Tuesday, April 05, 2011

Crunching the numbers, or taking the emotion out of career decisions

Among my favorite non-academic activities is playing poker. I'm not great by any stretch, but I'm better than most people who play in person or on-line. I've also done a bit of reading on the subject (there's an entire literature, complete with the Fundamental Theorem of Poker, and ever-increasinly complex mathematical models). It is no coincidence that many of the top players in the world come out of finance, engineering, or other math-heavy disciplines.

One of the issues that all authors agree upon is that you should never make a decision based on emotion. Your gut might tell you something, but before you act, you need to crunch the numbers. When you bet, there are a limited number of outcomes possible, and a limited number of hands your opponent could have. One guy I play with, Lighter Mike, only raises with the very best hands - he bluffs 0% ofthe time. So when he bets, I know how often I am winning or losing.

So what if we apply this approach to the job search? You can modify this process based on your own situation.

If I stay in my current position forever there is a 0% chance I will be content.

If I stay in my current position for another year or two, there is a R% chance I will land a tenure-track position that I want. (R>0, but not by much.)

Okay, so what if I take the job I discussed in my most recent post? Here's where the math can help. The way if figure it, here's how the numbers break down:

X% chance that I like the school and the career, and stay forever.
Y% chance that I like the career but not the school, and I swap it out for a job I like
Z% chance that I hate the job and the career and forever regret leaving academia

Of these, the only clear loser in the long-term is Z.

There are two remaining challenges. First, of course is assigning numbers to these variables. If my own mind and the job marked were as easy to figure out as Lighter Mike is, we wouldn't have a problem. But we can try.

The second problem is that you have to factor in the long-term effects of these variables. We don't play Russian Rouletter very often because while the odds of losing are only 1 in 6, losing has a very steep downside.

And that, I think is the problem I'm having. The downside of Z is (or at least seems) so high, it makes me crazy with fear. I'm in my forties, and am thinking about leaving a career/job for life to do something I have never done. This is a young person's game. I can't stop wondering, What if I'm wrong?

You can't know, of course, you just have to shove your chips into the middle and see what happens.

Good luck, us.


Eliza said...

This is a good post. It's critical to weigh options as objectively as possible and to realize that out of xyz future outcomes if you take a certain job, only z is a problem. But, as you said, it's nearly impossible to know what the odds are that z will be what you're left with after all, because number crunching can't answer the question of fit or happiness or professional satisfaction. Number crunching only helps determine odds. And what are the true odds that you'll love private school teaching and be happy you left academia? That probably depends on your disposition and attitude more than the job itself.

The other thing that springs to mind is the advice I read (somewhere) about trying not to think too much about future outcomes when making a decision and focusing instead on the near future and immediate consequences of a particular decision rather than uncertain outcomes 2 or 3 or even 5+ years down the line. So if you took the job right now how would you feel about it? What's your gut reaction?

Speaking of guts, one question I have is the following: Is there anything wrong with making a career decision based partly on gut feelings? Is there any place for emotions in the job search process? Should there be? Is being objective really a possibility when so much is at stake? I'm struggling what that myself.

Benjamin said...

I think you're mostly right on the question of whether it's the institution or the career that matters. My uncle was a progressive teacher in a traditional school and was completley miserable. Would he have been happy at a progressive school? My dad thinks so, but I guess he might just be an unhappy guy.

If I stay, I'm bound to be unhappy, but it would be the equivalent of a low-grade fever. I'd be the morose drunk at the end of the bar, and ten years down the road, I'll be the easiest grader in the department simply because I've given up. If I go, I could end up spectacularly unhappy. Or at least that's the worry.

As for guts, I would say that you can't let it make decisions for you, at least not in the long term. Your gut will never tell you anything you don't want to hear. I've got a friend who has been on the academic market for nearly twenty years. His last conference interview was during Clinton's first term. Yet next fall he's going to tee it up for another try. That's not a rational decision.

So perhaps let it be a factor in your decision, but that's all...

Caitlin said...

