What fields are good for problem-solving?
February 7, 2014 12:09 PM   Subscribe

I'm good at standardized tests, much better than I am at learning. What careers might lend themselves to those sort of skills?

Just officially got my GRE scores back (thanks for getting me there!) and they're strong - 167V/167Q/6W, which corresponds to percentiles of 97, 95, and 99 respectively. This echoes similar performance on both the ACTs and SATs over multiple sittings. All with only enough prep to get me familiar with question types.

I fully accept that standardized tests are a poor measure of much, and I would certainly advocate that schools don't rely on them much for assessments of achievement. However, of course I'd like to use mine - both the scores and the skills - to my advantage.

For reference, I'm a college junior with an Econ major, which I enjoy a lot, and a strong-ish quant background. My work experience is mostly in public policy, which I love sometimes and hate sometimes, so I figure now is the right time to sort of explore my options. Luckily, I think that my background is generic enough to apply to a lot of careers or graduate programs.

I think I'm good at analytical thinking, and solving questions using standard reasoning skills. I really loved the format of GRE math questions - they aren't technically challenging, sometimes it just takes a minute to figure out the right calculation.

On the other hand, my grades and performance in school are only ehh (3.6 GPA, at a fairly challenging institution). I don't do well with learning from lectures and I don't put in the work I should to do spectacularly well - I hardly ever do the reading, honestly (I know, I know). While I'm interested in the world, I don't think I'm a particularly motivated learner, as much as it pains me to admit.

This is my main question, then: What careers, or fields, are focused more on problem-solving and less on building a large bank of information?

I like teamwork, I like people, and I CAN learn specific information - I just don't usually love it and I would find it hard to sustain over a long period of time. Similarly, I can write and I can do research, it just doesn't feel satisfactory in the way that attacking a gnarly problem does. I've loved challenges like teaching myself to unlock an iPhone with zero background knowledge, and I loved things like vector calculus that involve applying things I already know in new ways but hate stuff like statistics that involve fairly blind memorization. I really like getting consistent feedback on my work, both from people and from self-evident feedback mechanisms. I've been told I'm well-spoken and I generally prefer jobs with highly established expectations.

I hope what I've written makes sense. Getting GRE scores that far outpace my grades, which follows a long pattern of similar performance, has me thinking again about strengths and weaknesses (and how I should work harder in school).
posted by R a c h e l to Work & Money (20 answers total) 21 users marked this as a favorite
Your grades aren't ehh, they're GREAT!

I have an MBA and I'm an anaylst and I love it! I too scored stupidly high on all sorts of standarized testing: GRE, GMAT, ACT, etc.

I like my job because I compile the data, create lots of charts, tables and graphs and then summarize it so that managers can act on it.

I sailed thorugh my MBA because it was fucking easy!

I would not recommend getting an MBA with your fantastic scores from anywhere except Harvard, Stanford or Wharton and only if someone pays your way.

Another thing you could do is be a Forensic Accountant, I think that would be really interesting and you could do really interesting things in law enforcement.

All of these things require a good mathematical foundation AND a brain that is looking for the easiest way to sail through things.

Dude, if you're PASSING Econ, let alone majoring in it, you have a GREAT brain. If you can write well on top of it, you are GOLDEN.

I would be surprised if top-tier schools aren't beating down your door to get you into their programs.
posted by Ruthless Bunny at 12:17 PM on February 7, 2014 [2 favorites]

Why not teach the test? There is a lot of money to be made in academic and standardized test tutoring. It's always a new problem to solve (the student's particular weakness), and it plays to your strengths.
posted by jph at 12:19 PM on February 7, 2014 [1 favorite]

You sound like an excellent candidate for software engineering. Have you ever tried programming?
posted by rhythm and booze at 12:20 PM on February 7, 2014 [4 favorites]

You sound exactly like me at your age.

When I finally entered the working world, I found that my excitement about a new job wore off rather quickly and that the routine of it all became absolutely soul-sucking, despite being a great place to work and having amazing colleagues.

