Which career for you? Nobel winner offers advice.

Which career is right depends on a lot more than money. If you're trying to decide which career you want, MIT economist Peter Diamond has some ideas.

Stephan Savoia/AP/File
Massachusetts Institute of Technology economics professor Peter Diamond smiles before the start of a news conference in Cambridge, Mass., after he won the 2010 Nobel Prize in economics along with Dale Mortensen and Christopher Pissarides. Mr. Diamond has some advice for students trying to decide which career is right for them.

Career advice from a Nobel laureate? Economist Peter Diamond of the Massachusetts of Technology usually spends his time researching topics like public debt, taxation, and market imperfections (for which he won the 2010 Nobel), but he took some time out to talk about how students should shape their work life. Here are excerpts:

1. Which career is right for students in this challenging economy?

Mr. Peter: First, find something you are genuinely interested in. Pay attention to the projections of what areas will have jobs but, in my view, finding a job that you enjoy is going to matter more in the long haul than moderate differences in level of pay. Finally, think of your career as an experiment. Always evaluate what is happening, how you are interacting with other people, and how you are interacting with the work. Think about whether you can learn something that you can do better. Experiment and try different things.

2. How did you realize that economics was the field for you?

Peter: It is important to recognize that whatever you start out of college is only just a start. It is generally not something that will last a lifetime right away.
I had nothing to do with economics as a child. I had no exposure to economics whatsoever. I loved being at college because it was so much more interesting and challenging then high school had been. I started out with engineering, but I didn't like that so I became a math major. I had no idea what a mathematician does on a daily basis. I just became a math major because it was a subject I liked the best and did the best in. Going to grad school was a no-brainer. In part, I liked academics. Also, if I hadn't gone to grad school I would have been drafted. I started grad school in math, not economics. I took both and decided which was a better fit.

3. How should students prepare for careers when the relevant skills are constantly changing?

Peter: Think of the education process for some radically new thing coming down the road a few years from now. You don't know what that thing is. You can't possibly prepare directly for that thing. What you can do is build your educational foundation, your ability to learn new things. For me, in my own career, I developed a mathematical foundation that let me pursue many different questions in economics. The fact that I studied a great deal of math gave me a level of comfort with all different subjects within economics. When new things come along I can learn them more quickly with a background in math. If one is interested in an area, one can ask what are the foundation blocks that I ought to master so that I can more easily learn new things in that area.

4. What change over the course of your career have you found particularly shocking?

Peter: The thing that has continually stunned me is the degree to which the Internet has changed so much of life and work. If you grew up with the Internet, you won’t be astonished, but the changes that have been made are enormous. In the '60s, I had a big delay in one of my important papers because my coauthor was in England and I was in Kenya, and we had to mail drafts of the paper back and forth. In contrast, I am now writing a book with Nicholas Barr at LSE [the London School of Economics] and we are e-mailing paragraphs back and forth and taking advantage of the difference in time zones to get more work done. Things that used to take years can now happen so quickly. However, there is a trade-off to the Internet as well. It is becoming increasingly difficult to focus on one thing for the time it takes to truly master something.

5. What's the relationship between happiness and success?

Peter: I’m wary of using the term happiness. Instead, try to focus on doing work that you enjoy and that you believe makes a difference. You’ll do better work and achieve more success if you focus on doing work that you think matters. For example, in my own career I’ve focused on Social Security, in part because of how much Social Security affects and matters to people. I then feel that my work matters and that then drives me to succeed.

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