Today, my department at work is taking me out for a lunch celebrating my 15 year anniversary at the company. My plan and goal (knock on wood) is to be here to celebrate my 20 year anniversary and ideally to retire at some point shortly thereafter. I don’t know whether my career path is at all typical of my generation, but it’s certainly different from that of my parents’ generation and feels different from how my younger friends talk about career expectations. So I thought it might be amusing to set out exactly what my work history has been (with all the serial numbers carefully filed off).
When I graduated college with a BS in a life science, my initial thought was to find a job in the same town where the university was located. Something doing research, perhaps. The why is lost to time, but probably it was just a matter of not having a clear idea what to do next and that was one way to narrow the possibilities down to a manageable level. But I was a practical sort, so the first goal was to get a job, any job, to enable me to continue my career search. That’s how I ended up working in fast food. For a month. Not that the job drove me away, but by the end of that month, one of my housemates had recommended me for a position at his workplace, which had the advantage of being 40 hours a week and better pay. And that’s how I ended up working in mobile home construction. I believe that was for six months. I was continuing my more science-oriented job search through it all, but people with life science skills looking for entry level positions are a glut on the market in a university town. So when an opportunity offered itself for a “wanderjahr” in the UK, I decided it was a good opportunity—one I might never have again.
That opportunity involved room and board in exchange for…well, what it was supposed to be in exchange for was not quite what the expectations turned out to be. (Nothing horrible, but lots of emotional labor in addition to the economic productivity.) I’d originally gone thinking I might be there for a year. I stuck it out for two months, after which I still had enough money to do a further month of sightseeing before heading back home. (The job there did not include pay, so this was money saved up from the construction job.)
Heading literally “home” since I defaulted back to my parents’ house at that point. The life sciences job search began anew, but once I’d gotten a sense of the job market, I decided that the best pickings were going to be in the SF Bay Area. Fortunately I had relatives I could stay with there. I think it was about half a year’s searching to find a job. I’ve never been substantially jobless since then. That job was with a small private clinical lab (doing medical testing for doctors unaffiliated with hospitals). Mostly I did “chief cook and bottle washer” work, washing glassware, preparing media in petri dishes, running the blood chemistry analyzer. I also learned phlebotomy (taking blood samples) and did some of the morning rounds of the care homes that we serviced. I have stories. After a couple years there, I realized that the only step up in that organization was to get certified as a medical technician and perform the more complicated analytic work. And that wasn’t quite what I was looking for. So back to job hunting, though not with any urgency.
The first interview I went to, I was offered the position at the end of the interview. I rushed back to give my boss notice (he was about to go on vacation), found a new place to live, and moved, all in the space of two weeks. That job was at a university-affiliated lab where I mostly worked with lab animals. The job lasted a couple years until the lab was defunded, but a former boss had a lead on a position with her new employer (a start-up biotech company) and I barely had to interview before I was hired. This is something of a continuing motif. I seem to be good at making an impression on the people who hire me.
The biotech company gave me opportunities to learn a lot of new lab skills and my second boss there was delighted to have me tackle database projects, SOP writing, and assorted other skill-accumulation opportunities. I enjoyed the work, impressed the management, and even got a company award. I might have been happy to stay there for quite a while, but two things intervened. One was that I’d been thinking more and more about tackling the intellectual challenge of graduate school—not in the life sciences (which is where I would have been steered if I’d done it right out of college), but in linguistics, as an outgrowth of my historic interests. So I’d investigated the possibilities at a local university and was taking some classes through extension to beef up my application. The second thing? I’d been at the biotech company for 7 years when my employer hit a snag in getting their product approved, resulting a quarter of the company getting laid off. I was laid off and laughed all the way through my exit interview because I was getting 6 months’ severance instead of worrying about when to give notice. I had some mild anxiety during the few months between being laid off and getting my grad school acceptance, but in the mean time, personal connections had landed me a job at a small fiction magazine that would be the perfect half-time job to go along with my academics.
The magazine job filled the next three years until I felt my professional development called for switching to student instructor jobs. Those carried me through the remaining (painful, many) years of grad school until I’d maxed out my eligibility for teaching positions, which meant it was time to hand in my dissertation and return to the Real World. I’d entered grad school thinking in terms of an academic career, but during the (*cough* eleven *cough*) years I was in school, the academic job market had shifted from promising to abysmal and I recalibrated my expectations. I was in my 40s, I was part owner of a house, I owned a lot of stuff™ that I didn’t want to be moving every year until I’d racked up enough short-term positions to maybe earn a tenure-track job somewhere. I said goodbye to the dream of academia and for the first time in 20 years found myself seriously worrying about being unemployed.
On the other hand, I had a lot of possible directions to go. I had experience in biotech, in teaching, in publishing, in writing…and after only a couple months of searching, I landed the perfect intersection of those skills: technical writing and editing for the documentation department of a pharmaceutical company. It was a temp job for a crunch project and the contract was up after I’d been there for five months. I liked the location. I liked the work environment. So I asked my agency rep to see if he could find me something else. Evidently my manager told people I walked on water, because I got a call from another manager saying, “I don’t really have time to do interviews, so can you just start next month?” I didn’t worry about asking what the job entailed; I said yes. And that’s how I landed a job that was even more perfect for my skillset and one I never even knew existed. (Discrepancy investigation.) The job turned permanent after four months and that’s what I’ve been doing ever since (with several promotions). There have been a couple times when I've looked into lateral moves in the company, but when it comes down to it, I love what I'm doing and I'm damned good at it.
It’s not as continuous a career path as a previous generation would have expected. It wasn’t until my present job that I had anything resembling a decent retirement plan. And 15 years is more than twice as long as I've been at any other single job. But it’s a more solid path than many of my contemporaries have enjoyed. And having a retirement plan at all is more than most people expect these days. (Retirement planning is on my mind a lot these days.) Those are just the salaried jobs. There’s also been the writing: not high paying, but fairly regular and varied. The thread through it all is broad-based technical knowledge and language skills. Sometimes the emphasis has been on one, sometimes on the other. Being able to combine them ended up being the secret to my success.
It occurs to me, in this month of graduations and students wondering what they'll do with their lives: none of the major turns of my career path are anything I would have (or even could have) predicted that day I stood at the end of a very long line of black-robed graduates to receive my diploma. (They graduated my whole division in a lump, grouped alphabetically by major. My major was Zoology.) You don't need to know what all the branches of your path will be. The important thing is to start walking and be ready for whatever comes your way.