Don't Panic: It Doesn't All Have to be Figured Out Now

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Don't Panic: It Doesn't All Have to be Figured Out Now


Brad R. Conrad, Director of SPS and Sigma Pi Sigma

Every good article starts with personal confessions:

  • I don’t know what I want to be when I grow up.
  • I still haven’t decided on a career. 
  • I applied to positions simply because they looked cool/exciting.
  • For me, it’s intimidating that careers are journeys, not destinations.

Dr. Brad Conrad.For the longest time, it seemed like careers were things that people planned out to a T, knowing exactly which jobs and positions they wanted. It wasn’t until well after undergrad that I realized not only was it OK to not have the next 30 years of my life figured out (and that most people don’t), but it was also OK to allow for opportunities to come along. But, just because something is OK, that doesn’t mean it’s necessarily stress free. It’s hard to apply for graduate programs, jobs, and internships but deciding which ones to apply for, in my opinion, is even harder. The act of choosing among so many good options is a real challenge for many.

At one point in my life, I was determined to be an astrophysicist working at NASA, and I was more than willing to move to Mars at the first available opportunity. Seriously. While this is still something I would enjoy doing, I was open to opportunities that came along. For example, in graduate school I wanted to work at NASA, but my timing was off for all the missions I found exciting (too early or almost completed). Instead of working at NASA, I tried out several groups that had exciting physics and ended up working in a lab that did surface science (and I don’t mean planet or asteroid surfaces). While totally different, that choice led me to wonderful physics problems, life-changing colleagues, and positions I would have never thought possible (such as director of SPS)! Being open to options changed my life.

Even though it worked out well, I will always remember feeling completely lost when looking for a research group in graduate school. Did I make a huge mistake in going? I thought about quitting and almost changed schools because I felt so uneasy. Plus, I had no financial safety net, so I had to make something work or I might be without a place to sleep. But, because I was open to opportunities and did my due diligence by exploring what was available to me, I ended up exactly where I’d choose to be if I could do it all over again. Options are scary. The unknown is scary. The act of choosing schools and careers have lifelong implications, but there was no way I could plan it all out. And that’s OK!

The features of this quarter’s issue focus on several facets of career pathways. Check out the career options map to consider all of your options: everything from the private sector to teaching to graduate school. We highlight not only the differences between theoretical, computational, and applied physicists, but also show you some of the wide phase space available to you: science communication, education, nonprofits, and even data science. And careers are not about titles but about accomplishments, so we explore some of the exciting physics and astronomy that has happened in the past few weeks. While careers can be random walks at times, a little planning can go a long way in helping you achieve your goals.

The takeaway: Don’t panic. You don’t have to have it all figured out today.//

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