Which path?

Over the last few years I’ve had a number of conversations with students about careers, training and location choices. Should students apply for jobs while they are studying? When should they start applying for PhDs? Should they move away from family and friends to take a job? Are families ‘an impediment’ to successful careers?

I’ve tried to be honest with my answers to these queries, although my main answer is that I don’t have the answers! And, in all honesty, I’m probably bias, since my life choices demonstrate a ‘turning away’ from career and towards community (see A New Road and High Trails).

In any event, career choices are tricky decisions to make. Everyone is different, so every individual might approach these issues in different ways. But here’s how I process these kind of decisions.

Career Motivators.

One key feature is to try and identify what motivates you. The reason I think ‘motivation’ is so important is the same reason why putting diesel in a petrol car never goes well! If you’re doing the wrong job for the wrong reasons, running your mental and emotional motors from the wrong motivational fuel, the chances are you’ll end up on the hard shoulder waiting for the tow truck because you’ve knackered your engine!

Our true motivations can be difficult to identify, particularly when we are young adults, because we often see ourselves as others see us: what we ‘think we want’ is really what those around us (our parents, our families, our close communities) ‘want for us’. Cutting through all the clutter to discover our true motivations takes time, effort and reflective space.

While our scientific training gets us to look at the world through a logical, rational lens, our minds don’t work that way! While the modern metaphorical tale of the  ‘The Rider, the Elephant and the Path‘ is focused on changing behaviours, it’s a brilliant illustration of the role the rational and emotional parts of our minds play in the choices we make.

There are different ideas behind career motivators, but the nine key drivers below come from work done by Dave Francis in the 1980’s as part of what was known as the Richmond Survey (1).

Wealth: this is financial reward…it doesn’t matter what you do with the money (if you’re a Fat Cat or Robin Hood), it’s having the money and doing with it what you want.
Control: this is the authority within a job to control people, teams, budgets and resources, and again it may be because you can/could get good results from a team, not necessary because you’re Darth Vader.
Meaning: you want your job to ‘mean’ something. That may be saving lives, or discovering new species of algae on the bottom of the sea, but your job will have impact.
Expertise: you want to get really good at what you do.
Creativity: it’s important that you get the change to create, and be innovative.
Relationship: you need good relationships around you.
Autonomy: you want to work independently, and not really as part of team. You want to make your own choices.
Security: you want a solid, predictable future.
Status: you want to be recognised by the work community. You may want this for yourself, or to influence people for the community’s benefit.

There is a comprehensive questionnaire you could follow to help you identify your motivators here.


I hear you cry; “Dude! I’ve been a student forever! I’ve been living on Aldi baked beans since I left school. I need proper money. Give me job. Show me the wonga”

OK. But just remember that money might motivate you externally and not internally.  There’s some interesting concepts about salaries: they inhibit creative behaviours and once you get to a certain income level, money makes you sadder! Ask yourself, would a high salary (and the job stresses that goes with it) allow you to become the best version of yourself?

Try cutting the link between money and motivation as you think about the future, and see (maybe ‘feel’) if there are other priorities that are important to you. What are those important priorities, and – as you think your thoughts and feel your emotions – can you reach a consensus in the ‘imaginary boardroom of your mind’? As you identify the priorities you connect with, does that help with the choices about what job you want?

But stay open to change.

Whatever you’ve decided as your motivating forces, remember that they’re not set in stone forever. The important parts of my life have changed over time. When I was younger ‘exciting, intellectually challenging science work’ was important to me, whereas now it’s more about my family. Identifying how my priorities have changed over the last few years has helped me in some tough decisions. Other people still see me as ‘driven, career-minded, scientist’, so sometimes offers come my way that don’t align with my values. The important thing is that I need to know what my values are so I can make a choice about whether those offers are consistent with those values! I once knocked back an interesting (although speculative) job opportunity abroad because I both knew my driving motivators ahead of time, and realised that accepting the post would have compromised them. I also knew that in rejecting the role I’ll be poorer, less challenged and still in rainy Glasgow, but I’ll be more connected to my family, friends and community, and be able to keep my caring responsibilities.

Location, location, location…and love!

Should I move away from my family and friends for a job?

Moving location to find work might be worth considering, especially if moving is the first step on developing the career you’ve worked so hard through Uni to get into. But it’s worth trying to calculate if it is really the right first step. Does the location your moving to contain other opportunities for the future that your current one might not have? Or will having this job could make you more attractive to other employers (especially after a year or so)?

So, are relationships an impediment to successful careers because I can’t relocate?

Yes, maybe. Here’s my thoughts on that question.

I work in an academic environment surrounded by talent and high achievers, and in my opinion they’ve have got there by hard work and long hours. There’s an element of what I’ll call ‘luck’ as well, because hard work and long hours aren’t the only predictors of success: something else is need too, but I don’t know what it is – maybe, right research, right connections, right time, right place, maybe…. Let’s just call it luck!

Some time ago I was at a talk by a very successful female scientist, who had got to the top by talent and hard work, but she also spoke about the support networks she had around her that allowed her to raise children at the same time. For me, this was a rare insight (for an academic talk) into how communities really work. Afterwards, I started to think about whether other people’s careers are like icebergs: all you see is the 10% on the surface (the slick website, or the list of papers, or the shiny office plaque), but underneath there’s the 90% of ‘back-room operations’ that are invisible.

Almost everyone has relationships of some sort, and most of us have family. But because people are different, families are all different too. Raising children in a modern environment is not easy and there are many challenges for parents beyond just the physical ‘looking after’. Healthy children can get ill: in fact the hygiene hypothesis would assert that health children need to get ill! Children need emotional and relational connection, and some need more than others. Your resilience, motivational levels, and the needs of your family and other relationships, and the support networks you have around you are all aspects of your life that you have no control over, but can have a profound effect on the effort you can give to your career.

The Unwalked Path.

To my mind there are are never bad decisions. There are ones we could have made better, but often we don’t have all the right information in the right priority. And even worse, often we only know how we think and feel about aspects of our lives (work, relationships etc) once we’ve made a decision that turns out to be difficult to live with. All of the choices you will have before you will contain challenges you can’t see right now: and you’ll never experience the challenges of the path you didn’t choose. With all these complications, to my mind, regardless of which one you choose it will be the right choice.

Your not alone!

Making choices is often difficult and many people struggle with it. Robert Frost wrote the poem The Road Not Taken over 100 years ago, but it’s still true today.



1: Magalhaes, Wilde, “An Exploratory Study of the Career Drivers of Accounting Students”, Journal of Business & Economics Research – Fourth Quarter 2015 Volume 13, Number 4

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