Wednesday, February 01, 2017
When Did You Know What You Wanted to Be When You Grew Up?
Never, ever, discount the impact of seeing something in a student and telling them about it and the opportunities open at that time.
I'm now teaching applied electronics to bioengineering students, still in the biomolecular engineering department. I figure I'll change fields at least once more—probably after I retire, though.
When I was in college, I was doing pretty well in all of the advanced math courses I was taking, so the obvious choice was to continue on to grad school. PhD programs in math came with funding, so there wasn't much to lose to just continue with school.
Two years into my PhD program I realized that I did not like pure math research, but I enjoyed teaching very much. I was effective in helping students learn the material, and I liked having a job that consisted of a series of well-defined tasks, where I could see the fruits of my labor immediately. So I dropped out, got some adjuncting gigs, and then eventually became a full-time math instructor at a community college.
So I didn't really know EXACTLY what I wanted to be until I dropped out of grad school to pursue it, but I had a good idea fairly early on that I wanted my job to involve math. It just took grad school to realize that I wanted to teach it instead of actually doing it.
When I was in the 6th grade, I read a book about Schliemann's excavation of Troy and decided I wanted to be an archeologist. Then I found out how much hard physical labor THAT entailed.
In the 7th grade, I wanted to be the catcher for the NY Yankees. Turned out I could not hit, throw, or catch very well.
In the 9th grade, I decided I wanted to be a lawyer, having read a biography of Clarence Darrow. That remained my goal until...
In my second year of college, I took intro econ (from one of the best teachers I ever had, who also became a very close friend) and decided--a couple of years later, I wanted to be an economist. And, that was it. So I am.
When I was 10, I helped her with IPEDS.
When I was 16, I told her I wanted to be a registrar when I grew up.
I'm a solid 15 years into my career in academic advising, student services and enrollment management now. (Aside from the 7 years of education when I thought I'd be a marriage and family therapist.)
I took a geology course my first year in college because my mom was a geology major and I figured it would be interesting. It was interesting, and I loved the people, so I stayed. Turned out the research projects were fun too, so I got a PhD. Then I just got really lucky and somehow ended up as a professor doing both research and teaching. That certainly wasn't my plan until one day I realized I could do it, but I'm pretty glad to be where I am.
I'd been working toward being an archaeology professor, prompted by a childhood interest in Ancient Egypt. But it wasn't going well. I enjoyed research, but hated writing it up, and was horrible at academic politics.
When it became clear that I needed to rethink things, I asked myself, what do I do best? The answer: College quiz bowl competitions. I was great at quick recall of facts. OK then, how can I get paid to do that? Professional game show contestant isn't really an option. But then I realized what was: Reference librarian.
I finished the PhD out of pure cussedness, then took myself off to library school ASAP. It was the right decision.
So that was it for me: Asking what I do best, and then finagling a way to get paid to do it, or at least something close to it.
I got an offer to design video games. Great gig for a geek in their early 20s. I knew I wanted to do it. After a couple years of 60-hour weeks and terrible pay and corporate mergers, I moved on.
Spent a while not knowing or really worrying about what I really wanted to do. I eventually drifted into higher ed. Up close, I saw what professors/instructors did. I wanted to do that. Got a master's in history. Along the way I became disenchanted with teaching. But I'd seen our college's academic advising staff up close. That looked like a pretty satisfying gig. I wanted to do that. So I did, starting in my late 30s.
I think it's wrong to assume that people know what job/career they want to pursue. My philosophy of advising is to instead help them find subjects they're curious about; that will generally ignite enough sparks to forge a career.
But I had a plan! I got a minor in management and was going to work in personnel (before it became human resources.) And I would've gotten away with it, too, if it wasn't for the fact that other schools actually offered degrees in personnel/human resources whereas my alma mater did not.
My senior year I went to the career center and told the employees there what I really wanted to do was their jobs; a position working with applicants and companies to match-up hires. They told me they had all come out of counselor positions in secondary education, so I left there dejected with my head hanging down because I did NOT see myself pursuing that route.
While applying for jobs (early/mid '90s) I kept being drawn back to positions in higher ed. After a little research, I determined it was a) an industry that wasn't "going away" any time soon, b) always hiring in the non-faculty areas, c) due a massive amount of admin-level openings in the next decade because of "aging out," and d) typically required a Master's degree for advancement, if not to "open the door a little more" for initial entry.