It sounds like you may want to look (long-term) at consulting. If you can get in with a good company (mega NYC firm or any small but reputable boutique firm, doesn't matter), you'll constantly find yourself in new and challenging situations, having been brought in to problem-solve, which is your passion!

You may need an MBA first though - and on preview, I echo Ruthless Bunny's sentiment that your grades and scores mean you should go to a top school but should not pay a dime in tuition for it.
posted by trivia genius at 12:20 PM on February 7, 2014 [2 favorites]

How are you with people? Because: librarian is totally this! Especially in the corporate world - there's a lot of variety of questions and projects, but in general it's a very skills-focused type of work. My most useful skills are, honestly, a willingness to experiment and fiddle with the tools that are available, creativity, and logical thinking. A lot of the time people come to me and say, "I have no idea if it's possible, but can you find me [x]?" and then when I find it, they tell me I'm magical.

Downsides: It's not really a growth industry right now, and it means more schooling that you will have to pay for. (You can't get decent scholarship money to go to library school.)
posted by marginaliana at 12:25 PM on February 7, 2014

I've got a Bachelors in Physics and a Masters in Systems and Controls (EE). Here's what you do:

Software Engineering, Mechanical Engineering, Controls/Robotics/MEMs (micro-electro-mechanical) Engineering, Organic Chemistry. Why? Because that is the future. There are a gigantic number of problems to solve there and the payoff is immense. That is what I'd do if I were a junior in college again today.

Read "The Singularity is Near" by Google CTO Ray Kurzwiel to catch a glimpse of the future. The future belongs to programmers, nano-technicians, and organic chemists. That book will tell you more than I ever could in this short space. But more importantly. . !

Change the hell out of your paragraph that begins, "On the other hand. . ." I did exceptionally well on my GREs--well enough to get me into Mensa. I hardly ever did homework and to this day I regret it. You MUST do your homework. You MUST either be #1 in your class or on your way to becoming #1. Here's the big secret nobody tells you when you're in college: Nobody cares how smart you are. The only thing that matters is ACTION! What can you DO for me if I am a hiring manager or what can you do for your company if you are an entrepreneur. If you don't do your work in school you'll have a damn hard time overcoming your sluggish inertia after college. Do your work WELL, HARD, and NOW! Overcompensate. Do too much. Put the beer down and crack a book! Trust me, trust me, trust me, you'll thank yourself later.
posted by Lord Fancy Pants at 12:29 PM on February 7, 2014

Data Science, but you want to make sure you get into the analysis side vs. the architecture side.
posted by BabeTheBlueOX at 12:29 PM on February 7, 2014 [1 favorite]

I suspect that most fields have jobs in them that feature problem solving. So, it may be better to focus on a field of interest and not on a job description.

However, to be a good problem-solver (good enough to be hired to solve problems) you really must have a foundation in a body of knowledge. Learning skills ad hoc is fine for personal project (and it even has a role in professional work), but to be hired to do something you must have a solid foundation in a field.
posted by oddman at 12:41 PM on February 7, 2014

Career development for actuaries is completely structured around a series of very difficult exams.
posted by paper chromatographologist at 1:02 PM on February 7, 2014 [1 favorite]

I challenge you to build an iPhone app from scratch that provides tips and tricks on how to ace the GRE and other tests like it. You'd make a kickass programmer, especially if you like problem solving.
posted by These Birds of a Feather at 1:11 PM on February 7, 2014 [1 favorite]

I hope you don't consider this to be not answering the question, because I empathize with your situation so much it hurts, and I just have to say:

I don't put in the work I should to do spectacularly well...

To make your life meaningful and satisfying, you're going to have to do something about this. No matter what you go into. Some of us who have been told we're super smart since a young age (let me guess: did you take a bunch of AP classes in high school, too?) ride that for as long as possible and never figure out how to properly study, rehearse, etc., instead doing just enough to get by with some minor-to-major accolades.

