Jeremy Côté

What Have You Built?

This, I think, is the next big thing in marketing ourselves.

I’m a scientist. My current status is as a PhD student in theoretical physics, studying quantum computation. Most of my output consists of code and papers talking about my scientific work. And while that’s good, I would argue it’s not enough. Sure, it shows that you did some good things, but if I was hiring someone, I would ask two questions.

What have you built? And how have you contributed?

These two questions would make a science student like myself pause. After all, my job for years wasn’t to build things, it was to do well on tests! The name of the game was getting good academic results, and this would funnel you to success. I’m sure many students will agree that this is how they spent a lot of their time, particularly as undergraduates.

Once you make the jump to graduate studies though, things shift. It’s no longer enough to get good grades. People don’t care about that anymore. Instead, people care about what you did and how you made your little space of research better.

What can you point to and say, “I made that happen”?

For some, the answer may be nothing. That’s okay. There’s no need to panic. However, you have a choice now. Do you continue coasting by in school (which is definitely enough to graduate) or do you take control of your future by building things?

I’m not talking about huge projects either. The point is to start somewhere, and find what you can do to contribute. This shouldn’t feel like a burden. If it does, I’d suggest finding something else that fuels you and gives you a sense of purpose.

Right now, I’m a PhD student in quantum computing. But that’s not all I do. For example, I write here on my site, posting not only about physics that interests me, but my overall journey through academia and the other passions I have. I also draw a webcomic that comes out three times a week. These are both projects that have a footprint. I can point someone to them and show that I’ve been at this for a long time. It isn’t just a thing I decided to pick up for a week, but a set of dedicated practices that I’ve brought into my life over the years.

The point isn’t the number of projects I have, but the consistency at which I do things. Sure, there may be some points where breaks are taken, but if you look at my writing and drawing, you will see that I’ve shown up in a consistent way over the years. Because of this, my blog and webcomic are substantial enough that they aren’t just cute distractions. Pointing to them carries a message. I built this.

I can’t say what kind of impact these activities will have in my future, but there are two valuable lessons I’ve learned from doing them. First, it gives me an appreciation for what it means to do something for the long haul. My writing stretches back for four years, and my comics for two. When I began, did I really think I would go on for this long? Of course not! I remember when I was toying with the idea of starting my webcomic Handwaving and I could barely come up with ten ideas. How in the world would I keep producing new comics week after week? And yet, I’ve nearly passed the 300 mark, with no sign of slowing down. Likewise, I’ve now written hundreds of thousands of words for the blog. You can bet that I didn’t have these words “in me” when I first began.

The second lesson I learned was that these projects show the world what you really care about. I could tell people that thinking about science and the processes surrounding it were important to me, but that’s not as powerful as saying, “Here’s my blog. I have years of posts dedicated to these topics.” I also enjoy communicating science with humour and lightness, and pointing to Handwaving shows people exactly that. By building these projects, I staked my values into the world.

I won’t lie: This can be a scary thing. After all, what if those you admire discover your work and think it’s stupid? The worry of this has kept me from sharing my work for more years than I would like to admit. However, I realized that this is precisely the point of my work. People won’t always like what I do, but at least I will be clear with them. My views will be transparent, and people are free to agree or not.

As I go through my PhD years, I know that I want to be more than just another PhD student. I want to contribute in different ways, and this is best exemplified by building things. Everyone has the capacity to build something. It can be a product, art, a community, or a variety of other things.

Do you want to get to the end of your PhD with only a thesis to show for it? Maybe that’s your goal, but I want to dream a little bigger. There are so many opportunities to contribute to the world that, for me, just doing a PhD isn’t enough.