To summarize the loss aversion thesis: Losses Loom Larger Than Gains
An equivalent loss is subjectively perceived as “worse” than the same amount of gain.
Our aversion to loss makes sense in an evolutionary context as the loss of resources could be severely detrimental for survival. However, there can be severe repercussions to a bias of avoiding loss over seeking gains: we sometimes don’t take the chances we should.
Kahneman and Tversky also found in their prospect theory research that people tend to over-weight both low and high probabilities and under-weight medium probabilities. We often perceive events with relatively low probabilities as more likely to occur than they are. So, any risk that is non-zero is perceived as risky, even when, objectively, risk probabilities vary quite a bit from the extreme ends of a distribution when compared to an intermediate level of risk.
Combining human loss aversion with our over-weighting of low probability events, one can imagine that when the potential for loss intersects with an event with a <100% probability of success, human decision making becomes even more warped relative to what would be expected in a purely mathematically-based, objective world. Rationally, pursuing an opportunity with a 5% chance or failure is far better than if the chance of failure was 25%. Both are relatively low probabilities but the 25% failure rate is 5 TIMES that of the 5% rate. However, most people will perceive a 5% failure rate as HIGHER than it actually is.
Taken together, then, potential losses that occur at relatively low probabilities are perceived as more likely to occur and, thus, avoided at a higher frequency than one would expect “objectively”.
Well, we can all get very comfortable with the status quo and what we “know”, often at the expense of venturing out and exposing ourselves to new experiences. This is especially true if there is a risk of “failure” or “loss” in pursuing new avenues or experiences AND even if the frequency of those losses are not high, we will perceive the risk of loss as HIGHER than it actually is.
How this can manifest for graduate students and postdocs is that their current work and experience in an academic setting is a 100% “known” quantity (whether or not it is supportive, a good fit, or well-liked) and therefore may seem not to pose the risk of the unknown. Venturing out to even explore alternative environments can often seem relatively risky in comparison, and may feel disproportionately scary due to the element of risk introduced by the unknown. This can manifest itself in things as low stakes as attending workshops or events that are not “related” to their research/scholarship.
What if it is uncomfortable?
What if I am made to do something I am not familiar with or that challenges my sense of self-worth?
Growth involves pushing oneself beyond what you know or feel comfortable with. However, in many ways technology and the readily available amount of online information can lead one to think less risks are needed to map a path forward in your career. It is important to realize, though, that some of the most useful information and insights related to career progression cannot be found online but instead through human conversation, connection, and experiential learning - which may involve some level of risk or vulnerability.
There will always be some uncertainty when pursuing something new. And given both graduate school and postdoctoral training are finite periods that will end…you will be pursuing something new when your time as a graduate student or postdoc is over.
Perhaps one of the most difficult risks we encounter as humans is putting our faith in others. And our fear of the unknown gets ramped up another notch when it requires us to engage with programs and people completely new to us. However, it is critical to engage in broad communities. There is also data showing that “weak ties” are critical in one’s job search.
A very practical place to start when seeking connections and career conversations is via informational interviews with individuals working in areas you are interested in learning more about. The University of Pennsylvania Career Services team has a superb guide to informational interviewing for graduate students and postdocs and you can also find a great guide available through ImaginePhD (create a FREE account to access this and other ImaginePhD resources). Informational interviews can also be helpful for your faculty job search. I encourage graduate students and postdocs to begin their search for potential individuals for informational interviews through LinkedIn, leveraging their amazingly powerful Alumni Tool in particular. These conversations will be immensely helpful as you learn more about potential roles and get a sense of how you might make a career transition.
Formal experiential learning involves applying concepts through active experiences to better understand the applications of one’s skills and knowledge to real-world problems. In addition, one’s self-reflection of the experience and how it aligns with one’s interests and values is crucial in helping inform future career choices.
- Job Simulations
- These prebuilt “simulations” are created by professionals to walk others through typical tasks/deliverables and give them a sense of the types of projects and work performed in certain professions. They are a great way to experience a “day in the life” and reflect on whether you could see yourself performing these tasks as part of a future career.
- Explore InterSECT Job Simulations
- Job Shadowing
- This relatively informal process involves spending a day or two with a professional to see what their work looks like. You might be able to leverage informational interviews into future job shadowing opportunities.
- Industry "site visits" provide a more high-level overview of an employer but also serve a similar function of allowing students and postdocs to experience an employer first-hand. See this publication for an example of one site visit model implemented in North Carolina's Research Triangle Region.
- The most immersive of the options listed here often involves spending typically 8-12 weeks embedded in a work environment. While some graduate programs offer formal internship opportunities, not all do.
- Even if your institution does not have a mechanism to support internship programs, the National Science Foundation (NSF)’s INTERN Program provides supplemental funds for graduate students supported on NSF research grants to pursue up to six months of an internship experience in a non-academic setting.
The right now is important to remember as our professional goals and needs will change over time. In most cases, the next job you undertake after graduate school or your postdoc will not be your last. You may eventually need to explore different professional paths. But, having gone through the process once, hopefully you will find it a little less uncertain and daunting the next time around.
There is a big, wide world out there…bigger than any of us can fully appreciate. If only we are willing to step outside our comfort zones and take some risks. Being strategic, however, in how you approach the unknown, specifically seeking out opportunities for informational interviews and experiential or volunteer-based learning, can de-risk your situation quite a bit. However, at some point you will have to take the leap. Hopefully, though, you can do that with a bit more confidence and conviction, leveraging the resources and advice you learn along your career exploration journey. Like many, it took a lot for me to take the leap into a profession outside what I “knew.” Hopefully, though, the resources and methods shared here can help make that leap feel a little less risky for you.