Finding a Job That Works for You

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Sunil Yapa was bouncing from college to college, searching for a career, when he decided to return to a familiar place: his hometown, State College, Pa. There, he found himself in the building where he had often visited his father, Lakshman,a geography professor at Penn State…

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Sunil Yapa turned away from an academic career to become a novelist.

Credit Chang W. Lee/The New York Times

Sunil Yapa was bouncing from college to college, searching for a career, when he decided to return to a familiar place: his hometown, State College, Pa. There, he found himself in the building where he had often visited his father, Lakshman,a geography professor at Penn State. He took his dad’s classes, helped him write a draft of a book about the social construction of poverty and earned a bachelor’s degree in geography in 2003.

“I was getting ready to take over the family business,” Mr. Yapa said.

He planned to complete a doctorate after an extended trip to China. But once he landed on the other side of the world, away from his family and culture, he returned to the writing practice he had loved as a teenager but abandoned.

“I was lucky,” Mr. Yapa said. “In the end I didn’t have to choose just one. If I had walked away from writing, I would have been a mess.”

He earned a Master of Fine Arts from Hunter College in 2010 and started a novel about Seattle’s 1999 World Trade Organization protests. “Your Heart Is a Muscle the Size of a Fist,” which includes themes about geography, came out in January.

“It seems so stupid, looking back on it,” he said of his struggle to accept a career that should have been obvious. Being a writer has not been without a downside, though; before he sold his book, he took on side jobs, including selling posters to college students, to get by.

According to behavioral economists, he is not unusual. Career choices are not obvious or simple to make. Experts have found that biases that we are not aware of skew our perception of our options and create blind spots on our choices. Understanding these biases can help young people succeed in selecting a profession that will earn them a living and also yield fulfillment, a sense of purpose and a chance to master a skill that fascinates them.

In pursuing geography, Mr. Yapa nearly fell into the trap of what is called status quo bias.

“People generally don’t like change,” said Alain Samson, a behavioral science consultant and editor of the Behavioral Economics Guide. “It’s human to go down the path of least resistance and stick to what we know best.” While the narrowest definition of this bias is individual behavior that involves inertia or avoidance of change, it is also a tendency that can influence children to follow their parents into the same line of work.

It is important to keep long-term happiness in mind, because another bias can lead to an overemphasis on the next few years rather than the next few decades.

“Many of us avoid actions that are costly in the short term, even if they present payoffs in the future,” Mr. Samson said. “In behavioral economics, this is called present bias.”

He added, “The younger you are, the more difficult it is to think about the future.”

Present bias could prevent someone from pursuing a job that requires an initial investment in education, Mr. Samson said. The bias could also encourage a person to choose a job that offers high pay initially, but has limited opportunities for advancement.

To combat these biases, economists suggest speaking to professionals in various stages of a career. Experienced mentors can offer a longer-term perspective on what it will be like to work in that area for most of your life; younger workers can offer a view of what it’s like to start in the field now.

This kind of investigation, economists say, will help job hunters avoid another serious mistake: making choices based on the most obvious factors.

“Behavioral economics tells us that people often focus too much on the wrong things, and tend to focus on aspects of the job that are salient,” said Alan Krueger, a professor of economics and public affairs at Princeton University. “So, for example, the pay is salient, especially the starting pay.”

When making decisions under this salient bias, people may place more importance on visible or quantifiable features, such as the Corvette a lawyer drives, without considering the less readily visible, such as how satisfied that lawyer may be with his career.

“One of the things we know from behavioral economics is that social interactions are very important,” Mr. Krueger said. “Do people feel like they’re treated fairly? Do they get along with the people they work with? I think that’s an aspect of the job people should focus on to a greater extent. Do they find the work intrinsically rewarding?”

Richard Freeman, a professor of economics at Harvard University, advises students to explore the world hands-on as much as they can through internships or a gap year. He suggests that if students do not like what they find that way, they could try a different employer or another job in the same field to see if that helps.

Leslie Stevenson, the director of career services at the University of Richmond, suggests that students should visit the career centers at their universities as early as their freshman year.

The good news is that people can change their minds even after they get their degrees — something Mr. Yapa is thankful he did. Ms. Stevenson also said graduates should not be afraid to call career offices after graduation, as many offer services to alumni. “We encourage students to view career management as part of an ongoing process,” she said.

In the end, outwitting your biases might mean learning to follow your gut feelings and to keep listening. “I say to students, ‘Just find something you really like,’” Professor Freeman said. “You’ve got to make enough money to live, but it’s crazy to be attracted by the great rewards, money, prestige, whatever it is. You want to spend your life doing this.”

Paulette Perhach has written for Marie Claire, Salon and many other publications.

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