Approach your career as if you were growing a tree, not building a house

Today marks the 10-year anniversary of being awarded my doctorate. Time flies! And as good a time as any to reflect on my career so far. I recently read the advice to approach something as if you were “growing a tree, not building a house”. It was in a slightly different context than career development, but it resonated with me so much that I wanted to share it here, applied to career development.

Ever since I was a teenager, I have had long-term plans for what I wanted my career to look like, and my life with that career. Yes, long-term planS, plural. In contrast to many of my friends (hi, Joke!), I have always had several vastly different plans that I found interesting simultaneously. Sometimes several that I could see myself being equally happy with. For a long time I struggled with what path to take, what career to pick. All these decisions that seemed huge and final, and also urgent to take: because I was thinking of building a career similarly to how one would build a house. In oder to build a house, you usually have all the plans and blueprints and buiding permits and everything in place first. Then you start building. You might have ordered your built-in kitchen or started sewing the window drapes before the walls of the house are even up.

If you grow a tree, however, you can’t plan in a similar way. You can influence a tree’s growth for the better by providing good conditions and guidance, but it will develop organically. Maybe not exactly the way you envisioned initially, but beautiful nonetheless. And I really like this approach to career building — it takes off so much pressure!!! –, and it’s how I approach my own career these days, which works well for me. Like so:

Preparing the soil: First steps in your career

Before you plant a tree or grow it from a seed, you need to figure out what to grow it on. Same with your career: What you learn in school and university is the foundation for what you can do later on. But similar to seedlings that can easily be put in different pots if you so choose as long as they are healthy, it’s not so much about what study courses you take rather than actually learning things there. Facts, of course, but mainly skills of how to learn, how to work hard, how to organize yourself, how to find information. I’ve recently been involved in several events with pupils and they all wanted to know how to figure out what to study in order to be in the best position for your future career. And my advice is always to study what you are most interested in, and be good at it. All the rest will fall into place.

In my case, the last years in high school I took neither Physics nor English classes (because there were other topics I was much more interested in at the time). And guess what I am doing now? Writing about physic(al oceanography) in English. Would my studies have been easier had I been able to build on the same previous knowledge as most of my peers? Definitely. Would that have made me miserable in highschool? You bet. Would it have been worth doing topics I wasn’t interested in in highschool just because I would need to learn that stuff later on for what I wanted to do? ABSOLUTEY NO WAY. (Also, at that time I didn’t knew that oceanography even existed, so I had no idea I would ever need physics or English. In fact, I was looking to study chemistry & informatics in France, among other things)

You have to water & fertilize your tree: Looking after your tree

No matter what approach you take to career building, it is going to take sustained effort. Your tree might need water and the occasional sprinkle of fertilizer, your career certainly needs many many hours of dedicated work to become an expert in whatever you do.

But the way you look after your career development itself, you need to look after yourself, too. Make sure you take breaks, go on vacations, really enjoy the process. If it’s fun, it will grow. For example if you check out my wave watching posts — those happened organically, because once I started, taking pictures of waves took on a life of its own; it’s just fun to do and I enjoy “collecting” all the different wave field pictures. Now it’s quite an impressive collection, but it didn’t feel like any effort. It’s just getting into the habit of thinking about the physics I see and of taking pictures.

Tying a tree to a trellis: Shaping your career

Sometimes there are boundary conditions that we do not want to challenge, or very specific goals we definitely want to achieve, then it might make sense to shape career growth similarly to tying our tree to a trellis to force it into the shape we want. This might mean making it through classes that we aren’t really interested in because they are a required part of a degree we want (for example I was really not interested in experimental physics in university, but obviously needed to take quite a lot of that in order to become a physical oceanographer). It might also mean learning the language of a country that you are looking to work in, or a programming language that everybody is using.

It might also mean taking jobs that get you in the direction of what you want to be doing: For a couple of years, I worked as “coordinator of teaching innovation” in the faculty of mechanical engineering, ship building and marine technology. The job itself was fun: I like figuring out how to improve teaching, I like mentoring people, I think university politics are fun if you are an active player without too much emotional investment. The topic I was working on, though, was close enough to oceanography that I felt confident that I would find it interesting and could apply my knowledge, but mainly learn things that would be relevant for a similar job working with geoscientists in the future. Turns out I was right; that’s what I am currently doing: A similar kind of job, but on my topic. Similarly, in the next job, I wanted to learn about science education and communication research. Did that, then left, now know what I wanted to know (plus whom to ask & where to learn more should I desire to).

