What do you want to be when you grow up?
Kids have this question thrown at them all the time, all the way through school and even after. We tell them they can be anything they want to be, and then present it like it’s a single choice, like you can pick your career out of a catalogue and once that choice is made, your life is set out for you.
If you’ve ever read through a university calendar or website, you know what I mean. If you choose to study physics… you’re on your way to becoming a physicist. If you choose medicine… you get to be a doctor. If you don’t study anything beyond high school (and take on the debt that comes with it)… you’ll be working menial jobs for the rest of your life.
But here’s what no one tells you…
You don’t choose a career.
You build a career.
An education is not a career. When you finish your high school education, the choices that you make aren’t necessarily choices about a career. You choose an educational direction. And of course that’s going to influence your career options. But your education is simply laying a foundation. It can be critically important, but it doesn’t determine what the final house is going to look like.
Anecdotally, I remember a survey of members of the Physics Forums, several years ago that asked whether people ended up where they thought they would be when they entered university. Only a very, very low number found this was true. More than one person mentioned they were working in a field that didn’t even exist when they started! I for one had no idea what medical physics was when I first started my undergraduate studies. I mean… why would anyone want to study how radiation interacts with people when you can study black holes?
So many people feel guilty when the path they’re on isn’t working out. They feel like they’ve failed because they took a wrong turn. And while it’s true, you can’t go back to being 18 again and make different decisions, it’s important to be aware of, and fight against sunken cost effects. If you’re on a career path that’s not working, you can change directions.
And often the sunken cost isn’t quite as sunk as you might think.
As you build your career, the knowledge that you pick up and the skills that you develop are rarely exclusive to a single vocation. My grandfather loved telling a story about how, when he was in high school, he took all these typing classes and then once he got out into the workforce he went for years never using that skill. But then in the late 70s or so, the company he worked for went digital. Everything went computerized and the employees were laid off left right and center. Except… those who could type (and figure out the computer system).
A career is build brick by brick, based on the opportunities one has at the time. It’s the result of a gradual accumulations of many choices over time. And some serendipity.