Career Advice for Students at Duke
In part because I didn’t get very good career advice when I was there, I like talking to Duke students about their potential careers. Since I jump at the opportunities that present themselves, I end up saying a lot of the same things over and over.
So, I’ve decided to write them down here to make it easier for all involved, and maybe even help a few others along the way. I’ll start with some warnings, give you my suggestions for how to build your career, and then give a brief recap of how mine has been going for reference.
This advice is targeted particularly at Duke students, but hopefully there is enough here that you can apply it to your own life at other schools as well.
Your Major Isn’t Your Destiny… in Most Fields it Honestly Doesn’t Matter
A lot of students I talk to think that their major dictates the job they can get. Or at least, it influences it to such a large degree that it essentially dictates it. In my experience, this is fiction.
There are obviously a handful of fields where your major does matter. Medicine, some flavors of hardcore engineering, etc… but this is much more the exception than the rule.
I graduated with an Econ degree, which I did use in my first job as a econometrics forecaster… but no one else on my team had that major. When I got a job in Professional Services at a software company, we had people whose majors ranged from Chemical Engineering to Biomedical Engineering to Cognitive Science. Good with computers and people? Great! The rest didn’t matter, and in many cases the diversity was an asset rather than a hindrance.
So pick a major you like and that challenges you, more so than maps to any career in your head. Your enthusiasm and the learning/researching skills you acquire will be more important than anything else, regardless of subject matter.
There Are A LOT of Great Jobs Out There You Don’t Know About
Dovetailing from the above, there are a ginormous number of jobs in the world (many many more jobs than majors by an obscene factor), and most of them you probably don’t know about right now.
Even if you think you did the homework, and “basically only these jobs” do what you want, I can almost guarantee you missed at least a dozen entirely different careers in widely disparate fields.
My own job is one I never heard about at Duke. I’m a Sales Engineer. The job requires being able to talk to people and also thinking through technical problems and present them persuasively. It’s a great job for a host of reasons which I won’t go into right now, but to reiterate the point the career center never brought it up. The Strong Interest Survey never talked about it. It literally took walking into a random booth at the Stanford career fair and getting asked a strange question before I even knew the job existed.
There’s no silver bullet to fixing this, but one thing that helps is thinking more about the skills and work that put you in flow state, then finding roles that need those skills. Designing Your Life has some great exercises that walk through this if you want to dig deeper.
Also, talk to tons of real people. The Alumni network is good for this, as are any regular humans you know in real life. Even if (and maybe especially if) someone’s story doesn’t seem interesting as a career, but it is strange, ask about it. I had a friend who went from manufacturing microchips to designing toys to working on VR headsets. Another went from physically prototyping piepdream designs at an engineering firm to designing new features for the iPhone. Another was doing Professional Sales work at our startup, only to leave and start a company doing the exact same work for the company, but now under his own enterprise he could control and grow.
People do a crazy number of different things. Get interested and start asking about it.
Beware the Consulting/iBanking Trap
As an Econ major, the Consulting/iBanking recruiting was heavy, and was also an absolute trap. Their pitch is refined, and targeted directly toward undergrads’ fears. It goes like this:
Hey, are you smart and accomplished, but unsure about what you want to do with your life? Don’t worry about it! If you take this job, you won’t have to close any doors, because we work with all kinds of industries doing all kinds of smart stuff. Even more than you’d get if you picked one industry to start! You’ll get to talk to important people and they’ll listen to you, because you’re smart! You’ll also get paid a bunch of money. We do work hard and play hard, but you’re not afraid of working hard, right? Then line up!
iBanking’s pitch is a little less about influence and a little more “trade your health, sanity, and life force for money” but it’s similar in its goal of selling you an easy choice with a blinking neon light pointing to the upsides and minimizing the downsides.
In both cases I want to say this: the life force tradeoff of working yourself to burnout is almost always not worth the money. When those companies say they work hard and play hard, they’re leaning pretty heavily on the former to the point of non-existence of the latter.
By contrast, I got a 9-5 job out of college, and I remember seeing a friend who went the consulting route on the train. His head was hanging low and he looked barely awake when I recognized him. “Brian? Is that you? How’re you doing man?” He bolted upright like I’d hit him with a cattle prod and mumbled that he was good but working hard. Almost all the consultants I’ve met were this tired, and the tricky part is, once you get that tired, it gets hard to see a way out. Buy whatever sofa and bed you want, you won’t feel rested until you leave.
There’s a reason the people leave those industries in droves, and it’s not because the new hires get what they need. It’s because they hit bottom and realize this isn’t how they want to live their life (more on that below).
Follow Your Passion was Counterproductive Advice for Me, and Probably is For You Too
On the other end of the perspective, a lot is written about following your passion and doing what you love. It’s a great idea on paper. I even took some time off finding a job senior year to do a combined career center/CAPS program to help find your dream job. The result: I could be happy doing pretty much anything. I wasted 3 months of job hunting time for that insight.
