When I was a freshman at UC Berkeley, I thought I wanted to work for a startup. Despite knowing very little about entrepreneurship in the Bay Area and what founding a startup entails, I liked the idea of it.
That idea was enough for me to latch onto and develop my first career hypothesis:
I think I want to do something business related at a startup.
This simple and vague goal was exactly what I needed. Rather than flailing my arms in frustration that I didn’t know what I wanted to do after graduating in 4 years, I simply picked something interesting out of all the topics I had been exposed to at the time and set out to prove or disprove whether startups was what I really wanted to do.
This was much more testable than not having any direction at all.
By using genuine curiosity to pick a career direction, I was able to refine my starting point into something that excites me. Little did I know this was my first hypothesis.
I call this the hypothesis-driven career. It’s a framework I use to make my career decisions, and one that’s helped many of my friends get started with their careers in college.
The hypothesis-driven career mirrors elements of the scientific method to systematically find industries, jobs, and career opportunities that most closely resonate with your aspirations.
It pushes you to stay grounded to your personal interests and not blindly follow others around you.
This framework ensures that you don’t wake up one day, in a job you hate, an industry that’s boring, and a life that’s not exciting and customized to your interests.
Like cold emailing, the earlier you learn to apply the hypothesis-driven career, the better off you will be.
The hypothesis-driven career framework breaks down into 3 simple steps:
- Build your hypothesis: Develop a hypothesis of an industry or job function that sounds like something you would be interested in exploring
- Test your hypothesis: Read articles on the subject matter, talk to friends with experience in the space, cold email and call working professionals, land an internship
- Evaluate your hypothesis: Reflect on your test. Do you continue to find this hypothesis interesting and worthwhile for further exploration or has your interest fizzled out
Wash, rinse, repeat.
Let’s take a more detailed look at each part.
Build Your Career Path hypothesis
Finding that first interesting idea to latch onto is crucial to get the wheels turning. Once you do this — even if you later realize you were wrong and hate the subject matter— your career will be set in motion and become easier to narrow down.
So how do you find that first interest?
Chances are you already have some kind of workable interest — you just haven’t thought about it as a career option.
Below are a few things that can be helpful in the art of discovering your interests:
- Classes: Have you taken any classes in high school or college that genuinely interested you? What about them interested you, writing, programming, analysis, the specific subject matter?
- Conversations: Have you talked to someone recently about what they are working on and thought “Wow, that sounds really cool!”
- Reading: What are some topics you would voluntarily spend your time to read more about?
- Consumerism: What are some products you really love buying? Why do you love them so much? Are you interested enough to learn more about what goes on behind the scenes?
Generally when talking with freshmen and sophomores, they start the conversation off claiming that they don’t know what they’re interested in. After digging through some of the topics above, it’s very obvious that they actually have many interests!
Some examples of interests that can be molded into a testable hypothesis:
“I like my math classes and working with numbers, I’m interested in the idea of programming but don’t see myself as an engineer”
“Nothing in school interests me, but I love keeping up to date with makeup. I would love to be a famous YouTube makeup influencer — but that’s unlikely”
“I like the craftsmanship behind quality clothing, and I’ve always loved technology and how fast the industry evolves”
All 3 of the above are paraphrased interest statements from my friends who thought they didn’t have a direction to their career.
Once you have your own crude interest statement like the ones above, the next step is to refine it into a workable hypothesis.
Simply take your interest statement, and restructure the sentence starting with “I think I want to…”
Below are examples of testable hypotheses based off the previous interest statements:
“I think I want to use my quantitative skills to solve business problems”
“I think I want to work in the makeup industry”
“I think I want to work at a clothing startup that emphasizes craftsmanship and high quality products”
And that’s it! That’s your first hypothesis.
The best part is that your hypothesis can be extremely broad or narrow. As you explore the world and pivot your hypothesis you will start to have many “I think I want to…” statements.
