Don’t Be Afraid of the Unknown

All new experiences involve risks, which you can work to lower through strategic career exploration, advises Chris Smith.

October 31, 2022
Women stands and hesitates wondering how to jump from one rock to the next
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Today, on Halloween, the year’s scary holiday, I’m writing to urge you to try not to be afraid when it comes to your career. I want to encourage you to, in fact, embrace the unknown, the unpredictable, the uncertain.

I recognize that’s not easy: human beings are, by nature, risk averse. The field of behavioral economics has demonstrated unequivocally that loss aversion is a real and powerful force. Specifically, we have a loss aversion bias, where we tend to prefer avoiding losses to acquiring equivalent gains. When the psychologists Daniel Kahneman and Amos Tversky presented this and other findings in their 1979 paper on prospect theory, they challenged established dogma that human beings are rational economic agents.

In other words, losses loom larger than gains. An equivalent loss is subjectively perceived as worse than the same amount of gain. That aversion to loss makes sense in an evolutionary context, as the loss of resources could be severely detrimental for survival back in caveman days. But today we can experience significant negative repercussions if we lean too much toward avoiding loss rather than seeking gains: we sometimes don’t take the chances we should and end up losing out on vital opportunities.

Kahneman and Tversky also found in their research that people tend to overweight both low and high probabilities and underweight medium probabilities. We often perceive events with relatively low probabilities as more likely to occur than they are. So any risk that is nonzero is perceived as risky, even when, objectively, risk probabilities vary quite a bit from the extreme ends of a distribution when compared to an intermediate level of risk.

Combining human loss aversion with our overweighting of low-probability events, we can imagine that when the potential for loss intersects with an event with less than a 100 percent probability of success, human decision-making becomes even more warped relative to what would be expected in a purely mathematically based, objective world. Rationally, pursuing an opportunity with a 5 percent chance or failure is far better than if the chance of failure was 25 percent. Both are relatively low probabilities, but the 25 percent failure rate is five times that of the 5 percent rate. However, most people will perceive a 5 percent failure rate as higher than it actually is.

Taken together, then, potential losses that occur at relatively low probabilities are perceived as more likely to occur and, thus, avoided at a higher frequency than one would expect objectively.

What does all this have to do with one’s pursuit of a career?

Well, we can all get very comfortable with the status quo and what we know—often at the expense of venturing out and trying new experiences. That tendency manifests itself when graduate students and postdocs stay in their current academic environment simply because it is a 100 percent known quantity, whether or not it is supportive or a good fit. Venturing out to even explore alternative environments can often seem relatively risky or disproportionately scary in comparison. That can happen in situations as low stakes as attending workshops or events that are not related to their research or scholarship.

The thinking goes something like “Why go out of my way to attend that networking event or workshop on a transferable skill? What if it is uncomfortable? What if I am made to do something I am not familiar with or that challenges my sense of self-worth?”

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And, in many ways, technology and the readily available amount of online information can lead you to think fewer risks are needed to map a path forward in your career. But growth involves pushing yourself beyond what you know or feel comfortable with. Some of the most useful information and insights related to your career progression cannot be found online but instead through human conversation, connection and experiential learning—which may involve some level of risk or vulnerability. And the fact is, you will always face some uncertainty when pursuing something new, and given graduate school and postdoctoral training are finite periods that will end, you undoubtedly will be pursuing something new when they are over.

So, how might you derisk the next step in your career? How can you know if you are pursuing an appropriate path? You can’t fully understand what it is like to be in a position until you are in it, but you can take a few steps toward learning what roles might be right for you and thus feel more certain about your decisions.

Making the Most of Uncertainty and Risk

Perhaps one of the most difficult risks we encounter as human beings is putting our faith in other people. But to advance in our careers and in life, we must engage in broad communities, and the data, in fact, show that weak ties with people whom we don’t even know that well are vital in a successful job search.

