Monday, April 24, 2017

Career Change?

I really love my job. I love teaching college students--traditional and nontraditional. I love talking about literature and advocating my liberal feminist agenda. I don't love grading papers, but I really love (most of) my colleagues and (most of) my students and the fact that I have to sit down and read novels and it's "work."

The thing is, I almost went to law school.

I had a total freak out my senior year of college. I was graduating with a business degree, but I loathed my business classes and had chosen my major because I didn't know what else to do with my life (Terrible choice! If you don't know what to do with your life, AT LEAST do yourself a favor and choose a major in the humanities). I talked with a friend who'd graduated a couple years before me with a business degree and he was working in a cubicle. He tried to sell me on it (and he's since become very successful doing something business-y, I think), but it sounded TERRIBLE to me. I went to a career fair at Mizzou and I remember talking to the nicest person at the Edward Jones table who was telling me that I could be a financial advisor and I felt like I was circling the innermost circle of hell. Like all my instincts were screaming RUN, but I just kept smiling and nodding and clutching my resume in my sweaty hands.

I thought for a long time (probably about three weeks in undergraduate time) about what I wanted to do. My favorite classes were literature (Shakespeare) and political science. It was probably because they were the two best professors I had, but still. The classes were great. So, naturally, I decided I should either go to law school or graduate school for English literature. Both professors were really encouraging.

And I couldn't decide.

Instead of just choosing one, I studied for both the GRE, the subject GRE in English literature, and the LSAT. I made myself crazy. (And the guy I was sort-of-but-not-really-dating at the time didn't help). I took all three exams between October and December of my senior year of college, and I basically cut back on eating and sleeping in order to make that happen. Things I did not cut back on: partying and going to Wal-Mart in the middle of the night. Which begs the question: WHY do we let 21-year-olds make big decisions?

Also, 9/11 happened my senior year of college, and it completely altered my mindset about the future. I wanted to do something that mattered, but also something that I actually, genuinely cared about--not just something that was easy for me to get good grades in. It was like it had just occurred to me for the first time that my life could get cut short without warning, and I wanted to do make the most of it in the meantime. Also, I think I was scared of graduating and being a "real" adult. (Haha, if only I knew now that this is a concept that still eludes me at times--except when ordering salad at the deli counter, obviously.)

I actually scored better on the LSAT than I did on the GRE, which made me lean strongly toward going to law school (Look! I'm already good at this!) but my parents were not encouraging about the idea of me becoming a lawyer (seriously, like when I reflect on it, I'm kind of surprised at how discouraging they actually were... the phrase "sell your soul" literally came into the conversation), and I really had no idea what I would want to do with a law degree. Did I want to be a public defender? A prosecutor? A divorce attorney? How do I sign up to be Elle Woods? Could I be a law professor? Would I rather be an English professor? In the end, I got accepted to a few pretty good law programs and a couple of not too bad literature programs. I visited all of them, and I decided to do a PhD in literature because the financial aid package was better. (The potential return on investment was actually MUCH WORSE, but I was an idiotic 21-year-old, so such practicalities didn't really cross my mind.) Also I didn't really "decide" so much as defer law school for a year because that's how uncertain I was and I feared I would change my mind.

I'm not sure what made me stick with graduate school, honestly, because my first year was basically horrible. I didn't do that well. I felt like a total imposter. I was convinced that everyone else in my class was better prepared and smarter than I was. But maybe it was a case of the devil you know? Or a perverse determination to stay the course and prove to myself that I could do this even though it was the first time in my life that school didn't feel easy.

Anyway, I'm not exactly sorry that I made the choice I made. As I said, I mostly love my job and an academic lifestyle suits me in so many ways, and I'd rather read a novel than do pretty much anything else except hug my kids. I'm especially grateful for the flexibility and the autonomy of my job--those things are invaluable in my mind.

