A question every faculty interviewee is asked (at least in the US) is, “Where do you see yourself say five years down the line?” The thing is, no matter how good you are with words, you cannot manipulate the answer and lie your way through this question. To answer with honesty requires strong intuition, a lot of deep thinking ahead of time, and having a vision about where you see yourself and your career headed in the future.
On a different but related note, I sometimes have people seeking career advice asking me, “I want to study so and so field. What are the prospects I will have after that?” Let me tell you upfront, this question is every advisor’s nightmare. It is almost like asking, “I have decided to shift to drinking whole milk from 2% milk. How do you think it will affect my skin elasticity?” I have no way to answer that, even if I was the cow. Just drink whatever you want to drink, find out, and go enlighten the world.
So when confronted with this question, I ask back a simple question, “Where do you want to go in life?” I always get stunned silences and awkward pauses after that. It is ironic that even with so many choices, people rarely spend time to reflect inward and understand what it is that they want from life. Many don’t even know that it is a choice to be able to decide what you could want from life. The easier way out is to choose a field where there is ample demand of manpower and join the workforce. The thing is you can become a space scientist after studying engineering. But you can also become a trashy novel writer after studying engineering. So instead of evaluating what jobs a degree in engineering can get you, ask yourself who do you want to be and how might studying engineering help you in that.
My career trajectory looks circuitous, and anything but simple and linear. I have no two degrees in the same field, a bachelors, two masters, and a PhD. So how do the dots connect?
To answer this, I will have to tell you what I have wanted from life. Growing up, the only thing I wanted to do in life is travel. Travel not as a tourist, checking off destinations, but living in different places, understanding people, the local customs, language, food, and so on. I started to think of places that were safer for women. Looked like the US could be a viable option (it was all conjecture at that point, no one from the family had stepped even out of eastern India, forget the US), and if you had good GRE scores, they even funded your education. That was my line of reasoning.
So I started to work on getting into a good US school with funding. It didn’t matter whether I studied material science or animal husbandry. I came to the US with the sole and soul purpose of being able to travel and experience a new country. Now the answer to “what I want to do in life” was good enough to get me to the US, but not good enough to keep me there. After three lab rotations, I realized that studying cells and molecules is not my calling in life. So I was forced to reevaluate the same question again.
Aspirations are not set in stone. They are malleable, and evolve with time. I realized that I was more moved by the human experiences than the experience of being cooped up in a lab in freezing temperatures all day. I wanted to learn more about how people understand, learn, and thrive. So I switched tracks and applied for a degree in the social sciences.
With time, the answer to “where do I want to go” evolved further. I wanted to understand the experiences of the underprivileged and the underrepresented better. So I started familiarize myself with some of the discriminatory everyday experiences of the underrepresented minorities. I spent hundreds of hours interviewing people and was very moved by their stories. A Latino person talked about their journey from being a first generation college kid to becoming the director of a program. A Black student talked about being mistaken to be the janitor by the professors because of their skin color. A woman told me how frequently she was mistaken as the nurse by her patients because of her gender.
So I have spent years now looking at the experiences of the underrepresented groups. My research interests were so specific that now, my chances of finding a faculty position doing the same work had become extremely slim. It was the scariest few years of my life. I worried that I would continue to be a postdoc in the unforeseeable future, running other people’s data and fulfilling other people’s dreams. But I knew that work-wise, I was doing exactly what I was meant to do. There were very few positions, which also meant that once I identified the job, getting it was relatively easier. I had spent years preparing myself to do this kind of work. And although extremely lucky, it is not a coincidence that my new workplace has strong interests in studying the underrepresented population.
So now, with my new position, things have come full circle. My experience working in the lab helps me better connect to the people aspiring to become scientists. Of course things look oversimplified when I put it this way. The truth is that my path was not always very clear to me. However, I was always clear about what I wanted. Unless you know where you want to go, you cannot figure out how to get there. If I am standing at the Redmond Transit Center but do not know that I want to go to Downtown Seattle, how would I even know that I am supposed to take the 545 bus? I have planned my career, and my entire life around two simple desires, the desire to travel far and wide, and the desire to understand the human experiences (especially of the underprivileged) better. Once this was clear to me, figuring out the path was easy.
So the next time you want to know if a particular subject has some scope for you, ask yourself, “What is it that I want to do in life, and how will studying this subject help me get there?” Most of the answers in life lie within, and not outside you. The external answers are just signposts to guide you through the process.