Wednesday, May 11, 2011

The right to change your mind


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).
  1. 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.
  2. 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.

16 comments:

  1. First time commenter here. Thank you for posting this about you journey. I am in communications too! It's what I've always done but in varying environments. I've been working in an accounting firm for the last 2+ years and have really not enjoyed it at all. I am desperately trying to head back to a comms role in government, but roles at my level are few and far between and I don't know if I should take a step down. It's a frustrating process, and sometimes I despair but stories like yours are encouraging! My husband's story is more like yours. He studies comms, worked in that for a year, had a stint as a casino croupier, managed a fast food restaurant, got into training and now he's a primary school teacher. Which is what he is meant to be. He must have grown up and I must have more growing up to do!

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  2. Gargh, i am so embarrassed at all my typos! :P I so should have proof read that!

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  3. Great perspective and advice, Angeline. I think I never really had a clear focus on where I was heading so it's been less of changing my mind than changing circumstance. Perhaps I should make some concrete plans so I have the luxury to change them. lol.

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  4. My career path is almost as untraditional as it gets. I began my life as a dancer--I was dancing professionally in a major city company by high school, then got accepted to Julliard and NYU Tisch for college. I went to NYU--and promptly sustained an injury that made me take enough time off to really look at my life. And I didn't like what I saw--I needed more, for many reasons, and so I left the dance world behind. I transferred schools, deciding to be a writer instead of a dancer, majoring in creative writing--I was pretty sure that all I wanted to do was write books and teach college kids. A professor advised me, however, to switch to English lit for better possibilities for grad school and teaching. So, here I am, almost done with my literature PhD...

    ...And still all I want to do is write books. Sigh.

    I have 2 options now: finish my PhD and get an academic job, then write books on the side. Or, finish my PhD and take some time off to write books. I'm still divided.

    Thanks for this post--it's such a good reminder that all roads do not always lead the way we think they're going to go...

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  5. People skills/soft skills are #1 in my book. Maintaining bridges is second, and you can't do that without #1.

    My husband and I talk about this subject a lot. Maybe it's our age, but we both feel that Facebook and Twitter (even e-mail to a certain extent) have degraded people's ability to nuance how they interact with each other. Like you, I have bounced around in my career path... LSAT > Waiting Tables > Technology > Fashion Company. That being said, the relationships I've built and maintained along the way have carried through even though the various fields are in large part unrelated. And, for those who don't know this, networking is not RT@ and "Like". That's definitely part of it these days, but networking is also e-mailing someone an article that you think they might find useful, offering suggestions that are off topic, helping connect someone who needs a job with someone who's looking to hire (even if it doesn't benefit you.) And don't do all of this just because you may want something, do it to be nice. Be professional, be nice, and follow through. It pays off.

    Very nice post - and good advice.

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  6. I got my degree in TV production with a minor in computer scienc just to be safe. If my second choice university would've given me more I'd have switched because their computer science program was better than their communications one. I am sure life would've been much different then. Out of school, it was hard to find anything that was reliable the way I wanted. I passed up a chance to just freelance for a local company and instead went into video editing for a photographer doing events and minor commercial work. Then, my husband proposed but he was in school somewhere else. I looked in my field but couldn't find anything so I ended up doing marketing for 3 years. When we moved back home, there were again no good jobs in my field. I was really hesitant to go back to working as a glorified intern. I worked part-time for that same photographer editing, and full-time as a online education coordinator. It drew on the same organizational and planning skills with a heavy computer influence that my marketing job had. After 3 years I wanted something more challenging and started scouring newspapers and online job hunters. I found my job through a keyword search. I work as a video producer and an online classroom manager/trainer. I finally get to use my production skills and I am using my computer minor. It was an unusual fit and while I was rusty on my TV skills, I am so glad to have this job today. Gosh that's long.

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  7. As a career counselor at a university I can say that you are not alone! I try to educate my students about how fluid career paths are and how it really is about the skills and not the major. There are so many ways to get to different careers. I love hearing other people's stories- thanks for sharing yours!

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  8. Thanks for the shout-out Angeline. I saw your post today and felt glad to know someone else (who's quite successful I might add) took a windy road too :)

    Your tip about keeping your network is huge. I've kept a decent relationship with my boss from my first "real" job, and she's been great to give me recommendations and perspective on career issues.

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  9. My career path has been exactly the same! I've been SURE that I would be a vet or an actor or an event planner, but it never worked out or ended up being what I hoped it would be. I completely agree with the six points of advice you give - it's the only way to navigate through until you find something you don't mind doing all day.

