Software Developer, Chemist

Careers Advice

A vector image graphic of a suitcase

I went back to my secondary school the other day. They were holding a careers event called “Meet the Professionals”. Two things struck me during my visit.

The first one was, how small everything was. Of course, it was no smaller than when I was there last, and because I was 18 when I left the sixth form/year 13 when I was 18 I am no larger. My only conclusion therefore is that the spaces I have become accustomed to are larger. Quite why, in a functional sense that should be I haven't fathomed. But there it is in all it's oddness.

The second point is the one I actually want to write about, which is that there were broadly three kinds of student who came to speak to me at the careers event.

By far the most common was the student who didn't know what they wanted to do. This isn't massively surprising in and of itself. The students were given the incentive that they should be attending the event to quiz us about what we do and from that extrapolate whether that would be something they might want to do.

Without wishing to demean the intentions of the organisers, I'm not convinced that this approach is altogether helpful. My field only really started existing when I was part-way through my A-levels, by which time all of my decisions about what subjects I was studying were almost entirely behind me.

As such my advice to these students was, and remains, “Don't worry about it”. Ultimately, the job they wind up doing and loving may not be in existence yet.

Two supplementary pieces of advice to this are that, firstly, you should keep doing things you are interested in, and keep trying to find new things to be interested in. And keep doing them. This is the only way to get good at something; to be really interested enough and dedicated enough to spend time on it.

The second supplementary piece of advice is to think about what you really want. Not what one really wants to do, least of all for gainful employment, but what really makes you itch. For example, if someone came up to me at this fair and said “I want to be a rock musician” my question was, without exception “why?”. Do you wish to play rock music? Or do you seek the glory commonly associated with the most famous rock musicians. If the latter, perhaps there are other mechanisms to seek glory which wouldn't require the acquisition of expertise in something which is not of direct interest, and you might be better off seeking something that is.

The second kind of student is someone who knows excactly what they want to do. These were in a sense, the most unusual and frequently the least advisable. They were often well informed about their career path of choice and what that would involve to get there. Nevertheless, the “Why?” question still applies to these students and for the same reason.

The third kind of student who has an idea vaguely what they want to do. They have a notion, in my case, that they want to get into scientific research but don't necessarily have an understanding of the pathway to that goal. This is probably the most straightfoward set of advice (but also one that a quick search with your favourite search engine would also produce).

For the sake of completeness, to get into cheminformatics or research science requires, above all else, an unreasonable degree of stubborness, and absurd degree of interest in the subject under investigation. Then of course, one must add a science qualification, and/or computer science at degree level, followed by a Ph. D. either in cheminformatics specifically or in a project involving a degree (if you'll pardon the pun) of cheminformatics, though these will probably naturally follow from the first two requirements.

I'd be lying if I claimed that this was anything other than re-discovered wisdom, indeed, this is a thought that has been had for a while, not least by the famous Alan Watts.