I Switched Fields for Graduate School. Maybe You Should Too.

We’ve all heard the quote about the road less traveled. It’s made all the difference, right?

But, which road makes the right difference? Does anyone ever recognize you’re blazing a trail? When does it turn from a misstep to a Medium story?

Believe me, I know the feeling. Like many grad students before me, I’ve been a ‘good student’ my entire life. I had everything I needed to succeed as a professional engineer; five research projects, a summa cum laude degree, and a suite of references from the foremost experts in physics and engineering to guide me towards an easier path of success.

Until I hated propulsion.

I remember everything about that day, except what I was being taught. Probably, it was a lecture about jet engines and pressure, but, I didn’t care anymore. I no longer fit in the boxes of my colleagues; they got their pilots’ license and flew drones with abandon. What I did know, is that if I didn’t find work I loved for my Ph.D. research, I’d be miserable for the next six years.

I was terrified. I needed work that had a soul. It came where I didn’t expect: the Daily Show.

A piece from Jon Stewart reached me at my lowest point: apparently, 1.15 billion dollars of the donated funding to Haiti was unaccounted for. Remember the Red Cross in the news a few years ago, and how they spent half a billion dollars to only build six houses in the country?

Wild, right? Does it set your soul on fire? It did for me.

I finally found the topic I could spend decades studying: global poverty. I had to find answers, and I needed a program that gave me the freedom to do so. By entering an interdisciplinary degree program, the Energy and Resources Group, a program positioned to help a lost engineer rewrite his future.

I knew I was in over my head as soon as I entered my first classroom. Literally, every one of my colleagues had experience in their field of choice before entering the program.

“Oh yes, I worked for three years in the Peace Corps in Honduras, developing economic initiatives…”

“Yes, when I was in India for six months, working on water and sanitation with…”

“Absolutely, my work in Kenya for two months working on urban planning taught me…”

I drowned in the stories. Being a firecracker student no longer worked: without my development-based elevator pitch, I had nothing.

But, that’s not quite true. I had perspective. Because I wasn’t tied to a place or a field like the rest of my colleagues, I could look for the interstitials: what connected them? What were people missing? What was everyone interested in?

Turns out, I eventually found one: innovation. Finally, the road I searched for became clearer. By inhaling the innovation culture omnipresent in the Bay Area, I founded an innovation consultancy, and completed a dissertation that brought me to Botswana to study the innovation ecosystem. Not half bad, for a lost sheep.

I’m past that point now. Thousands of miles away from my Ph.D. training, I’m knee-deep in another transition: finding a job in another country.

My research, which involves a study of the Botswana Innovation Ecosystem, taught me an important lesson about the world: problems are likely much more complex than you think. Sometimes, moral problems don’t have simple answers, you learn from unexpected places, and your best-laid plans might be torn asunder. As we live out our days as a species, we find the world is immensely more complex and dynamic than ever expected. It will take a litany of different worldviews, different skill sets, and even different educational experiences, to address the problems coming into view.

It’s times like these, that I suggest everyone — even the assuredly successful — make a big shift. We all deal with a transition at some time in our lives. They might change jobs, change fields, even countries. What is similar about changing is not how they expect success will come, it’s how staying on the same path will cause assured failure. It’s times like those where your heart’s the only compass you can trust.

As the world evolves, we’ll be exposed to problems no one will expect. People worldwide will ask: which road should we take? Does anyone recognize how to proceed? When do our missteps turn into successes?

The change agents might be the ones who keep us alive.

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