Changing direction can be the rational choice-how to base career decisions on your present, not your past

(Mood: optimistic)

December is coming to an end, the new year is approaching, and it’s time to look ahead. You may have big decisions to make in the coming year. If you are finishing a PhD, a postdoc, or something third, you may have to decide whether you will stay on your current track or jump track completely.

Many of us who have a PhD and maybe did a postdoc or two will at some point consider if we should stay on the traditional academic career ladder or do something different, something that we did not plan for when we started working in academia.

At this point, we might face a big internal conflict. Don’t we owe it to ourselves to keep fighting to stay on the set path after we invested all that time, money, and energy? After others invested in us? If we don’t stay, will all those years be wasted?

This conflict may cause some of us to stay on our current track for longer than it’s right for us. For years after we realized that there might be better options. If you recognize yourself in these words, you are not alone, and your situation is not limited to academia.

Staying on a given track because of past investment rather than future outcome is a well-studied psychological phenomenon. Maybe, if we become aware of this phenomenon, we can prevent it from controlling our decisions.

It’s called the sunk cost fallacy.

A sunk cost is an investment that is irrecoverable. It could be a time investment. No matter what you do, you will not get that time back. But because you invested all that time, you are now emotionally attached. This attachment makes it hard to let go, even if you might benefit from changing your investment strategy-i.e., your career path.

In short, the sunk cost fallacy is when you continue with an activity after it’s no longer beneficial for you because of the fear of having wasted time, money, or effort.

How can the sunk cost fallacy harm your career?

If you don’t free yourself from your sunk costs, you could make irrational career decisions. What you should be considering is what you expect to gain, not what you have already spent. If you don’t, you could end up letting your future self suffer to please your past self. Now, which self is the more important one?

Let’s say you’re finishing your postdoc-time. You have been 100% focused on getting to the next step (assistant professor, tenure-track, or whatever it’s called where you are) and you have invested heavily in this path. But you haven’t been thriving in the past years. The heavy competition, countless failed experiments, and strained funding are getting to you. You also realize that there are other types of work where you can put your skills to good use, make a positive impact, and have higher chances of thriving. The rational choice would be to go for the latter option. But the fear of having wasted the past years keeps you from making the rational decision. So instead of cutting your losses, you continue on the set path, you still don’t thrive, and you keep accumulating sunk costs.

Now, I don’t mean to paint academic work in a bad light. Many thrive in academia and achieve great things. The important thing here is not the intrinsic value of academic research; it’s whether or not your current track is right for you. It might be, and it might not be. It might have been in the past, and it might not be now. If you want to make a rational choice, just try to avoid counting in your sunk costs.

To me, this is freeing! Instead of basing my decisions on what I expected five years ago and what I invested in then, I am free to make my choices based on my present: What am I good at now and what do I have the potential to become great at? What do I like doing now? What do I dislike doing now? And this is even the rational approach. How freeing is that!

Things change, people change. I like different things than I did five years ago. I am good at things now that I didn’t even consider five years ago. It would be irrational to base my choices on what the five-years-ago me wanted, yet it’s so easy to do.

How often do you continue with an activity, not because you’re gaining something from it, but because you feel you wasted your time, money, or energy if you stop? Probably more often than you think, and I for sure do that too!

I first came across the sunk cost fallacy, when I read the career book 80,000 Hours: Find a fulfilling career that does good. You can find all the chapters for free here. To avoid the sunk cost fallacy when you are planning your next career move, the 80,00 hours team recommends three approaches, which roughly goes like this:

  1. Asses your skills without thinking about how you got them. Pretend you just magically got this skill-set.
  2. Asses future options. Start from now, and again ignore how you got here. What are the costs and benefits of different options from now on?
  3. Talk to someone else about your reasoning and justify your decisions. The important thing here is not that they agree, but that once you are aware of the bias, you will have a hard time justifying decisions based on sunk costs,

Let’s end this post on a positive note. If you do step 1 above, you’ll probably find that you have acquired many skills. Regardless of how you planned to use these skills, getting them was not wasted time. So in the end, no matter what you choose, celebrate all that you have gained and let sunk costs be sunk costs.


Further reading:

The Psychology of Sunk Costs. Hal R. Arkes and Catherine Blumer. Organizational Behavior and Human Decision Processes 35, 124-140 (1985).

For an academic paper outside of my field, I found this one to be both easy and interesting to read. So I encourage you to give it a try.

Sunk Costs in Careers, Adam Casey, 2012.

So Good They Can’t Ignore You: Why Skills Trump Passion in the Quest for Work You Love. Cal Newport, 2012.

Admitted, this book has nothing to do with the sunk cost fallacy. But if you are in career planning mode or are thinking about how you can find fulfilling work, I highly recommend it. While you’re at it, why not google Cal Newport and also read his books on focused work.

Further listening for career inspiration:

PhD Career Stories. A podcast where you get to hear what lots of people went on to do after their PhD.

Recovering Academic. A podcast where 3 recovering academics share their stories.



Header image: Pixabay



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