Premature Career Decisions

Originally posted 2011-05-21

When I was 17 years old, I participated in the USNCO chemistry camp for a second year. In the year leading up to the camp, I immersed myself in physical chemistry, organic chemistry, analytical chemistry, biochemistry, inorganic chemistry, spectroscopy, and chemistry in general by reading textbooks. By doing so, I effectively completed 2-3 years of a college chemistry undergraduate degree, all in high school. Of course, I did well at the camp that year, and went on to compete at the International Chemistry Olympiad.

I’m now 21, and I’ve graduated MIT with a chemistry degree. I’m heading to Harvard next year for graduate school in chemistry. I suppose it didn’t have to be that way, but to me it seemed inevitable that I would do chemistry for the rest of my life. It’s only now that I realize that I’ve been suffering from the sunken costs fallacy and have been digging myself deeper these last four years.

But what’s wrong with being a chemistry major?

Nothing, really.

I will most likely remain a chemist in five year’s time, as I receive my PhD. I will most likely remain a chemist for the five years after that, as I either do a postdoc or move into industry. And so on. In the end, what this all means is that at the young age of 17, I ended up choosing what I would do with the rest of my life. As bright as I was, there’s no way that I could claim that this was a carefully considered decision. It seems unlikely that I was lucky enough to land on the best possible career path almost randomly (where “best” is defined with respect to individual desires and capabilities).

I want to break the pattern, if only for the sake of proving that I’m in control of my life. Furthermore, if my hypothesis is correct, this would probably move me closer to a global maximum, instead of staying on my local maximum.

Note to my future self: If you’re still a chemist, you better have a damn good reason why you haven’t at least explored alternatives. Coward.