things are really great tools for advancing society and permitting the advancement of ideas through shared intellect. However, many of the most useful changes which have or are being implemented right now will never be as powerful generators of change as they rightly should be. Here are just a few examples:

1. Facebook (and other social networks like Google+, Twitter, and innumerable others) all enable pretty seamless connections between people wherever they are on the planet. Twitter doesn’t have video chatting, Google+ has separate mobile and PC chat clients, and Facebook, the behemoth social network, has too many privacy issues to work as a professional network, and doesn’t allow voice calls between users. All of these networks and services have problems with them which mean that no matter how much you commit yourself to the platform, you will inevitably have to fall back on something else.

2. There will always be a certain paranoia involved with technology, especially from those who don’t really understand it. From the inherent “creepiness” of Apple’s Find My Friends application, to Facebook’s automatic facial recognition on photo uploads, it seems like we have reason to be afraid of these new technologies, even if they are completely innocuous and benign, or in fact very useful.

3. No matter how good technology gets, we will all be terrible at it. Especially when it comes to social aspects of technology, humans are notoriously bad at social etiquette when not faced with an actual physical interaction. Ignoring the fact that we are capable, and sometimes very adept at lying, computers are very bad at conveying nuanced cues and tics associated with human communication. Whether it comes out in Facebook events where a list of 300+ people are invited blindly to a gathering with no real social contract being offered or accepted, or in a simple text message whose context or meaning is misconstrued because of the mechanical emotionlessness of technology. Technology companies are scrambling to identify how and why people make decisions they do, and what they can do to keep people engaged as long and as often as possible.

4. The social companies are in it to make money. In this case, money generally comes from advertising, at least once the company is mature enough that investors are ready to make some money. This means not only that you become a social commodity, but it also means that most of these companies (Facebook, Google, Apple) have no real impetus to innovate or deliver a lot of new features all at once. This is a very selfish principle, but it will never change. If Apple suddenly made hundreds of very obvious tweaks and changes to their software and hardware, naturally people would quickly become accustomed to those changes and continue to demand more. It makes much more sense for these companies to add features one or two at a time, claiming at the time that it is a brand new way of doing things. One obvious example of this is that outside of Google Voice (which is in the US) and Rogers One Number (only in Canada), I’m not aware of any business which allows you to send and receive messages and make and receive calls both on your phone and on your computer. This is such an obvious feature which would spell out the downfall of cell phone carriers in terms of their massive profit margins, that it is certain it will be a long time until it can be done on a large scale or for cheap. Apple has recently allowed proprietary video calls to be made over cellular networks, but no such feature exists to use data to make voice calls directly to a telephone number from another telephone number. This feature existing on any one carrier would quickly make it the norm, and would result in much higher competition in the telecommunications industry.

As you can see, things are pretty incredible right now, but since big companies have seen what can happen when technology bubbles burst, they are doing their absolute most to make sure that we keep advancing as slowly as possible, or they will no longer be able to keep making their massive profits. All I can do for the time being is keep hoping that the next little thing that comes out ends up being important to me. If anyone needs me I’ll just be waiting here for the future.

Future Work Experience

Alright guys, another fun topic I’ve been sitting on for a while,

I want to discuss with you all a conundrum which I’m sure has bothered all of us at one time or another growing up. The tautological statement “You need experience to get this job, so just get a job so you can gain experience” is a ridiculous by-product of our modern culture, especially when economic and socio-political times are so tough. The idea that someone is unable or unqualified to perform a task or complete a project because they have not yet done so already is actually fairly demeaning to most everyday people, especially in my generation. Those of us with university-level education are extremely familiar with the job application process in which required experience is almost impossible to attain, especially for young people. Of course, one of the main problems with the vastness and complexity of the internet is that for all the advancements and progress it has brought with it, many people are long entrenched in the old ways of doing things. Having spent the better part of a year searching with varying levels of enthusiasm for a job where I can apply specific knowledge I gained over the course of a university degree, I have found quite a few jobs whose description seems to perfectly match my knowledge base and piques my interest in terms of its pay, location and perks. However, without fail (so far at least) I find myself continually without a job.

I don’t mean to come off as being ungrateful to any potential employers, or as though I am moping to people just like me who have found jobs the old fashioned way (90% having a connection, 10% walking into a business and pitching your brand directly in the hope that you have good timing). While I am running low on funds, I am by any metric still pretty far ahead of most other unemployed people. I have an apartment down-town in a highly populated metropolis, I have two degrees in a field which historically has placed many students in cushy jobs with little or no physical labour. I have amassed a fair bit of what most would call luxuries, in the meantime also accruing my fair share of student debt. Yes, it was my choice to spend a lot of that government money paying the older generations’ property taxes in that I moved away from my parents in a fit of independence.

