08 May, 2011

The career pyramid

The conventional way to think about one’s future career usually is to simulate the career as
1.       Learn basic skills
2.       Specialize
3.       Profit

This is a very intuitive way to think, as everyone agrees that advanced skills are based on more basic skills. Therefore, a career is like building a pyramid – you have to start from the foundations and gradually work your way up. So your career might look like this:

A common implicit derivation from this is that you have to commit to your chosen career in the early stages. After all, you can’t build a pyramid by chance – you have to know what you’re doing! This leads into the idea that the sooner you know what your thing is, the better you’ll be. This is a useful, yet a potentially very dangerous thought. How so?

To look at usefulness first, it is obvious that you need certain skills to succeed in a given profession. If you want to become a physicist, learning proper math skills is highly recommended. On the other hand, wanting to be a cook hardly requires any understanding in the subtleties of Laplace transformations. Building a large enough toolbox – yet one with enough punch per tool – is a necessary requirement for success. It doesn’t matter if you’re the brightest person in the field if you’re missing the necessary tools to solve the problems (although being smart admittedly makes it easier to learn stuff as you need it and make ad hoc solutions on the go). Still, often you simply don’t have the extra three months to learn a new methodology, but you must solve the problem with your hammer and screwdriver – even if a chainsaw was the perfect option. So, it is a rather good idea to think about the tools you’re going to need in the future.

The dangerousness of “the sooner the better” view is that it implicitly assumes that your interests cause the need for tools, and that the relationship never works the other way. This is, according to my experience, simply not true. There are two reasons for this: firstly, we humans have an uncanny ability to increase our interest in whatever we are focusing on. Personally, I’ve often only gotten really into something as I’ve started doing it. Keeping this blog would be a prime example of that effect. Secondly, sometimes you need to master a set of tools before you can even answer why you need them in the first place. Thinking about examples, I believe quantum mechanics would qualify for this (even though I’m not a physicist and possess hardly any knowledge in the quantum field).

In university everybody is taught the basic toolkit for a field. If we never recognize the existence of non-standard career paths most people are just going to aim for the standard track with the standard toolkit. Definitely a good way to suppress innovation! To exaggerate a bit: how are we ever going to think outside the box in other contexts, if we can't do it even in the context of our own career future?

As such, this issue is not really a hard problem. A lot could be done with simple cross-scientific socialization (to realize there are actual people outside one’s own field), mentoring (to exemplify out-of-the-box careers) and other methods that promote the existence of a non-standard toolkit.

So what is the grand realization, in reality? Depending on the person it could be anything from a simple “not every business student works in banking or a consulting” to a good understanding of possible problems outside the basic university skill set, finding them as interesting – or even more! Whatever the exact formulation, it could be characterized as an insight that not every career is like a pyramid. Nor should it be. To sum up graphically, your career pyramid might in the end instead look something like this:

Maybe the specialization helped you discover something even more important than before and you ended up doing something outside the standard track. With life, that’s actually quite likely to happen. I’m looking forward to it.

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