Every list has its charm and idiocy, and the US News annual list of the 100 best jobs is no exception. The list attempts to rank jobs according to some mix of demand, salary, and satisfaction. Hence nursing or being a physician’s assistant score very high, whereas writing does not. Indeed, while being a receptionist or a taxi driver make the list, becoming a writer doesn’t merit a mention.
All of which makes me glad that I didn’t look at such lists when figuring out what I wanted to do with my life. I’ve structured these next few weeks to have some down time on the work front, which is an invitation to career introspection. I’ve been thinking about a few questions to ask when choosing or not choosing a career, and came up with these three (please add yours in the comments!)
Do I find this stuff fascinating? Ideally, the “stuff” of your career is so fascinating you’d do it for free. Some careers have a reasonable probability of this (ocean exploration! being an astronaut!) but I also know that’s probably pushing it for many very necessary jobs. So, let’s posit that pay is a major upside of work. Even so, do you find yourself reading articles about the “stuff” of your job in your spare time? Do you think about it in the shower? Those are all good signs you’re headed toward the right line of work.
Will I be happy with my day-to-day life? This is related, but not quite the same as the above. “Dentist” tops the US News list of best jobs. You could find the study of dentistry fascinating, but really hate making small talk with new people and sticking your hands in their mouths all day. If so, you’ll probably want to explore different ways of pursuing your passion, such as research or teaching, rather than joining a busy dental practice. I think this question trips up a lot of young people. Someone may understand that a certain career is prestigious or well-paying, but not quite comprehend that she’ll be spending 10 hours a day squinting at spreadsheets. This then leads to angst and career switching. We talk about life in abstractions, but it’s lived in hours. There’s a lot to be said for shadowing people and asking about daily life.
Do I understand the economics? It’s well-known (indeed, it’s a matter of BLS record) that some careers pay more, or at least pay more reliably, than others. That’s why writing would have a hard time making a list of the 100 best careers. Most writers don’t earn that much, and very few organizations put tons of writers on the payroll and pay them benefits. That said, I know plenty of entrepreneurial creatives who pull in 6-figures. Many can do so while enjoying a reasonable lifestyle (being able to work at home, meet the school bus in the afternoon, that sort of thing). There is also the reality that the economics of a profession can change over time, or even suddenly. I have been fascinated to see that the price of NYC taxi medallions is plunging with the introduction of Uber et al. Many drivers aren’t medallion owners, but some are, and certainly people who got into medallion trading and management are seeing a huge change in what was for long a sure thing. A medical specialty can see its reimbursement rates cut. Pharmaceutical sales used to be a high-end, in-demand specialty, and now pharma companies are moving to different marketing models. There is no bitterness quite like the bitterness of choosing a profession for its pay and plethora of jobs, and then seeing both plunge.
Since none of us has a crystal ball, understanding the economics of a career means asking if you could still make a living and still be happy if fundamental circumstances shifted. Would you be able to shift into a different niche easily? What niche might that be? Are the skills you’ll develop transferable? If you wound up using these skills in a free agent role, what would that look like?
Maybe you’ll never need to know the answers to these questions, but choosing the best career means asking as many of these questions as possible.
What questions would you add to this list?
Photo: Pseudo-taxi-ish looking vehicle in Rio