Wednesday, March 02, 2016


“Figuring Out What I Want to Be”

How did you figure out what you wanted to be when you grew up?

And yes, I know, “I haven’t yet.”  That’s cute.  But honestly, how did you?

I’m asking because so many students struggle with trying to figure out a career goal.  A fair number of them, when asked, will say that identifying a career goal was a primary motivation for going to college at all.  

Career counseling helps, especially early.  But I’m guessing relatively few adults identified their career goals that way.  

Having a goal makes it easier to stick around when things get difficult.  Struggling towards a definable and desired goal feels productive; struggling towards nothing in particular just feels pointless.  We know that students who don’t know why they’re in college tend to persist at lower rates than those who are working towards something.

For me, a general sense came early, with fine-tuning taking longer.  I think that’s probably pretty standard.  And that’s okay - the kinds of jobs that are out there change over time, and some of the hot jobs of ten years from now probably don’t exist yet.  (Ten years ago, was “social media consultant” even a thing?)  I had a general sense of my strengths, weaknesses, and tastes, and I gravitated towards fields that seemed to fit.  That involved some trial and error, naturally, but that’s to be expected.

Weber makes a great distinction between making accidents happen -- which is impossible by definition -- and making yourself accident-prone.  Given that there’s some level of accident in discovering career goals, are there scalable ways to make more students accident-prone?  

When I was in high school, it was clear that I excelled at math. So I went to college deciding to major in math. Then when I was in college, I continued to excel in math but also enjoyed my job as a tutor. So I decided to go to grad school for a PhD in math so that I could become a professor.

The research I was doing ended up being far too difficult for me (both in a "this is hard" way and in a "I don't want to lock myself in a room and study something nobody else understands" way), but I did enjoy teaching, so I ran away with my master's degree and decided to teach at a community college.

Part of it ended up being simple luck: the path I chose had an exit point that allowed me to do the thing that seemed best (master's degree -> teaching at a community college). But part of it was me making choices that would lead to several opportunities. Studying math in college could open the doors up to several professions, either strictly mathematical or more in the realm of physics or computer science. Then grad school would give me experience in research and teaching, so I could pick one or the other if the combination didn't work out for me.
Well said, DeanDad.

My development was similar to yours, with one additional twist: I looked at job banks to see which jobs I could imagine myself doing in 10-20 years. A number of possibilities came up, though all had drawbacks. Looking at the job requirements, I then backtracked to see what I needed to do now (degree level, field of study, etc) to get there in 20 years time.

The other component of figuring out what I wanted to do was figuring out what I DIDN'T want to do. Learning what my professors' field of study was, and what previous jobs my TA's had had was excellent at doing that.

Lastly, I got a lot of random opportunities. In the words of my alma mater's former president "say 'yes' to opportunity". Some of those opportunities are random and completely out left field, and some I could only do because I didn't have other obligations (mortgage, kids, etc.). One year, I got an internship opportunity, sanctioned by my program, that came up so late that I ended up dropping all my classes, moving 400 miles, to do an 8-month internship. That led to me going to grad school.

Other opportunities were more subtle, and were doable in school. An office mate was running for an executive position and asked if I could take his seat on a board. All on-campus, all during daylight hours. I said yes, and that led to further involvement, and a paid internship, all during daylight hours, and most of it done from a computer (so I could have done it at home, in the evenings). That involvement on campus caught the attention of my current employer, and gave my resume a value-added component.

In short, taking advantage of opportunities that fit with your lifestyle and other obligations really helps determine what you like, what you're good at, and what you want to avoid. Opportunities during school years are experiential, not hypothetical, so you find out pretty quick where your passions lie. Uni's and CC's are very diverse in opportunities in terms of what they cover and who they serve; I think where they could help is targeting/accommodating some opportunities to individuals with other obligations. Alternatively, when you put out an opportunity ad (job, internship, volunteer), include a target audience that you are seeking for this position.
I think a strengths based approach as you reference is fairly common and it set me on my career path in a way. I happened to excel in linguistics, driving me toward a dual major (mostly out of convenience) in Spanish and Latin American Studies. I had no particular career in mind until one fateful adventure trip for my Camping & Canoeing Class (to fulfill my PE gen ed. requirement, no less) in the Minnesota boundary waters had me cross paths with a chaperon who was the development officer for my college.

