So BlogHer went and featured me on their career page today! As I think that is all kinds of awesome, I thought I'd celebrate by writing a career-focused post I've had in mind for a while.

My educational trajectory and my career trajectory do not, to a lot of people, make any sense. One did not lead to the other in any clear way. They are not parallel. Things have progressed holistically, looking at my resume and can leave some folks scratching their heads, trying to figure out how I got to where I am right now. To me, of course, it makes perfect sense--I lived it, and each small step made did come from the last. From talking to other people my age, I don't think this is all that unusual--both our educational and our work cultures have changed drastically, and the leaps we make from one position, or even one field, to the next, which may seem foreign to people only a generation over, have become both normal and necessary.

As an illustration of how this really happens, and because I've had a few people ask me of late how it is that I came to do what I do (and what it is I actually do), I thought maybe a journey through my resume would be interesting.

1994-1997: High school jobs

I started working "on the books" as soon as I was old enough to obtain a work permit. This isn't all that unusual where I am from, though I did, as time went on, work more hours during the school year than a lot of kids did (though fewer than some). During this time, I had two jobs, both in restaurants. I started out, in both cases, washing dishes and doing prep work and then became a waitress. I was never a great waitress, but I think I became a pretty decent one. Waiting tables remains, to this day, the most physically and sometimes intellectually challenging job I've ever had. Seriously. Respect your wait staff, people. These jobs are no longer featured on my resume, since they hold little, if any, interest to the people who are hiring me these days.

1997-2001: College

I went to a private, academically-rigorous, expensive liberal arts college, where I obtained a degree in the "soft" and "non career-focused" area of American history. And yes, I took out loans to do it, with no clear post-college plan. I pretty much did what nobody wants their kid to do anymore, but at least it was on a fairly small scale (the loans, though they seemed huge at the time, are not that substantial and have never posed a serious problem). Ten years post-graduation, I can honestly say I wouldn't do it any differently if I could go back knowing what I know now. The education I received was absolutely top tier, and how much or little that has to do with my being able to get jobs, I am very sure it has a ton to do with my being able to perform in them.

As a lifeguard, summer 1998
Me as a lifeguard, summer 1998

I worked all the way through college, part-time in during the school year and full-time in the summer. My first year, I had work study funding for a position making copies and entering data in the Residence Life office. My first post-college summer, I moved home and got a job working the desk and cleaning the locker rooms at a community pool. It was a hard gig in some ways--I had to get up before 5am--but it also opened up a new path for me, lifeguarding. I took my lifeguard certification courses that summer and moved into lifeguarding, which followed me through my next two school years as the easiest and best-paying on-campus job I could hope for. I have a vivid memory of listening to the whole Clinton impeachment trial on the radio while watching assistant professors swim laps.

The summer after my second year in college, I got my first "career focused" summer job, as an intern at the county district attorney's office. Before I took that job, I thought I might want to go to law school after undergrad (which was hardly an unusual thing for late-90s history majors). I spent the summer working on some independent research projects (I remember creating a "History of the DA's Office" promotional pamphlet and writing a report on the community court system) and assisting misdemeanor ADAs in pre-trial prep (usually entailing calling witnesses and reminding them of the trial date and time). That summer made it very clear to me that I had no desire to go into law, which was extremely valuable information to have. It was also my first taste of working in a professional environment, where people wore suits and had meetings and carried briefcases, which may seem like a small thing, but if you've never been around it before, it's really not.

My third post-college summer, I took an on-campus job, coordinating the summer rentals of campus facilities for conferences, summer camps, etc. It was a job of convenience, more or less, taken to save me from having to find something else, but it gave me a chance to act as de-facto manager to two junior student workers, which I hated. It was the first and last time I've ever been in any sort of management position, and it has taken me more than ten years to even think I'd want to try that again.

So that's the work history I graduated with. Not exactly a clear career path, right?

Summer 2001: I am a not a teacher

The job market in the summer of 2001 was not great. Despite applying to anything I thought I might remotely qualify for, it took me what seemed like forever (but was, in reality, only about 10 weeks) to find full-time work. In the meantime, I worked as an adjunct instructor at a for-profit college. I taught twice weekly night classes in business English/writing, and put in what has to have been my worst job performance of all time. I was not cut out to teach, and I was not mature enough at 21 to teach students decades older than me. But it crossed another career possibility off my list--I was definitely never going to be a teacher.

Me showing off the tomatoes, summer 02
Dressed for work at the art museum, summer 2002

2001-2002: Arty

When I did find a full-time job, it was one I'd applied to on a "this isn't going to pan out, but I have to try" whim. The position was as an assistant in the education department of a large art museum. My major duties included scheduling student tours of the exhibitions, helping manage the docent program, and providing general back-up to the other education staff members. As time went on and I proved myself competent, I also got to do a little bit of research and creation of educational materials and assist with the teen program. This job was the first one I had that required a college degree. It didn't matter what that college degree was in, though, and I am fairly certain I beat out candidates with art and art history degrees to get the job, though I am not totally sure why.

