Prof. Larry Smith is well-known around Waterloo for three things: his engaging classes in Economics, his support for student entrepreneurs and start-ups, and his career advice for people. A while ago I came across his book in an airport in Bermuda and decided to give it a read. I found the book, “No Fears, No Excuses: What You Need to do to Have a Great Career“, to be quite good. It’s full of interesting anecdotes, insights and very practical advice based on his interactions with over 30,000 people. His experience resonates with my more limited experiences with students and careers. The book is easy to read, engaging, and I highly recommend it for anyone contemplating entering higher education or perhaps a career change. Or at least have a look at his TEDxUW talk video that hits some of the highlights. I’ll try to summarize a few of his key ideas here, especially the ones that relate to admissions.
As an economist, Prof. Smith is concerned with resources, in this case human resources. And it’s a waste of resources when people are in career paths that are not well matched with their interests and talents, or “passion”. He relates a number of stories of people who are not really deeply engaged in their jobs (“nine to fivers”), or have trouble finding or holding onto jobs, or are just left unsatisfied.
Why does this happen? In some cases people don’t put much effort in assessing their interests and talents, and how to leverage them into a satisfying career path. Others are convinced that picking the “right” program or currently hot career will lead to personal success for the rest of their lives, even if it’s not really that interesting to them. As Prof. Smith says, in both cases you’re leaving it up to random luck that you’ll end up on the right path. And sometimes luck doesn’t go your way.
In admissions we see this every year. After the first year there are those who have already discovered that they are not on the right path. In many cases they will admit to having not put much effort into discovering what the program or career path was like. Others say they picked the program because it was the hardest to get into, assuming that means it must be really good and the best fit for them. And yet others pick programs because they were told to. That’s how we end up with students in Mechatronics Engineering who hate robotics, others in Computer Engineering who can’t stand programming, and some in Biomedical Engineering who think they’re going to be doing stem cell transplants and working with patients (they’re not). Some students are much better off outside of engineering, and I’ve heard of some whose real passion was in chef school, or the entertainment industry, or various other areas, and that’s fine. An engineering education is unlikely to lead to a great career if you’re not really engaged and passionate about the field.
How to avoid these mismatches? Prof. Smith’s book has several chapters on what it takes, and he’s brutally honest. It takes a lot of hard work, a lot of reading, a lot of self-assessment and reflection. If you’ve spent more time comparing smartphones than considering your educational and career paths, then you’re possibly in trouble and shouldn’t be too surprised if things don’t work out well initially. That adds up to a lot of wasted time and money.
For admissions, we’re very impressed with applicants who demonstrate that they have gone through the hard work and know that engineering is aligned with their deep interests and talents. (I hesitate to use the word “passion” as it tends to get overused, but Prof. Smith’s book uses it and defines it in a meaningful way.) If a person takes a gap year after high school to get some real-world experience and figure out their “passion”, so much the better as far as I’m concerned.