15 October 2012

On the Impacts of Career Choices

Like many 16 year-olds, I wanted to be a medical doctor.

My A levels were in Maths, Chemistry and Zoology. However, a particularly bloody film we were shown in Zoology class quickly put me off that.  So for my undergrad degree I hedged my bets and did a joint honours degree in Ag Economics and Food Science and Nutrition.

My motivations for wanting to be a doctor boiled down to wanting to help people, to make a difference in their lives. 

I suspect many of us in international development still feel that drive.  So it was interesting to think about these issues again in the context of (1) the UK's Research Excellence Framework, (2) the ESRC's new Research Outcome System and (3) a conversation a friend of mine was having with their 16 year old nephew (let's call him Henry). 

UK Universities are occupied with developing their "impact case studies" related to the research work they do.  This is for the UK's Higher Education Funding Council (HEFCE) review (Research Excellence Framework or REF) every of 7-8 years of different submissions by different Universities to different disciplinary/subject panels. (IDS is not eligible to participate in the REF exercise as we are not a University.)  This week the Times Higher Education Supplement has an interesting article on the impact case studies (how some Universities are recruiting new professionals to help them get this right--it is a big deal as this now comprises 20% of the overall score and these scores drive government resource allocation to Universities).

The UK Research Councils (UKRC), the premier research funding body in the UK, has just launched its Research Outcome Systems, which encourages Universities that receive UKRC funding to update their profiles by output, outcome and impact. 

It will be interesting to see how the impact scores vary by discipline and topic within each of these two new databases.

Which brings us to Henry.  Henry is just starting A levels and is trying to make the "right" university subject choice--and a key criterion for him is "impact".

This is an excerpt from his exchange with my friend (obviously he has agreed for this to be published):   "we discussed over the phone the amount of 'good' achievable through various occupations. At this stage of my life evidently I will not be able to foretell...whether a certain person will be able to make more of a difference as a politician, a charity worker or say a doctor...one of my fears is procrastinating throughout life and not really ever invoking change...I was wondering what your views were on how possible/difficult it is to make large changes as for example an economist or a politician.

The reason medicine fascinates me ...is because although this may sound naive and premature...with politics and many economists I often feel this process of dehumanisation whereas with the scientific side, it is actually dealing with life and death scenarios and face to face interactions and the human process that, I think, inspires me more"

The REF and RCUK databases will probably not be that useful for a young person trying to figure out life choices, so if you have any advice to give Henry (constructive please!) that would be most welcomed. 

My own view is that the propensity to want to make a difference to other people's lives will probably find productive expression no matter what career choices are made, both in the one to ones and in the wider systemic changes.  (Social scientists can have profound impacts on their students, on communities, and on policy and doctors can affect how their profession works and can have a profound impact on government policy.)

The choice you make, it seems to me, has to be the one that first of all inspires you.

But it would be great if you could give Henry some advice and feedback...  thanks


Stephen Jones said...

The 80,000 Hours blog (80000hours.org/) has a whole series of thoughtful and thought-provoking posts on this question.

I also like a more tongue-in-cheek look (mainly considering people who work in development) of how to combine what you're good at, what you want to do, and what might be important: http://lavidaidloca.wordpress.com/2011/03/24/the-circles-of-life/

Tobias Denskus said...

Given the increased (or perceived increase) of complexity, professionalism and pressure to make 'invisible' aspects of jobs, professions and institutions visible, choices for Henry are definitely more complicated. If he asks medical doctors many of them are likely to complain about the administrative burden, the 'social science' aspect if you will, that goes hand in hand with 'helping people'. If he then asks social science researchers many of them are likely to complain that they have to produce 'evidence' of their successful work with numbers, regressions and 'scientific' methodologies. In many professions Henry is likely to work more/longer hours and will find himself in a professional environment where he will do less of the core tasks that made him sign up for a university course in the first place (academics need to do fundraising, teachers need to monitor progress of students, doctors need to fill out forms, in the private sector he may spend time on creating PowerPoints, booking his own travel arrangements and the humanitarian aid worker spends more time in coordination meetings than in 'the field'). My advice would be to speak to people 'at the frontline' of their position: The social worker, the surgeon in a hospital, the aid worker in Haiti, the mid-level lecturer in a university and ask them what their typical week looks like and what they enjoy the most/least and what has changed over time.

