As an undergrad my senior year, I had an inspiration or a thought that I might like to “teach” college. As a first-generation college student, I had no clue what professors really did. I only saw them in the classroom. So, I asked a question. “What does it take to be a professor at a university?”
I wasn’t ready for the full answer or complete picture, so my mentor said “Well, you will need a Master’s degree.” She knew it took much more, but a Master’s Degree was a good starting point. Ok, I thought to myself, someday I will do that.
I also knew that I wanted to have industry experience to bring real life experiences into the classroom. It was clear to me that I wasn’t ready to do “that thing called a thesis”. I heard how hard “it” (writing the thesis) was. I was in classes with grad students and in awe of them. All the work they had to do – I had doubts – could I really do that? A thesis? All that work? Research? I knew I wasn’t ready, so I focused on getting a job in industry.
That was the best decision for meat that time – to find a position in industry. In my industry position, I learned so much and began to work with a mentor. We did exciting research together; published papers; presented at conferences. They did not have undergraduate research programs when I was an undergrad – or – I was unaware of them. It was only after our third publication that I knew I was ready for Grad School and a thesis.
What I didn’t realize at that time was that there are many paths, turns, and bends that my career would take. But I kept asking along the way for direction and then decided on what was the best next step for me at that point in time.
My message is this – “A career is seldom a straight line to a goal.” Careers today usually follow a series of “branching decision points” – more so than when I started – although my career path did have its branching decision points as well.
Those branching decision points lead you to a path that provides valuable learning experiences or as I call them “tools” for the tool box. You may not realize how important those experiences are, but in time, you will see how valuable they are for your career path and you will be pleased to have that experience, knowledge, or “tool” to assist you in your career.
Today I see many career paths needing a balance between breadth and depth/specialization. Too much of either is not good. You need specialization to know your field and you need breadth to see beyond your discipline. There are important skills to learn that come with each – Breath and Depth/Specialization.
Through my journey, I discovered that I was unique and so are you! We all have our distinctive gifts; that’s why it’s important NOT to compare yourself to others. That’s why it’s important not be a clone. You don’t want to be a clone of your professor – you are unique and so are your life circumstances. It takes a lot of courage to follow your own path. In the end, the journey will bring you great satisfaction. Mine has.
Look for mentors who can provide encouragement and share their experiences.
How do you do that? Take the first step and …
- Talk to alumni
- Use your professional meetings and network
- Ask key people along the way as I did, “What best advice would you give me?” or “How can I get that experience?”
- Use your Grad Student Organizations, Career Fairs, Research Symposia to network with peers and others especially industry or faculty leaders.
You never know from where your next leading will come. It’s all about networking. Talking to others about their experiences is key.
Finally, remember you are on a journey. Your career is a continuum. At every level you want to learn as much as you can and network. You are investing in you and you are in it for the long-term – not just for short-term results.
See each step as a long-term investment in your life’s work!
Before you know it, you will be sharing your story about your career path with others!