Though the art museum job was, in some ways, a lot of fun--I loved my coworkers and learned a ton on the job, not about the position itself, but about art and how museums are run, I left it after about a year. The major reason was financial--it only paid $10.25/hr, which was difficult to live on--and there was no real possibility of promotion or any big pay increase without a graduate degree. I toyed with the idea of an art history graduate program, but eventually decided it wasn't what I wanted to do.

Generally, my current professional resume begins with this position.

2002-2003: Admin

The job I got before I left the art museum position was the first, and only, full-time straight-up admin assistant job I've had. It was in another educational program, this one a residency training program at a medical school/hospital. I took the job for the money--if I remember correctly I started at the then-princely sum of $30,000/year--I knew it wasn't going to be all that exciting (and it wasn't). Once again, it was a position that required a degree, but they didn't care what the degree was in. However, during my interview, the director of the program looked my still-sparse resume and landed on where I'd gone to school. I remember clearly how his eyes lit up, and him saying, "You must be smart, you graduated from Reed." I am fairly sure Reed got me that job, even though a connection between an American history degree and an administrative position in medical education is one I can't make.

Once again, after I proved myself able to perform the basic tasks of the position for which I'd be hired (lots of database stuff and some web-site maintenance), I was allowed to move slowly into more interesting independent projects. In this case, I assisted a professor who was working on a breast health education campaign, and another who was doing research linking behavioral health changes to physical health improvements. After a while, a third professor learned about my research skills and enlisted me in helping her examine narcotic prescribing practices in her clinic. The thing I think is important here, and the thing that ties my seemingly useless undergrad education to my career progress, is being both willing and qualified to take on independent research projects, even in areas about which I previously knew very little. Over and over again, this has proved to be one of the most useful tools in my skill set.

2003-2004: Bad grad school decision and the non-profit letdown

When I left the admin position, it was to go to graduate school. After thinking a lot about what I could do next to get into something that I found interesting that would also make me marketable at a higher level than I was, I decided to get a masters degree in public affairs. The future I envisioned was in non-profit management or possibly consulting. In retrospect, it was a decision probably made for the wrong reasons--I was terrified of a life in administrative service, which I really didn't want. I had also spent my previous two jobs working for people with advanced degrees, most of whom had made it clear that without obtaining one of those shiny advanced degrees myself, I wasn't going to get to where they were. So, graduate school it was.

The same week I started graduate school, I got a job at a small non-profit advocacy organization. This job was contingent upon not only my having an undergrad degree, but also my being enrolled in a master's program. The job was good, in the sense that it allowed for my primary responsibility to be doing things that I'd always had to fit in before (i.e. research and writing), but bad in that it paid very little and the organization was really badly managed.

By the time I was a year in both grad school and non-profit work, I wanted out. I didn't like either one. Both felt futile and hopeless and fake and I was tired of being broke and of feeling like I was making terrible decisions. As luck would have it, everything was about to change.

2004-2006: Becoming a tech writer

Towards the end of my first year of grad school, a good friend of mine was readying to leave her job as a technical writer to adopt a child. Knowing I was unhappy with what I was doing, she offered to recommend me for her job. Though I had no previous tech writing experience, I had a decent mind for tech stuff and a lot of other writing experience. She thought I could do the job she was leaving easily. It also paid extremely well, at least in comparison to anything else I'd done. As in, twice as much. And it was flexible. I went down to part-time school and took it.

This was really where things changed for me. Technical writing wasn't something I'd previously considered, or even really known much about it. Neither had I ever considered being a contractor, rather than a permanent employee, which was the case for this position. But it worked out well--I found I could do the work easily, though there was some learning curve, and I really enjoyed making so much money. For the first time in any position I'd held, I felt like I was being treated as a competent professional. Even if the work didn't move me on any level,

I'm not sure if this position required a degree or not. I suspect that if I'd been applying without a personal connection, it would have. However, if I'd been applying that way, my complete lack of tech writing experience would probably have sent my application to the trash anyway.

2006-2008: Becoming a grant writer

While I was working as a tech writer, and finishing my graduate degree, I started doing some minor freelance side work on grant applications. This started out as kind of a fluke--someone I know needed an editor and knew I was a good writer. I also took a couple of short course/workshops on the grant process at my grad school. I had also been involved, in an editing and writing-suggestion capacity, in grants Mark had helped his boss submit during his pre-doctoral technician time. I was surprised at how much I enjoyed the grant process, and thought it might be a better direction to take my career in, since I had given up on non-profit management and wasn't sure how far I could take tech writing without actually becoming a programmer, something I had no interest in. I also wanted to finish my grad degree, since it was only a couple of classes and a master's thesis short, but my scholarship had run out, leaving me needing to pay for the remainder of my classes myself. The solution I found, and I think it was a good one, was to find a job at the university, so I could take advantage of their employee tuition reimbursement program. The job I found? Grants and contracts specialist for a newly formed science center.

