18 April 2011

Looking for a Career? Take the Path Less-Traveled

For those of you about to graduate from academic programs at various levels, here are some thoughts about career selection, and how those selections worked out for me.   Enjoy!   --Prof. Oates  18 April 2011

0)  Take the path less traveled. The alligators know the well-worn paths, and they're much more likely to make your life miserable and, maybe, eat you alive if you take the traditional career paths.  Progress in traditional career fields is much harder and often much less interesting than in new fields.  Look for a field that's just opening up.  In my youth, that was computer software (not so much lately).  Now, it's stuff like molecular biology, nano technology, and renewable energy where opportunities are springing up like mushrooms on a rain-soaked lawn.

1)  "How to Become a Medication-Math Instructor without Really Trying (To)"

2)  "Fourth Quarter," a sketch of how I played the game, and how I hope to finish it out
3)   Some untitled thoughts about M.D. degrees for one of my twenty-something friends, quoted below

"... Let me try to take a crack at some advice myself.  The good news is that students who've accumulated some experience and maturity, many of mine at OCCC for example, very often far out-perform their 18 or 19 year-old counterparts academically.  They've figured out what they want to do and what it takes to get there.  They're willing to do pretty much whatever it takes to accomplish their goals, including working full-time, going to school full-time (12 credit hours/semester to keep their financial aid going), and in some cases tend to a brood of two or three kids, all at the same time.  I don't know when these people sleep, but I can testify to the fact that SOME of them do all this and do well in school, particularly if they can find some instructors who are willing to help them juggle all these conflicting responsibilities.  ...

"The bad news is that sustaining the level of activity that's required to get a doctoral-level degree of whatever flavor is really tough.  In the three-to-six years that's required beyond a bachelor's degree, there's a tendency for the whole business to begin to wear on the student big-time.  I experienced this first hand as I did the first 12 hours of my masters full-time when I couldn't find a job in 1970/71, then pieced together the rest of a masters in computing science working full time and taking six hours each semester.  When I got a chance to go on "sabbatical in reverse" from my silly-villian Air Force job and return to O.U. to teach and work on my Ph.D. full-time for a year, I jumped at the chance.  After a year's worth of teaching computing science courses (assembler language programming) in '76/77 and taking some pretty good comp. sci. and electrical engineering courses, it occurred to me that I was going to work that hard and harder for two or three more years in order to get a teaching job that paid about 2/3 of what I was making working for the Air Force.  In the mean time, I'd draw teaching fellowship pay that didn't quite make my house payment.  It didn't take too long to see that continuing wasn't worth the investment, and I returned to my Air Force job for a year or so before moving out into the private job market.

"Obviously, your situation is considerably different from mine, but the principle is the same. Lots of things can keep you from reaching a goal that includes a doctoral-level degree. I'd say you pretty clearly have the smarts to do it, but it's a really long road.  If I were in your shoes, I'd be careful to get into a program that has what I'll call graceful exit points. For example, pharmacists these days get only one degree, a doctorate in pharmacy. If, for some reason, they do not complete their six year program, they have no bachelor's or master's degree, no nuthin', nada.  That path is definitely not equipped with graceful exit points. On the other hand, following a program that has the usual bachelor's, master's, and doctor's degrees has those milestones as safety-exits, and may still have considerable commercial value, even if not completed to the doctoral level. 

"As you pointed out, the medical profession tends to be full of B.S.-level grunts and M.D.-level demigods without much in between.  There's not much to do about that, but it might be a good thing to look at some of the emerging bioinformatics programs, bio-statistics programs, and the like where the level of specialization even at the master's level permits some independence and, possibly, jobs that don't have the master-slave relationship that medical staff vs. physician relationships entail.  The genetics side of your interests might fall into a category with non-subservient master's level jobs, but I'm not conversant enough with the details of that field to be sure of that.

"I wish I had "mo-betta" ideas on this topic, but I hope you'll find this at least somewhat useful.  In any event, I'm available to answer questions, and I've been at least part-way down one of the roads to a Ph.D., and sometimes that's helpful.  I was always "feeling my way in the dark" when I was on my Ph.D. adventure, because no one in my family had degrees outside the teaching field, and no one I knew had a clue about how to navigate the top academic levels of science and engineering.  I don't know how helpful sharing my experiences along these lines may be to you, but I'm willin', anyway. :^)

C. L. Oates
18 April 2011
Norman, Oklahoma, USA