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What’s Next?

Catch Them While You Can

By Ian Ybarra

features columnist

“I’m too busy.” Next time you use that as reason for not doing something, send e-mail to Professor of Materials Science Craig W. Carter. I dare you. The automated response will make you think twice about whether your “I’m too busy” is actually a reason or an excuse.

It begins, “It has become impossible to answer all the email I receive. Even if your email is important, there may be a delayed response. I will read email frequently, but only answer urgent and emergency emails immediately. I am grateful for your patience.”

That is followed by a brief explanation of why he cannot reply to all e-mail, a suggestion to send him reminder messages if necessary, and a list of seven URLs where he has posted answers to FAQs. Personal FAQs? The man is busy.

Reading the auto-reply made me think back to when I sent my e-mail. By pressing the “send” button, I had really just pressed my luck. I felt disappointment, but only with myself.

Over two years have passed since I was in the Introduction to Thermodynamics class taught by Carter (That’s 3.00, which is now extinct). Although I was among those who had distaste for Thermodynamics, I consciously exerted more effort in that class than in my others. And I did so because Professor Carter honestly stated the difficulty of understanding thermodynamics and consistently demonstrated his passion for teaching it.

The way he spoke about the importance of what he was teaching and the new problems that he and his colleagues were exploring made me sense that he loved his work. And I wanted to hear the story of how he figured out what kind of work would reward him. But I didn’t ask -- not until last week.

We all run across people whose sheer excitement for their work inspires us to find our own callings. We wish we could hear how they struggled with their career decisions. Although we learn more from actually doing the work that intrigues us, we can still glean some transferable knowledge from others’ experiences. However, we must ask first.

Luckily, Professor Carter manually replied to my e-mail and agreed to chat with me for 20 minutes. Still wanting to pout about having waited so long to ask, I raised my chin up and went to his office. Here’s what I learned.

For Carter, many rewards of his work have been made possible because, at several times in his career, he simply chose not to limit himself.

As an undergrad at UC Berkeley, he contemplated switching his major from materials science to mathematics or physics because of a few classes that he enjoyed. Then he followed advice that he “should stay in materials science because it’s so flexible that you can do as much math and physics as you want to.”

Years after earning his triple crown from Berkeley, Carter was working in an industrial laboratory, performing similar duties to those he has now as a professor: doing research, publishing papers, and managing other researchers and funding. But by becoming a professor, he added teaching to that list.

And when I asked if he could happily continue in his current role or if he still wonders what he’s going to do when he grows up, Carter said, “I think everybody ponders that question.” He added, “I would expect that many people who stay in academia do so because it is more or less not making the decision.”

Perhaps that’s the answer we should all strive to give, regardless of the type of work we pursue. For Professor Carter, it involves teaching and developing ways to compute the effects of material properties and processes on material behavior. For others it could be enhancing flight simulators or mentoring children from broken homes or building a better mousetrap. If we find work that constantly presents new challenges that excite us, we might feel like we never endured the stress of deciding what kind of work we want to do.

I was fortunate to hear Professor Carter’s story last week, and I intend to ask for the stories of others who have inspired me before it’s too late. I encourage you to do the same. Catch them while you can, my friends -- before your e-mail draws auto-replies pointing to personal FAQs.