What could I do, career-wise, to provoke the most meaningful and long lasting change?
June 3, 2011 10:34 AM   Subscribe

What could I study, learn, and eventually do (for a career or otherwise) that would help the most amount of people in the most meaningful way?

I'm an undergraduate student at a liberal arts college in the US. This past year has been mainly been a brainstorming session for me: I've been thinking about what I could possibly do as a course of study and eventual career.

For awhile, I was thinking about majoring in English. I'm still convinced that above all the ability to write and communicate both persuasively and effectively is probably one of the most useful skills I could have if I wanted to invoke social, political, or economic change here or elsewhere. Still, I felt, after registering for three Literature classes for the coming Fall semester, that I couldn't really accomplish much in the way of social change while learning about 18th century British Lit.

Ironically enough, I saw Jonathan Kozol speak at my school (he studied Literature at Harvard). He is a major figure in the fight for contemporary desegregation and reform of the public schooling system. Reading his works as well as watching the fourth season of the Wire has strengthened my urge to do the same.

Education is probably what I am most passionate about. Still, I don't know what I could do to truly help. I don't think I would provoke much change as an inter-city school teacher working within the system.

As a lawyer, I could fight for fair housing and bring cases against school districts, etc.

As a doctor, I could help those in less developed countries who need care.

As a politician, I could try to pass meaningful legislation in hurting communities.

The list goes on. This is why I am curious to hear what you think I could do that would be the most helpful. I'm also interested in lasting change. If you have recommendations (books, documentaries, etc.), I'd love to hear them. What I am most interested in, however, is career-based ideas.

Thanks so much.
posted by makethemost to Work & Money (27 answers total) 10 users marked this as a favorite
posted by Nixy at 10:43 AM on June 3, 2011

Is there a right answer to this? I recently talked with a friend of a friend who was working on developing an affordable/easy to use test to detect the strain of HPV that most commonly leads to cervical cancer. I remember thinking how cool it would be (if they succeed) to know that you played a part in something that saved/improved lives of millions.

So, drug/medical research is my first guess.
posted by Ygduf at 10:44 AM on June 3, 2011

You should probably decide if you want to help a few people a lot or a lot of people a ltitle. If the former, then working as the super-inspirational inner city school teacher could really make a big difference in the lives of some people.

You could also get really involved in local politics. We get all amped up about national politics (which are important), but often forget that the local school board can make a huge difference in our day-to-day lives.
posted by It's Never Lurgi at 10:46 AM on June 3, 2011

Perhaps a career in Public health.
posted by hammerthyme at 10:48 AM on June 3, 2011 [1 favorite]

"Don’t worry about what the world needs. Ask what makes you come alive and do that. Because what the world needs are people who have come alive."
— Howard Thurman

I love this quote but don't fully agree with the first sentence. The second and third, though: spot on. What makes you come alive? What excites you to do on a daily basis? It sounds like whatever you choose will inevitably benefit the world because that's already your intention. So what do you love to do?? The more passion and joy you bring to it, the more you'll benefit others (people that love you, people you encounter briefly, strangers, yourself, etc.)
posted by tacoma1 at 10:48 AM on June 3, 2011 [8 favorites]

Whatever job you do you're filling a need or the job would not exist. Each need that is filled is ultimately crucial; if it didn't get done people would not be able to live. If there's no one sitting in a cubicle at the electric company, the lights won't come on in the hospital operating room...no cashiers in the supermarket...project manager at the insurance company, etc., etc. We're all interdependent and any and every job you could do is part of the network of activity that keeps us all alive.
posted by Paquda at 10:52 AM on June 3, 2011 [1 favorite]

Become a civil engineer and work in peace corps (or something similair). The greatest change in mortality and longegivity to mankind and overall well being has been brought about by public works such as sewage treatment, power grids, clean water supplies and trash collection/sanitary landfills. The treating of waste streams and the supply of clean fresh water are the two biggest factors in both enviromental impact and stopping the spread of infectious diseases. Our modern pollution problems in the first world where these systems exist pale in comparision tot he developing and undeveloped world. In fact the whole concept of cities, with all their benefits, is impossible without the work of the civil engineer.