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  10. I found this really encouraging. I am returning to school, and I'm hoping I can make a big career change in the next two years. It's nice to see someone who has had a few different careers.
    My Heart Blogged

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  11. @ Michelle - Welcome and thanks for your comment! It is definitely a hard situation to be in when you're not satisfied with your job. The difficult job search in today's economy doesn't help, and many folks are having to take a step down even when they're not changing industries. Best of luck to you! (Oh, and I think you can be just as grown up without knowing what you're doing for sure. :)

    @ Bella - Changing circumstances can play a large role, too. After I moved to Davis (when I got married) I had no idea what I was going to do next, and then I sort of stumbled into where I am now and just ran with it. And now circumstance is taking me away with it. I'm actually a little worried about what I'll do when my circumstances are stable and I'm finally "settled down" (although I sort of hope I never settle).

    @ Bibliomomia - What a fun journey! I'm excited to see where you go next after your PhD. And to read your books. :)

    @ Cynthia - Great networking tips. I have to admit, that's the only part on here I don't quite feel comfortable yet (but I recognize the importance of it, for sure!)

    @ Destrehan's Daughter - What an interesting path! I love how you've found a great job now, but still got a lot out of your other experiences.

    @ Elizabeth - Thanks for the comment! I do feel like a lot of young people now either a) feel they have to pick a direction and stick to it or b) don't have a direction at all. I'm glad they have folks like you to help. :)

    @ Ashley - aw, shucks. :) I've had a few amazing bosses, who have also gone on to do insanely cool things, so I love keeping up with their lives.

    @ ohsaycanyousay - Those sound like fun jobs...maybe I"ll try that next. :P but thank you!

    @ My Heart Blogged - Thanks! I'm glad you liked the post. Best of luck to you in your studies...I'm excited to see what comes next for you. :)

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  12. I really appreciate this post. I'm a week away from graduating as an undergrad, and the only thing I know for certain is that I don't want to be stuck doing the same thing for too long. I crave change in every aspect of my life, and I don't expect to stick with the exact same career indefinitely.

    I enjoyed reading about your experience in switching careers and goals. It makes me think that I'll be okay.

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  13. You are not alone! My career path has been very unconventional. I studied Vocal Music Performance in college, but my first professional jobs were in accounting & finance. I've never actually had a job that relates to music or performance! I went from accounting/finance to office managment and 5 years later landed in the Director position at an advertising agency. I've been in advertising & graphic design for the last 3 years and am currently transitioning to a Marketing Manager position whose focus is much more on event planning and PR. I don't see my career changes as indicisive, I see it as being hungry for knowlege and experience in different fields. If I could make money as a professional student, I absolutely would! Accidently landing in marketing & advertising has opened up an entire relm that I feel very passionate about, and that has been a bigger surprise than anything.

    You are absolutely right about soft skills. As a hiring manager I look for soft skills & talent more than anything else. My soft skills have openend so many doors and opportunities that I wouldn't have had otherwise and are really the only things that link my career path together. I've recently worked with some new college grads & interns from the Communications department at a local university and am saddened to see the lack of soft skills that they have. They're up to speed with technical knowledge, but sadly lacking in both professional decorum and soft skills - esp people skills. I agree with the poster who said Twitter, FB & the like are really hurting our yougner generations when it comes to these things. I am only 30, but I see huge differences between my generation (Gen X) and the younger ones in the workplace.

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  14. @ Michelle - Welcome and thanks for your comment! It is definitely a hard situation to be in when you're not satisfied with your job. The difficult job search in today's economy doesn't help, and many folks are having to take a step down even when they're not changing industries. Best of luck to you! (Oh, and I think you can be just as grown up without knowing what you're doing for sure. :)

    @ Bella - Changing circumstances can play a large role, too. After I moved to Davis (when I got married) I had no idea what I was going to do next, and then I sort of stumbled into where I am now and just ran with it. And now circumstance is taking me away with it. I'm actually a little worried about what I'll do when my circumstances are stable and I'm finally "settled down" (although I sort of hope I never settle).

    @ Bibliomomia - What a fun journey! I'm excited to see where you go next after your PhD. And to read your books. :)

    @ Cynthia - Great networking tips. I have to admit, that's the only part on here I don't quite feel comfortable yet (but I recognize the importance of it, for sure!)

    @ Destrehan's Daughter - What an interesting path! I love how you've found a great job now, but still got a lot out of your other experiences.

    @ Nancy - Congratulations and good luck on your endeavors! The world is seriously so wide open, I'm glad you're planning on exploring different things.

    @ Rachel - Wow, that is so different! Funny how that works, right? It is quite a difference when seeing students (we have a couple of interns in our office, too). I'm technically a Millenial, so I wouldn't lump us all into one basket, but there is definitely a large range of readiness when folks come out of college. I think having internships as a student helps a lot.

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  15. Great post. I have taken the unconventional route myself and would have to agree that there are times when a connection can be drawn between two very different industries-you just never know how you'll be able to apply your previous experience and training.

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