Sunday, October 12, 2014

What your future self would say to you about your career choice

You are a student. You have worked hard to achieve success. You have enthusiasm and goals and you are rightfully optimistic about your future. How fortunate and thrilling to be on this path! 

If you are like me, you might imagine that if you simply become as educated as possible and follow your passions that someday an employer will knock on your door and offer you your dream job. To my dismay, this did not happen to me. I learned that I had to apply my knowledge of research to the task of job searching, considering the pros and cons and all of the constraints that I imposed on myself. Fortunately, with a little searching and mentorship from professionals (like professors!), you can set yourself on a path that is right for you. 

Through this process of searching, listen to yourself. YOU are the one who will live with the outcome. Don't live someone else's dream. Listen to advice from trusted family, teachers, career counselors and friends. What person or persons know you best and can list your best qualities? What would they say that you are good at? What would they say that you enjoy? How would you answer these questions? 

Today, I'm not offering specifics. Instead, I will guide you through a more fundamental part of the process. However, let me list a few broad categories open to physics students:

With a physics major, you could go on to…
·         ·      graduate studies in physics, mathematics or another science
·      career in industry, technology, the private sector
·      engineering
·      military
·      civilian government or at a national lab
·      teach
·      financial sector
·      medical professions
·      law
·      and many more…

Now let's go back a step to what you might consider before you get to specifics. There are many things to consider on your journey. You may have many jobs during your work life. As you ponder the following questions, consider talking with professionals who have careers that you might want. Ask them if they enjoy their jobs. Ask them what kind of training would best prepare you for their jobs. Ask them what a typical work day is like in their professions. Your future self will thank you for doing this!

Try this exercise:   
  • Think about your education and career choice from the future backwards… Imagine yourself 10 years from now. Imagine that you just came home from work. Consider the people you interact with at work and at home. What would you have accomplished that day that would make you happy? It doesn't have to be something grand, maybe it's simple, like you mentored another person or you contributed to a larger goal, or you kept the lab safe for your colleagues. 
Answers to these questions will constrain or open up possibilities for your path:
  • What kind of lifestyle do you want to live?
  • What kind of salary will satisfy this lifestyle?
  • In what kind of environment do you thrive? Outdoors? Laboratory? Academia? Doing research? Collaborating with others? 
  • What kind of hours will you work? Full-time, typical business hours, nights, weekends? Seasonal position? 
  • Do you want to run your own business? Are you good at managing other people or do you prefer to do the work yourself? 
  • In what part of the world or country do you want to live? The west, the east, small town, city, college town, on a farm? Will you walk, drive, bus, telecommute or ride your bike to work? Some fields in physics are not available in some parts of the country. 
  • You may have to work your way up to the position that you want. You may work many different positions. And you may decide that further education is what you need. 
  • What positions will fit the criteria that you have already listed? What suits your skills, your interests? One of your goals should be to feel confident, accomplished and respected in your work. Researchers who study happiness know that people who are happiest are people who are fully absorbed in the task at hand, not wondering about the future or past. 
  • What are the skills you will use most? Computational science? Communication, presentation skills? Experimental research? Machine working? Problem-solving? Financial management?
  • Do you need more classes/schooling for the job you want? Don’t know? Then ask a professional in that career what education would best train you for that job. 

In the words of Dr. Suess, "Your mountain is waiting, so get on your way!"