A recent entry into the world of paychecks described his new job to me as “really fun,” but then added regretfully that he did not have the “freedom” he desired. Over the years, I have heard “freedom” used in this context many times, and the lack of it is almost always described in a wistful tone. A job might be challenging, fulfilling and well-paying, but somehow this is all for naught if the job lacks “freedom”– a code word for the sad fact that you usually cannot work on whatever strikes your fancy. Not surprisingly, the company, agency or university that is paying for your equipment, travel and salary expects something in return, and you can’t always choose the tasks required of you.

Our expectations of “freedom” arise in college or graduate school, when professors are our closest examples of professionals in our chosen field. We aspire to be just like them. They often encourage us to explore and pursue any wild idea we may have, so it may seem that they themselves are working without constraints. Well, hardly. The work day of most professors I know is consumed by committee work, teaching obligations, proposal writing and various support tasks. In their spare time, they can work on anything they want—so long as it does not require students, equipment or travel. Otherwise, they need to find someone to fork over the cash to fund the project. Once the contract is signed, the professors are obligated to satiate the person providing the funding.

Your job search will be easier and more successful if you seek an employer who needs whatever it is that you want to do, rather than looking for flexibility in the job description. This will allow you to do work that you like and keep your employer happy at the same time. Most people’s technical interests evolve in response to their environment, so your activities will tend to remain aligned with those of your organization.

You will soon be consumed by matters and problems arising in your job, which will stimulate new interests as well. You may even find that working under the constraints of a well-defined project unleashes your creativity in a way that you never would have expected. It is therefore important that you find employment that challenges your abilities and provides the opportunity to learn something. It helps when the work environment allows coworkers to discuss matters frankly without engendering hard feelings. 

Also consider which aspect of “freedom” is most important to you—is it the freedom to choose your hours, select your favorite tasks or projects, or create your own vision of something? Many people want to make a difference in the world: to make better devices, devise a better way of doing something, discover new effects, send forth well-educated graduates, etc. A number of my acquaintances have left comfortable situations for the uncertainties of startups, working stressful 16-hour days with very narrowly defined goals. Most find it to be stimulating, and if the start-up folds, they seek another one. They have almost no freedom on technical topics, but maximal freedom to make an impact. Many have told me that you cannot imagine the satisfaction you feel when a product on which you have been toiling for a year or two finally hits the marketplace, and you see it spreading throughout the country or world.

Many factors enter into a search for a position. Be wary of putting undue emphasis on the chimera of “freedom.” There are other factors that are more important and enduring.

Bob Jopson (virgin@alcatel-lucent.com) works on optical communications at Bell Labs, Alcatel-Lucent.