I am now faced with what will (on my current course) become crippling debt, if I cannot drastically alter this paradigm. If I had been able to peer into the future, knowing how the world would look in 2012 from way back in early 2006, I almost certainly would have made the choice not to enter university, or at least to take a shorter program. I admit that I was taken up in the beautiful dream of student life, where money quite literally grows on trees, and where seeing seas of enthusiastic faces eager to learn overpower logic and reason. On tuition alone, I spent approximately 11 x $2200 = $24000 over 5 years for the privilege of attending classes and borrowing lab equipment and supplies to nourish my intellectual and scientific curiosity and passion. I made many, MANY mistakes over those years, emotional, physical, financial, logical, sexual, mathematical errors, which end up being some of the greatest lessons university could have ever taught me. Some of those mistakes were so atrocious I have trouble admitting to them even in friendly company, and I don’t want to take any of them back. Everything about the university experience has been absolutely wonderful up until the contemplation of having to actually earn all of those wonderful lessons, dollar by dollar, and realizing how difficult that might actually end up being.

Now, I have spent the majority of my adult life working, I do not want to give the impression that I have done nothing to earn this education. Having spent time earning my keep in food service, manual labour, scientific research, providing teaching assistance in a laboratory setting, up to now, where I am a freelance writer on this page, earning about $0.03 per month on average. What I will say is that even in those jobs, I am stuck feeling like what I have earned is not commensurate with the effort I put in for those employers. I began working at age 15, for $5.90 an hour (minimum wage at the time), and I vividly remember getting that money and seeing the world open up its doors for me, welcoming me into the work force with open arms.

While employed at McDonalds, I was afforded regular raises, so that as I gained experience and did more for the company, I was rewarded in kind. However, I quickly found that raises did not keep up with inflation, so even after a year of employment I was still stuck at minimum wage, with new hires sometimes even being considered for raises before me. This led, unfortunately, to a pattern of underpay, especially considering the effort I could put in. The most I have ever earned was at a construction supply company called Totem (Rona), manually loading and moving lumber and other supplies in the hot summer sun 8 hours at a time for $13/hr (which again seemed great at the time). This was the summer of 2007, and really reinforced that I was doing the right thing in terms of getting my education. I certainly didn’t want to spend my life doing manual labour. That $13/hr pay rate remains to this day the best I have ever been compensated, and now that I have finished my degrees, I am currently entertaining offers of part time work for minimum wage again, just as I did 9 years ago.

I know that I have many, if not all of the skills necessary to be much more than proficient at most any job in the world. Save for jobs which require advanced degrees (doctor, engineer, nuclear physicist, etc.), I can perform standard tasks above and beyond the levels most people would consider necessary for employment. More than anything else, I want to be able to perform at a job where some of my day is spent thinking critically about decisions that will impact the world. I don’t think this is too much to ask, and I should have to spend much more time grinding my brain against the internet or the pavement to get an opportunity to do that.

The reason for this logic is pretty simple really, allow me to break it down. As an undergraduate student, and a grad student (though to a lesser extent), it was our weekly, or sometimes two-or-three-times-a-weekly requirement to walk into a room with a set of instructions (or sometimes no instructions) and a collection of seemingly random materials, and perform or devise and carry out the required method in a matter of a few hours time. We were then to leave that room and everything in it for a period of one to two weeks, prepare a report detailing the process and results of the time we had spent, and submit it for grading. I have four years of experience being dropped into various situations with little or no idea what I am supposed to be doing, and figuring it out. If we didn’t figure it out, not only did we do poorly on that particular report, but all subsequent sections would now be more challenging because they are based on prior knowledge. All of my colleagues went through the exact same process, and we are now being subjected to having our candidacy for jobs limited to things which we are expected to have done for years. This is after having undergone substantial training in on-the-fly, seat of your pants problem-solving with minimal instruction and little to no supervision. Some people certainly don’t handle that kind of pressure well, but at least give the rest of us a chance to be able to prove ourselves before rejecting us completely. At this point, I would say I could get a job, applying for jobs for which I am not qualified, as I have plenty of experience doing that. Although, from my results thus far, I can assure you that I am not good at it.

ps. I am looking for work, in case you couldn’t tell. If you or somebody you know is looking for somebody awesome to give money to, odds are I’m perfect for that role. Pass along cv.robattrell.com if that’s the case.