But, sometimes I think about what I'd do if I were to do it over and I had to do it differently. I like to imagine that I would have gone to law school and found my footing in criminal law (because civil law seems super boring to me). Then I would have gotten involved in the innocence project and gone to work for the Southern Poverty Law Center or something similar. I could write books about my work and then maybe teach law students.

Would I really want to do this?

Well, I think I'd be capable of doing it. Like, I could be good at it. And I think it's such important work, but I'm not sure I'm really best-suited for it. I imagine that such work requires really long hours, and reading boring stuff, and it probably also demands an enormous emotional investment, or an enormous amount of energy devoted to NOT getting emotionally invested.

I hate reading boring documents, and also the literal life-or-death stuff is undoubtedly way more stressful than the students who merely think their GPA is life-or-death, so I think that's something I'd really struggle with.

But still... my fascination with criminal law cases, with false convictions and unjust incarcerations, with the school to prison pipeline... sometimes I wish that I could do something more concrete with my concerns and my sense of injustice. (Besides talk about with literature students... we occasionally get off on a tangent.)

So... I'm curious. If you were to go back to school and drastically change careers, what would you do? Or how and why did you decide to do what you did? Can you imagine yourself doing something else?

23 comments:

  1. I had no idea you were a business major. Fascinating! It's hard to imagine you in a corporate environment. I went into college planning to major in either journalism or veterinary medicine. I loved writing and biology. Because I was at a Midwestern university, the introductory vet class involved a lot of time studying and working with farm animals (This included learning how to dock the tail of a lamb and artificially inseminating a pig. For reals!). I wanted to work with puppies, not pigs, so that put me off the vet thing. Plus, I ended up loooving my introductory journalism class.

    And the question of changing careers is on my mind daily, and I'm planning to do the master's in public health, though I'm still not entirely sure what I would do afterward. I think we all give ourselves a hard time for choices we made at 20, but it's not much easier to choose a career in my late 30s. I still want meaningful work more than a big paycheck, though I definitely give more thought to work/life balance than I did at 20.

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    1. I can't imagine myself in a corporate environment, either! Total Office Space.

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  2. I agree with your parents (and Shakespeare). ;)
    I became a CPA. But words are my first love, by far. Most of the time, I regret it, actually. But I did a cost-benefit analysis in college and that's how accounting came to be. (This kind of thinking also makes me a good accountant.) But... I tell my daughter everyday to find what she's passionate about (as long as it isn't law ;)) and do whatever that is, no matter what it takes. My (part-time, as little hours as possible) job is WORK. But for her, I want her to find a joy for which she can get paid and then she won't have to WORK.

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    1. I think about this, too... And like even when I say I love my job (and I do!!!) I don't actually LOVE it all the time every day. It's still work. Kind of like how parenting is work/exhausting/not always fun. I don't know what I could possibly do that would earn me money and not feel like WORK. But I hope our daughters find it!

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  3. Oh my goodness, I have been hard-core job searching lately. This is something I would love to reflect on in my blog but don't feel I can because I know some coworkers read it.... but I wonder all the time WTF I was thinking in undergrad at 19 and more importantly, in grad school at 24.

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  4. I want to find somewhere I work less and get paid more, which seems to be a challenge...

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  5. At the risk of sounding stalkerish, I am commenting on this post. I have been following your blog for quite some time after a friend of mine posted a link to something you had written that was helping her get through her own baby loss. I am fortunate enough to have never experienced this type of loss, but I believe reading about the loss of your Eliza and the "what not to say" tips you have written about has made me a better friend to those who have. For that, I thank you. Now on to the stalker in me. There are many times while reading some of the things you post that I think, "This woman should be my BFF!!" The subtle, snarky comments are amazing. Tonight I read this post and decided it was time to comment. During my undergrad years, I was a pre-law student, majoring in English and minoring in Political Science (See?!?! We're practically twins!! ... Seriously, though, I promise I'm not a stalker). However, after an internship in a law firm, I did not make it to the LSAT, deciding my senior year that a career in law was not for me, and I would just party out the remainder of my undergraduate studies. The only thing that made sense with an English degree was to go into teaching, so 2 years later and a master's degree in teaching and curriculum, I went back to high school and have been teaching English there ever since!