The modern population problems are not because we started breeding like rabbits it is because we stopped dropping like flies. Indeed over the course of the industrial revolution the birth rate has plumeted as the overall standard of living has soared. With an increase in the standard of living, birth rates fall even more until you reach our current demographic trends in the developed world of looking at a natural declining population due solely to below replacement level birth rates for the first time in history. Which brings me to my other suggestion that seems to also be a necessary condition for increased living standards and declining birth rates-womans rites. Turns out when women actually gain some say over what happens to them they mostly choose not to be brood mares. This is good for everyone has the fewer children get better educated and adjusted with more attention shared on each one and the lower growth and eventual decline in population has lots and lots of benefits (and some problems-which are really preferable to a malthusian wall).

So in short the greatest good for the greatest number is the realm of the civil engineer, and the developing world really needs good engineers, or advancing womens rights in places were women are treated as chattel. The second one is WAY tougher than the first but might have even longer lasting benefits.
posted by bartonlong at 10:55 AM on June 3, 2011 [2 favorites]

You should do what you're most passionate about + what you're good at. Being a doctor might help a lot of people, but if you have to force yourself to attend Biology class, you're not going to be as helpful as someone who can give their heart and soul to it. It's not necessarily about quantity. If you're passionate about education, and you end up teaching, you may "only" reach a few hundred students over the course of your career, but you can have a lifelong impact on them, and they will reach hundreds more. I mean, someone taught Martin Luther King Jr how to read.
posted by desjardins at 10:57 AM on June 3, 2011 [1 favorite]

You might want to look into a dual degree program in Social Work and Law. Since you're in Southern California, USC has one. UCLA also has a great Macro Social Work program if you are interested in community organization work. The social work profession has a focus on social justice that is strongly emphasized in all their course materials. The great thing about social work is that you can go the route of helping individuals or working with building up communities and organizations. Many social work programs in California also have international social work immersion programs over the summer where students travel to the Philippines, India, Israel, and so on to understand the social needs in those countries and cultures. They also participate in lobby days in Sacramento each year to start to get students involved in the political process. The internship components let you “test out” what it would be like to work in different settings.

If you did a program that also got you a law degree you would be well equipped to work for a local Legal Aid or Neighborhood Legal Services program where you could help people who are in real need of strong advocacy. A duel degree would also set you up to possibly start or lead a non-profit organization. Or you can take it to an international level and work on issues such as human trafficking. There are a huge number of options you would have available to you. It will, however, set you back a bit financially as it is not a cheap option to pursue.
posted by Palmcorder Yajna at 11:03 AM on June 3, 2011

It's impossible to know what will help a person and what won't. Don't set yourself up with a false dichotomy. There are no easy answers. The means matters, yes, but there are many means. You could be a doctor, a lawyer, a politician, custodian, dishwasher, bus driver, teacher, journalist, mail carrier, or farmer. They'll each have ways that they help people.

If you're a doctor, you may help save lives physically. If you're a lawyer, you may help work toward using the law to protect rights. If you're a politician, you may listen to what people need from their government, and work toward those goals. If you're a custodian, you may help keep a place clean, so that people have a healthy environment and don't need to go to the doctor. If you work as a dishwasher, you'll help keep dishes clean so that people can have a meal they didn't have figure out how to cook. If you're a bus driver, you're getting people from A to B; access to transportation is vital. If you're a teacher, you're helping somebody learn something new. If you're a journalist, you're doing research to helping expose people to new ideas so that they can go on to make better-informed decisions in their day-to-day lives. If you're a mail carrier, you're all sorts of very important bits of communication to people -the bills that save them a trip to the bill place, the letters that send 'em love, and so forth. If you're a farmer, you're providing the very food that people need in order to live.

Plants don't grow without soil, soil doesn't exist without bugs and rot to break down the organic matter that makes it up. Soil and rot may not seem as lofty and helpful as a fruit, but it's just as necessary. Likewise, there are countless helpful jobs. It really is impossible to count. You would have to first decide what kinds of helpful are most helpful in your own unique opinion.

And there's also the important question of making sure that you are helping people in ways they want and need to be helped. There's a lot to be gained from helping people, and that's not to be dismissed, either. You're not doing it to be selfless, you're doing it to be a contributing part of a functioning system.

