Some weeks ago I decided I really want to do a PhD in computer science. There are no alternatives. Getting employed in some company was always the last possible thing I wanted to do, and at this time I don’t have any great idea to start something up (although I once had such dreams). On the other hand, I know I like research. The reason might seem odd to you, but I like research because it’s hard. Hard as in intellectually challenging, not as in laborious. Doing harder things makes me learn more. Think more. Doing easier things will just rot my brain and turn me into a code monkey (do you know the song?).
Now, after a lot of thought I decided not to apply in the US and stay here in Saarbrucken for my PhD. I like it here, and there is almost no good reason I can find for going anywhere else. There are several places in the US where it’s surely better than here (harder by default at least). However, I won’t apply there without standing any chance of being accepted. I can make my life as hard as it gets even if I stay here, by choosing really hard problems and working on them. What I would still need is a field that combines deep theory with some practical use, so that it’s not only hard, but also (at least in theory) useful. Language based security maybe. Verification maybe. I will give both a try next semester.
Now, returning to “the American dream”, here are the reasons that made me give up (“grow up” would also be appropriate here). First and foremost, is was the certainty that I won’t get accepted at a top 10 university. Not if I apply now, after four wasted years in Romania and one year of hard work taking classes here, but very little contact with research. Not one year from now, when I might have results in research but I will already be 25. Just add one more year of waiting for the results and six other for the PhD and you will get the point: I would finish at 32, that is, old. Compare that with staying here for a PhD which would only take three more years, so I would just turn 28 when I finish. The four years difference is a lot, and since I already wasted four I really cannot afford this. By wasted I only mean wasted with respect to research. Should I ever want to become a code monkey, the years spent here in Saarbrucken would be wasted, but this is very unlikely to happen.
Then, even if it’s not very close to CMU or Stanford, Saarbrucken is still a very good place for computer science research. Staying here is very convenient since I will still hold the IMPRS fellowship. For a PhD that is about 1400 euro a month, plus 150 for every extra lecture I would tutor (classes are thought in English). More important, the fellowship gives me the opportunity to join any group I like, since I will actually come for free, and also the honor of being associated with the Max Planck Institute.
One more reason for staying, is that I like Germany (that’s why I came here in the first place). Saarbrucken is not a particularly beautiful or exciting city by most standards, but it’s small, quiet and now I got used to it. Moreover, I like the Germans, which respect all rules, mind their own business, are polite and well behaved, are usually quite distant, but nice and friendly once you get to know them better. Not to mention that I made a lot of “international” friends here I would really hate to leave behind.
Finally, staying here will also save me the trouble of moving again. I live in a pleasant three room apartment, with friendly neighbours, in a nice and quiet area of the city. It’s also close to the university, so I only make 10 minutes by bike, riding through the forest where I also run as a hobby. For all this I pay 265 euro, since I share with a friend. It’s very unlikely there is something even close to this in the US. Not is Pittsburgh or Stanford at least.