My hypothesis went from the vague “I think I want to do something business related at a startup” to…
“I think I want to build products that solve real problems and generate user traction/revenue”
“I think I want to build a strong company culture where people love coming to work by recruiting and leading a team of people towards a larger mission”
“I think I want to learn how to apply statistical analysis on large data sets to put together data-driven business strategies”
These are just a few of my current hypotheses; I wish I had 10 more internship opportunities to test them all!
If you start this process early, by the time you graduate you will have many deep interests and experiences — each of which you could spend a lifetime building a career around.
Test your hypothesis
So now that you have a hypothesis, we need to go about testing it to see whether this is something you are really interested in pursuing.
The goal is to quickly test your hypothesis and decide whether you need to pivot or refine your original hypothesis statement.
There are multiple ways to test your hypothesis with varying levels of time commitment.
- Read online articles, magazines, and take relevant classes
- Talk with friends who have experiences similar to your hypothesis
- Cold email to set up phone calls with professionals working in your area of interest
- Land a part-time internship during the school year or a full-time internship over the summer
- Work full-time at a job in your area of interest of a few years
Let’s flesh out one of the previous examples from an actual friend of mine:
“I think I want to work in the makeup industry”
The first step for her is to start building a foundational understanding of the makeup industry.
She would probably find herself overwhelmed if she jumped right into a full time job interview or scheduled a call with a professional in the makeup space. If she jumped ahead, it would have likely led to a failed interview or a phone call that lasted under 10 minutes.
Instead, she could start by Googling. Who are the major companies in this space? What are the latest consumer trends? Are makeup companies innovating with new products? What types of roles are there at makeup companies? What does it mean to work in marketing at a makeup company?
This takes a bit of practice, but I promise you will get better at Googling for information. You should also use blogs, stock analysis websites, financial filings, resources from your university library — literally any content that will teach you about the industry. Over time, you will become an expert in getting up to speed with a topic you previously knew very little about.
After getting a basic understanding of what’s going on in the space, maybe she decides marketing at a makeup company sounds like a cool role.
Now her hypothesis is:
“I think I want to work in marketing at a makeup company”
The goal is to constantly test and refine your hypothesis. As you learn more and dig deeper, you can focus time on higher commitment ways of testing like cold-emailing for chats and internships.
Evaluate your hypothesis
Through each stage of the testing process, you should evaluate your hypothesis afterwards. In each article she read, conversation she had, and company she worked at, she was testing her hypothesis. After each test, no matter how big or small, it is important to analyze the new information and evaluate the hypothesis.
If she found the industry boring and ill-suited for herself after a few conversations and readings, it would be a poor use of time to keep pushing for an internship! Better to assess what she likes and dislikes thus far and pivot to a new hypothesis.
Let’s assume she completed a marketing internship at a makeup company.
Note: I know we took a jump from her learning about the makeup industry to her getting an internship. In future posts I will cover how to land an internship in-detail , but the basics start with the hypothesis-driven career.
Now she can start to evaluate her original hypothesis. Was she really interested in marketing in the makeup industry, or was that an incorrect hypothesis?
There are 2 possible outcomes:
- She loved her internship (or most of it) and wants to dig further into the makeup industry
- She did not like her internship and/or wants to try something new
Great! Within just a few months, she already found something she is genuinely passionate about. Now is the exciting part — she gets to focus on building narrower hypotheses to get deeper into the space.
She needs to reflect on the test (hypothesis evaluation) and think about all the aspects she liked and disliked about her internship.
After being thrown into the internship and constantly working with different people in the company, maybe her reflection brings to light a few key points:
- She didn’t like how slow-paced the traditional makeup industry is, and strongly values working in a fast-paced, exciting industry — even if that means venturing outside of makeup
- She enjoys working with numbers and prefers the quantitative aspect of of marketing
- She realizes marketing and strategy functions have many overlapping responsibilities, but prefers the high impact nature of the strategy roles her co-workers had
Given these new insights, her refined hypothesis could be:
“I think I want to work in a strategic role at an innovative makeup company that is disrupting the slow pace of the traditional makeup industry.”
Remember, this is the most important step in the hypothesis-driven career. Always step back and evaluate your hypothesis!
