As a young professional and spouse to a graduate student, I still have contact with students regularly. Some are hopeful and motivated, others anxious and uncertain. In these interactions I often think back to my college days and how uncertain I was myself--and how exciting that was.
You see, I am a waffle-r. I thrive on not having hard rules for myself, but tend to go with my mood or the context of the day/month/season of life. Take pumpkin pie for example. I refused to try the gunky-looking orange stuff until I was well into high school. And I loved it. A few years later, it looked repulsive again. Two years ago, I couldn't get enough and went on a pumpkin baking rampage. It all comes down to this--I have the right to change my mind, and I exercise it.
That isn't to say I'm hypocritical or contradictory (although sometimes I am...I'll own up to it). But I have changed my mind several times career-wise. I entered college as a piano performance major set on being a piano professor. I even taught kids. And then I studied urban/environmental planning and design, and spent a year as a transportation planner. I have to admit, I loved it. And then I got this idea stuck in my head that journalism was really the career for me (I was, and still am, obsessed with magazines), and I took off across the country to try my hand at that. Fast forward years later, and while I still use my journalism degree regularly as the managing editor of our nonprofit's magazine, it isn't my main duty in the communications department. Sure, these weren't necessarily full-fledged careers (each of my previous stops lasted about two years each, although I'm coming well into year 4 on the communications bent), but I did have life trajectories planned out for each one before I changed my mind, and things seemed to be going right on schedule.
There were two main things I learned through this journey (other than the fact that I'm indecisive).
- There is something to be learned in everything. I still draw upon my piano teaching days when I train colleagues. A year of writing transportation impact analyses and parking studies prepared me to cover the urban planning and development beat in grad school. And my experience as an editorial intern gave me insight that I still use as an editor. Even now, our nonprofit operates a variety of programs, some of which have drawn on my environmental planning background and technical writing skills.
- Opportunities are not lost forever. Of all the people who were surprised at my decision to go to journalism school, I think my transportation engineer boss was the most surprised. He had offered me a full-time planner position, including tuition remission to get my master's degree at my undergraduate university, and I said "no, thanks." But he was extremely encouraging, and even expressed his opinion that journalism school and developing my writing would be a strength if I did choose to return to the planning industry.
Some tips on changing careers or industries:
- Focus on soft skills. Communicating professionally, organization, time management, attitude, work ethic, and problem-solving are just a few of the skills that are necessary in all professional fields. Hone these and they'll travel with you across jobs and careers.
- Make a connection. Most of the time--but not all of the time--there can be some sort of connection drawn between industries, even if it's just a tenuous one. For me, it was journalism and covering urban planning and development.
- Pursue your passion, even if you aren't familiar with it quite yet. Your motivation and willingness to learn will get you where you want to be faster. When I applied to j-school, it was honestly a crapshoot. My NYU essay was a one-page exploration of my obsession with the glossy printed word.
- Start over. No matter where you are in your previous career, if you change industries, you're going to have to take a step down, sometimes a large one. Just something to be aware of.
- Refresh your new field. There is a lot to be said for learning the ways of your new field, but oftentimes industries aren't as different as they seem. If you have an opportunity to use a skill or principle from a past experience to innovate or advance your new work, take it and you will stand out from the crowd.
- Maintain your bridges. You never know how or if your new path my cross back over on your old one (or if you'll need a fallback). Keep your network.
Don't get me wrong--I don't think my path is the best choice for everyone. Who knows what would have happened if I'd just stuck to my original plan. My mother decided in high school that she wanted to be an accountant, and she has never looked back (I asked).
But those of us who aren't so tied to one idea? I think we'll do okay, too.
Have you had a straight-shot to where you are now or have you taken a more unconventional route?
BTW--I'm not the only one with career paths on my mind lately. Check out Consciously Corporate's journey to figuring what she's going to be when she grows up.