    Over the past 18 years, I have seen such a change in the clientele and have questioned my career choice on many occasions, and then I remember SUMMERS OFF!!! That small perk aside, I do love my job. I love most of the kids I work with daily. I love when they come back to me and say, "You were right about so many things. Thanks for preparing me for college." I love having conversations with teenagers and helping them talk through decisions about their futures. But the papers - I HATE grading the papers! And I get so frustrated at the kids who say, "This book was so stupid." [I mean, how can they not enjoy The Great Gatsby or A Raisin in the Sun or Hamlet?!?! - seriously]. And then when I do think it's time for a change, I really don't know what I would do. I can't think of another job I would want to do more than this one, so I'll more than likely just wait it out and see what retirement brings ...

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    1. Grading is the WORST, but you're totally right: the academic schedule is truly priceless! We should definitely be friends. I'm glad you found the blog (though so sorry for your friend's loss).

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  6. ahh, i've been debating a career change for a few years now -
    basically, since i lost my daughter. i'm currently a CPA and can't seem to make up my mind about whether to continue to do accounting or to do something totally different (something in alternative/complementary medicine). i have been thinking lately that 20 year old me had no idea what i was choosing career-wise. how crazy is it that we expect 20 year old kids to make that sort of decision, and then stick with it for the rest of their working lives? then some of us get 10, 15, 20 years down the road and think about "what if..." (maybe even more so if you've had some sort of event, like a loss, that makes you question everything - and reminds me that life cares nothing of your plans)

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    1. I have another friend who is a CPA and a BLM and has felt similarly that she doesn't feel really connected or committed to her job anymore, but isn't sure what she would do if she changed careers. I think it's also significant that my life before loss was all as a student--undergraduate and then years of graduate school (with teaching, but not full-time). I didn't start my first full-time job until 9 months after Eliza died, and it actually was a way for me to feel competent and significant in one small aspect of my life when everything else was out of control and smothered with grief. But I could easily imagine it feeling very different if I'd already been doing this for a while before my loss. It certainly makes sense to me that tragedy causes shifts on so many levels, and I totally feel you on the uncertain ground of planning for the future.

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  7. You already proved yourself more responsible than me with your business degree. After soul searching and giving up my med school dreams, I took my favorite classes freshman year and decided to major in Politics and minor in English. In my defense, liberal arts colleges don't offer degrees in anything you can turn into a career without more school. My nursing degree a few years later has given me the best work/life balance that financially works for us. I hope to explore other types of nursing eventually, but I can't imagine doing a totally different career. My Nicu coworkers pretty much all agree, we LOVE our jobs. And we'd rather not be there ha.

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    1. Actually, I think if you combine a liberal arts degree with knowledge of Excel, you can get virtually ANY entry-level job in any field! Employers want soft skills (communication, writing, eye contact) more than they want business degrees. And soft skills are rarer than business degrees these days (she lectures all the millennials in her classroom).

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    2. Also, I LOVE that you majored in politics! if you get tired of working in the NICU, you can run for office! I would vote you for anything.

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  8. I can't remember not wanting to be an architect. There are many things I like about this job, but also many things I don't love.

    I'd love more time to pursue the other fifty things I love to do in my free time, but it's hard to leave the steady paycheck and benefits. So I just don't sleep much!

    I would love to write more. I actually write quite a bit in my job, but I'd still love to write more. I'd like more time away from my desk and from the computer. I miss hand drafting.

    I loved teaching an architectural graphics class, but I also hated grading.

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  9. Honestly, I think I'd like to be a children's book author / illustrator. That would be my other dream job.

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    1. OMG can I be your co-author and we can just write children's book together? Everyday we will go to work at a local bakery or coffee shop. This is a brilliant plan.

