Traditional degrees, nontraditional jobs: a degree is not a life sentence

Traditional degrees, nontraditional jobs: a degree is not a life sentence – includes a related article on self-defeating career strategies

Kathleen Green

It walks like a duckling, quacks like a duckling, and looks like a duckling, it will become a duck. And most workers with specialized job preparation establish a career in their field. Those who study dental hygiene become dental hygienists, education majors become teachers, and medical students become doctors. Most — but not all.

In every field of study, at least some people who prepare for a specific occupation end up working in another. A 1993 National Science Foundation survey of 200,000 college graduates showed that even in a field as specialized as nursing, as many as 20 percent of the male degree holders were employed in other fields. Many, of course, were likely to be in a closely related field or managerial position. But others were doing something completely different.

Their reasons vary. Some people have difficulty finding a good-paying job in their bailiwick and take an unrelated position to pay the bills. Others get sidetracked in their career search but wind up doing something else they enjoy. Still others lose their jobs or become discouraged in their field.

But some people, after working in their field for a few months or for many years, decide they want to pursue another career. These workers, found at all educational levels, eschew a traditional job in their field but still make their training work for them. By following their interests, they often progress on career paths much different from the ones they expected to be on. “I love the outdoors, I love backpacking, and I was an engineer,” says Ted Ganio, a buyer for an outdoors equipment company who uses his civil engineering background in his work. “I never would’ve thought I could combine all these things. I didn’t even know this job existed.” But it did, and he found it.

Focusing on three specialized occupations — nurse, engineer, and lawyer — this article looks at how some people have transferred their specialized skills and knowledge from one field to another. It also discusses some of the options and obstacles you might face if you decide to move your career in a different direction. The accompanying box, “Self-Defeating Career Strategies: Are You Your Worst Enemy?” notes 10 job-hunting mindsets to avoid. And to help you with your decisions, additional sources of information are suggested at the end.

A Niche Is Nice, But Zest Is Best

Before you start a new job, you probably have ideas about what you want your work life to be like. Your expectations might concern the amount of responsibility you will have, how much say you’ll have in major decisions involving your efforts, the number of hours you’ll be expected to work, and so forth. You may also have, in the back of your mind, a personal deadline for moving on if reality clashes with your hopes.

At some point in your career, though, you might decide to choose between staying in a job that is secure but unsatisfying — or taking a risk on something else that is more closely aligned with your passions. It may take awhile for your dream job to become reality; after all, rookies are expected to pay their dues. But as the following examples illustrate, staying focused on an ideal can lead to rewarding results.

Once a Nurse, Always a Nurse

“Ever since I was a little girl, I’ve always been fascinated by other cultures,” says nurse entrepreneur Dotti Dasher-Riddle. “And I’ve always been very committed to continuing education, even though it’s not required by many States for nursing.”

So, after earning a diploma in nursing and working as an emergency room nurse and developing college continuing education programs, Dasher-Riddle had an idea for something new. “I took all of my passions in life — my vocation and my avocations — and rolled them into one,” she says. “I asked myself, `What do I want to do? Where do I want to go?'” The answers to those questions convinced her to start her own company, HealthCare GLOBE (Global Learning Opportunities for Broadening Education), Inc., which provides international continuing education experiences for health care professionals. In March, Dasher-Riddle traveled to Australia, where she led a group of 15 health care professionals in studying that country’s approach to community health.

“I came from a career where working together as part of a team was imperative. It was a matter of life and death,” she says. “What I’m doing now is very exciting. I still have the adventure, the excitement, of bringing people, concepts, and ideas together. But the neat thing about my job now is nobody dies.”

Generally, registered nurses and licensed practical nurses care for the sick and injured. Their specific duties vary, based on factors such as level of education, specialty, and work setting. Registered nurses must complete a 2- or 4-year educational program and pass a licensing exam; licensed practical nurses complete a 1-year program and pass an exam. Nursing qualities — which include being caring, sympathetic, attentive to detail, and able to accept responsibility and give direction to others — have far-reaching applicability to other occupations both within and outside health care.

But nurses’ health care knowledge is itself an asset. Nurse entrepreneur Diane Pabilonia created her own interior design company, Medical Interiors, after working as an operating room, intensive care, missionary, and private duty nurse. “I never found an office that was really designed right for the nurses and doctors,” she says. “Now, I put myself in the position of someone working there and ask myself, `How would I want to work?'” Pabilonia is also executive director of planning and business development for a managed health care services organization, tapping her nursing background and a network of health care professionals.

Credentials and contacts are invaluable for nurses working outside direct patient care in positions such as health insurance fraud investigator, political activist, expert witness, administrator, educator, and, like Dasher-Riddle and Pabilonia, entrepreneur within the health care industry. “One thing nursing has taught me is to be inventive. We always had to explore different ways of doing things,” says Dasher-Riddle. “But it’s also very important to realize you don’t have all the answers. I’m not an expert on anything, but I have an extensive network available to me.”

