Many students have no idea what they want to do in life (don’t worry, it’s okay). But some have the exact opposite problem.
They feel a strong conviction that there is only 1 perfect career path.
The best examples of this are students who prepare themselves for many years of graduate school – most commonly found in the pre-law or pre-medical track, and research students interested in a PhD.
Yet I believe these students need to use a career hypothesis to test and evolve their careers just as much as everyone else. The risk of not being hypothesis driven with your career is massive. Imagine if you spent 4 years preparing for medical school and 7+ years in medical school only to realize you don’t actually want to practice medicine. Ouch.
Below is the story of Kurt, who found conviction, fulfillment, and excitement in the first few years of his career by being hypothesis-driven.
Kurt is a close friend who went to UC Berkeley. He was a Biology major on the pre-medical track to become a doctor.
Being a pre-medical student at UC Berkeley is challenging for even the brightest students -- it’s a high pressure environment with difficult classes. There’s an infamous rumor that only 1 in 4 Freshmen starting the pre-medical track actually end up applying to medical school. It is not easy.
But Kurt loved medicine and learning about the human body. Studying Biology wasn’t just a means to an end (applying to medical school), he really enjoyed his classes and learning the material.
While Kurt was interested in being a doctor, his goal was to work in hospital management. In other words, his career hypothesis was the following:
“I think I want to work on the business/management side of the healthcare industry”
He saw getting a medical degree and becoming a doctor as a stepping stone to achieving this goal.
While pursuing this throughout college, Kurt also pursued his passion for entrepreneurship and technology by getting involved with the Berkeley startup community and interning at a medical device startup. He stood out as an incredibly well-rounded individual with diverse interests and experiences.
Eventually, Kurt had to take the MCAT – the infamous standardized test required for medical school. Despite 4 years of academic achievement, medical experience, and diverse interests, there was no substitute for a high MCAT score. So in the fall of his senior year after months of studying, Kurt sat for the test.
Yet something about taking this test changed his perspective. With each MCAT question, he became increasingly uncertain about committing to 7+ years of medical school. Finally, he came to the last question of the MCAT, which asked if he would like to void the results of this test.
It’s a question designed to be a reset button – just check the box and pretend that the test never happened.
When reading that question, he interpreted it as “do you want to spend the next decade of your life in medical school. If not, check this box and hit the reset button.”
In a spur of the moment decision that would change the next few years of his life, he voided his score and walked out of the exam room no longer a pre-medical student. Rather than following the standard track for pre-medical students at UC Berkeley, Kurt was now in limbo -- unsure of what would happen next.
While Kurt’s career hypothesis had not changed, he was not sure if medical school was the best step for his career. By following the pre-medical track and assuming he would apply to medical school, Kurt had not deeply considered his other career opportunities – some of which may help him better reach his current career goal.
After a few conversations with experienced people who work in hospital management, Kurt decided to intern at a management consulting firm to develop a strong business skill set that he could later apply to healthcare.
Kurt exceeded expectations at his internship and secured a full time offer with the firm. But rather than returning to consulting despite his positive summer experience, Kurt took a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to build a startup with his best friend.
There were a few reasons justifying this counter-intuitive decision:
- This was an opportunity to develop tangible business/entrepreneurial skills by building an actual company
- He got to further explore his deep passion for startups in the context of the healthcare industry
- He was genuinely excited about the prospect of working with and learning from his best friend
If he succeeds in building this company, the sky is the limit with his future opportunities in healthcare. If he fails, it will have been a fantastic experience nonetheless and he can consider breaking back into management consulting, re-applying to medical school, or finding another strong career opportunity.
Ultimately, this decision (and the decisions leading up to this point) exemplify Kurt’s courage to deviate from the standard track and build a custom career to fit his unique career hypothesis.
He used his excitement to guide his career decisions within the bounds of his career hypothesis.
As a result, Kurt spent 2 incredible years experiencing the euphoric highs and depressing lows of building a company. It was a journey unlike any career opportunity he could’ve imagined. And needless to say, he learned a lot.
Around 2 years in, Kurt career goals further evolved as he felt the itch to practice medicine. Despite the incredible experience of building a company with his best friend, Kurt realized he craved the intimate patient-doctor relationship that is impossible to experience without getting a medical degree. His career hypothesis evolved into the following:
“I think I want to practice medicine and later get involved with the business/management side of the healthcare industry”
He arrived at this hypothesis after considering his fulfillment with 3 different, long-term scenarios:
- He starts practicing medicine and later successfully pivots to hospital management
- He only practices medicine for the rest of his life
- He never practices medicine but manages to build a career in hospital management
In considering the 3 scenarios, Kurt realized he would only feel fulfilled with options 1 and 2 -- not option 3. By exploring his other career options and expanding his life experiences, Kurt realized that practicing medicine was an important part of his future career – something he did not realize when following the pre-medical track at UC Berkeley.
And while the startup was an incredible opportunity, it would not help him practice medicine.
A few months ago, Kurt quit his job to retake the MCAT, finish a few pre-medical classes, and apply to medical school. The other day he told me:
“I love what I’m studying right now in biology class. We had to present a 20 minute project and I couldn’t stop talking about my topic after 45 minutes. I missed being in school and am excited about medical school.”
I wanted to share Kurt’s story in-detail to showcase how many twists and turns there can be in the first few years of someone’s career. Also, there are a few key lessons in Kurt’s story:
Lesson 1: Have a career hypothesis and work towards it, but be flexible in evolving, changing, and amending it over time
Kurt’s initial career hypothesis was driven by his love for biology, leadership, and entrepreneurship. By pursuing this hypothesis, he found incredible opportunities in management consulting and startups that a typical pre-medical student would not consider. As Kurt’s experiences changed his perspective on life, he amended his career hypothesis to refocus on practicing medicine. While he ended up re-applying to medical school, he did so with much stronger conviction and a richer history of experiences than before.
Lesson 2: When evaluating career trade-offs, strongly consider your excitement and potential fulfillment for each option
Kurt was able to take advantage of unconventional opportunities by focusing on his career hypothesis and investing in exciting and fulfilling opportunities. He first did this when he canceled his MCAT score and interned in management consulting. He did this a second time when he turned down the prestigious consulting return offer to build a startup with his best friend. And he did this a third time when he decided to quit the startup, retake the MCAT, and apply to medical school. Kurt resisted social and external pressures and focused on making the best decision for himself each step of the way.
Lesson 3: Seriously evaluate your alternative options before committing to lengthy graduate programs (3+ years, ie. medical school, law school, PhD programs)
One of the best pieces of advice Kurt received was to only attend medical school if he was almost 100% certain he wanted to become a doctor. His mentors told him there were less painful ways to get into hospital management than grinding through 7+ years of medical school. He assumed hospital managers needed a medical degree, but only realized this was not true after talking with experienced people through informational interviews (always cross check your career hypothesis with more experienced people). Furthermore, Kurt’s conviction to re-apply to medical school became significantly stronger only after deeply understanding his alternative opportunities (stay at the startup, work in management consulting, etc.). Even with these incredible career opportunities Kurt felt the need to practice medicine.
Lastly, it’s totally okay if unlike Kurt you have no idea what to do in life. However, it is your responsibility to take initiative by using career hypotheses to find a career that makes you feel fulfilled and excited.
You are in control of discovering who you are and what your purpose is. It’s a lifelong journey filled with exciting and unpredictable opportunities. To me, that’s the best part about this whole process.
To kick off 2018, I challenge you to come up with a career hypothesis or stress test your current one. Reply back to this email and let me know what your career hypothesis is and how you are going to test it in 2018!