Wednesday, February 27, 2013

Why Europe? Part 2: The Pragmatic Decision.

[This is Part 2 of a three part series entitled "Why Europe?" Read Part 1 | Part 3]

In my previous post in this series, I questioned the motives of asking the question, "Why would an American choose to live in Europe?" Not because it's a bad question in itself, but rather because of the stereotypes about Americans and what the US has to offer.

Despite my diatribe, the question itself is still worth answering. So in the next few posts, I'll give my answer to the "Why Europe?" question. There are simple ways and complex ways to answer this question. So I'll let you pick the satisfactory answer.

Back in 2009, I was working for a great company. It was a very successful career track offering a great team of employees and stability -- the latter being a particularly appealing feature in the midst of the dreaded "economic crisis." But the siren call of higher education enticed me after three years of work. Thus, I moved away from pure information technology and pursued research in machine translation.

[As an aside, if you're unfamiliar with machine translation, here's an obligatory video to show how Google Translate (and machine translation in general) works.]

With my study background in computer science, math, and Spanish, I deemed machine translation a suitable career decision. But again, "Why Europe?"

The United States is ripe with opportunities in Machine Translation. Many universities like Carnegie Mellon, Stanford, University of Washington, Johns Hopkins, and University of Pennsylvania (just to name a few) have excellent research groups and prominent research grants from research bodies like DARPA, focusing on challenging languages like Arabic and Chinese. Naturally, conducting my PhD research at any of these institutions would have yielded a successful career. And that's where I started looking. However, Google search doesn't always take you where you'd expect.

As I was broadening my knowledge in the machine translation field, I encountered a blog from a graduate of the Erasmus Mundus Language & Communication Technologies European Master's program, describing his experience pursuing a master's degree in Europe. In particular, this type of master's program offered the opportunity to study at two universities from a respectable consortium in the EU. Though I had never considered leaving the US for studies before, the description of the program provided an alternative worth considering.

So, weighing pros and cons about studying in the LCT program in Europe, I observed the following:
  • Europe provides a "real" case-study on the importance of translation. With 23 official languages and an EU-mandate that all documents and government services be provided in these languages, machine translation is a "must."
  • Linguistic opportunities. Participating in the LCT program entails living in two countries (in my case, the Netherlands and Italy). This provides opportunities to learn foreign languages in natural contexts.
  • Intercultural connections. In addition to being immersed in different languages, studying in Europe provides the opportunity to meet with people from all over the world, from locals to other international students. There are many opportunities to discuss intercultural perspectives on issues like culture, government, and religion.
  • Research facilities. Most of the universities in the LCT consortium are connected with research laboratories performing cutting edge research in computational linguistics (among other disciplines). EU-funded projects are in abundance and serve as the counterpart to US-funding for disciplines like machine translation.
  • Travel opportunities. Part of being pragmatic is being honest. Who would pass up opportunities to visit some of the most interesting places in the world?
Just boasting about where I've traveled.
These facts warranted applying for the LCT program. After eventually being accepted into the program, my wife and I made the decision to move to Europe for two years to complete the master's program -- after which I received an excellent opportunity to continue on to pursue a PhD in speech translation under a widely respected researcher, specializing in my exact research interests.

So now I leave it up to you:
Are you satisfied with my pragmatic reasons for living in Europe?

If not, stay tuned for the next post in this series.

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