Eventually you are going to hit a wall. You are going to get into a school or a company where everyone is as "smart" as you and they all have really interesting projects and the ones who don't get ground up and dumped at the roadside are the ones who can motivate to really work at it. Which is not to say you should find a soul-sucking grind and just get used to it - god, I hope you can avoid that! You should certainly "do what you love" insofar as you know what that is. But find something where you can motivate yourself to put in the time and effort. That's all that's really going to save you.
posted by Joey Buttafoucault at 1:18 PM on February 7, 2014 [5 favorites]

Do NOT, under any circumstances, become an organic chemist! The job market is unspeakably wretched.

I am like you. I have good analytical skills, I'm an excellent test-taker, I occasionally lack stick-to-it-ive-ness. I'm an at-home parent now, but I was very happy as a research scientist. Recently I interviewed for a job as a software tester, and I think I would have enjoyed that type of work as well. I like to come into work in the morning and solve a problem that is a piece of a bigger problem.
posted by gerstle at 1:26 PM on February 7, 2014

Please, please keep the suggestions coming - this is REALLY helpful for me. Additionally, any specialized skills that might be helpful, specific classes to take before I graduate, or suggested internship programs (particularly in NYC, summer, spring, or fall) would be tremendous.

To address the work ethic part - yeah, trust me, I know it's a huge problem. Not preforming to anywhere near my potential is something I've spent years beating myself up about, and have dealt with in some pretty unhealthy ways. I have sought therapy over it, and it's better than it used to be, but please know that I'm aware that it's an issue.
It's somewhat school-specific; I get a lot of anxiety and paralysis over a mountain of stuff to do and the structure with which things are conducted at school (ie that it never feels supportive). I've always done better at jobs - I get great feedback as an employee and was half-seriously offered a job at the place where I interned as a sophomore. More than one boss has sought me out for opportunities not usually given to someone at my level. Not to say I don't need to work on it, but I'm aware and it may not appear as bad as it feels to me.
posted by R a c h e l at 2:56 PM on February 7, 2014 [1 favorite]

Stupid as this sounds, how about medicine?

I'm like you - can work my ass off fixing problems if they're presented to me, but rubbish at self-motivated learning. Clinics and takes are just a procession of problems (or patients, I guess) for me to fix. Perfect!

You probably won't enjoy med school rote learning, but the actual day to day job is so perfect for goals-orientated people. It's just tick, tick, tick, goal achieved, diagnosis made, problem fixed, all day long. No need to motivate myself at all, the patients just pop up in front of me.

Medicine's hard work if you don't enjoy it, so don't do it on a whim (conversely, it's pretty easy if you do enjoy it. Being a doctor doesn't feel much like work to me). But look for a job with that sort of structure and goal-oriented achievement.
posted by tinkletown at 3:43 PM on February 7, 2014

+1 software engineering. I am a lot like you and have been doing this for almost seven years now without really regretting it much. I work at a company that encourages us to move around every couple years so work on something until I get bored and then switch teams.

I notice you just took the GRE. Consider the possibility that you HATE SCHOOL and should not continue being a student. I really thought I was the kind of person who would be a lifelong student since I'm good at exams and then I found out that actually I would rather die than be that.
posted by town of cats at 4:51 PM on February 7, 2014

Specialized skills etc.:

Tinker with stuff. Become a hacker and, of course, by that I mean a GOOD hacker--a WHITE HAT hacker. It's a good term with a bad rap. Figure out how stuff works--ALL stuff. I have a question I just put up today in MeFi asking about assembly language compilers? Why? Because I want to know how stuff (CPUs in this case) works. Seriously, if I could impart to you the need to tinker with stuff for the expressed purpose of bringing that developed SKILL SET into the world of software, nanotech, Artificial Intelligence, robotics, and genetics you could better see how you can command the future (no hyperbole there. This stuff will be HUGE right about the time your career is shedding its baby teeth.) Think about it:

Genetics is just beginning to take off. DNA "hackers" are understanding DNA (and epi-genetic factors) better and better every day. There are no real "scalpel solutions" to addressing issues with a person's DNA--only "broad brush" approaches. Clearly there are ethical issues here. Figure them out and pursue an ethical path.

