What Are The Right Questions To Ask When Choosing A Career Path?

By Lee Gass

The most important thing to say about choosing a good career path is that rarely is it the most important question for first-year students to be asking.

“I hear there are lots of jobs in (genetics, ecology, veterinary medicine, whatever). Would it be good to go into as a career?” Always, always, always, I refuse to answer the question. Here’s what I say instead.

“How much will you love your work? How good are you going to be in it, starting right now, today? Or how good are you already, and how good are you willing to get? How fast are you willing to get good?” Nearly always, that burst of questions leads to more than a moment of stunned silence. After which we’re ready to begin our real conversation about their career path.

We usually start with the notion that the best people in any line of work get the best jobs, almost by definition.

Often when we end, if we ever end at all, is with the thought that to get really good at anything takes two things. Obviously, we must discover our strengths and strengthen them. But to get really, really good (even good enough to survive my first-year biology course), we discover our weaknesses and strengthen them too. We embrace our ignorance and have fun doing it.

How did I choose a career path?

I didn’t. It chose me. At first, mainly because I like being outside doing things. For a while, I thought I wanted to be a philosopher but I flunked my one and only philosophy course and high-tailed it out of there. When philosophers write about things, and especially when they argue, I just don’t get it. So I became a biologist. I became a teacher, too, when I discovered that other people’s learning turned me on. Additionally, I was fascinated by how they learned, and it made me feel good when they learned well. Basically, I became pretty good at both of those careers because teaching well and being a good biologist turned me on, just as being a good student had turned me on a little earlier in my career.

Now I carve stone for a living. Imagine being turned on for 50 years, or 60 or 70. I think that’s what the real question about careers is all about.

Lee Gass, Department of Zoology (Retired), University of British Columbia, and 3M National Teaching Fellow.

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