Stage 1 Exploration

This may well be the toughest question you ever ask.

It deserves respect.

Your whole life to date, unless you've been very unlucky, has been based on a script called This Is How You Raise Kids. Nobody knows who wrote the thing, but it'd make a great class action for parents and kids alike.

It's a very old, very tatty, script, and not many people get the lines 100% right. You're no longer a kid, and now you have to write at least some of your own script, with a plot line, a story, and characters.

You play the lead, naturally…

You've been cast as an explorer because there's no other word in the language which really describes it. You're exploring your own life.

What do you want to see, what do you want to do, where's your personal paradise, call it what you will, that's what you're exploring.

(Teens get hit with so much soppy verbal junk about their lives we thought we'd spare you that.)

You've got your skills, some experience, enough to survive, hopefully, and fight your own way through the jungle. You may not be entirely self-sufficient, but you're getting pretty good at standing on your own two feet.

That was the practice.

This is the real deal.

Depending on what course you choose, the first, glaringly obvious thing you'll notice is that suddenly things have got a lot more difficult.

You can't leave everything at school or at work, any more. Everything seems to follow you around. It eats into your personal life. It's not too bad at first, but as you progress, you'll find there's a lot to do, and it's all yours.

You first check out careers. Go to College A, check out a degree in biology, for example. Go to College B, slightly different course, different place. Go to College C, totally different options, and you, for some reason, aren't sure what you think about it. College D offers a free set of croquet mallets, if that helps at all. College E has a whole series of degrees through to PhD, and has helpfully sent you an entire library to tell you how to enroll.

You become instantly aware that about four years of your life, and quite a lot of your money, is going to get tied up in the process.

To say nothing of the eyestrain in reading all the documents, and the other few years it may take to do that.

There's a lot of wood in the forest, and if you can't see the trees you're bumping into, it's no great surprise.

Too much information is much worse than none, because you can't get non-existent information wrong, or misinterpret it.

This is Stage 1 exploring, and it's not really based on what you're seeing or doing, it's based on what you're trying to achieve.

You've learned, though, that you're the one calling the shots. That was the most important part of the Survival Skills program, and that's now fully functional. You have your own opinions, and a good idea why you have them.

Because, otherwise, you can't make your own decisions. Just being alive is a series of decisions, and most of them have to be right.

You call for some advice from the natives, either parents, or other household fixtures like teachers, professionals, or someone you're fairly sure has some idea what they're talking about.

In this case they say College B looks a bit more rational than the rest. College A wasn't impressive, College C was vague, College D was obviously doing a sales pitch, and you don't play croquet, and College E is out unless you become a millionaire sometime in the next month or so.

You, for some reason, have been innocently hoping that the degree would just get you what you want, doing biology.

Does it?

Yep, you get a Bachelor of Science, (Biology).

Now- Where does that take you? It takes you into legitimate roles in the industry, in the science, and, in this case, research, a very important part of the field.

If you were doing engineering, food technology, or anything else, you'd expect those few years of your life, and the tens of thousands of dollars involved, to go somewhere, too.

Let's get this straight- Degrees don't come with guarantees.

You may be a natural in your field, but you have to be sure about all this. What you need is a reasonable level of certainty, like about 1000%, or more, that your qualifications will get you moving in your career, in the direction you want to be heading.

You have to think at least a few steps ahead.

You need to know how to use the degree.

There are always electives, as well as modules.

There are also detours in both.

Some are direct feeds into areas you want to explore, others aren't. They all cost money, time, and they come with you throughout your academic and professional career.

Modules are a bit easier to work with, because they form part of a recognizable structure. You can usually tell which ones you need, just make sure they are the ones you want.

Electives are a bit trickier. It's sometimes thought that electives are just filler, making up the mass of the degree. Nothing could possibly be further from the truth. They're directional things, and the right ones are like the combination to a safe. They can open up whole areas of qualification for you. Used properly, they're a real help.

Not surprisingly, in the 48 hours since you figured out which college you thought looked best, you haven't had the time to explore the new possibilities created by the degree's components.

That's the next part of basic exploration.