Nanotech will be applied to genetic problems in that "scalpel" fashion that is lacking today. In the future instead of drinking milk from a genetically modified cow that contains a protein needed by a baby aflicted with Tay-Sachs for instance (which is in the "near term" future), nanotech will address the problem at its source--the baby's DNA. You need to be able to tinker with some crazy things in nature like Van der Waals' force to be able to overcome the sticky problems with developing nanotechnology.

Artificial Intelligence is coming/here and there's no stopping it. We already have the ability to download from the web updates to coclear implants that help formerly deaf people to hear. Think about that--software from the web is already making it's way into our brain via implants. This technology will not slow down but in fact is speeding up exponentially.

Stuff like this, this, this, and this are science fact, not fiction. The people developing these things are hackers. Be a good hacker.

Hang around doctors too. Form networks with doctors, programmers, Information Technology experts, entrepreneurs, and engineers. This is not only the future, this is now. And a little bit of it is even history. If you've really got a big brain, figure this stuff out. Like I said before, read "The Singularity is Near." Maybe start off with reading some Amazon reviews, look at those linked videos again and let your mind go (yes, those things are really happening). And above all have an entrepreneurial and ethical spirit. The near future is a wild ride. Be prepared.
posted by Lord Fancy Pants at 5:57 PM on February 7, 2014

I switched careers about a year ago and started working as a health care data analyst. I love it because of the problem solving nature of the work, and many of my projects are just big logic puzzles. As for the motivation, I stay pretty motivated because I know the work I produce helps our providers deliver better care for our patients. Even the reports that just get submitted to the government, I feel good about because it helps bring in more money so we can provide better care to our patients. I'm pretty sure you don't need an advanced degree to do this kind of work, so maybe you don't need more school, just work you enjoy doing and are passionate about.
posted by feidr2 at 9:03 PM on February 7, 2014

Work isn't like school. I was an indifferent student and really enjoy work - it's faster paced, less long term attention required, and in the right job should be mostly about problem solving and getting things done.

While I agree an MBA might be a good longer term goal for you I am compelled to correct some misperceptions above. It's really unlikely you'll get a full ride from Harvard, Stanford or Wharton for an MBA. Professional programs are there partially to make money for the school so the vast majority of students pay full price. Theoretically your enhanced earnings from such a degree more than pay for the tuition (this is largely true, unless you go into a low paid field). People who get scholarships for MBA programs are incredibly impressive in terms of 99th percentile scores/grades and/or starting their own business in college that sold for $10M or saving children in 3rd world countries and/or come from an underrepresented minority background (only African American, Latino, Native American in MBA terms, S. Asian and East Asian are overrepresented minorities in MBA programs)

Additionally, unless you are that amazing as a college senior you likely won't get in right now (the exception is HBS 2+2 program specifically for college seniors). Most top programs want to see some work success as part of admissions criteria.
posted by rainydayfilms at 5:58 AM on February 8, 2014 [1 favorite]

Also, you might like management consulting and it's a good way to see lots of different industries.

The top tier are McKinsey, Bain and BCG. On campus recruiting is the most common route to those jobs.
posted by rainydayfilms at 6:01 AM on February 8, 2014

Finally, I wouldn't be too concerned about the work ethic thing - are you someone who can work hard if you enjoy it? I always got the "not working up to potential" BS in school and had endless guilt over it from grade one to college graduation.

Finally one professor gave me really useful feedback by saying "you only work hard if you're interested in the topic." While she certainly meant it critically, I took it to heart and pursued things that were interesting to me. That doesn't mean I wouldn't do the required grunt work, but does mean I constantly adjusted my professional pursuits towards topics I find interesting and challenging. That eventually led to a profession that I find endlessly fascinating and am therefore extremely good at. My husband thinks I'm a workaholic, which no one in my academic career would have ever accused me of.

All that to say, lean into your actual personality and make it work for you - it will be far less frustrating than forcing yourself to have a "work ethic."
posted by rainydayfilms at 6:12 AM on February 8, 2014 [2 favorites]

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