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Career Isn’t So Clear

by David Metcalfe

This article also ran in the Augustana Medium.

Almost two years ago, I visited with a friend who was in the process of giving up her dream of becoming a physiotherapist. She had done everything right: got a 3.9 GPA, worked in a clinic, and had tons of volunteer experience.

Her parents, one a physiotherapist and the other a doctor, were confused that she couldn’t get accepted into the physiotherapy master’s program, considering she had performed better than they had in their undergrad.

More recently, I sat down with an old friend of mine. He is currently an engineering manager at a large and prestigious car company. I figured he must have had top marks in university. But that’s just it, he didn’t.

In fact, he only attended about half of his classes and barely passed his degree. But isn’t performing well in school supposed to get you a good job? How could this guy do everything wrong and land his dream job, while my other friend did everything right and was unsuccessful?

Experts such as Steven D. Levitt and Stephen J. Dubner of Freakonomics, suggest that GPA is not a very good predictor of overall career success. In recognition of this, graduate schools and companies are relying less and less on GPA to decide whether to accept a recent graduate into their program or business. Nathaniel Lambert, a psychology professor at the University of Utah, echoes this stance, “I applied for jobs at over 70 universities. How many asked me for my transcripts? Just one.”

Of course, many companies and graduate schools still have GPA minimum requirements, typically between 3.0 and 3.5 as a standard to even apply. McGill for example requires a minimum 3.2 GPA in the last two years of study. The majority of job interviews will never involve discussing your GPA.

In a New York Times interview, Laszlo Bock, the former Senior Vice President of People Operations at Google, said that university grades are “worthless as a criteria for hiring.” Employers aren’t really interested in what you know, they’re interested in how what you know can contribute to them. Whether or not that is represented by a number on a transcript is largely irrelevant.

So, is the key to success skipping class? Sort of. The reason my friend only attended half of his classes was because he spent every hour he could in the shop with other engineering students designing cars. In his fourth year of university, he took the car he designed to an exhibition. Recruiters were so impressed, he was offered several jobs that day.

My other friend, the aspiring physiotherapist, told me how school felt like a chore for her. It was something she had to do because it’s what was expected of her. Volunteering was just putting in time. There was no passion, no desire, and it came across in her interviews and personal statement.

I used these two case studies because they do an excellent job of illuminating some of the little known, but well researched, factors that contribute to career success. I would suggest that career success can be put into three main factors: passion, intelligence, and impressing the right people.

Passion is the force that drives you to spend hours in the shop, stay up late to read another article, or put off watching television or socializing for days to work on a project that you just can’t get enough of.

Intelligence is what allows that passion to result in something of quality and value. The ability to create something of value is what will ultimately impress people. Of course, in most cases, you need the people skills, or emotional intelligence, to go with it. Creating something of value is amazing, but you need some way of expressing that value to others.

GPA is one measurement of potential career success that may or may not be relevant, depending on what you’re wanting to do. Passion combined with intelligence and an ability to express that to others is always relevant.

It all starts with passion. What gets your brain really going? What topic or concept matters to you? Once you figure that out, study it and study it. Become an expert at it. Then do whatever you need to do to express that and impress the right people.

Build a car, ace a course, talk to other experts that share your interests, work, volunteer, etc. Don’t become someone who is trying to get into graduate school or a great job, become someone who graduate schools and great jobs are trying to get. Use your time in your undergrad to become a passionate, intelligent, and impressive person.*

Banner illustration courtesy of Augustana Medium.

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