A few weeks ago I listened to a bunch of super-enthusiastic high school students share their excitement about astronomy, astrophysics and the space industry. We were at the Royal Astronomical Society of New Zealand’s annual meeting; every year they fund a dozen or so keen students from around the country to attend the event. It’s competitive, with many more kids applying than there are places to take them.
The students get to share what lit their passion for space, but as they recounted their stories maybe a third of them mentioned a teacher or career counsellor who had done their best to quench that fire. “There’s no jobs in that.” “It’s really hard,” “You can’t do that in New Zealand.” “It won’t help you get into university.” And I wondered who listens to a smart, ambitious youngster's hopes and dreams and tells them to play it safe?
It isn’t all teachers – others told of enthusiastic and supportive mentors – but it was potentially way too many of them, even if the nay-sayers imagine they are protecting kids from disappointment or quietly steering them away from games that are out of their league. Ironically, this is happening at a time when there is a lot of talk about reinventing school – getting kids to code, preparing them for a future where machine learning, AI and 3D printing are big things, building baby entrepreneurs. But none of that will be much use if some teachers are telling students not to chase their dreams.
Ironically, when educators talk about preparing kids for the future, part of their message is usually that the age of linear careers is behind us and today's kids will change jobs more far frequently than their parents did. Which makes it particularly strange for teachers to tell students to aim only at safe and dependable careers as they chart their educational trajectory.
So what should you say to a smart kid with dreams that would take them off the beaten track? Here's my list:
- Tell them "Wow that's great. Go for it!"
- Say to them "That sounds like it's going to be a lot of work."
- Ask them if they know what they need to do to get to their goal. What skills will they need?
- Tell them "That sounds awesome" (whatever it is).
- Tell them "Go for it. Whatever happens, you will be OK", but help them figure out what they are likely to hit if they miss their actual target. Don't be negative, it just never hurts to look before you leap, to make sure they will be ok.
- Ask them, "What can you do right now that will get you closer to your dream?" Get them doing things today that will engage their passion.
- Ask "How can I help?"
Item 1 is easy, and it works for anything. Item 2 is honest – no-one sleepwalks to being an astronaut or an All Black – and it is likely part of the fun.
Item 3 is a biggie, and for some goals the answer will be more obvious than others. What should someone who wants to be a professional athlete do, beyond just training for their sport? I'm not the best person to ask about that (really, I'm not) but whatever you want to do, my guess is that some of the things that will get you there won't always be obvious: one of my key skills as a scientist is that I like to write and know how to tell a story. (Seriously: every grant application is a story about what I would do if you gave me money – and it helps if I tell it well.) If a kid at your school wants to get into astronomy (something I do know something about), it could be a long wait before they can actually do astronomy. But astronomers need to know maths, computing, statistics and physics – does the kid you are talking to know this? Set them to finding out what is on their list.
Item 4 leads into Item 5. If a kid chases their dreams, are they really taking their whole future into the Casino of Life and putting it all on 22? Or are they laying down skills that also lead to all sorts of other opportunities? If I am brutally honest, I will only retire once, and while my field is growing it is certainly not expanding fast enough to accommodate everyone who trains to work within it. Numbers as miserable as a 2 or 3% success rate for making the transition from a PhD to a permanent job in the field are thrown around – the situation is not as dire as that, but in astronomy the success rate may be around 20% for people who actually get PhDs. At some point, it is possible students stand a better chance of success if they don't spend too much time stressing about the odds. But all my former students are doing well. Some have tenure – and others have successful startups or jobs in Silicon Valley where they use knowledge they acquired while they were working with me.
Someone chasing their dreams may be walking a high wire, but they can build a safety net by laying down serious and transferable skills. (And many of the people I know who pulled the cord on their personal Plan B made a conscious decision to do something new; ambitions change.) Help them figure out what those will be for them. The real trick to Item 5 is to help kids take measured risks without hinting you don't think they can do it. And this goes double if you are talking to people who might feel that they won't fit naturally into their chosen field – my friend Chanda Prescod-Weinstein often says that African American students hear well-meaning talk about a personal Plan B as "I don' think this is for you"; the same likely goes for Māori and Pasifika kids in New Zealand, or girls heading into fields where women are scarce.
Item 6 and 7: whatever it is they want to do, there will always be something they can start on right away. There's no time like the present. And be there for them. Check in. Ask how they are getting on. And wish them well.
And one last question: if you're a teacher, what's your ambition? It's got to be better to watch your students chase their dreams than, when they come to tell the story of their success, be remembered as the person who said they couldn't do it.
CODA: It is also true that if we are talking about academia, it is not just the student's job to be sure they have a Plan B, it is up to their teachers to recognise that many of them will need one, make sure that they get the chance to maximise their transferable skills and know how to demonstrate them to potential employers. But that's a story for another day.
IMAGE CREDIT: The image is from NASA.