Academia trains us to follow pre-defined paths when planning our careers, but the most exciting and rewarding careers are designed by their owners. If you’re willing to take some risk and create your own design, you can have a more exciting career than you ever imagined.
By David M. Giltner, PhD, Founder of TurningScience
If you’re like me, you entered university with a plan: to follow a career path that many had followed before. This is common, because school trains us to follow directions. Earning a degree involves predefined steps:
‘Complete this application adequately, and we will admit you.’
‘Answer this list of questions correctly, and you will pass the test.’
‘Pass this list of classes, and we will give you a degree.’
It’s natural to continue looking for a path to follow after graduation, but, in my view, that’s not how the most exciting careers are built. I’ve found my own way, founded a company, and enjoyed an immensely rewarding career along the way.
Finding my own way
I began my career on the well-defined path to become a physics professor. Many others had followed this path, and they were happy to hand me the map. But, during my last year in graduate school, I decided I was no longer interested in this well-traveled career path. I wanted something more exciting and dynamic, and was willing to take to take some risks to find it.
I left academia to build a career in the private sector, but, like a lot of others, I had absolutely no guidance to help me — the professors in my physics department had spent their careers in academia, not industry.
This lack of guidance turned out to be a great thing — I had to find my own way, but I also wasn’t limited by others’ views of what a career should be. I had to build my own path from the ground-up.
The art of career design
I like to think of a career as a work of art, where following a pre-defined path is like creating ‘paint-by-numbers art.’ The result is a predictable picture that many others have made before. Paint-by-numbers art will give you a functional picture that’ll fill a blank space on a wall, but it isn’t very inspiring.
Real art is inspiring. It makes a difference in the world. And it requires creating your own design. In his book Linchpin: Are You Indispensable?, Seth Godin says ‘Art is the act of navigating without a map.’ I love the way he bridges these two analogies. Your career can be an inspiring original work, but you need to leave the ‘paint-by-numbers’ behind, develop your own design, and accept a little risk.
Without a map
If I was going to succeed in the private sector, I had to come up with a plan. My background was in laser spectroscopy, so I focused on the major laser companies, many of which were located near San Jose, California. I developed some great stories to highlight my graduate school accomplishments, and bought a plane ticket to meet people face-to-face. There, I convinced one company to give me a three-month contract.
Without a full-time job, I loaded up a moving truck and moved to Silicon Valley to start my career, banking on converting that contract into a full time position. I wasn’t really sure how a physicist who had spent years doing fundamental science research was going to survive in the ruthless Silicon Valley environment, but I was confident I’d figure it out. The pressure was high, and the learning curve was steep, but after a few years, it was clear that I’d made the right decision.
I managed to convert that contract into a full time job, and that initial success gave me the confidence to continue designing my own path. As I look back 20 years later, ignoring others’ footsteps has resulted in such an exciting career. I’ve invented new things, travelled the world, and worked with many smart and interesting people. I’ve also been successful enough to give me flexibility in where I live and how I work. If I’d realized back when I was an undergraduate student l that I didn’t need the map, I would have dreamed even bigger and done even more.
You can design your own exciting career as well, and you don’t have to start in graduate school.
Creating a plan
To move past the ‘paint-by-numbers art,’ you just need some courage and a plan for designing a career that works for you. Here are five important career design steps that I’ve followed:
- Determine your strengths. This is a critical element that I didn’t fully understand when I began my career. I’m a big fan of Strengthsfinder 2.0 by Tom Rath. The evaluation in this book showed me my strengths in a way I never would have discovered on my own.
- Define your vector. Decide what you want to do next and where you want to do it. Be focused, but realize that this does not commit you for your entire career. Many people change their career directions as they discover new interests and opportunities. You can too.
- Tell great stories. Develop stories to bring your skills and accomplishments to life in a way that will show hiring managers that you will bring them value. Stories make your experience more relatable and also more memorable, and they are your best tools for selling yourself.
- Build your network. A strong network is critical to building a rewarding career. Build genuine connections with people who share your interests, and as they learn who you are and what you are about, they will support you in your quest.
- Dream big. Don’t let your fears keep you from going after those things you really want to do. Your biggest limitation is your own self-limiting beliefs. I love this quote from T.S. Elliot: “Only those who will risk going too far can possibly find out how far one can possibly go”
Follow these guidelines, and you can design your own career to be an exciting and rewarding work of art.
Does it take some hard work? Sure. But you wouldn’t have pursued a career in science or engineering if you were afraid of a little extra work, would you?
David Giltner is the author of the book Turning Science into Things People Need, and is an internationally recognized speaker and mentor on building rewarding careers in industry. After 20 years commercializing laser technology for a wide variety of applications, he now mentors scientists and engineers on creating their own exciting career paths. You can find his blog at https://turningscience.com/blog/