Pollinating your tree: Seeking specific input to your career development

There are two approaches to pollinating trees that I am aware of: Pollinating by hand, or putting a beehive close by. Both have analogues in career development:

If you are “pollinating by hand”, you are carefully selecting the input that shapes your career. You are taking specific courses, developing specific skills that open up new pathways. This might be based on advice you got, or on job ads that asked for skills you don’t yet posess.

If you are “putting a beehive close by”, you are open to everything, look for inspiration, take random classes that strike your fancy. That’s more my approach, because it’s more interesting, but of course both are perfectly valid approaches!

You might want to prune your tree: Focussing your career

If you want to grow a few really large fruits rather than a lot of small ones or too many leaves, you prune your tree. If you want to make sustantial progress in one domain, maybe it’s time to let other projects go (or at least not to try working on too many simultaneously).

Or you decide on not making progress as quickly in one domain, but making slower progress in several domains at the same time. I have always had many different things happening simultaneously: Studying for a Masters of Higher Education while doing a PhD in oceanography. Doing higher education consulting while leading a citizen science project. In fact, I purposefully chose a 50% position for my current “day job” in order to have time to pursue all my other interests and freelance work! So pruning really isn’t my strongest side, I admit. But there are people for whom it works, or so I have heard ;-)

Cut down branches from your tree: Letting go of certain aspects of your career

Sometimes branches are sick, too heavy for the tree, or shading your favourite garden bench, then it’s time to cut them off. Similarly in your career: Maybe certain aspects feel too heavy, are not fun any more, or stand in the way of more important aspects of your life. Maybe for a while you really enjoyed the travel that came with your job and now you are sick and tired of trains and hotels (I know I was at that point right before Corona and then it magically all went away ;-)), then it’s maybe time to transition into a role that doesn’t need to travel as much. Or maybe you’ve been very active in both research and teaching, and then decide to focus on one or the other. Or, in my case, you decide that you only want to work 50% in order to be free for other things on the side.

For me, changing jobs is such a way of cutting off branches — once I am done learning what I want to learn in a position, I leave for a new one with new challenges. And so far, this has led to a pretty healthy tree!

Repotting your tree: Starting a new career

Ok, maybe this is where the analogy breaks down. Or maybe not: While your tree is small, it’s a healthy thing to repot it every now and then (similarly how it’s good for your career to work in different environments, see different work cultures and different fields). It maybe gets more difficult to try out completely new things the more your career has grown, and might need more planning and larger equipment to repot that large tree, but it’s not impossible!

If you look at my career, I studied something that usually builds on topics that I didn’t take. Then I changed topics radically between my PhD and first postdoc, between my first postdoc and the job I had afterwards (which was that higher education consulting job), between that job and my second postdoc (which was on science communication and education research), between that second postdoc and my current day job (which is leading a large scicomm project).

This morning (what a fitting celebration of my 10 year anniversary of my doctorate!) I joined a video call from my kitchen and shared some kitchen oceanography with my friend’s Atmosphere and Ocean Dynamics class. I had two devices logged on to give a side view and top view on my rotating table, and students told me what parameters to modify in the experiments. So much fun! And this is something that organically grew on my career tree: At some point, I started playing with kitchen oceanography to complement my own teaching. At another point, I started doing higher education consulting and teaching innovation projects. Those two came together, and have been blooming and come to fruition over the last couple of years. And now part of my job is to play with water and food dye in my kitchen while on a video call (see below)! How awesome is that?

I am probably not done with getting interested in new things and changing jobs in order to have time (and be paid) to pursue those. But right now, I am pretty much exactly where I want to be career-wise in terms of what I want to be doing, the environment & teams I want to do it in, and last not least the work-life-balance. So any future oportunities had better be amazing, or my tree won’t be growing in that direction! :-)

What is your approach? Are you growing a tree or building a house? What thoughts did come up for you while reading this blogpost?

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