Three Longs & Three Shorts

To choose a career, I needed to do more than ‘follow my dream’

India has the youngest demographic not just in the contemporary world but also in the history of this planet: no country has ever had more people under the age of 30 than India has today. It is but inevitable that in such an environment, many parents and their progeny spend a lot of time plotting a path to the top of “prestigious professions” like Medicine, Technology and Finance. This article from a young Indian student – who went to study in the US with the usual head full of dreams and then discovered a very different reality – offers a more useful template for building a career.
Ananya Sen says that “I had spent the previous 22 years following my childhood dream—becoming a professor of marine biology. However, in grad school I saw how applying for grants is a constant source of worry for many professors. I realized I did not want to be responsible for the salaries of my hypothetical lab members. About 4 years into the program, I decided I did not want to pursue a career in research after all.”
So, in search of a new career, Ms Sen began attending various seminars: “I began to attend career panels, which all followed a worryingly similar template. I would walk into the room with other excited graduate students and collect my free cookies and coffee, confident that the panelists would have the magical answers I needed. Instead, they would talk—again—about following their dreams. The message: I just needed to find a new dream. It would mean taking time off from work to self-reflect and discover a new path. But I couldn’t stay in the country without a visa. For most academic researchers, obtaining a university-sponsored visa is relatively straightforward. But outside of academia, it is infinitely more complex, requiring a company that has a job opening and is willing to foot the bill for a work visa. As well-meaning as the panelists were, they fell silent when I brought up this dilemma. I felt totally lost.”
So far, so familiar – this is a story we have heard from many ambitious Indian students who go abroad. What makes this story different is what happened next – the career advisor in her college told her that she should think about she’s good at and what makes her happy at least 80% of the time: “Finally, I went to my adviser for help. We hadn’t talked much about my career plans over the years, but I felt I needed a new perspective from someone who knew me well. When he offered his advice, I was taken aback at first. What happened to “if you love what you do, you’ll never work a day in your life”? My adviser assured me there is seldom such a job. Every job has its ugly bits. But as long as you’re happy most of the time, you can struggle through the parts you don’t like. He also said it was important to find a job I was good at, especially because my visa applications required me to make the case that I would benefit the country.”
Ms Sen says that after this bit of advice she did not look back: “I was relieved to finally have helpful, practical advice…To test the waters, during my “spare time” in grad school I started a blog about the history of scientific discoveries. I found that I loved the freedom to choose what to write about, and I never encountered a challenge I didn’t enjoy. As for whether I was any good at it, the signs were promising. My writing got noticed, eventually by people at my institution, and I was given opportunities to write press releases and stories for the university’s news bureau. After 3 years of writing, I was offered a position as a science writer. It’s nothing like my childhood dream. But I am happy—more than 80% of the time.”