She hated most of the internship — she was waiting for it to be over!
Great! Sometimes by having a bad internship experience you can actually learn more about what you like than a good or neutral experience. Instead of coming up with a refined hypothesis to dig further into the industry, she needs to come up with a new (but still narrower) hypothesis to explore something else.
Again, it is crucial to reflect on the evaluation step to unearth key insights. In this scenario, let’s say her new insights are:
- The slow nature of the work was just about the only part of the internship she liked; she can’t imagine herself in a fast-paced culture
- She thinks she hates marketing; specifically she did not like how quantitative everything was
- Everyone she worked with in a variety of different functions had jobs that sounded lame — why were any of these people still working here?
As you can tell, this is the opposite of the previous scenario. While the insights may seem negative and unhelpful, they were things she did not previously know about herself prior to learning about marketing in the makeup industry.
Even if she doesn’t know what industry or job function she wants explore next, she knows what things she doesn’t want to do — and that is very valuable information.
Based off these insights, perhaps her new refined hypothesis is:
“I think I want to work in a non-quantitative role in a stable and mature industry”
As she continues to explore other options she can use this hypothesis to screen opportunities and increase the likelihood of finding the perfect job.
The great part about this process is that it hardly matters where you start.
- The goal of step 1 (building your hypothesis) is to quickly find something that sounds interesting. Just find something that captivates your attention in the world of interesting opportunities.
- The goal of step 2 (test your hypothesis) is to quickly test whether you are actually interested in pursuing whatever your initial educated guess was.
- The goal of step 3 (evaluate your hypothesis) is to analyze new information from your test that you previously did not have.
Repeat. The hypothesis-driven framework is really just a formalized way to maximize your potential through your genuine curiosity.
With each cycle, regardless of whether you were right or wrong, your hypotheses will get more specific. You will learn about yourself at an incredible rate. Personally, I learned much faster through this process than in my Business Administration classes.
Through numerous cycles of the process, you will have conviction in your interests and passions because of concrete experiences that back them up.
A strong conviction in your passions carry over into making you more confident in school and life. It will push you to focus on what will help further your passions. If a high GPA doesn’t move you closer to your goals, you will find yourself less stressed about that 4.0.
The hypothesis-driven career is, without a doubt, the most important tool I learned in college. I believe it is a life skill that will continue to prove its usefulness for anyone looking to launch their career.
It’s up to you to take control of your career. Luckily there’s an easy way to start; just fill in the rest of this sentence:
I think I want to _____________
Here are some questions my friends often ask me about the hypothesis-driven framework:
Q: If I am constantly narrowing my hypothesis, won’t I miss out on other things that I am interested in?
A: Nope! When you find something else you are interested in, you just implicitly built another hypothesis. If you are always curious, you should have many hypotheses that you are constantly trying to test. It is good to be interested in many things and always be open to new opportunities!
Q: What happens if I decide I don’t like what I am doing?
A: Don’t waste precious time doing something you’re not interested in. If you found that you’re no longer interested in whatever you were pursuing, evaluate your current hypothesis, figure out what you liked and disliked about it, and build a new hypothesis. If you can’t find something else you’re interested in, go back to the discovery phase of building a hypothesis.
Q: What I’m doing now seems to be fine; why should I adopt the hypothesis-driven career mindset?
A: That’s great that you have confidence in what you are currently doing! But what happens if you realize you no longer want to pursue what you thought was your life’s calling? I’ve seen this happen with many of my friends. If you don’t have a systematic way to find things you’re interested in, it can lead to a panic. The hypothesis-driven framework will enable you to maximize what you learn in a structured way — don’t underestimate how important structure is in finding your passion!
Q: I really just can’t come up with a hypothesis!
A: You probably just haven’t recognized one of your interests as a potential hypothesis. Go back to Step 1: Building your hypothesis, and think about general things that interest you. If you’re like most college students, you already have interests — that’s usually what got you to college in the first place. Just reframe those interests into hypothesis and start testing.