On their own, nursing knowledge and contacts in the field are rarely adequate preparation for the business world. Although most nurses are accustomed to lerning by doing, would-be entrepreneurs may have to take additional classes. Dasher-Riddle says she wishes she had taken education and business courses while she was in school. Pabilonia agrees some business background would have helped prime her for at least one concern nurses do not have to think about: Profits. “In private industry, you have to really target your financial goals,” she says. “Nurses are never trained to think that way. I was happy doing missionary nursing for no money.”

Job satisfaction is one of the benefits of the nurse entrepreneurial life — especially since entrepreneurism provides an escape from the administrative delays and lack of independence nurses often face in patient care. “I like the freedom of developing things and having them done quickly,” says Pabilonia. Adds Dasher-Riddle: “When you work for someone else, somebody other than you always has the last say. But now I have the final call.”

There were 1,977,000 registered nurses and 399,000 licensed practical nurses employed in 1995. According to the American Nurses’ Association, however, there are no data available on how many nurses do something other than directly care for patients. “Some people have the sense that nurses get burned out and leave the profession, but that’s not the case; it’s not supported by data,” says the Association’s Joan Meehan, director of media relations and community affairs. “They may switch to some other occupation, but they are still nurses.”

Redesigning an Engineer

Paul Floreck knew at an early age what he wanted to be when he grew up. “I wanted to be an engineer,” he says, “and I was always fascinated by airplanes.” Earning a bachelor’s degree in aerospace engineering, followed by a master’s in mechanical engineering, were educational steps to fulfilling that flight of fancy.

Floreck worked for about a decade in the aerospace industry, primarily on the west coast, holding engineering jobs as a designer and analyst. But he wanted to live closer to family on the east coast, so he took a position in New Jersey as a consultant in the rail transportation industry. Eighteen months later, about the time he realized the rail industry was not his forte, he noticed a New York Times want ad for a person who could provide sales staff with technical information on an aircraft company’s products. “I really wanted the job, and I knew the competition would be tough,” says Floreck. “I took the ad apart and made sure my resume showed every bit of my experience directly relevant to the position.” His strategy worked; he got the job.

“My background is pretty conventional for what I do now,” says Floreck. “I have had so many opportunities along the way, but I was never quite sure where they would lead. As I got further into my career, especially working for a big company, I got a taste of which things I liked and didn’t like to do. I was very, very fortunate that I found a position in which I could do what I like doing.”

An engineer typically uses science and math to find innovative, cost-effective solutions to technical problems. Job duties may include design, planning, supervision, development, evaluation, and cost estimating. A bachelor’s degree in engineering is the minimum educational requirement for most engineering jobs. There are more than 25 major specialties, plus numerous subdivisions, within engineering.

Engineers should be creative, detail-oriented, and analytical; they also need to communicate well and be able work as part of a team. Those skills, coupled with their technical understanding, give engineers multifaceted work options. Ted Ganio worked in a backpacking shop while earning a degree in civil engineering, then spent 2 years as an engineer with the Peace Corps in Nepal. He now blends his knowledge of both areas in a job as buyer of outdoors equipment. “All the backpack manufacturers are trying to do the same thing: design a product that carries the most weight with the least amount of stress,” he says. “Because of my engineering background, I understand what they’re trying to accomplish and how they’re trying to accomplish it.”

Technical expertise benefits engineers employed in nonengineering business jobs. “In business, marketing is huge, and a lot of it is voodoo science,” says Ganio. “As a buyer, being able to see through the voodoo science is very useful.” Engineers in other occupations include accountant, financial analyst, financial planner, and computer professions. Some engineers work in engineering management or sales and, like Floreck, use their engineering background to provide technical information.

Both Ganio and Floreck agree that business courses would have helped them prepare for the work they do now. Because engineering education is highly structured, however, there isn’t much room for electives. Engineering study does include some business foundation, says Ganio: “Financing a project (in engineering) is not unlike financing a product. The bottom line is to try to make money for the company by investing in products.” But Floreck says, “Engineering as a raw discipline is interesting, but you’re really not prepared for much else when you get out of school.” And, he adds, many skills engineers need cannot be taught in college. “You can bury your head in a book, but it won’t help with your ability to interact with others or to understand the `big picture’ elements of your business.”

Floreck and Ganio find themselves willingly working overtime, due, in part, to their enthusiasm for their work. “As a consultant in a field that was new to me, I felt a lot of frustration in coming up with ideas that no one seemed interested in. And, I was frustrated putting in a lot of overtime, because I didn’t like what I was doing,” says Floreck. “My current job requires a lot of overtime, too, but I don’t mind it because I enjoy the work.” Ganio says the same is true for him. “I love what I’m doing — that’s what I like about my job,” he says. “I like it so much I get in trouble for working too much. But I’m working hard because I choose to do it.”

There were 1,934,000 engineers employed in 1995. The American Association of Engineering Societies has no data on the number of engineers working in nonengineering jobs.