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  10. Every aptitude test I took in junior high and high school pointed me toward a career in law. Having known a lot of people who did go to law school & become lawyers, I am eternally thankful I never went in that direction. From what I saw & heard from them, the hours are not conducive to a personal life, let alone family life, and it was nauseating just hearing about the amount of ass-kissing of higher-ups and clients that's involved if you want to make partner. :p

    All I ever really wanted to do when I grew up was be a writer. When I was younger, I thought of that in terms of writing books. As I got older, it occurred to me that the vast majority of people who wrote books didn't make much of a living at it, so I decided I would go into journalism. I did do a graduate degree in journalism, and I worked for a smalltown weekly newspaper before I got married, but then I wound up spent 28 years in corporate communications, just as corpcomms as a field started taking off. I started out working on the employee newsmagazine & then gradually branched out into other things -- annual reports, executive speeches and correspondence, applications for awards, special projects, etc. etc. I stayed there 28 years before I was shown the door. For the most part, I enjoyed it, especially the early years -- but the emphasis on good writing and human interest stuff started to get overshadowed in later years by jargon and strategy, which made things a whole lot less fun.

    I also toyed with the idea of working in politics -- behind the scenes, NOT as a candidate!! I did a double honours degree in English & Political Science, and I was a member of the campus wing of a Canadian political party at university. I went to a national political convention, which was both exhilirating and extremely disillusioning (I've never seen so many grey-haired old men with girls young enough to be their daughters, before or since). I did apply for a job in the research library at Queens Park in Toronto (the provincial version of your local State House) and I got a call asking if I was interested in a research job in the office of the Leader of the Opposition. I had JUST started my corporate comms job & I was liking it a lot, so I turned down the chance. As it happened, the opposition party lost the next provincial election about a year later, badly, and the leader stepped down, so I would probably have been out of a job very quickly. But that's politics for you...!

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    1. Writing for politics is definitely intriguing (I think this mostly from watching West Wing) but I'm definitely not cut out for anything in politics (or law) since I am the WORST at schmoozing.

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  11. Civil litigator here. Just wanted to say you would have made an excellent lawyer if you went that route, and you would have found something that works for you. The practice of law is not as dull or soul-deadening as some would have you believe. At least with what I do, sure I have to read lots of boring documents, but I also get to immerse myself in and learn about interesting and complex subjects constantly and use creativity to solve problems. I also do a lot of writing, although it often concerns mundane things like the claims of a patent. I get paid to think about really abstract and obscure topics, which I enjoy.

    I also managed to find a position where I'm not expected to become a law firm partner, so that pressure is removed and I am able to work sane hours (both in the office and remotely), and set my own schedule. To be fair, law firms are not known for worker-friendly conditions, but there are some nice perks and positions like mine (non partner track) are becoming more normal and accepted. I wouldn't discourage my kid from being a lawyer if they felt so moved.

    I'd also note that even though I work mostly for big companies, I do lots of pro bono work, including on the criminal side. And when I do take on a criminal or family law case, I am backed by lots of free law-firm resources. Of course, the system is seriously flawed, but at least I am able to help some people navigate it. And the brief-writing for those cases is significantly more exciting.

    LOL at our business degrees, though, for real! I did the cubicle thing for several years and made some great friends that way but I always felt a little out of place. Had I known at the outset that I'd reverse course and go to law school, I would have majored in philosophy and gone straight through!

    xo

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    1. Now I think maybe my dream job would be to go through law school and THEN be a consultant/writer on a legal drama like The Good Wife.

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    2. Civil litigator here in Europe in a large commercial law firm). Agree with everything Natalie said. If you ever want to go into law, contact me! I'd be happy to share my experience. S.

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  12. I love teaching. I do. But, why did I choose to teach the age everyone wants to teach? EVERYONE wants to teach elementary school. It also turns out that I'm not as cheery as the average elem teacher. I probably belong in the secondary classroom.

    I wish I would've become a speech/language pathologist or social worker. Jobs are abundant, you can create the relationships with students like I love, and you don't have to grade papers or deal a ton with parents.

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