This gentleman told me how he too, had majored in Spanish at my very institution, and went on to earn his MPA in international publc admin at the Middlebury (then Monterey) institute of International Studies, in Monterey, California. He told me that I'd be a perfect candidate for the program as dual language proficiency was a prerequisite for admission. We then talked about the MPA degree in conceptual terms it seemed like all of the leadership and management tools of an MBA without the profit/money grubbing motive. I was sold. I applied to 5 MPA programs later that year, and while my original plan to work for the Department of State in South America somewhere didn't quite pan out...the MPA definitely led my on to my current career path.

TL;DR: Strengths can help, but a mentor is probably the surest way to find direction. For some people who lack social capital or are in impoverished communities where they are the first to attend college, mentors worth looking up to may be in short supply. In those instances, an advisor or trusted faculty member can assume that role.
I never had any doubts about what I wanted to just kept changing. When I was 10/11, I wanted to be a nuclear physicist, because ATOMS! Then (age 12) I discovered Perry Mason (the books were more of an influence, but the TV show--RAYMOND BURR!__helped), and thought being a lawyer was the life for me. When I started cllege, I still had the lawyer thing going, and I thought knowing something about economics would make me a better lawyer...and, about the same time, I realized how much I loved being on a college campus. So for a couple of years, it was an internal debate--law school, grad school. Grad school won, and, 47 years regrets.

(I left out the fantasy about being the catcher for the Yankees; I couldn't hit a Little League fastball, so that one gave way to reality pretty quickly.)
I got really interested in computer when I was about 11. By the time I was in high school, I really wanted to be a system administrator or computer security something-or-other. I'm an IT Director now; I initially saw myself as more hands-on, but I ended up being much happier when I could set the direction than when I was just taking orders.

The tired advice is to find something that you're passionate about. Some passions, unfortunately, are not meant to be your career. Drama/acting, for example, is okay if you're willing to move around a lot and don't need to make a lot of money. If you're attached to the idea of settling down and being the primary breadwinner, you need to be open to doing something else. We ultimately need to find something that can fit our lifestyle goals. If you're pursuing an academic path that doesn't easily lead to a career, take a couple of business classes and try to intern somewhere or get a part time job that allows you to explore career options. Retail jobs, which are common for students, don't offer a lot of upward mobility. Better options would be interning in a marketing department, doing part-time IT work (if you have some tech savvy), staffing booths at conferences/sales events or doing clerical work in a larger organization in an industry you have some interest in.
Curiously enough, I picked my profession when I was in grade school because ... EINSTEN. That gave way to other things and (like another writer) I majored in math when I entered college because ... CLCULUS. I dabbled here and there (other things I found out I liked when I took the class for the heck of it) and chance put me in a class with a prof that blew my mind. By then I had realized that, although real math included some things I really liked, I preferred to apply it to the real world. The end result was that I turned a few elective credits into grad school in what I had also loved from the start. But my third choice would have been political science, which is why I am typing this while listening to a junior high student council debate while typing this note.

No career counseling anywhere along the line. Not even much advising other than a rubber stamp by a wonderful adviser who gave me the other key to my present. And the final key was a recession, so I went to grad school because the job I really wanted wasn't offered to me. Those folks sure lost out.

Did I ever imagine myself as a teacher? No, but I was always good at it in a one-on-one situation and I was in a place where undergrads get tapped to do what grad students do elsewhere. That wasn't entirely a random opportunity, but close. A different undergrad major would not have given me that chance and the training that came with it.

So, yes, it is certainly true that a career goal put me in college with the gumption to go after it, but I was easily distracted by things that I found more interesting as I learned more about what that major was all about and what those others involved. And I think that is what you were talking about. You don't really know what Job X involves and whether you like it at the level of a BS in college until you get in college and explore it. I was accident prone. The Markov chain that led to my current job seems exceedingly improbable, but every job is improbable at the level of the one person who gets it.
The single most useful thing I did was talk to a lot of adults about how they got to where they did. Figuring out where the entry points for given professions are was key.

I tried some things. I got jobs in high school--at a bank, as a waitress. Did an internship at a magazine because I thought I wanted to be a journalist. Did not like that. I thought I wanted to be a writer so went to get an MFA. Found out that I sucked at writing but was good at teaching. Did a stint at a corporate job and like parts of that too, mostly about working with people, understanding financials and things like that. I've found that administrative work really suits me. I get to work with people, and I get to think about underlying systems of the institution. Basically, I've been lucky, and I've reflected on things as I went along. Do I like this work? If yes, then why? I think most people don't find what suits them the first time out. And that's why having a broad skill base can be helpful. While I may never have become a writer, my writing skills are hugely important in my work. So, it's important to rejigger your skills as you go.
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