Anyway, this philosophy is dangerous for a few reasons.
First, in all likelihood, you do not have some innate sense of knowing what your true calling is inside of you. This is perfectly normal and OK. We all have things we like more and less, and those things don’t always sum up to a perfect job description. I never really knew what to do next in my career until I just took a leap and tried something different.
Second, even if you know yourself 100% through and through (an extremely high bar), whatever you think might be the perfect work for you… might be something no one pays for. What then? Are you doomed to be jobless forever? That doesn’t seem right.
Third, it’s selfish. The follow your passion approach leads to only thinking about you and what you want… and that rabbit hole can lead to madness if you’re not careful. The world already has unfulfilled needs. You’ll be better suited to help people with some needs over others, so start understanding that give and take quickly instead. You’ll be more satisfied helping others in the long run anyway.
Fourth, it’s not a useful career planning tool. It’s a single axis, simple assessment that doesn’t take into account realities like making rent and eating and a family. It also doesn’t account for how you can grow and use influence to get more of what you want, provided you plan correctly. All of those things are real world considerations that this simple version leaves out.
Fifth, and underrated in my opinion, following your passion can kill your joy. You might hope that mixing what you love with a paycheck will make everything wonderful. In my experience, it just turns what you love now into work… into a job… into a have to do instead of a get to do. This is not a wise way to live your life. Some passions are meant to just be that, and that’s OK.
What To Do Instead
The One Book You Need
Cal Newport’s So Good They Can’t Ignore You is basically the one career book you need. It’s a practical, straightforward approach of doing something you’re good at, building career capital through that skill, and then leveraging that capital into doing more of what you want and less of what you don’t. Rinse and repeat.
The beauty of it is that it effectively doesn’t matter where you start so long as you start somewhere that moderately holds your interest. Invest in yourself and others, grow, and keep an eye out for where you might want to grow into next.
I won’t rehash the rest of the book here. Just go read it.
The Guide Rails Come Off After College
I do want to add something that can be jarring after college: the guide rails of life come completely off.
It can feel like there’s a fairly expected path as you move through school and to college… but as soon as you leave there is only the jungle, and you’ve got to hack your way through in the way that works best for you.
There is no one way to get into a company you want to work for. There is no one way to get famous, Internet famous or otherwise. There is no one way to succeed in business. There is no one way to “achieve” and “win”.
This can be scary, but I want to emphasize that it’s also liberating, and worth being embraced.
Putting the above another way: There are multiple ways to get into a company you want to work for. There are multiple ways to get famous. There are multiple ways to succeed in business. There are multiple ways to “achieve” and “win”. With that framing, you have an even better chance to achieve what you want the way you want to.
By a similar token, there will be no one pushing you forward in your career like they did through school. I personally got really good at my job a few times, only to get stuck because I wasn’t leaning forward into the next thing and making it happen myself. Don’t make the same mistake I did.
My Career Path, If You’re Curious
I graduated from Duke in ‘08 with a BS in Economics. I took several months off of looking for jobs senior year to do a CAPS + career center program to figure out my dream job. This led to a completely wasted 3 months because the result was “you could be happy doing pretty much anything.” I frequented the career center for counseling and resume help.
For my first job in ‘08. None of that mattered. I ended up applying to several dozen jobs in Atlanta and did well in the one interview that responded so that I got a job at UPS. Most people were impressed that I’d gone to Duke. The rest didn’t matter.
Eventually I moved to Palo Alto because my girlfriend got a phd opportunity at Stanford and I decided to come along. Shotgunning the resume didn’t really help that time, but surprisingly walking around the Stanford career fair led to an interesting conversation (most tables were looking for CS majors, but some weren’t). They were looking for “people who could talk to both machines and people.” Well I’d dabbled with tech my whole life… so I could probably do that.
I want to add I didn’t even mean to go to that table. I was planning to walk by, but there’s was a pedestrian slow down in front of the table, and the recruiter literally grabbed me on the shoulder and asked me if I could talk to people and machines. That part was lucky, the showing up to the career fair was a choice.
That led to a Professional Services role at a tech startup called Intapp. Recruiters in Silicon Valley are constantly pinging tech people on Linkedin, so when I got burned out at Intapp I took another opportunity to try sales engineering at another startup called SumoLogic.
When Sumo wouldn’t promote me to the big accounts on request (I heard through the grapevine I basically needed to apply for another job first), I threw in a few resumes at Google and started shotgunning resumes again. Google Cloud was just starting up then, gave me an interview, and I worked there as a Sales Engineer, Sales Engineer Manager, and Head of Solutions Consuting until the big layoffs of 2023.
If I don’t update this for a while, check my LinkedIn to see what happened next. Otherwise I’ll update this when I can.