I got this job on the strength of my freelance grant writing experience, which was still pretty thin, technical writing experience, and nearly completed graduate degree. It was another position that required any undergrad degree, but I know I competed against people who had more relevant educational backgrounds. Once again, Reed came into play--the director of the center was familiar with it and thought highly of it, and of me for having graduated from there. More even than that, though, I suspect I got this job because I could speak with intelligence and interest about the work the center was doing. That I have to attribute completely to Mark, who is in a related field.

Though this job turned out to be more frustrating than not, taking it was a really good career move. It positioned me to get a lot more freelance grant writing work, and to gain really important insight into the financial aspects of granting, particularly on a federal level. I learned a ton in the two years I was in this job and it's one that gets highlighted on my resume. It also allowed me to finish my master's degree for free.

2009-2010: Back to tech writing

I returned to technical writing in 2009, working with the same people I had in my first tech writing job, though on another project. I made this transition for financial reasons, in part, but also because I knew the job could likely come with me when we moved, allowing me to telecommute for my first year or so in Virginia and not have to worry about finding a job here right away. The project on which I was hired to work was basically created for me--the customer only wanted to do it if they could get me back, which gives me a good feeling about the work I did for them in my first tech writing stint. The move was a start one--it worked out just as it was supposed to and allowed me a much easier first year in Virginia than I would have otherwise had. It also bolstered my tech writing experience enough so that I felt comfortable applying for straight tech writing jobs when it ended.

I never stopped writing freelance grants, though, and have in fact done more and more of that as time as gone on. I feel like having both of these lines of work on my resume gives me a much greater flexibility when looking for work, and I think it's smart to keep my finger in both for the time being.

Suit 3: Banana Republic
Interview suit, 2010

2010-present: A new tech position

As my tech writing telecommuting gig wound down, I began to look for a job here in Virginia, which I've written about on this site as it has unfolded. I started looking for both grant and tech writing jobs, and the first position I was offered, which I ended up declining because it was too far to commute, was a grant management position. As it turns out, though, tech writing jobs are a lot easier to come by within reasonable commuting distance of my house than are grant writing positions--those tend to be more focused in the city, and they are also a lot more competitive. Though I have a pretty decent grant writing resume built up for most of the country, by DC standards it's not much. So, the position I ended up in, and am in now, is a tech writing job.

Right now, however, I am actually working three jobs. I have my 40 hour/week tech writing gig, which is as a contract employee, through a medium sized tech contracting company, to a very large national company. Then I have my freelance grant writing, which ebbs and flows. To give you a size of that scale, I wrote 12 grants last year. Finally, I still have some freelance contract work with the tech writing job I telecommuted on, as they found another, small project for me when the full-time project ended. All of these things are good to keep on with, in terms of resume building and deepening my skill set to make myself more employable whenever it's next needed.

This turned into a long post, but I hope you found something useful in my story. The biggest point I am trying to illustrate, I guess, is that jobs that don't necessarily seem to have much in common may in fact share a lot of the same necessary skills. I'm also coming out strongly on the side of taking your undergrad education seriously, even if it's not in a discipline that leads to employment in a straight line--as you can see, mine has proved to be very valuable. The other thing is that it's possible, and may in some ways even be ideal, to move between fields, especially early in your career. You don't have to be stuck.

I honestly don't know where I am going next. I'd like to go back to school someday and do something totally different. I'd also like to have a go at my own freelance business, doing grant and maybe even tech writing projects under my own shingle full-time. Neither of these is a financial stable proposition, though, and right now financial stability is the most important thing for me. In the future, when that changes, I can easily see myself going in yet another new direction.

6 Comments

Very insightful, and inspiring, post!!! I, too, hope to go back to school one day, for something other than boring finance/accounting/business...

WONDERFUL post. I am very similar to you - not a straight liner, and I'd never do my excellent undergraduate education in liberal arts differently again. It gave me capacity for beauty and joy and to taste some passion and excitement that I had little of for many years after (I made that bad decision to go to law school because that's what smart people "should" do). I have very strong feelings about education and work - I think it is tragic to urge kids to be "practical" at all times, because you do have to live a life and have a soul to do it well, and for God's sake - how are you going to live with a soul if you were an accounting major who went directly into accounting and never did anything else? HORRORS. My current goal - a nice 9 to 5 job. No more law firms, ever.

I enjoyed seeing where you've been and where you are headed in this post. Thanks for sharing!

I really enjoyed this post. I also found it really inspiring. I also have a liberal arts degree and am trying to decide what to do with it (after an unintended detour into SAHMing) and your trajectory is really inspiring.

Sarah

Wow! What a journey! I hope my job experience settles down into a career like that.

Great post! I always appreciate your insightful takes on career issues!

Leave a comment


April 2012

Sun Mon Tue Wed Thu Fri Sat
1 2 3 4 5 6 7
8 9 10 11 12 13 14
15 16 17 18 19 20 21
22 23 24 25 26 27 28
29 30          

Follow Me on Pinterest

Archives