Career decisions

Jan 15 2016 Published by under Uncategorized

The further one gets into their career, the more intentional they have to be about every decision. The number of factors that impact every step seems to go from a few to ‘too many to consider all at once.’

I didn’t struggle choosing my career path. Things seemed to just work themselves out. Of course there were decision points, but things felt right one way. After some thought, but not agonizing thought, it felt like I knew what to do. I didn’t necessarily make the best choices. Maybe if I had picked a different postdoc lab with a more supportive and directed environment I would currently be a confident, productive, late career postdoc on the search for a tenure-track position. But just as babyattachmode explained in her recent post, the academic track, while not easy or simple, at least has a predetermined path to follow. When you consider options outside of academia, it gets less clear.

Now, regardless of my past decisions, I am at a decision point but this time no direction feels natural. There is no automatic decision even after years of considering the options. The decision is not easy and I need to really think about what I want out of career, which goes hand in hand with what I want out of life.

I try to think about what I want, but not everything is compatible. A well-paid, interesting, world-enhancing career that leaves plenty of time for my family would be lovely, but not obviously attainable. So how do I choose?

I recently read an article that suggested that instead of thinking about what you want you should think about what negatives you’re willing to work through. I think that is really smart advice. Based just on what I want, there is no answer for my future. However, if I focus on what downsides I can handle (there are downsides to every job) I can balance the bad and the good in a way that suits my needs.

The number one thing I want is time. Time with my family, time so that we’re not always rushing, time so that I’m living my life purposefully instead of rushing from one thing to the next, time so that I’m not cranky with those I love. This is a positive thing that I want but it is also indicative of what I won’t put up with. I wouldn’t take a job that takes all of my time.

Having that constraint limits my options. I then have to decide what trade-offs I am willing to take to have that time.

I’m not willing to take a mindless job. I want some kind of challenge, some kind of thought or analysis or novelty. At the same time it doesn’t have to be the most novel or the most challenging. Would a job as a medical writer be interesting enough? Would a job in science outreach be enough of a challenge? Doctor PMS never imagined herself in sales but has found a fulfilling job in science sales. Is that something I should consider?

Am I willing to have a job that doesn’t have a positive impact on the world? I don’t think I’ve ever discovered anything that has truly changed our understanding of biology, even on a small scale, but at least in basic biological research that is the goal. If I move away from that, what will be my role in the larger scheme of things? Clearly there are other obviously impactful careers but some jobs are less clear. A step away from bench science into user experience research, a career suggested by a friend, might be interesting, but may not fit any lofty ideals. Am I ok with that?

Other factors include money, location, pressure, subject matter, and respect. I am still debating many of those. Have you made a major career decision that didn’t feel natural? Did you have any strategies that helped you decide?



2 responses so far

  • Zuska says:

    Having done both medical writing and outreach program work (planning, management, execution, fundraising, etc.) I can honestly say that these two career options provide challenges you can't imagine till you are in the thick of it; can be immensely satisfying and rewarding; and in the case of medical writing, can leave you with plenty of time for a happy life outside work. For me personally, I found outreach work all-consuming mentally and emotionally, and much more of a time suck - programs run in the evening, on weekends; there's grant writing just as in research; and lots of moving parts to coordinate. But you definitely feel you are doing something to make the world better. Maybe not so much with med writing - but you have the free time to make the world better in other ways, e.g. volunteering in your community. Maybe even volunteering for some outreach project!!

    Some of the joy of these "alternative" careers comes in realizing that the career is not the place where you find all the meaning and purpose of your life, or not the only place. It's not only through work that you can make an impact on the world.

    And for women, I think it's helpful to contemplate the notion that the years in which you give most to society may be far down the road yet - in your fifties, sixties, seventies, when other responsibilities drop away, and you have the time & energy to give of yourself. My township's Shade Tree Commission is chaired by a retired engineer who is largely responsible for preserving a large tract of forest-meadow-stream bird habitat from a planned disastrous storm water diversion project. Township residents, and the birds, will benefit for decades to come from her work.

    • DJMH says:

      Zuska, that is a lovely example of life arcs--right now I often think about how little I can contribute outside the very very busy home life with small kids plus work life, and it is nice to have something to look forward to...

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