So I started a Master's with an emphasis in Student Affairs in Higher Education and got a job the Monday after my Saturday graduation; I was unemployed with an MS for one day.
I've held a variety of positions (all at CC's) including academic advisor, counselor, testing director, and associate dean but haven't worked in a career center yet.
I looked at the rest of the books about dogs at the library, and decided I wanted to be an animal behavioral psychologist instead. I stuck with that until the summer after 8th grade, when I had a negative experience as a teen volunteer at the local zoo. (In retrospect, I should have reached out to the people at the zoo doing the work I was interested in. I had no interest in the animal handling and public interaction things the teen program did and would have been happy as a clam to sit and observe some animal for hours at a time taking data on how often they engaged in various behaviors to help the enrichment team.)
I spent high school waffling between wanting to be an animal behavioral psychologist, a geneticist, a computer programmer, or a journalist. I went to a science lecture series, and read a lot of popular science type books, but didn't have access to normal high school science and math courses because I went to alternative school. I did two different science projects that involved original research (going to the local historical archive to try to find photographs or other data on the historical plant life around a local stream, and writing a computer model to look at how genes with certain properties would spread in a population under certain constraints), but never took a chemistry or physics class because we didn't have a science lab. I also never took a normal math class after 6th grade, and math never made sense to me in terms of understanding what the subject was trying to do and why. I did an independent study on topics from discrete math that I liked, but otherwise didn't absorb much in from the rest of secondary school mathematics.
I graduated high school a year early when I realized that I only needed to take 6 credits my junior year to do so (because I kept doing independent studies on things I found interesting), and felt like I was too young to go far away for college. I ended up at a local SLAC that I picked because it was nearby and my mother had gone there, and when they sent me the forms to declare a major, I picked Mathematics and Computer Science because I liked computers and they didn't have a Journalism major.
When I got to the college version of discrete math I learned about proofs. This was the first thing in math that ever really made sense and was interesting to me, and filled in a lot of the gaps in my math education since now I had a tool to hang on to as I learned about other parts of math. I learned all of the algebra I was supposed to have learned a lot time ago (and somehow passed calculus without) by taking abstract algebra and then figuring out the rest of it from there. That was probably the most useful class I ever took, because it changed my entire understanding of a field of mathematics from "a bunch of arbitrary stuff that I will always forget and end up guessing about on tests" to something that made sense and followed logically from a few axioms.
I also ended up majoring in communication because it was interesting. I like giving speeches and criticizing popular culture, and it turns out that you can major in that.
I went to grad school in Human Computer Interaction, because what else does one do with a background in both CS and communication? After the first quarter, I decided the answer to that was "anything else at all" and went to work at a bank.
The next year, I went to school to become a math teacher.
I've been teaching for about a decade now. I think I'm pretty good at it, but it never would have occurred to me to pursue that as a career when I was a teenager since it was the one subject I had trouble with in school.
At that point I was pretty convinced that I would go to grad school in history of science and become a professor. It took some work to persuade my father that there was a career in that, but the Bowen report had just been released, so the data seemed to suggest that there would be a big demand for humanities profs right about the time that I would get my Ph.D. Ha! But a six-month stint working in the library convinced me that grad school was the right track. I finished my Ph.D. in 1997 in the field (though not studying the specific subject I had started out with), and a Lucky Jim, in that I got a job my first year on the market.
Twenty years later, and a semester into my first major administrative position (department chair), I think that my initial goal from late in my sophomore year is still my goal: to be a scholar and teacher, not an administrator. I'll do my best, but I'm not going to aim to move into the higher realm of administration. At least that's how it seems now!
So off I went to a PhD program, with little idea of what that would entail, other than "I've always liked school and done well, so how hard can this be?" Never realized until I got there how much I would hate, hate, hate research. Eventually dropped out with a master's, got a job that was in my field but had no advancement potential. Applied for a CC teaching job out of desperation, because my other job was coming to an end. I'd done some HS-level teaching, and TA'd in grad school, but that was it. Was thrilled to get the job (frankly due in no small part to dumb luck--another candidate dropped out, leaving a hole in their interview schedule, and I lived down the road). I went into it thinking, "Well, it's a job, and I'll see if I really like this college teaching thing." By the end of my first semester, I knew I'd found my home.
(Seriously, I sometimes think I'm the anti-poster child for career planning. I use myself as a cautionary tale when talking to my students.)
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