Learn broadly so you can do your job well, whatever it is

One of my sons has just finished school and I am astounded how often he is asked what he wants to do when he leaves.

Well, the time has come - and he still has absolutely no idea. Now that I am in my 40s, I realise how futile that question is - yet I often ask it myself, especially of my son.

Most of us, even if we did have an idea of what we wanted to do at 18 (I wanted to be a vet), have ended up doing something completely different and careers are even more volatile for today's school leavers.

Many years ago, I made the decision to take a fairly decent career shift. For a non-scientist it may not seem to be a big leap but having completed my honours degree, a PhD and then a post doc in plants, I came back to New Zealand to work on animals.

I barely knew what a rumen was and for some time I floundered and longed for the simple plant vascular systems of xylems and phloems.

I had entertaining conversations with animal geneticists - one where I sat with John McEwan, an oak tree of the ruminant breeding world, not understanding why we couldn't just repeat a trial which had gone wrong - he pointed out to me quite gently that they had no ''seeds'' with which to do that.

Another time I queried the design of a trial, he explained to me that a ram had had to be removed due to an ''abscess on his penis'' - it is probably the only time John left me lost for words.

What I have learned from my species jumping is that although there are times when it feels like you are lost and scrabbling for footing, ultimately you will end up a better thinker for it.

In the science world, the highest achievers are often the ones who have specialised narrowly and published extensively in their field. It is wonderful coming across these people, they are a wealth of knowledge and usually hugely passionate about what they do.

But I think there is a new breed of scientist developing. The modern world of science funding makes it harder to remain in a narrow field for decades. On top of that, many scientists want a broader base, I meet young PhD students who can't wait to get out of academia into more commercial science and it's great for them to see that there are alternative pathways beyond their specialist PhD area. Success for them may not be measured in publications.

As I mature, I have also gained confidence in being a generalist. Complex problems require both specialists and generalists - people who can cross disciplines. Recently there is more coming to light about the benefits of generalising.

According to US author David Epstein, in his new book Range, there is growing evidence that shows many of the most successful people do well because they are generalists, not in spite of being generalists.

He gives the example of tennis star Roger Federer, who credits the hours he spent dabbling in various sports with helping him develop his hand-eye co-ordination and well-rounded athleticism. Epstein says that ''early specialisers do jump out to an income lead, because they have more domain-specific knowledge.

But the late specialisers get a better understanding of their own skills and the options available to them. And so, they have better what's called match quality - that's the degree of fit between an individual's ability and interests and the work that they do.''

As today's 18-year olds walk out of school for the final time and choose their degree, trade or workforce it's probably worth reminding them (and ourselves, especially us parents who have a tendency, myself included, to panic about this stuff) that what they choose won't be a mistake, what they learn next will not be wasted - it will make up their rich life tapestry.

Chances are, they will be doing something completely different when they are 40 anyway. Nothing we learn is wasted and as I learn to embrace my eclectic science background - I encourage others to explore beyond what they know now, after all careers and disciplines are boxes we create, they are simply artefacts which help us to simplify our world - continuing to learn is by far the most important driver of career enjoyment and impact.

-Anna Campbell is managing director of AbacusBio Ltd, a Dunedin based agri-technology company.

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