Choosing a fulfilling career is not rocket science


OPINION: Many persons have a wrong idea of what constitutes true happiness. It is not attained through self-gratification, but through fidelity to a purpose– Helen Keller, notes GARRET FITZGERALD

IT’S THE morning after for the 57,000 students who got the results of the Leaving. It’s also the morning after for Batt O’Keeffe and others concerned at how few Irish students chose to be examined in maths and science.

These numbers lower the points threshold for entry into science, technology and engineering courses at third level, where dropout rates of more than 20 per cent have recently been reported. Some complain of students’ poor schooling in science on reaching university, others that we are graduating “too many PhDs”.

Why do so few choose science at a time of such creativity, possibility and technical breakthrough? The career depicted by some in this paper sounds depressing enough – poor pay, intense competition, little respect, prolonged training and no jobs – so much so that no rational student would make that choice. On the other hand, this characterisation sounds to me about as accurate as Sarah Palin’s take on universal healthcare.

Imagine a career where every day you decide what you will do. You are the author of your own destiny. You set the pace; you manage your own calendar. All you have to do is convince a group of your peers that what you want to do is a worthwhile idea; just like a Renaissance artist.

Every day, you can do something different. You can’t imagine what you will be working on in a year’s time. There is no tedium of the predictable and the humdrum.

You have the consolation that your effort is for the greater good. Your aim is to better the lot of humankind.

Your colleagues in this pursuit are selected for their intelligence, imagination and accomplishment. The friends you make in this group hail from all over the world. As you advance, you are subsidised to visit them to discuss your shared interests and to enjoy warm and generous hospitality in their home countries at little or no personal cost.

This career pretty much guarantees you a materially comfortable lifestyle. Indeed, if money is really important to you and you have luck and talent, you may become extremely rich.

As you age, you are provoked by constant contact with the imagination and energy of the young and increasingly, you can shape the opportunities for them to advance their careers.

Amazingly, in these times of economic crisis, the resources available to those who pursue this career are increased, not diminished. Your opportunities are augmented, while those of so many others are so cruelly curtailed. As you gain skills and experience, you are courted for job opportunities as diverse as the countries in which they arise.

This is a career of discovery. You decide what you would like to discover, where and how you will go about it. If it is a big question, there will be many parts to the big answer. It may take your entire career and you may never get to the final answer. But along the way, you will be able to ask the question in many different ways; you can paint the broad canvas or relish in the detail of a miniaturist.

Unsurprisingly, unlike physicians, bankers or lawyers, most people who have pursued this career would opt to choose it again. But its diverse virtues are a well-kept secret. Its practitioners rarely talk about it. It is a choice that requires vision and the courage to reach beyond the parochial, but one of extraordinary fulfilment.

The number of students choosing to pursue any career in science is diminishing in the West, not just in Ireland, just as they increase in the East.

Innovation in science has revolutionised agriculture, medicine, travel and communication.

We must communicate more effectively the excitement, impact, altruism, personal fulfilment and material rewards of this career choice, if we are to continue to enrich humanity through science by recruiting the best and the brightest of the young.

Garret A FitzGerald MD is a physician scientist at the University of Pennsylvania