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.

That job after that degree

Not too many years ago I was a teenager who shared the dreams of many other teenagers of getting a well-paying job after I completed my degree. I hoped, as many do of that age, that such a job will help me settle down, make enough money, raise a good family -in short, enable me to live happily ever after. It is a dream worthy of desire, but one that may only rarely ever turn to reality.

What brings such notions to young minds I do not know, but it is one that I have seen year after year as the newbies begin their professional education. It may be because of stories perpetrated by parents and relatives or may even be real life examples of people who pretend to be in such positions. Or perhaps it is the financial situation that most youth find themselves in.

If I have learnt anything, then it is that working towards a happily-ever-after future may be as futile as a dog chasing it’s own tail (may be that’s an exaggeration but you get my point). Wanting a job that will allow one to lead a life of stability without much struggle might just be dream, especially in today’s economic climate.

Many students come to read the ICT awareness pages on this blog to find information that may help them decide whether ICT is the right place for them. In the comments or by email, I get asked a question over and over again that pertains to the ‘placements’ offered to it’s graduates.

“I have admission for BChem at LIT, Nagpur and BTech Dyes in ICT, Mumbai. Will I get a better paying job if I choose ICT? What is the average salary offered to the graduating students?”

It is a vital question indeed, but should not be the only one on which the decision is made. It is not a bad thing to think about what one may achieve from studying at an institute, but it would certainly be unfair if money earned from a job after is considered the most important criteria.

As I mentioned before, I also, as a teenager, dreamt of an elusive job like the one you seek, but I am happy that I did not decide to come to ICT solely on that piece of information. Because within a year of my time in ICT, I had rid myself of that notion. From wanting to be a graduate with a fat pay-check, I decided to pursue higher studies at a student salary.

Many factors played a role in this change of direction. Today, I am glad that I took that step and can cite many reasons to discount the high-salary job as one of the decisive factors of one’s career.

It is important to remember that education of any kind will serve its purpose only when it opens doors for you that you did not know existed (by teaching you things that you did not know about before!). I certainly wasn’t thinking that I can become a scientist when I chose to do chemical engineering. Many things can happen when you spend time being educated with a group of smart people. That should probably figure as an important factor in deciding where you would like to get educated or where you would like to work when you finish.

Amongst all these news articles about IITians being paid huge salaries and IIM grads getting into the world’s top companies, one forgets about the day to day stuff. Behind all those big salaries and names there is a job which one needs to do everyday. A job that will involve going to the office, mixing up with colleagues, working on projects and delivering results. That daily stuff will be really hard, if you choose a job for the salary it offers and disregard your interest in the work. You may be able to survive the job if you are capable enough, but all that money will give you no satisfaction if the job is not of your liking.

Daniel Pink describes three things that give us great satisfaction and help us perform better: autonomy, mastery and purpose. You should go watch this talk to learn more and probably that will make it easy for you to see why people leave a very high paying Goldman Sachs’ position to work for a start-up.

It’s like the MasterCard line, ‘There are some things that money can’t buy, for everything else there is that high-paying job’.