If what you are most passionate about is education, then learn a skill. Learn a useful life skill that you learn and grow from, and that you can pass on to people. It could be literacy. It could be policy, or many of a number of things. It could be bicycle repair. I help run a community bike collective, and we have a lot of people who are passionate about empowering people to fix their own bikes. There's a real community around it. If you ask me, that's where it's at. We need tons of these. Lots of small communities based around common interests and activities. This is where that positive change you're looking for is. You can totally make a career out of this. I've found that the volunteering I've done for the bike community for the past several years will be far more directly useful in the way of me having a helpful and lasting career (should I choose to pursue it) than my bachelor's degree will have been (though that was useful in other ways).

Sure, we can't forget that there are economically-poor people in other places. One of the best ways to change that right now, while you're still in school, is to work on the many practices right where you're living that are contributing to that poverty in other places. Take a few modern history courses so you have a better idea of how you as a person living in California fit in the bigger picture. What can you do here and now to change things in your own life? Memail me if you want to talk more about this aspect.

It isn't the sort of thing that you figure out once and get to be done with, too. Start looking, and you'll have found yourself a life-long task. Keep learning and staying engaged and involved with life no matter which career(s) and activities you pursue, and you'll be achieving your goal of a most helpful career.
posted by aniola at 11:23 AM on June 3, 2011 [2 favorites]

You asked for book recommendations. I recommend "Pedagogy of the Oppressed" by Paolo Freire.
posted by aniola at 11:27 AM on June 3, 2011

As a teacher in an urban low-income high school, I'm probably biased. I had the same thought process as you did in college, and when I graduated, I was lucky enough to fall into a full time teaching position, teaching English to 9th-12th graders in a public school in California. That was seven years ago, and in that time I've taught, mentored, coached, and advised over 2,000 young people. Over the course of my career, assuming I survive for another 20 years, that's 6,000+ students.

Does that mean I've changed each of those 2,000 lives? Of course not. But even if I only reached 40% (obviously, I like to think it's higher), that's still 800 kids who I've had a direct positive impact on.

I work in a school right now where, for most of my students, I'm the only responsible, professional, employed, emotionally-stable adult they know. I have kids who have never passed a class in their academic career, now on track to go to college. I show them what their future can be like. I build their confidence. I inspire them to engage and change their community. Some of my former students are doctors now (or at least well on their way towards that). Some are lawyers. Some are teachers. Some work for the government. Some work at McDonalds. Some have kids and are breaking the cycle of abuse that haunted their family for generations. Teaching English allows me to build in conversations and lessons about being an adult, being responsible, developing empathy and compassion, and working towards being an active, informed citizen. It changed them.

I probably shouldn't admit this, but I also use AskMetafilter in my support/psychology class when we deal with relationships; it's amazing how many things come out when you have them offer advice to people struggling with the same issues they are.

One last thing. I'm working closely with a new teacher this year, and he struggled with knowing what he wanted to do as well. I told him this: pursue your passion and your calling, not your potential. There's lots of things we could do. I wanted to be a doctor, an engineer, a politician, an historian, a chef, etc. I had the potential. But my calling is teaching. Search your heart and mind: it sounds like teaching is your calling too, but you're not ready to embrace it. That's ok. Just don't give something up because you have the potential to do other things. Your potential is not the same as your calling.

PS - All those English classes on 18th century British literature taught me how to read, write, and think critically. It made me a literate person. It pushed me to consider other cultures, perspectives, and time periods. Don't rubbish the idea of taking literature classes because they're not "practical" - because they have VERY practical applications.

Feel free to memail me if you want to talk about this further. Either way, good luck! What an exciting time in your life!
posted by guster4lovers at 11:29 AM on June 3, 2011 [6 favorites]

If you want to make more change than the average bear, you're really going to need to start thinking outside the "Doctor, Lawyer, Teacher, Fireman" box. The professions and trades exist to maintain the status quo - not change it. And so following one of those paths almost inevitably leads you to do the same things that plenty of other folks have done.

Sure, there are degrees of utility among jobs. Doctors treat patients and therefore their work has a utility magnifying effect as the work product of the patient becomes directly related to the work product of the doctor. Similarly, teachers (ideally) magnify their own utility by educating the next generation and in doing so take on at least some part of the utility of the next generation. It sounds to me like this magnified utility - or utility synergy - is not what you are looking for.

