I don’t have many memories of my childhood, but there is a particularly poignant one that remains firmly etched in my brain, and I have found myself thinking about it very often in the past few months. I was in Kindergarten, and it was a day where our teachers asked us to write down what we wanted to be when we grew up. I remember writing “I WANT TO BE A DOCTOR” in all caps, blue marker, on a strip of manila paper about two inches thick.
Not many of us has a career goal stick to us for so long; many get to college and graduate without a good idea of what they want to do, while others go into college thinking that they know what they want to do, but they switch to something completely different while they are there. In the British education system, you need to have an idea of what you want to do already when you’re applying to university because you apply to specific majors within the program, not just the institution as a whole like in America. This forces you to choose what you think you want to do at the young and tender age of 18. I have found that many of my friends from the British education system find themselves in careers that they are very unhappy with.
That being said, your college major is not the be-all-end-all foundation for career choices. My sister’s best friend, who did an engineering degree, now works for Morgan Stanley; my friend, Eleanor, who did music in her undergraduate career, is now an administrator at a university; the list goes on, but you get the point. The point is, all degrees qualifications are simply a stepping stone to your career path, and sometimes they are not necessary at all.
In the ideal world, the job that we spend 30-40 years of our life doing what we enjoy. Some people find it at their first job, others find it several jobs after, and the rest never find it at all. Unfortunately, money makes the world go around, and many practicalities, such as family and willingness to move around, must be considered and heavily impacts your decision on your career choice versus your career want. This last point rings especially strongly for me.
When I wrote on that little strip that I wanted to be a doctor, I wrote it because even at that age, I was interested in the concept of healing others, first do no harm, all that jazz. I never actually did anything medically related until I enlisted in the Singapore Armed Forces and became a medic. I could have stopped after I completed my term of service, but I felt like I belonged in the field and did not want my skills to go to waste, so I continued into voluntary emergency medical services at the University of Rochester, eventually rising through the ranks and taking on administrative duties in addition to my field duties in my final two years. These experiences are what caused me to seriously consider medicine as a career.
On the other hand, I have always loved music, and I gained a new interest in the mind and brain during my tenure as an undergraduate. Weighing my choices equally, I saw three paths before me: go to medical school and do medicine, go get a research PhD, or apply for an MD/PhD. All of these involve years of study, but they all would give many different lifestyles. I have yet to complete any of these, but I have started down the path of the PhD, because I want to have a family and watch my children grow up, and many friends with doctor parent(s) have said that they never saw them during their childhood.
This is what I have chosen, yet, I sit in my room sometimes and wonder if it is, indeed, the correct choice. I want to always stay involved in music, science, and medicine, and studying music cognition is a great way to stay somewhat involved in all three; I have chosen to pursue only my PhD because of the reasons I outlined above, but I still have my doubts. I still imagine myself dropping everything and going back into medicine and becoming a doctor because I know I love it (possibly more than science, but not more than music), but my love for music is greater and wanting to always be around my future family keeps me shying back.
I hear these words thrown around pretty regularly in conversation about our futures nowadays: “doubt”, “ambivalent”, “unhappy”, “career change”, “settling for”, and “quit”; very rarely do I hear positive words when we talk about these things. The bottom line, I guess, is that you need to know what you want in life outside your career, and that you need to end up doing something not related to or something you do not like for a little while (or forever) to meet those extra-career wants. As difficult as it may be, I think the best approach is to go at every job with a positive attitude and try to learn something, because you never know when one of those skills could come in handy (I hope I never find my ability to use an M16 useful…).
There is more to life than what we do for a living! We have our families, friends, and hobbies, and those are arguably more permanent! Never forget that!
Photo courtesy of University of Washington