A very practical place to start when seeking connections and career conversations is via informational interviews with individuals working in areas you are interested in learning more about. The University of Pennsylvania Career Services team has a superb guide to informational interviewing for graduate students and postdocs, and you can also find a great guide available through ImaginePhD. You can create a free account to access this and other ImaginePhD resources. Informational interviews can also be helpful for your faculty job search. I encourage graduate students and postdocs to begin their search for potential individuals for informational interviews through LinkedIn, leveraging its Alumni Tool in particular. Such conversations will be immensely helpful as you learn more about potential roles and get a sense of how you might make a career transition.

A step beyond conversations with professionals, though, is to experience what it’s like to work in a particular role or on a relevant professional task firsthand. Consider engaging in experiences to build transferable career skills through volunteer efforts at your institution, in your community or via professional societies. While not traditionally labeled as experiential learning, such volunteer experiences can also be extremely valuable in a variety of ways: fostering belonging, building teamwork and leadership skills, and providing a means to give back and help others.

Experiential learning involves applying concepts through active experiences to better understand how you can apply your skills and knowledge to real-world problems. Reflecting on those experiences and how they align with your interests and values can also help inform your future career choices. Some possibilities for experiential learning are job simulations, job shadowing and internships.

  • Job simulations. Professionals create prebuilt simulations to walk other people through typical tasks and deliverables, providing a sense of the types of projects and work performed in certain fields. They are a great way to experience a day in the life and reflect on whether you could see yourself performing these tasks as part of a future career. For further information, explore InterSECT Job Simulations.
  • Job shadowing. This relatively informal process involves spending a day or two with a professional to see what their work looks like. You might be able to leverage informational interviews into future job-shadowing opportunities.
  • Internships. The most immersive of the options listed here often involves spending around eight to 12 weeks embedded in a work environment. While some graduate programs offer formal internship opportunities, not all do. Even if your institution does not have a mechanism to support internship programs, the National Science Foundation’s INTERN Program provides supplemental funds for graduate students supported on NSF research grants to pursue an internship of up to six months in a nonacademic setting.

Some of these experiential learning options require you to experience risk and uncertainty. Thus, I recommend that you start with informational interviews to narrow your scope before pursuing more immersive experiences. You’ll find that the more you talk with and learn from others, the more information you will have on a potential career. And as you delve further into understanding day-to-day activities and processes through job simulations and shadowing or internships, the more you will derisk your next career step. The ultimate goal is to be fairly confident that next step is the right one for you right now.

The right now part is important to remember, as your professional goals and needs will change over time. In most cases, the next job you undertake after graduate school or your postdoc will not be your last. You may eventually need to explore different professional paths. But, having gone through the career exploration process once, you will most likely find it less uncertain and daunting the next time around.

Most of all, realize that in uncertainty often lies unexpected opportunity and discovery. For example, when I was a postdoctoral fellow at Vanderbilt University, I reluctantly took on a leadership role in our local postdoctoral association that seemed risky for me at the time—I was/am introverted and didn’t see myself as leadership material. I went from treasurer of our postdoc association one year to vice president the next to a professional working in postdoctoral affairs and serving on the National Postdoctoral Association’s Board of Directors a few years later. I built confidence in my leadership skills through each successive experience.

If you had asked me as a postdoc if I would have expected to be here professionally seven years later, my answer would surely have been no. But circumstances pushed me to step outside my comfort zone and, ultimately, I found a career where I felt I could make a difference in higher education. Life is unpredictable, and career paths can take many twists and turns. But you have to be willing to venture down new avenues of experience and exploration to gain a better understanding of your options.

A big, wide world is out there—bigger and wider than any of us can fully appreciate. We just have to be willing to step outside our comfort zones and take some risks. Like many people, it took a lot for me to take the leap into a profession beyond what I knew. I hope, though, that the resources and methods shared here can help make that leap feel a little less risky for you.

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Chris Smith is the postdoctoral affairs program administrator at Virginia Tech. He serves on the National Postdoctoral Association’s Board of Directors and is a member, and currently serves as the communications committee chair, of the Graduate Career Consortium—an organization providing an international voice for graduate-level career and professional development leaders.

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