Have you ever felt like you were in a career crisis? Did you have a civil war inside your brain debating whether or not you’re in the right job? Susan, an attorney-turned-teacher, was there. It takes a lot to invest years of study, preparation, and tuition into one career and then switch to another. She kindly gave Nourishment Notes an exclusive interview to share some insights she gained from her experience.
I was only an attorney for a matter of months, but I didn’t come to my decision to quit hastily. In law school, the vast majority of students get summer internships or clerkships with judges or DA’s offices or work for law firms as summer associates during the summer breaks, and I was no exception. I clerked at a DA’s office the summer after my first year, and as a summer associate at a San Diego law firm the summer after my second year. Much to my surprise, I found both of those jobs incredibly boring and hated the work I was doing. I hadn’t realized until I had those experiences how much of the job was spent researching and writing. After each summer experience, though, I held out a glimmer of hope that it was simply the type of law that I had worked in that didn’t interest me, and that "things would be different" if I just tried a different area of law. Once I started working at the firm I joined after I graduated, though, I realized that research and writing comprised the biggest part of the job regardless of one’s practice area. Since I never enjoyed research or writing and merely viewed them as a necessary evil that were a means to an end (which I thought would be tons of courtroom time), I came to the conclusion that I was probably in the wrong profession.
2. Of all the professions in the world, why did you want to become a teacher?
To be perfectly honest, teaching wasn’t my first choice. Once I made the decision to leave the practice of law, I immediately knew the field I wanted to pursue – psychology, which had been my minor in college and was a subject I found fascinating. I began researching Ph.D. programs and discovered that I would need 4-7 more years of schooling to earn my degree. The thought of going back to school for 4-7 more years was completely overwhelming, though, since I had just spent the past 7 years getting my bachelor’s degree and law degree and another 3 months studying for the bar exam. I was totally burned out on school at that point, and simply couldn’t face another long stint as a student. Since psychology was out of the question, then, I started trying to think about past experiences I’d had that I’d enjoyed, and I remembered that I loved being a teaching assistant in law school. I was a TA for Moot Court and Appellate Advocacy classes, and I had found that even though I hated doing my own research and writing, I enjoyed helping others with theirs, and I also liked helping students develop their oral advocacy skills and serving as a mentor/sounding board for them. It was then that the idea that I might want to be a teacher came to me.
3. What inspired you to take a leap of faith and switch careers from attorney to teacher?
I am kind of embarrassed to admit that both pop culture and privileged personal circumstances are what "inspired me to take the leap of faith" and quit my job. In the summer of 1997 (the year I became an attorney), Princess Diana died in a car crash at age 36, at the height of her beauty and seemingly on the cusp of happiness after her divorce from Prince Charles. I had watched her wedding live as a 10 year old girl, and had always loved and admired her for her compassion for the sick and downtrodden, and for her willingness to both figuratively and literally embrace people (such as AIDS patients) who seemed to have been deemed "untouchable" by many people in society. When she was killed, I was of course devastated for her family (especially her sons), but also profoundly troubled by the fact that Diana seemed to have just come into her own and was finally building a life that made her happy, and in an instant it was taken away. I also saw that having a lot of money doesn’t solve all of your problems or make your life perfect. In a nutshell, Princess Diana’s death made me realize how precious, fleeting, and unpredictable life is, and that you shouldn’t waste it being miserable, because you never know when your last day on earth will be. I knew that, for me, the only correct decision was to leave a job that I detested (even though it made me very comfortable financially) and to go out and find one that would make me feel happy, fulfilled, and excited to come to work. I must admit, however, that the decision to quit before I had a solid career plan or a new job lined up was made a thousand times easier because my husband’s job paid enough money for us to be able to get by (albeit with a Spartan lifestyle) on his salary alone. I fully appreciate that most people aren’t so lucky, and I remain grateful to this day that my husband not only had a steady, decent-paying job that enabled me to make the change, but also that he was willing to make the lifestyle adjustment necessary for my career change to be financially feasible.
4. What would you say helped you make the career transition?
I got really lucky with making the transition, not only because I didn’t have to worry too much about the financial aspect of it, but also because my 7 year old niece presented me with a golden opportunity. She was in the first grade at the time, and her classroom desperately needed adult volunteers to come in and read with the kids. I thought that volunteering would be a great way to get to spend more time with her, and to see if the instinct that I had that I’d rather teach children instead of adult learners was a correct one. It turned out that I loved working with little kids, and especially enjoyed sharing my love of reading with them. I volunteered for a couple of months and, through the contacts I made at my niece’s school, began getting requests to sub for teachers at the school. I started to do that, and before I knew it, I had become the "go-to" sub at my niece’s school and a few others in the district as well. The reputation I was able to build as a sub then led to my first full-time teaching job – a principal from a private school had to replace a teacher mid-year and called around to other elementary school principals and asked if they knew anyone they could recommend for his vacant first grade teaching position. One of the principals at a school I subbed for often gave him my name, I was called in to interview, and I was hired. So the take-away message from this answer is: don’t be reluctant to use volunteering as both a way to explore new career possibilities and as a way to meet contacts that might just lead you to your next job.
5. What advice would you give people who are debating whether or not to switch careers right now?
Advice? I’m full of it! Here are the highlights:
a. Find out what skills/abilities you enjoy using (which aren’t necessarily the ones you’re good at). I bought a book called What Color is Your Parachute? and completed the self-inventory. It helped me easily pinpoint why I didn’t enjoy being an attorney, and helped me identify two categories in which I would be most likely to find my ideal job. Teacher was included in one of the two categories.
b. Don’t be reluctant to use volunteering as both a way to explore new career possibilities and as a way to meet contacts that might just lead you to your next job (see question 4). This can actually be a great way to find new opportunities if you can’t afford to quit your current job before entering a new career, which is the situation I think the vast majority of us find ourselves in.
c. Don’t assume that you necessarily have to go back to school to start a new career – often you don’t, or you may not have to go for as long as you originally may have thought. This might not be what you want to hear, but I wish I had explored other avenues within psychology besides the Ph.D. – I could’ve completed an MS or School Psychology program in much less time, but I simply didn’t know that those possibilities were out there, which leads me to . . .
d. Talk to and shadow several people working in the profession you think you might be interested in BEFORE jumping into a job or degree program. I could’ve saved myself years of hard work and grief if I’d shadowed practicing attorneys for a few days instead of basing my knowledge of the profession on LA Law, lol (are you too young to recognize this as a popular 80s TV show?). Find out what the actual day-to-day life of a person in that profession is like, and make sure it’s filled with things you know you’d enjoy before you dive in.
e. Don’t base your career decisions on how much money you think you’ll make. This is the one that still keeps me up at night. I think because I grew up poor, I didn’t believe the old adage that "money can’t buy happiness." Sadly, it really is true. Yes, you need to make enough money to live off of, but you don’t have to be rich to be happy. How I wish I had followed my passions when I was young instead of chasing the dollar! Especially today, when so many people are finding creative ways to make money doing what they love, I am a big believer in "do what you love, and the money will follow." Besides, life is simply too short to do otherwise.
f. Before entering a degree program, do your research to make sure that there are jobs available in the profession you would be training for. This saved me from entering a costly, lengthy Master’s in Library Science program – I considered being a law librarian, but learned from talking to people in the profession that jobs are practically nonexistent and opportunities are shrinking yearly due to the digitization of archives.