Allison Cheston, Career Connector


Career Connector Blog

Engineer Your Career: Make Big Career Decisions Using this Simple Process

From Smarter Faster Better: The Secrets of Being Productive in Life and Business By Charles Duhigg

From Smarter Faster Better: The Secrets of Being Productive in Life and Business By Charles Duhigg

Try applying “the engineering design process” detailed in Charles Duhigg’s excellent book and you will learn to make better, less binary and more creative decisions. This “methodical approach to problem solving” removes the emotion so we can view our problems more objectively. It’s an excellent tool for defining career problems and coming up with potentially novel solutions.

Here’s how I suggest applying the engineering design process to a common problem my millennial clients have: Should I stay in my job or go to grad school?

  1. Define the dilemma.

You’re in your early 20’s armed with a college degree but not a lot of experience or specialized knowledge. Which is more important? Well, a job gives you experience and hopefully – but not always –some specialized knowledge. Grad school can provide specialized knowledge but how do you know which kind of knowledge you need if you’re not sure what you want to do yet?

  1. Collect the data.

To load up on information about different types of careers, read, talk with people along the experience spectrum and research career trajectories on LinkedIn. If you’re working, set aside time during the day to conduct research and then use your after-work hours to meet with people you’ve contacted.

Interview those with and without graduate degrees in your field (s) of interest to get a sense of how much you can learn on the job, if you need grad school and if so, the specific program and when to go. Meet with grad school department heads to make sure you’re targeting the right program for you. Be sure you understand the cost of foregoing grad school in a given field – in other words, the specific advancement potential the graduate degree confers, and what role and salary bump grad school would provide (if any).

In many fields you need to get enough on the job experience in order to be admitted to a good grad school, so factor that in. For example, the top MBA programs look for students with significant work experience. And it’s a degree best selected when you have a good idea about what you want to do once you graduate.

  1. Brainstorm Solutions

Do you have a go-to group of experienced fans with your best interests at heart? Now’s the time to enlist your “personal board of directors” to consider various solutions. If you can’t get the right group together in one room, you can meet individually and then compile their ideas. The point is to get as many ideas as possible from a variety of trusted sources. Your list of possible solutions might look something like this:

  • Remain in current job for two more years and then get an MBA with the long-term goal of advancing to Managing Director level. See if company will pay for my degree.

  • Leave company for operations role at startup to gain more experience, then return to current company in a more senior role.

  • Leave company for specialized degree—like the MA in Data Science– to propel me into a completely new role—possibly at a late stage startup/tech company.

  • If there are interesting senior roles at my company that would require the MA in Data Science, stay at company and do degree part-time.

  • Leave company for a specialized PhD program and travel the world doing consulting and training.

  • Forget a traditional job and grad school and become a full-time airbnb host. 

  1. Debate Approaches

Now that you’ve concretized potential solutions it’s time to compare opinions and decide which concept seems best to pursue. You may want to return to some of the people you already interviewed to check your assumptions and see if they agree. This debate phase should narrow down your choices to no more than two.

  1. Experiment

Will you enjoy a particular field enough to make a career there? Only experience will tell. In this example, there are two options that keep you at the company, allowing you to continue to conduct research while you finalize your decision about grad school. If you do decide that leaving is the right thing to do, you will be applying for jobs at startups or applying to grad school in Data Science—or going off the grid entirely! And with your newfound sense of purpose you will continue to gather data as you experiment with these new roles and the new professional identity you begin to embody through your experimental thinking.

According to Herminia Ibarra, INSEAD professor, author and expert on professional and leadership development, “Career transition is not a straight path toward some predetermined identity, but a crooked journey along which we try on a host of ‘possible selves’ we might become.” Remember, finding a career is messy!