Why choosing a career is hard and why it should be

When someone asks me how I came to be what I am today, I say that I walked down the path of diminishing salaries and stopped where I felt that that is the least I needed to earn. What I don’t tell them is that, if there is one thing that I’ve struggled with constantly as a young adult, it would be with my choice of career.

At the age of 17, when I was about to enter university, I wanted to make lots of money but also be as educated as my dad. The middle ground was to become an engineer, earn an MBA and get a high-paying job. Chemistry and maths were the subjects I liked, so I decided to do chemical engineering.

At 20, in the middle of my engineering degree, I decided that my education was too shallow. To be truly valued I needed to become an expert. Earning money can wait. This is why I decided to pursue a PhD in organic chemistry, the subject I enjoyed the most.

At 23, in the middle of my PhD, I realised that, while research is a noble pursuit, my temperament is not cut out for a life spent trying to solve problem in a single narrowly-defined field of science. There were far too many interesting things happening in the world to not know and think about. That is when I started blogging about science. And money had merely become a means to an end, not an end in itself.

Now, at 26, having finished my PhD, I have become a science journalist. It seems like the job that I feel I could do most with given my skills, my temperament and my ethical code. It is the job in which I’ve found myself to be most at peace with myself.

And yet, even today I struggle with my choices. Every so often, I have to take a few steps back and look at what I’m doing. I feel torn about the opportunities that I may have let go on my way here, and those I still let go because I’ve made a decision to do something else.

Hard at work
Hard at work? Be sure to think about why you work. Svein Halvor Halvorsen

Do all young adults suffer from the same? Do they all give this critical choice of their life enough thought? Do we even have a culture that promotes deep thinking about our own careers? From what I read on Cal Newport’s blog, the answer to all the above questions seems to be “no”.

In a sharp commentary, Ezra Klein, a Washington Post columnist, explains that this lack of thinking about careers (or, more precisely, “no idea what to do next”) leads the world of finance to swoop up smart graduates with great work ethic. These kids did not enter university thinking they are going to spend their life making money for the already rich, but for the lack of better options and the attraction of a fat paycheck that’s what they end up doing.

Thinking about your career is as much a responsibility to yourself as it is to society that depends on you. In your lifetime there will be only so many hours spent working and contributing to the world (80,000 by one estimate), the least you can do is ensure that those hours are spent productively.

Newport’s summary of the three things that one must think about when choosing a career is a good start:

  1. The value of craftmanship
  2. The importance of lifestyle
  3. A personal ethic

That I would contend is still not enough.

6 thoughts on “Why choosing a career is hard and why it should be”

  1. I liked your post! I am Ph.D in Plant Science. In fact I often find myself torn between these two possibilities.Choosing between an academic career and communication world is really hard and heartbreaking to some extent. People who loves to communicate often find the single-subjected life of an academic or scientist suffocating. Science communication is better for them. But they have to loose something on the way inevitably. You have to leave your pipette man in order to do justice to your pen or keyboard. But I think at some point we have to stop, take a decision and stick to it through thick and thin. We can’t be everywhere at the same time. I am not sure whether society has or should have any role in this matter. These decisions are mostly personal and sometimes so difficult for the time being.

    1. Hi Lekha,

      Thanks for the comment. These decisions are difficult, and that is why you rarely feel confident about taking one side over the other. And you are right, the final decision should be a personal one. But this is not to say that society doesn’t play a role in the decision you make.

      Just being in graduate school puts you among the most privileged people in the world. In the rich world you are among the top 10% and in the poor world in the top 0.1%. Something we don’t often think about. This is why it is difficult not to take on responsibility that such privilege comes with.

      Good luck,

      1. Yes Akshat! you are true. Wrong career decisions lead to wastage of human resource. That is a loss for society specially after a certain level. So it should play a role in the process. But the question is how! Well, it could be a good project entitled something like ‘innovating involvement of society in citizen career-decision’!
        Good topic!

  2. Awesome post, thanks. I’ve been struggling with similar thoughts ever since undergrad.

    And I agree that it should be a difficult process because it’s about understanding yourself as well as the world around you – both of which is extremely complex – and finding the niche where you can feel fulfilled occupying.

    But once the search is done and the niche is found then the opportunities and money will all follow.

    So spending your twenties really figuring this out was a very good way of spending your time.

    I realise that I have been too impatient in seeking to “make an impact” without thinking about what exactly I can offer the world. Hence the need to specialise an get good before being able to say “this is what contribution I can make”

  3. This post reflects what I have been through. Changing a decision you have deliberated over takes courage. Ultimately your decision has to be based on your own scale. You have to be happy with what you are doing. But that does not mean you don’t look back and question your decisions. It is something I have done often.

  4. Choosing a new career—whether you want to do a drastic 180 or just make a minor shift—can seem downright impossible. There are so many options. You don’t know what you’re qualified to do. Frankly, you’ve been so busy worrying about your current job that you haven’t taken half an hour to consider what you’d rather be doing. And when you do start to think about it? Your mind morphs into a cloudy mess of overwhelm.

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