Saturday, June 16, 2012

Career Advice for New Grads

A few days ago I was describing my old engineering job to one of my physics students.  I summarized the role I played as a structural engineer for an astronautical space company, ensuring that satellites that were launched into space would not break during rocket launch or during the thermal cycling of Low-Earth orbit.  I would optimize the parts for cost and mass, and then know that these multi-million dollar hunks of metal and composite fiber would encircle our planet relaying electromagnetic signals for years to come.

Then came a question that I get asked a lot: "Why did you leave?"

I left a few years ago, and had a difficult time answering this question clearly and accurately at that time.  Now, having practiced my response to "Why did you leave engineering to teach physics?" about a hundred times, I am beginning to better understand it myself.  While major career decisions are seldom one-dimensional, the ultimate reason that I left my 'cool' job tinkering with high-tech space equipment is quite straight forward.

When I was a university student, I thought that the best career for me was one that I would (A) be good at, (B) find challenging, and (C) find interesting.  And, yes, the salary I would receive from my given career path was also considered (though it was not, and is not to this day, my primary concern).

Today, having worked as an engineer and physics teacher for three years apiece, I realize that I completely overlooked the most important consideration when I weighed my career options six years ago: one must aim to find a job that one finds meaningful.  Only once this primary tick box is checked should all the secondary ones (skill, interest, challenge, pay) begin to be examined.

What is meant by a meaningful job?  It means that the ultimate consequences of the work that you do are in line with your core values.  It means that you "believe in what you do" (to quote a line from singer-songwriter, Peter Katz).

There is a wide spectrum for how meaningful a given career path can be, but it ranges from "this job is in complete opposition to my personal values" to "this job is in exact alignment with what I value".

My old job probably falls exactly in the middle of this spectrum.  I felt, and still feel, pretty neutral about building satellites that distribute cell phone feeds and television channels to various areas around the globe.  I don't feel particularly bad for having been involved in that line of work, but I don't feel too great about it either.  That's just the thing: I don't feel anything in particular - no real connection to that work.

It is so funny to reflect on it now, as I see it all so much clearer than I did then.  At the time when I was madly in search of a change in career a few years back, I did not quite understand why I felt such disdain for my job.  It was an interesting job and a challenging one too.  It was well-suited to my skill set, and the pay and benefits were good.  Now I see that all of that is of little consequence if the fruits of your labour leave you indifferent.  

How can you spend 40+ hours per week invested in something that you yourself do not feel strongly about?  The answer is that you are not truly invested if this is the case.  You can be present; you can even be very good at your job; but, in order to be truly invested in your work, you must feel some attachment to it.

As I described these feelings to my student, she understandably (and cheekily) responded, "So, you left your meaningless job in order to teach others to pursue meaningless careers of their own?"

In truth, this issue was heavy on my heart in the early going of my time as a teacher.  But, after careful reflection, I don't see it this way at all.

As a teacher, I derive much meaning from my job on many levels.  The ultimate consequence of my work (when it has been successful) is that young individuals have developed their scientific skill set, are better critical thinkers, and are more proficient problem solvers.  They can then in turn seek employment that they hopefully find is meaningful for them.

I am by no means against the engineering profession.  I just know that if I ever do return to this profession, the particular employer I choose to work for must be in the business of something I care deeply about.  Two areas come to mind: discovery in space and green energy production.  Let me be clear on this: these are not the right engineering fields - they just happen to be the right ones for me, because I consider them to be of vital importance.  There are meaningful jobs out there, but they must be sought.

Do I regret my years in the space industry?  No.  I did not build bombs or do anything that goes against my personal beliefs.  I would, however, seriously regret doing something that I felt indifferent about for the duration of my career.  I can imagine looking back rather shamefully at my career had I stuck it out for thirty years.  I am certain that many people do.  I would guess that many retirees have such feelings, but do not take the time to carefully examine them due to fear of the pain that it would cause. 

So, in answer to my brave student who challenged me the other day: I left my meaningless job in order to teach science to students.  If I happen to encourage some of them to seek out meaningful careers for themselves along the way, then great.  It has been a great relief to me to realize that such opportunities do actually exist for them.  They just need to work for them, but just as importantly, look for them.    


Tom said...

Very insightful and personal piece Steve. And something we should all consider. There are 2 things to also consider though, the ability to truly quantify meaningful to ourselves at the age at which these decisions must be made, and the second being that this question is essentially unique to each person's vaules and priorities, which may put the primary desire on other items you listed as consideration.

This does not invalidate the piece in any way shape or form though, as asking the question, even written from a subjective point of view is important and valid regardless... It seems to me we are none of us prepared to truly answer at such a young age, with little to no conception of what 'real life' will be in 5 years later. But thinking about it, and actively quantifying the variables as you put them is vital to heading in the right direction.

Good job!

The Engineer said...

Thanks Tom.

You are right about the subjectivity of the job priorities as I've listed them.

I also agree that such viewpoints change over the course of one's career. This tells me two things:

(1) It is hard for young people to arrive at what ultimately is the best career for them 5 or 10 years down the line.
(2) More importantly, we must, every so often, re-evaluate our career path as we mature as individuals.

Anonymous said...

Interesting article, I guess we gotta make decisions that are truly meaningful to us, and not for worldly expectations.