Reflections From Oregon

This post was originally published in October 2018 for the CNSE Herald, a student newspaper from my undergraduate institution.

Over the summer of 2018, I had the privilege of staying in the greater Portland area, in Oregon, for a summer assignment for a semiconductor company there (Hint: It’s not Intel). The trip marked several personal milestones, most important being the longest I’ve been away from home alone (13 weeks, nearly 3000 miles away!).

As expected of such an ambitious trip, I learned quite a few things that I’d like to share. To start, it would seem like an experience of this kind would be wholly positive, given that I essentially got a subsidized vacation to a state I once knew only by name, and a cross-country road trip. And it was nice. Especially escaping the humidity of New York summers! But sometimes you will learn things that, while not entirely positive or negative, can make life more complicated.

  • What is best for you may not be what you want

I like to think that most people want what’s best for them. Indeed, for most of my life, what was best for me was closely linked to what I wanted. My time in Oregon seemed like it would be no different: I’d be working for a good company with great compensation to boot; I’d be in a state known for its natural beauty. And both of those things were what I wanted, and what was best for me.

However, into the summer, I realized there were things I wanted, that were different from what was best for me. I was hired because of my experience working with semiconductor equipment from my previous job. However, during the assignment I found that I barely used any of my vacuum system knowledge (although I did see plenty of vacuum systems there). To my employer’s credit, it was a manufacturing site, and any mistake on these expensive chambers would needlessly cost the company tens (or hundreds!) of thousands of dollars. Instead, my skills were transferred to projects involving installing auxiliary safety equipment for the manufacturing equipment, to be used during maintenance procedures.

I definitely do not think the projects were meaningless or mundane. Safety is #1 in the semiconductor industry (as it should be), and these projects were still real engineering projects at their core, with real engineering challenges, with real business impacts. But I wanted to do more direct work on the fabrication of devices themselves; helping develop unit processes, or design new process flows, or maybe even design the nanostructures themselves*. Projects closer to nanoscale engineering, rather than mechanical engineering. As much as I wanted to do such tasks, I had a stronger track record working on equipment than in process. It was best for me to be delegated to an equipment role; past performance is a pretty reliable indicator of future results. A less risky gamble for the company looking to hire.

In regards to post-college options, working in true nanoscale engineering also requires graduate education; a possibly long and painful continuation of school, with greater uncertainty**. A career in equipment engineering, as I learned during my summer assignment, does not necessarily require this sacrifice. In addition, the company is known to pay well and treat their employees well. Some of the engineers have been with the company for over two decades, as equipment engineering is a stable career path. This is especially important given the infamous volatility of the semiconductor industry, where you can go through multiple cycles of hiring and firing within just a decade. Becoming an equipment engineer would be best for me in terms of financial stability, yet I want to pursue graduate education, as it would allow me to fully utilize my degree and pursue my intellectual interests.

And when graduate school can take half a decade to finish, choosing what’s best for me versus what I want is not exactly trivial.

  • It’s easier than you’d think to let yourself go, especially on your own

Like anyone with the prospect of travelling to some distant land, I was excited by the novelty and opportunity awaiting me. Oregon is a state known for its natural beauty, and the Portland area is known for its hipster culture, music scene, and restaurants. I thought about all the cool mountains to hike, natural formations to visit, concerts to watch, and people to meet.

Yet, for the first two weeks or so, I simply stayed in my apartment when I wasn’t at work. Doing exactly what I would do if I was still in New York in the summer. Nothing. The only difference was the room I was in, geographically speaking. I thought that the full experience of a new environment would passively diffuse into me, and that I’d immediately begin enjoying everything. Not so.

I had to make a conscious, and sometimes concentrated, effort to keep my summer from just being a repetitive cycle of work and home. Oregon definitely had its allure, but I had to look for it. It was so much easier to just wake up, go to work, get back from work, loaf around, then sleep, and repeat. The weekends would just be the same, minus work. It was so much easier to let myself go.

Eventually I came to my senses and realized I’d let this opportunity go to waste if I did nothing. So I started small and looked for good hiking spots for the weekend. I found myself visiting the beautiful Oregon coastline, hiking around Mt. Hood, and exploring the Ape Caves in Washington State. A lot of these destinations were a non-trivial distance away from my apartment; at least 90 minutes to be exact. But it was worth it; I saw natural sights you’d be hard pressed to find on the Eastern seaboard, let alone within reasonable driving distance of Albany. I saw some cool things along the way; bucolic two-lane roads nestled in lush evergreen forests, a dairy product factory complete with its own visitors center and museum, tons of green crosses, and a roadside shop with an inconceivable variety of beef jerky. Oregon truly is a unique place. I still think about those views from the coast a lot.

And to think I wouldn’t have experienced any of that if I didn’t muster the millijoules of energy required to search up places of interest. I could have squandered a wholesome opportunity that summer because it is easier to be lazy, than happy. Especially so when there’s no parents or friends to drag you places. Left to my own devices (literally), I found it difficult to resist the temptation to do nothing. I figured that once you set that lethargic routine, perhaps when you begin living alone for the first time, it can be extremely hard to break. You could spend years living in the most exciting place in the world, but never get to enjoy any of it because habits are hard to break. It’s a good thought to keep in the back of your mind, especially in the age of smartphones and other addictive media.

Now, I’m not saying you need to visit a bunch of places in a region to take full advantage of it, but when you travel cross country to a state known for its natural sights, it’s a huge waste to not to.

  • Final Thoughts

As cool as it would have been to say I hiked to a peak of the mountain and found the secrets of the universe, that certainly did not happen. But I did learn a few things that I think would make anyone better off the in the long run. If you know what you want isn’t necessarily what is best for you, then deciding between the two will definitely require a more thorough evaluation, and second opinions. If you know that it is easier to let yourself go, all the more reason to spice up a stagnant lifestyle, whatever you want that to mean.

  • *Little did I know how laborious this actually is. (cries in high contact resistance)
  • **I knew what I was getting myself into, and yet here I am anyway