Liny Suharlim said...

Having just finished a year at IDS, my first question to Henry will most likely be "Whose Impact? or Impact to whom?"... :). However, without any intention to be sarcastic, I do find the question is valid. It is naive but simple, to ask Henry -- what kind of impact that he expects?

Learning psychology as my bachelor degree did make me realise that the impact I had hope to make at the beginning of the university (or the A level in UK), was mainly to myself. Working in development and feeling completely content with what I do for living, are all having the biggest impact to me. It is self-fulfiling and borderline egoistic.

If I remember well, this stage of life would be what Eriksson classified as the adolescence time, where one struggle with identity and role. It is believed that success in this stage leads to an ability to stay true to oneself, while failure leads to role confusion and a weak sense of self. But then again, one may ask "whose self"...(cheeky).

Lisa said...

What a wonderful issue to raise, and here is my (perhaps predictably idealistic) response ...

I think each person should go where their true passion leads them, as that is where their greatest talent - and also energy to innovate and persevere - can be found. Everyone will face obstacles, but if you are following your passion or dream, you will be most motivated to overcome those obstacles. For a young person it sometimes takes some time of exploration, experimentation, and hair-tearing to discover where one's passion lies. This is all very worthwhile thrashing around to do, no matter how long it lasts, as it makes you ultimately more sure in your choice and exposes you to other perspectives along the way.

I don't think it matters what the "what" is of what you're doing. What matters is that you believe in that path and want to make a difference. This same young man could make a huge impact on the world and/or individual lives as a musician or artist or poet. You can see examples in nearly every career path (even ex-criminals!) of people who have made a positive contribution to the world. It partly depends what kind of impact he wants to make, but that too I wouldn't worry about especially at his young age. Just the general good intention is enough to make a start. I wouldn't over-analyze it or feel pressured to make "THE" choice. This is especially the case since the idea of choosing one career path is increasingly obsolete. Even for those requiring high initial investments, like becoming a doctor, people are increasingly branching out to second and third careers later in their life.

My advice boils down to - follow your heart and see where it leads you. And don't forget to have a few adventures along the way.

Lisa, World Economic Forum

Roger Williamson www.ids.ac.uk said...

My first career advice to Henry would be not to take anything I say too seriously. Regard me equally much as a warning of what happens when you try to make a career of making a difference. I don't regret it. It wasn't a straight line. Some of the stuff I did works.

The big impact has been meeting inspirational people usually from contexts of poverty and adversity. Get some skills, seek them out, combine formal study and experience.

Don't take crazy risks. Take time out or a change in career direction before you get seriously burnt out and/or clinically depressed. If you get temrinally cynical do something welse.

Best wishes - make your own mistakes, listen politely to your elders who aren't your betters and take care.

my route has been Politics Philosophy and Economics, a theology PhD which was really politics (the struggle against racism), boards of various international NGOs, organizing conferences for government and now visiting fellow at IDS. I owe eveything to the pople I have met who have inspired and helped me, and to some excellent formal training (sometimes in advance, and sometimes after the event.

I could say more, but I won't. I am reaching the age of chronic teacher complex ......

Roger Williamson

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Monique Gates said...

This is a problem that many young individuals encounter. They need to make choices that will decide their future but the problem is that they are not mature enough to weigh things right and oftentimes regret this decision. Career orientations should be done as much as often to help them make the right choice.

James Graham said...

Me, too. I dreamed to be involved to film and I'm currently fulfilling that dream. As a student or youth, it is just proper to give us our own choices and preferences on what do we want to be in the near future, besides, it "us" who'll have to deal with it later on.