So think outside the box. Don't think about what path you can trudge down in order to improve this world. Instead, observe the world and its myriad problems. Commit yourself to solving one or more of those problems. And then chart a NEW path forward. Not even the sky is the limit when you are thinking broadly like that.

From my perspective, I suspect that science holds the greatest possibility for us. Because Science attempts to understand the universal human experience, your contributions of progress and advancement to a scientific discipline are less limited by culture and geography than other sociopolitical/economic changes. Governments come and go, social movements ebb and flow, but science marches onward.
posted by jph at 11:30 AM on June 3, 2011

I will mention in passing that the people in our region at the government and NGO level who work with the economically and mentally disadvantaged stress the use of the word support rather than help. Support has different connotations and maybe thinking about all the different tasks in a particular support network would help you find something that inspires you the most.

Anyway, while you're deciding on a long-term path, you could go volunteer at a soup kitchen. They always need people to help. And you can get some ideas from there.
posted by seanmpuckett at 11:31 AM on June 3, 2011

Education is probably what I am most passionate about. Still, I don't know what I could do to truly help. I don't think I would provoke much change as an inter-city school teacher working within the system.

Open your mind to still other possibilities. There's education ... and then there's education. This educator is wildly different from this one.

In other words, there are vastly different, equally successful approaches within the subjects themselves.

Becoming an inner-city educator for a few years, for instance, could provide you with any number of skills or experiences to lead you in different directions for the other 30+ years of your career. Or, you could focus your educational track energies elsewhere, right from the start. Your life could be fantastic no matter where you start.
posted by Cool Papa Bell at 11:33 AM on June 3, 2011

A couple of people have mentioned it in passing, but it's REALLY important that you're as realistic as possible about your own abilities when you make a choice that could (but likely will not really) determine your future career.

It's great to think about helping people, but you won't help anyone by choosing a path that can only lead to mediocrity. It's not only important to find something you can enjoy doing, but also something that you're suited to. People forget that a lot in all the "you can follow your dreams and do ANYTHING you want" hubbub, when actually, you can't really do anything you want.
posted by nosila at 11:39 AM on June 3, 2011

What activities are you doing RIGHT NOW to change the world, and what do you like or dislike about them, and find yourself most and least effective at?

That'd be a good place to start.
posted by Eyebrows McGee at 12:13 PM on June 3, 2011 [1 favorite]

When we're young we think too often of these simple categories - "Doctor, Lawyer, Teacher, Fireman" - and for me, journalist. If you want more impact, though, consider that there are jobs beyond these that are about changing the paradigm of the fields themselves. At this level you would not necessarily be affecting lives directly, but arguably if you are backed by (eventually) the power and knowledge to move money around and direct it towards your vision, you will be that much more impactful. It kind of depends on how you want to define impact.

You can change a life patient by patient, or you can work in health care management that improves the patient-doctor-system dynamic. You can change a life classroom by classroom, or you can focus on educational management and start new charter schools or improve the efficacy of public schooling on a district or city level.

A lot of these answers are about exploring different fields to find what works for you, and that's totally true. I would just say that if you are aiming for maximum impact, you should not forget about scale within the field itself -become the person whose strength in your chosen field is seeing the forest instead of working tree by tree. My personal trajectory has colored my perspective, which is now that you should pick a thing you love - whatever it is - but if impact is what you want, you should aim to eventually RUN IT, not just do it.
posted by sestaaak at 1:08 PM on June 3, 2011

Nursing. Of any profession I've seen, good nurses make health care work. Become a Nurse practioner and work in Haiti. You may want the biggest bang for your buck, but right next door to the USA is a country where the povery is devastating. You could make a huge difference in the lives of people for whom suffering is a way of life.
posted by theora55 at 1:23 PM on June 3, 2011

nthing the Nursing degree. It's so versatile and portable.

Also, this book is a great inspiration even if you don't go into healthcare: Mountains Beyond Mountains by Tracy Kidder.
posted by dawkins_7 at 1:59 PM on June 3, 2011

It has been said that there is more satisfaction making a difference to one person's life, rather than attempting to change the life of thousands.

I have a job in my chosen profession that I love dearly and which sounds like the kind of job you want, in which I am supporting communities around the world to help themselves. It is rewarding, slow-burn, work. At times though, the successes seem removed from my input, which can be frustrating, but it is how it should be - people improve their lives for themselves. It's not about you.

