15 March 2010


Studying for jobs that don't exist yet

After high school, there are any number of specialized programs you can follow that have an obvious result: training as an electrician, construction worker, chef, mechanic, dental hygienist, and so on; law school, medical school, architecture school, teacher college, engineering, library studies, counselling psychology, and other dedicated fields of study at university; and many others.

But I don't think most people who get a high school diploma really know very well what they want to do after that. I certainly didn't. And it's just as well.

At the turn of the 1990s, I spent two years as student-elected representative to the Board of Governors of the University of British Columbia, which let me get to know some fairly high mucky-muck types in B.C., including judges, business tycoons, former politicians, honourees of the Order of Canada, and of course high-ranking academics. One of those was the President of UBC at the time, Dr. David Strangway.

In the early '70s, before becoming an academic administrator, he had been Chief of the Geophysics Branch for NASA during the Apollo missions—he was the guy in charge of the geophysical studies U.S. astronauts performed on the Moon, and the rocks they brought back. And Dr. Strangway told me something important, which I've remembered ever since and have repeated to many people over the past couple of decades.

That is, when he got his physics and biology degree in 1956 (a year before Sputnik), no one seriously thought we'd be going to the Moon. Certainly not within 15 years, or probably anytime within Strangway's career as a geophysicist. So, he said to me, when he was in school, he could not possibly have known what his job would be, because NASA, and the entire human space program, didn't exist yet.

In a much less grandiose and important fashion, my experience proved him right. Here I am writing for the Web (for free in this case), and that's also what I've been doing for a living, more or less, since around 1997. Yet when I got my university degree (in marine biology, by the way) in 1990, the Web hadn't been invented. I saw writing and editing in my future, sure, since it had been—and remains—one of my main hobbies, but how could I know I'd be a web guy when there was no Web?

The best education prepares you for careers and avocations that don't yet exist, and perhaps haven't been conceived by anyone. Because of Dr. Strangway's story, and my own, I've always told people, and advised my daughters, to study what they find interesting, whatever they feel compelled to work hard at. They may not end up in that field—I'm no marine biologist—but they might also be ready for something entirely new.

They might even be the ones to create those new things to start with.

Labels: , , , , , , ,


Great advice Derek. I wish more people felt the same way.
From what little I know of current educational literature, there's an awareness that teachers have to teach kids to adapt and be creative, rather than just memorize and meet standards, for this very reason - there's no way of knowing what they'll be facing when they get out of school. (Not having a kid, I have no way of knowing if this takes place in practice...)

I will always remember the words of a teaching assistant in my Physics class in first year, an older Eastern European woman. She quizzed me about what I wanted to do at university, and when I said I thought maybe computer science, she said, "What if you spend a year doing it and then decide you don't like it? You will have wasted a year of your life!"

That attitude has always confused me. How is it ever a waste if you've just spent a year of your life LEARNING something? Why should you be locked into one path from the age of 18?

So of course, after two degrees in computer science, I have been leaving that behind and mutating into a musician. And even if I don't use my programming skillz so much any more, it's helped me in so many other ways, just in what I can understand and how I can approach problems. It's actually helped me in my music career, as well, as I build and maintain websites for other artists.

Soak it all up, that's what I say. You never know what you can use.
While there are things to criticize about education here in Canada, I think it's wise that we don't do what used to happen in many countries, and still does in some, which is stream kids into "academic" or "trades" or "remedial" streams in elementary school.

Even when I was a young undergrad at UBC, I used to smile at people who said they were in "pre-med" or "pre-law" or whatever, especially since those programs didn't formally exist. And only a few of those students actually went into law or medicine.

That said, if you don't find something that really compels you, there's also a temptation to be a student forever. In the traditional academic track, I know people who have been sucked into a vortex of undergrad, grad school, Ph.D., fellowship, sessional posting, associate professorship, and on and on—and who seem miserable, because within that world, a tenure-track job seems to be your only option, and anything in the non-academic world is perceived as a failure. (Plus the pay sucks for a long, long time.)

I hope I can live long enough to see what my kids decide to do after high school. And if so, I hope I can give them some advice without meddling. My parents did that, and I appreciated it.
My undergrad degree in Biochem has absolutely nothing to do with the work I do now. In fact, my formal graduate training in Nutrition doesn't much either. But the "transferrable skills" I picked up along the way (like critical thinking, problem solving, etc., etc.) have been invaluable. So you can count me among the people who at least didn't know of the existence of their job when they were training.

Also, as one of those academics who managed to get out of the vortex after the PhD (but before post docing), I can confirm the the pay along the tenure-track does, indeed, suck.
Several decades ago I was a school teacher, working with teenagers. All kinds of people wanted to advise the kids to study certain subjects *because* those subjects would supposedly lead to jobs.

My teaching subject was German - deemed by many to be worthless.

As I used to say though: why study something you're not interested in so that then you can get a job where you spend your life doing this thing you're not interested in?

Once kids have the basics (that junior schools should teach), I think they should follow their interest. As you say, Derek, they may be creating the jobs they do.