Making it up as you go along – a guide to a happy career in science.

catherineGuest Blog by Dr. Catherine Mohr
Senior Director of Medical Research, Intuitive Surgical
USA Science & Engineering Festival X-STEM Speaker

I work on surgical robots - at the intersection of cool, high tech, and helping people get well. One of the things I like most is that my job changes every day as I look for new technologies that might help us improve patient outcomes.  For example, one day we may play with new kinds of lasers for cutting bone, the next we are looking for new less invasive ways of accessing the body to do more effective surgeries, and the next we are looking out 10 to 15 years and asking, “How will medicine and surgery have changed, and how can we be a part of that?”

I love my job.  Showing this to kids is the main reason why I am involved with the USA Science and Engineering Festival  Equally important, however, I also make sure that kids thinking about a career in science understand that I could never have predicted what this job would be, or really planned for it, while I was in college.  This is because the technology that underlies what I do today was still in its infancy when I was in high school and college.  There simply were no surgical robots yet.

This is the new reality of a career in STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics) fields. More and more, it will be the technologies that we don’t know about yet that will shape and change our, futures. So how do you plan for a career in a field that has yet to be invented?  And how do you get a job that it is possible to love as passionately as I love mine? Any advice I could give you on what specific career to chase is useless, because your career may not even exist yet, I can, however, share some insights from my journey.

My primary response is: Be a scientist AND an opportunist

  1. Fill your toolbox with critical thinking skills, self directed learning, and the ability to solve problems.  It doesn’t really matter what your field is as long as you learn to think critically. Understanding that why an answer is true is more important than what that answer is, lays the most solid foundation for a happy, ever changing, adaptable career.  When you are doing something that is new and exciting, no one can teach you how to do it because no one has ever done it before. Expect that you will someday be the first to do something.  Some of my greatest opportunities came about because I was willing to sit down, learn everything I could lay my hands on about a subject, and then say “OK, now where can we go from here?” and break out into the unknown.
  2. Always have a (changeable) plan.  Have something (or several somethings) that you are excited about and are working towards, but be prepared to change focus when something new and interesting and possibly better comes along.  I started as a Chemistry major with a plan to become a college professor, switched to Mechanical Engineering because I discovered I loved building electric cars, left school with a Master’s degree (rather than my planned PhD) because of an exciting opportunity to go build electric cars and fuel cells and airplanes for a living, but then went back to school in my 30s to get an MD and come full circle back to robotics.  Not a professor.  Not a PhD.  Not where I expected to be (but loving it).  Serendipity has been a powerful force in my life.  It is important to allow your plans to evolve, because new information and new opportunities are always coming along that you couldn’t have anticipated before.
  3. Say “yes” a little too often. Take on crazy side projects, start doing one more important thing, do favors for people, be generous with your time even if you don’t have quite enough time in which to get these big things done, and then really try to finish them all.  You will find yourself shedding the petty, endless to do lists, and making room for the serendipity in your life.  My first career came about because I spent time on a solar car project when I probably should have been doing other things.  My second career in medicine in many ways came about because I had been doing some consulting in an area I found interesting, but not terribly relevant (medical devices), back in grad school when I certainly should have been doing other things.  I am sure that somewhere, along the way, I have planted the seeds for my third career when I was supposed to have been doing something else (most likely all that laundry that keeps piling up).  The little things can wait.
  4. Embrace being a beginner.  Love it.  Own it.  Seek it.  Be imperfect.  Practice getting good at new things, and being OK with it when you aren’t there yet.
  5. Create, create, create.  Don’t forget the arts in your life - have an outlet for creativity beyond technical problem solving.  The lateral thinking involved with creation outside of my main field often brings new insights in all sorts of areas, and it is a joy to make something and share it.  We are all too afraid of trolls and critics.  Don’t let them control you – they don’t make anything.  I recently took up playing the cello.  Just because.

The world is changing, and the world of STEM careers with it.  Scientific disciplines will evolve with new technology changes, and you will find yourself constantly learning new things.  You may even find yourself wanting to go back to school every 10 years or so to launch yourself in a new direction.   That is great!  I’ll see you in class.

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Catherine what type of personality would you assume to be more happy in a career of science? One with a serious personality or a person that is more easy going?


By Taryn Kotze (not verified) on 21 Apr 2014 #permalink

I consider Jonathan Katz ( a friend but I agree with Catherine. I got a PhD in physics and went to industry afterwards. During my 40 year career I have enjoyed almost every day working on a very wide range of technical issues, taking advantage of new opportunities as they turned up. Plus I made more money than I could have in academia.