At the same time, I gain a lot from mentoring others in my profession. They're closer to home, they are in a far better situation than many I work with, but this gives the kind of immediate meaning that can be hard to find in other projects far from home.

It doesn't matter what you study - as was said upthread it's about your calling - I stuck to my chosen profession and found the path to my current role, which exists in almost every profession.

Good luck to you, and don't lose sight of your goals, but remember to nurture yourself, your family, and friends just as much along the way.
posted by wingless_angel at 2:08 PM on June 3, 2011 [1 favorite]

I think starting a successful, ethical business that provides good jobs for people is the most useful, productive thing you can do.

Education, working for the government all sound nice, but I'm not sure that any practical, real-world results actually come about that have any direct impact on the lives of everyday people.

Someone I know opened a coffee shop/bakery that hires people who were once gang members (they learned their skills at Homeboy Industries in LA.) The skills they got, coupled with the living wage they earn, has changed their lives and those of their families more than any legislation, lawsuits, etc. possibly could.

It's not the meat, it's the motion. It's not what you do, but how you do it. American Apparel, despite the complete ickiness of Dov Charney, is a good place to work. I'd rather see 1000 more companies like that get started than 1 more policy hack working in DC.
posted by Ideefixe at 2:31 PM on June 3, 2011

The absolute most difference-making? Pull a Bill Gates and become a billionaire.

If you really want to make a difference, that's the wrong way to look at the question. Assess your abilities and what you like -- you're not going to be a good doctor or politician or attorney or teacher if you're not capable and passionate about it.
posted by J. Wilson at 3:03 PM on June 3, 2011 [3 favorites]

So this is an answer to a question you didn't ask: the 19th c. British text that best addresses your questions is Middlemarch. It's a hell of a read.
posted by You Can't Tip a Buick at 8:59 PM on June 3, 2011 [1 favorite]

I don't think this is the answer you want to hear, but...

I'm going to have to say "whatever profession is the most lucrative so you can donate a large chunk or your salary to charity". Take a look at this list of highly effective charities - I think you'll be hard pressed to find a career more beneficial to the world than simply donating $20,000 to very effective charities each year.
posted by ripley_ at 2:41 PM on June 4, 2011 [1 favorite]

I was also going to suggest that you start a business and make it grow so as to hire as many people as possible, the treat them fairly with real wages, good benefits, little perks to make life better.

It's great to want to help people who need charitable help, but creating jobs is a good way to help people so they can help themselves. That whole "Circle of Life" thing from the Lion King also applies to local economies: when you hire workers for your factory, they have money to spend in the grocery store and then the grocer can pay his employees who will then get their car serviced at the local mechanic who can then buy the things that your factory makes... and it keeps going around.
posted by CathyG at 3:13 PM on June 4, 2011 [1 favorite]

I am just looking at three professions that you listed, lawyer, doctor and a politician. You want to make a difference in people's lives and in return you wanna feel like you've contributed to the society. You want to be a public servant, but also make some money while at it.

The question you need to ask yourself is what are your strengths, and do YOU want to study for 3 years like hell trying to squeeze in half dozen books in your brain, or you wanna study science, math, biochem, organic chem and spend the next 10 years looking at organisms and body parts, blood? You have what it takes, no matter which path you choose, but you need to want to want it.

Decide right now, in a year or two, and most importantly, stick with it. Take courses now as if you're trying to get into grad school. Whether you're going to med school or a law school, (while you have to take required courses to take MCAT or LSAT) it doesn't matter what your major is. You can go to law school as a dance major, you can go to med school as a music theory major. One of my colleagues went to law school after studying Russian literature.

Many people study English. It's great for the things you mentioned, but you learn analytical skills that are essential and applicable on EVERYTHING. It'll make you a deeper thinker, make you seek out additional information to make educated judgements, and help you look at all aspects of an issue...which is great for law school.

Whatever it is, stick with it, and don't give up...take this time to figure yourself out, go out, have fun, spend money on traveling, dating, and make up your mind and establish yourself, what you want, how you wanna see the world, and how you wanna contribute. Be optimistic, no matter what.
posted by icollectpurses at 8:36 PM on July 14, 2011

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