Headaches of Tackling The Question

When I first received my assignment (conduct an informational interview with an established professional in your field and write a blog post about your professional goals), I calmly read through the instructions and then felt a wave of panic quietly build. Oh geez, I don’t even know what I want to do… How am I going to ask someone to talk to me about career advice? Who do I ask? What if they tell me no? The wave passed as quickly as it came, yet I was left unsure about my direction.

The Question. It makes you dread after-dinner conversations, terrorizes your shower ruminations, and stalks you in your sweetest dreams. It bowls you over in tranquil moments, and shakes you to your sniveling directionally-confused core. It is The Question, and everyone must face it at some point in their lives.

What do you want to do in the future?

I would always reply with: “Hmm, I don’t know.” But this wasn’t quite true; there were many things I wanted to do and that I could imagine myself as five or ten years down the road. The list is long: software developer, businesswoman, industrial-organizational psychologist, freelance writer, CEO of a startup company, teacher, translator, linguist, doctor, lawyer, psychiatrist, neurosurgeon, clinical psychologist, researcher. At one point, I even considered being a screenwriter or photographer. Nowadays though, I am gravitating towards making my career within the broad field of psychology.

After my initial panic, I began to think about my plan of action. First of all, I wanted to gain insight into psychology-related careers. Then, I considered what options I had in terms of people I could contact. Next, as I narrowed down on who to interview, one person stood out to me: Hakwan Lau, a cognitive neuropsychologist at UCLA. I met him in Winter Quarter when I had applied to be a grant proposal writer but ended up accepting a research position in a fortunate turn of events.

The interview was rather conversational, and even surprising at some points. A tenured professor at UCLA as of two years ago, Hakwan provided extraordinarily frank insider perspectives about a career in psychology research. He gave me insights into major challenges in the field — and his slightly unconventional path to becoming a psychology researcher.

Hakwan hadn’t planned on becoming a psychology researcher; for most of his life, his true love was philosophy. But when he was offered the prestigious Rhodes Scholarship at Oxford University for neuroscience, he accepted it because he wanted to study consciousness, whether as a philosopher or as a cognitive neuroscientist. After graduating from Oxford, he worked at Columbia University as an associate professor in the Department of Psychology. Eventually, he became tenured at UCLA as an associate professor, where he runs his Consciousness and Metacognition Lab.

I asked Hakwan many questions: Why did you become a cognitive psychologist? What does a typical work day look like for you? What do you find most satisfying or most challenging about being a cognitive psychology researcher? What are some other career paths in this field? What current issues should I be aware of? Do you have any advice for someone considering a career in psychology?

One of the biggest challenges that he mentioned was competition. Apparently, the probability of becoming a tenured psychology faculty in academia is chancy at best, and Leonardo-DiCaprio-wins-an-Oscar-seven-times at worst. After getting an undergraduate degree, entering a good graduate program can be difficult. Most people complete their graduate programs once they get in, but the biggest hurdle arises when they try to land a tenure-track job. Hakwan estimated that less than 1 in 10 graduate students would be on track to becoming tenured faculty after completing their programs. Even after that, you must slave away in pre-tenure positions for several years. He also mentioned that the lack of job security and funding during the early part of his career added tremendous pressure to get tenured at a research university.

He tells me: “It probably took years off my life,” referring to his struggle to get on tenure-track during his graduate student years.

While the journey was enormously stressful, Hakwan has reaped the benefits of being a tenured psychology professor. Relatively high job security, a relaxed and non-hierarchical work environment (especially in England, for some reason), and the freedom to pursue whatever topics catch his fancy (as long as he can get funding). He also gets to travel to attend conferences around the world. Although it is impossible to avoid less fun “political” aspects of the job, he finds socializing and growing along with other psychology researchers incredibly rewarding. He stressed how receiving acknowledgement from his peers was especially important to him, which was something I hadn’t considered before.

Finding people who can recognize what you do as valuable by people you respect is a very good feeling… A lot of what we do is pretty esoteric, but if other people see value in what you do, it is very rewarding.

One of my favorite parts during our conversation was when I asked Hakwan what advice he would give to someone considering a career in this field. He answered my question with a plainness that forced me to reexamine what I was passionate about:

The short answer is no… You’re going to lose a lot of income and opportunities to get other worldly experiences for about ten years during the very prime of your life… But if you really have the passion, if you really care, if you think that you have what you need to compete and to sacrifice other things like time and other interests then once you make it, it’s a wonderful job. It’s an amazing job… You have all the freedom to pursue basically an artistic interest. And that’s very cool.

My takeaway is that I have to be resilient if I wish to take this path. I need to have thick skin and be able to handle harsh rejections. But even more than that, I need to confirm my passions for my career, whatever it may be. I can’t delude myself into pursuing psychological research because it is more “practical” than, say making it rich as a jazz musician, because the competition is about the same.

I am still unsure if this is the right path for me. But, talking to Hakwan has reconfirmed for me that I need to figure out what my passions are before I can answer what my career goals are. Tackling the question of what are your goals? instead of dancing around the issue turned out to be quite refreshing.

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