I recently ran into a friend I had not seen in several years. We got to chatting, updating each other on the major events in our lives over those years. Our children are about the same ages, so naturally we talked about what the kids were doing now.
She told me about her son, who had gone off to school to be a veterinarian. All went well for the first couple years of his study, and even through the first semester of practical work. However, when they moved to practical work on large animals, he learned (much to his dismay), that he was severely allergic to them, and couldn’t be around them for any extended period of time. That put a quick end to his dreams of being a country veterinarian, and he is now re-positioning himself for a career as a medical doctor. (Hopefully he won’t turn out to be allergic to people!).
Her story reminded me of a scientist who came to me for career consulting a number of years ago. He had received a generous severance package from a pharmaceutical company, and decided to use it to train himself to be a high school science teacher. After two years of additional education, he got his first hands-on experience as a student teacher in an classroom with actual teenagers. He quickly realized that reality was nothing like what he had expected, and this was not the right career path for him. Now he was looking for help finding a new direction, and trying not to feel like he’d wasted two years and a significant amount of money.
What is the common thread in both of these stories? In both cases, the individual thought they knew what they wanted to do, and was willing to spend years preparing and studying to do that. But in each case, they have had never really tried doing it. They did not have any actual experience in the field, or even in something close. When they finally got close enough to experience the real thing, it was not what they thought it was going to be after all.
I’m sure the same thing has happened to you. Hopefully not this drastically, but we’ve all experienced something that turned out to be different from what we were expecting. How do you avoid the kind of dramatic surprises that caught these two people unaware?
First, learn as much as you can about your goal. Talk to multiple people who have the job you think you want, not just about how they got it, but also about what they do on a daily basis. Ask if you can shadow them for a day or two, to see if what they really do is what they said they do. Talk to multiple people at multiple companies, as each one is going to give you a different perspective on the career. Talk to people at different stages of the career, to see how their perceptions change over time.
But ever better than talking about it, do it! Find a way to try out the job. Can you take on additional responsibility in your current job that is related to where you want to go? Is there a volunteer opportunity (or can you create one) that would let you experience part of this new career? Actually doing it yourself is best, because you not only learn whether or not you like doing it, but you also gain valuable experience that you can put on your resume. A potential employer wants to know that you can do the job, and the best way is to show them that you already have done it (or something very similar).
So once you know where you want to go, do some research and make sure the destination is really what you think it’s going to be – and you won’t be allergic to it when you get there.
This article was written by Lisa M. Balbes, Ph.D. of Balbes Consultants LLC. Lisa is a technical writer/editor and author of: “Nontraditional Careers for Chemists,” published by Oxford University Press.