Where do the new trails lead? Are they useful, or just another way of using up resources on something you don't actually need?

Explorers don't carry unnecessary baggage, if they can help it. It's more effort than it's worth, and doesn't actually provide anything useful.

There's another issue here.

You want to do biology? What sort? Genetic? Research? Genetic Research? PhD? In the case of genetics, there are chemistry and physics elements, as well as pure biology. Amino acids are complex things.

So are some of the options you've been given. This is like a menu. What's on the menu is someone else's idea, not yours. That's where you can quite simply wind up on the wrong track.

At this stage you do need the basic degree, obviously. That's nice, but then, how do you get to genetics?

This situation applies to any degree, and it's surprisingly easy to find that there are a few things missing from the menu, after you've ordered.

Lateral thinking is your best shot here, for first hand advice about a reliable trail from A to B.

You need to track your way back from your destination to where you are now. That usually means you need to get information from those doing the work you want to do, about what you need and how to get what you need.

The good news is that this kind of information will never be a waste of time and effort.

So you find a way of getting that information. Find out how to contact people in the field, from industry associations, scientific magazines, colleges where they teach or lecture,

Professionals can tell you more on their subject in ten minutes than some people can tell you in their entire lives.

Doesn't matter what industry you're in. The top level professionals are as conscious as anyone, sometimes more so, of the need for new talent. They're also used to inquiries like this, and their staff will have some information on hand, or at least a few pointers.

You might find the occasional dud, but the probability is that you'll be able to get something useful out of a simple email or phone call.

The overall principle here is that you stay focused on your goal.

If anything doesn't lead directly where you want to go, you don't need it.

There's a very strong possibility that you can pick up any extras later, anyway.

At this stage you have to be heading in the right direction.

Columbus didn't get to America via China, from Spain.

This sense of direction is vitally important.

Follow the signs on the career trail, and learn how to use them.

Have a look at the qualifications attached to the top people in your industry: BSC, B. Eng, MBA, BA, PhD, Prof. Usually it's a pretty impressive string.

There's a virtual street directory there, if you know how to read it. You can see the logical progressions, at least.

Native languages in the wilds of Academe.

Having done all of which, and acquired a pretty good idea of where you need to go and what you need to do, now all you have to do is learn a new language:

Bureaucratese.

The colleges, even College E, which has gone ultra commercial, and is more sales pitch than product, are aware of the basic idea that students might be trying to find their way through the academic jungle.

It's not too difficult to get some useful directions from them, if you understand their language. Their language is based entirely on procedural things, and a series of strange, auditable, activities which appear on their balance sheets.

But- You need to be asking your questions from a position of knowledge.

You have to present your questions in a form they know how to answer.

Keep it simple. Don't get carried away and ask how to do a course in genetic science, if the expression doesn't show up in their modules. If it doesn't, it's a non-subject. They might have heard of genetics, but can't really do much with the topic.

They can't help it, their vocabulary has been restricted to whatever their college does. If it's not part of their procedure, it doesn't exist.

Topics are what they can do, not what they can't do.

(Another good reason for doing your checking in advance. It can take ages just to find out they don't have a clue what you're talking about.)

This is another kind of reconnaissance, and it has to be done thoroughly. The less time and effort you have to put into finding out basic information, the sooner you can get on with your life.

There is a real risk here.

The risk is that you do something which means you can't get where you're trying to go, or at least not directly, and have to backtrack.

That's a potentially serious problem. The amount of time and money involved in qualifications is no joke. You get saddled with a debt, some qualification which doesn't do the job, and a series of non-options in your career.

It does happen, regularly. We see it quite frequently on our Forum, in the General Career Advice thread.

There are cases where careers foul up, either through people getting stuck in positions they don't want to be in, or from career stagnation, no options available.

(Don't want to keep hammering the options analogy too much, but honestly, when you're talking about years or decades of someone's life, it's worth mentioning.)

So-

  • Stay on track.
  • Don't get talked into things you don't need.
  • Make sure you can use every part of your degree or other qualification productively.
  • Remember, you're paying for this, and it involves years of your life.