Hey, Benjamin--
Have you read Herminia Ibarra's book, _Working Identity_? That's the one that, to my mind, best describes what career change feels like from the inside--like you've just put your whole self in the Mixmaster.
One of her excellent recommendations (among many) is baby steps. That's what'll help you get a better sense of those unknown odds that tie us all in knots.
It's a hard one for an academic, because most of the subjects of her study are leaving highly paid executive jobs and thus have the luxury to volunteer, do contract work, etc. for six months or a year.
But it was extremely useful for me to try out academic admin, non-elite teaching, and historical museums, in various combinations over the course of about a year. I learned I wasn't passionate about any of them--in fact, what I love is the process of research/writing. The university setting and the subject matter of my degree--18th-19th c. British imperial history--is pretty irrelevant, I've learned.
So now here I am doing business research and quite happy with it. Is there any way you could do the bare minimum at your university job for a year and look a little harder at secondary school teaching? Any outreach programs at your university for local teenagers?
Love love love the columns, by the way--I am wishing you all the best.

Caitlin said...

And Eliza--
I totally believe in gut feelings. My guru, Herminia Ibarra, does too. And there's actually evidence that gut feelings are right more often than not--it's as if there's a subconscious part of your brain that can arrive at a judgment before the conscious part can make a reasoned judgment.
And gut feelings can be more true than rationalized ones, viz:
Part of what kept me in academia far longer than I should have been was the combination of 1) insufficient bravery to acknowledge my gut feeling that academia is NOT the context in which I work best or most happily and 2) a shared consensus among my peers that academia was the best career in the world and thus the only reason to leave would be failure.
Gut feeling: correct.
Over-thought conclusion followed for too many years: dismally wrong!

Benjamin said...

Hi Caitlin-

Thanks for your note. I'll check out the book.

I've done what I can to take those baby steps. I've been teaching occasional classes at local high schools, and honestly see little difference between smart high schoolers and my college students. (Heck they are MORE likely to do the reading, and are much less jaded.)

At a rational level, this is a no-brainer. I'm not going to get the elite TT position I really want. At a prep school I'll have better students, a highter salary, more resources, a route into the big money world of administration (if I want it), etc. There is tangible benefit to staying where I am.

My hesitation is largely emotional. My heart wants what it can never have, and I can't get it to pipe down. I think this is why I came down on the anti-emotion side in my post.

I'm also having trouble figuing out whether my hesitation about the position in play is based on the traditional nature of the school, or if it's my emotions finding a way to torpedo my search by convincing me that NO school is a good fit. (I did this with relationships for a while, but I'll spare you the details.)

Glad you like the blog! Hopefully it will have a happy ending.


Benjamin said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Eliza said...

Thanks for your comments, Caitlin. Sage advice and opinions, as always. I really like Herminia Ibarra's book as well and have tried to keep her advice in mind when considering my own career prospects.

Ben and I are both at transition points in our lives/careers but at different places. He's considering getting out of the academy and I'm about to get in, well in a more official capacity than I am now. But unlike your situation, Ben is a good fit for academia. He just isn't a good fit for his particular job/location. So then what does one do? I think that is a ver difficult situation to be in for anyone facing the crap academic job market.

I like your point that gut feelings are in fact often correct. In my case I had a gut feeling one place would be a good place to work, but that my partner's career would suffer; elsewhere my gut told the school might not be as great but there might be more opportunities for my partner in the long run. Both gut feelings are probably right but the decision still isn't easy to make!

Anonymous said...

In my life, it has been the career, not the institution that mattered. A career in private school means fostering the growth of young people--and not just intellectually. Before you can begin to worry whether you will be stymied by sit-down lunch requirements, it's important to have some confidence that what you really want is to be immersed in the lives of dozens of teenagers. Whether you work in a traditional school or a progressive institution, your day to day existence will be interacting with teenagers who will urgently want/demand your attention, validation, and affection. Even the brightest, most self-directed private school students are still teenagers, and they are looking for something very different from you than any college student is. I don't know you, but here's a situation where you might want to listen to your gut if deep down you know that this isn't what you are interested in.

So in your equation, I'd say X and Y are completely dependent on whether you genuinely like teenagers and have a gift for working with them. Z is up to you, because you can choose how you frame your life choices, and you don't have to dwell in regret. (I had a friend who returned to the tenure track at a SLAC after 8 years teaching private school, so I don't see that this change is irreversible.)

But after all this, I'm assuming that you did indeed get a job offer? Congratulations!

corinne said...

"it's important to have some confidence that what you really want is to be immersed in the lives of dozens of teenagers."

BINGO. Only this gives you some sense as to the % chance that x or y will result.

Eliza said...

Immersion in anyone's life 24-7 could get old fast . . .

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