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Illustration of female professional standing in a large maze

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Where I live, 12th graders highlighted in the local news as high school graduation approaches answer the “what’s next?” question with “college, then a Ph.D.” more often than they used to. Many of them will have been exposed to early training experiences: summer research intensives, science fairs and other chances to work with people with advanced degrees. But at about 18 years old, do they understand that they will be nearly as different from their current selves 10 years in the future as they were 10 years in the past?

People find their life’s work by different mechanisms. We have probably all met people who knew what they wanted to do from a very, very young age and then went and did it. But some people never find a narrative thread in their work lives, and some people develop one without ever consciously realizing that they have.

People who go to graduate school will have put themselves on that path, but why and how differs greatly among us all. Even the order of events is not consistent; some people fall in love with a question or problem and work backward from it: What are the ways it can be answered? What are the necessary tools? What areas of study are the best for gaining those tools and learning to apply them? How deep must my expertise be to contribute the way I want to? What suits me best?

Others gravitate first to the degree or the higher education institution or the subject, whether for its prestige or its practical use or the joy of using the tools required. Movies, real-life encounters and the things we learn in school and college can make being a professor who teaches, an archaeologist who discovers ancient ruins, an ontologist who makes sense of chaotic ideas or a researcher who cures disease attractive—even if you do not understand everything about what those roles entail or that their impact seldom comes from a single person.

The diversity of degrees, responsibilities and day-to-day activities that different people with each of those job titles have would surprise most high school seniors, though. The things people study, and the ways that things can be studied, change over time as new discoveries are made, new intellectual fashions pass through or existing fields collide. You can choose which river to step in and, whether it is a fast-flowing or a slow one, it’s never the same river twice.

Everything Flows

My and my family’s best efforts to turn the advice to “go work in a lab” into action utterly failed. If it were ever true that a motivated teen could walk into a research facility and volunteer to wash dishes, it has never been likely in my lifetime. I learned that the hard way. The first Ph.D. scientist I met was physiologist Novera Herbert Spector, whose unconventional path included a career as a machinist and union organizer before he went to graduate school. He is remembered as one of the founders of the field of immuno-neuromodulation, which is to say, how the immune system and the nervous system communicate with one another and affect each other’s function.

Once, Herb mentioned to me Florida’s Student Science Training Program, funded by the National Science Foundation. It stuck in my mind, and I applied and got in and thus got my first taste of biochemistry, lab life and living away from my family. His aside was the first domino that fell in the line that led to my defending a dissertation in biochemistry 12 years later.

This sounds like a simple advertisement for the power of mentoring. But Herb Spector wasn’t a big-M Mentor to me. He was just a grown-up I would cross paths with now and then and someone who thought well enough of my dad to pass along things that might interest me. It was in the same way that relatives whom I barely knew would pass along strange foreign coins from their deployments—evidence of a big world that I dreamed of someday seeing, tokens I loved and still keep.

Physiology—the study of the mechanisms by which life functions—is one of the things I most enjoyed studying in school, but by the time I went to college, it was losing ground. When I was young, I didn’t think of Herb as a cutting-edge scientist. He was older than my parents. Herb was retirement age—grandparent age—when I met him, and he died about five years ago at age 98. I had always thought of him as someone whose professional impact was behind him. I was wrong. He retired from the National Institutes of Health when he was in his mid-70s, two years after I got my first federal grant.

What You Choose, Think and Do Is What You Become

Herb’s role at the NIH was building and running new programs to enable new fields, and it was basically the same work that I now do in the philanthropic sector. This was nothing anyone could have predicted when I was a teenager. I wonder whether if this coincidence came because Herb and I had more in common than I understood, or because, in our futures, our minds pull threads from our pasts to knit a story that seems to make our paths through life make sense.

Like me, most “Carpe Careers” reader will not have been born with connections to advanced education. When you look back over your whole life—at coaches and crossing guards, mail carriers and mothers of friends, neighbors and passersby—who said or did something that helped you find your way?

How much of the advice that has mattered most to you has really been about your education and work? Look at the advice and insight that you have gained from everyone—people in your field and those who have never even thought about the subjects that are your focus. Was it the practical details that mattered most, or did they simply say or do something that allowed you to spot a possibility you had never considered before? Did their profession matter, or did you gravitate to the grace with which they were navigating their own lives and careers? Did they trigger an “aha!” moment that changed you in ways that go far beyond your education and your career? Can you pass that spark along to someone a step behind you on their own path?