“Career Path” Is Misleading, I Prefer “Career Serendipity”

One of the questions I often get asked is how did I end up on this particular career path.  My answer always seems to surprise people, though I can never tell if it’s because they didn’t expect its starting point or they are impressed with the sheer luck (or lack thereof, depending on how you look at it) that went into the evolution of my choices.

When I first started college, I was convinced I was going to be a teacher.  I always enjoyed tutoring people.  When I was a kid, I would play “school” instead of “house” and had my own grade book, supply of red pencils (because my mom didn’t dare give me pens), and gold stars.

Later on I narrowed it down and decided I wanted to be a music teacher.  That was the focus of my high school days, and I was dead set on that as my path in life.  I was in the advanced band as a flute player as well as in the second band as a saxophonist, and was the drum major of the marching band for 2 of my 3 years in it (which also fed into my love for teaching).  I lived and breathed music.  The band room was home, my fellow musicians my family.  I had very, very few friends outside of the musical group, but considering that spanned something like 200 students I wasn’t exactly lonely.

I chose my college based on a combination of its reputation as a great music school as well as a great education school, and some other factors because I was a silly teenage girl that I won’t get into.  If I had known then that I would end up a scientist, I would have gone somewhere else, and I probably would have gone on to live my life just fine and probably with a better degree.  But then I would have missed out on some great friends, some great experiences, and most importantly my husband.  Just goes to show you that sometimes, like I said last week, the universe really does know what it’s doing.

Yo, I got your back.

It turns out its hard to pursue a degree in music education if you can’t get into the music school of the college you’ve chosen.  Maybe I just wasn’t ever that good, maybe I just don’t audition well, but whatever it was I didn’t make the cut.  Still, the school I had chosen had one of the top ranked education programs in the country (at the time anyway), so rather than try to get in somewhere else I decided to go ahead and start there and begin my education courses with the idea that I’d re-audition for the music school the next year.

To take those classes you had to have education declared as your program, which meant choosing a major and minor.  Just to fill in the spaces, I wrote in chemistry as the major and physics as the minor, just because those were subjects I was good at.  The class schedule I was handed mostly had education classes and general education classes in it, but since I had declared chemistry as my education major they had thrown Chem II on there as well (I had taken AP chemistry just because all of my friends were taking AP classes senior year, and I did well enough on the AP test that I received credit for Chem I).

I loved Chem II.  Loved it.  Because I’m weird like that.  I aced it without trying.  I tutored some of my classmates who were juniors and seniors.  Taking that class sparked a rediscovering of my love for science that had long gone dormant.  I won science fairs in middle school with chemistry experiments (I didn’t know at the time they were chemistry…I just thought they were cool, does it still count?), I was kicking butt and taking names in chemistry and physics in high school.  I was a scientist, and I never knew it.

When the spring rolled around, I skipped re-applying to the music school and decided to stick with chemistry as my major and physics as my minor in the secondary education program.  That’s the program I followed all the way through the end of my 3rd year.  At that point, I managed to score an internship with the Department of Energy that was aimed at pre-service teachers.  I was assigned to a DOE lab (Fermi, if you couldn’t guess), and the idea was you’d spend half your summer doing a research project and the other half working with a “master teacher” on how to bring real experiences like this one into the classroom to keep things interesting for students.

To keep that story short, I learned 2 very valuable lessons that summer:

  1. I love actually doing science.
  2. I do not have the patience to put up with the bureaucracy that is dealing with administration.  I love teaching, but apparently not being a teacher.  “Shut up and play nice” isn’t exactly my style.

Yes, those are Nobel prizes. These are John Bardeen’s prizes in physics from 1956 and 1972; he is still the only person to have won the physics prize twice. A relative of his was at Fermi and brought them in for all of us interns to see. Those suckers are HEAVY.

This means that at the start of my 4th year, I changed programs.  I dropped the secondary education program, moved chemistry up to a full major (since when you’re doing education you don’t take all of the classes you would for a straight major, and I was almost done anywho), and moved physics up from the education minor to a full major (since I had spent my summer doing a physics research project).  Despite that change, I worked it out so I only added one semester to my original plan.  Granted that meant taking a ridiculous class load, but I was convinced I could do it.

And do it I did.  I graduated with honors in 5 years with 2 bachelor degrees (and a minor in math, just for kicks).  That last semester I was convinced my future was in physics (I had gone back for a second summer at Fermi too!), so I applied to graduate schools and took the general and physics GREs.  Alas, like the music school idea, it was not meant to be.  I pretty much bombed the physics GRE, and as a result did not get into any of the multiple schools I applied for.  I was devastated (ask Geoff…it wasn’t pretty).

Since I had been planning on going to grad school, I didn’t have a job lined up, and was a little panicked as the semester wound down.  Fermi came to my rescue, and I was asked if I wanted to work in the Chem lab while I figured out what my next step was.  There was only one chemist here, and she could use some help they said.  Since I had a chemistry degree, they thought I could be of assistance, and I liked the idea of getting experience that side of my education.  At that point I had figured out that I was just plain better at it than I was physics, and that maybe this would be the experience that would show me what my path should be.

If still being at Fermi over 2 years later doesn’t give it away, it became very clear to me that chemistry really was where my future was.  I was good at it.  I enjoyed it.  I didn’t always understand it, but I never met a challenge that made me doubt that this was the place for me.  There was a period of time where I considered grad school for chemistry, and was even accepted into MSU’s chemical engineering program with a pretty good offer, but I came to the realization that I was pushing grad school because I thought that’s what I was suppose to do.  I didn’t actually want to do it, so I turned it down.

I don’t always know what I’m doing, but I easily recognize when I’m in over my head and know who to go to for guidance.  My work so far has been made up of questions that didn’t necessarily have answers, and I’ve been able to work my way through them all while still saying I love my job.  For the time being, it is obvious that this is what I am suppose to be doing.  I am suppose to be a chemist.

But considering my “path” has been more of a mismash of happenstance, I have no reason to assume that this is where I will always be.  Of course right now I am convinced that this will be where I stay, but I would have said that at any of the turns through my journey.  This is my place for the forseeable future, but I suppose only time will tell what lays beyond that.

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Posted on September 12, 2012, in Growing Up, Life, Work and tagged , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 2 Comments.

  1. Its crazy how life takes to these unexpected places that just fit and are sooo right. I feel like I went through the similar obstacles and I’m sooo thankful for it. I’m so happy for you and that you found where you “belong” (you’d fit in pretty much anywhere) I hope to someday find that belonging feeling you have. Good luck in Michigan and you’ll be missed!! xoxo

  2. I was totally a band nerd in high school. That is where all of my friends were too. I played the trombone (but I started on the flute)! Actually, I also got rejected from the music school at my undergrad… Though just for a scholarship and the upper level band; I was planning on majoring in biology. I loved my Chem II class too (pretty much made me switch to a chem major from a bio major – though I minored in bio and math). I was thinking about becoming a teacher too but I just hated grading with an equal but opposite passion as I had for teaching. I see this is why we’re blog friends… 🙂

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