Practice Not Perfect for All Lawyers

Like many people who become lawyers, Jim Doerfler had thought about it long before college and started honing his skills to prepare for it. “I had always considered law school,” he says. “My high school had a strong speech and debate program, and I took part in that and competed at the State and national levels.” He also did some debating in college. After graduating from law school, he worked for a judge and then for a law firm, where he defended large corporate clients in civil lawsuits.

Meanwhile, Doerfler’s father and his father’s business partner in an electrical subcontracting business started talking about retirement. And Doerfler started thinking about taking over their business. “I was assessing my career options,” he says, “and the idea of having my own business, especially continuing into the future something that had already been established, was very appealing to me.” He quit his job at the law firm and began working at the family business as a project manager and cost estimator. Now, the owner-partners are negotiating a deal to turn the business over to their sons.

“I didn’t think about going into the family business until I was out in the working world, where I was faced with issues like downsizing and job security,” says Doerfler. “I started thinking that the best of all possible worlds is the family business. It allows you to do as much as you’re capable of. I wanted to do something different and continue what’s been done before.”

In law practice, lawyers advise clients about their legal rights and obligations and suggest courses of action; they also represent parties in court by submitting evidence that best supports their client’s position. Depending on the area of expertise, lawyers’ specific responsibilities and tasks vary. Preparation for becoming a licensed lawyer generally requires 3 years of full-time study after earning a bachelor’s degree and admission to the State bar, usually by passing an exam upon completion of law school.

Their understanding of the law, along with the ability to analyze complex documents and situations, gives lawyers skills applicable to many fields. Doerfler expects his legal training to be useful in business for everything from ensuring compliance with equal employment laws to understanding contracts. “My law degree in the short run is not as much a benefit as it will be in the long run,” he says. “Now, it tends to put people off a bit. But in the long run, a law degree is potentially very beneficial in the construction industry.”

Lawyers also should enjoy working with People and be responsible, honest, creative, and attentive to detail. Thuy Tran uses her legal training and people skills as a senior benefits specialist for Fairfax County, Virginia, reviewing documents from applicants who need long-term, residential care. “When I saw the announcement, I thought the job would be perfect for me. I’d be working with people, and, at the same time, it would allow me to use my legal background,” she says. “What I’m doing now is part social worker, part coordinator — there are a lot of different things involved. But I’m not allowed to give advice. That’s the most difficult change that’s different from law.”

A law degree’s versatility results in lawyers working outside the law in a wide range of fields, including counseling, teaching, administration, management, politics and govornment, communications. and business and entrepreneurial ventures. “A good friend of mine, a law professor in Baltimore, told me that no matter what you want to do, a law degree is good to have,” says Tran. “The people who interviewed me for my current job said my law degree is what they found most attractive about my qualifications.”

As broad as a legal education can be, however, law students preparing for the bar exam usually enroll primarily in bar-related courses. Doerfler says he might have taken courses such as tax, labor, and employment law, if he had foreseen a future in business ownership. But he backs up a step further, to his undergraduate studies. “My father was always urging me to get some accounting and engineering background, and I probably should’ve heeded his advice,” says Doerfler, whose undergraduate degree is in economics and who now takes courses to beef up his understanding of business. “I’m not so arrogant to think I can come in and tell everyone how things should be done. I view this as being a long-term process.”

Especially compared with the work they did in their law practices, Doerfler and Tran say they are much happier in their jobs now. Doerfler prefers the strategic planning required in business to the battle perspective lawyers take in their work; he also likes having a productive business rather than feeling he is simply redistributing wealth. And the new hours mean an improved quality of life for him and his family. “I found that the demands of legal practice resulted in an inability to balance corporate expectations with family life,” he says. “Now, I’m able to take more time off for my family.”

For Tran, the rewards of her work are greatly satisfying. “After I finished law school, I worked for 6 months in a private law firm and hated it,” she says. “But now, I really enjoy what I’m doing. I have yet to have a boring day.”

Both Tran and Doerfler acknowledge there are things they dislike about their new positions, however. Tran has discovered she does not like dealing with lawyers in her job: “There are some who are good, but others are just taking advantage of their clients’ fear and ignorance of the law.” Doerfler, coming from a prestigious position with an estimable law firm, has noticed a lack of respect for workers in the construction industry — as well as a focus on cost over caliber. “In law, the emphasis is on quality,” he says. “But in business, price pretty much rules, and quality is sometimes sacrificed.”

There were 894,000 lawyers employed in 1995. A National Association for Law Placement survey of the class of 1995 found over 10 percent of the graduates were employed in non-legal full- and part-time jobs 6 months after graduation. A survey conducted by the American Bar Foundation in 1991, the most recent year the survey was conducted, found that of 744,000 employed attorneys 76,857 were employed in occupations not related to the legal field.

Not Just a Job: Changing Careers for Love of Work

Don’t despair if you feel you have made a wrong career move. But instead of simply staying put and being miserable, take steps to move your career in the right direction. Floreck advises, “The first 10 years of your career, you should plan to move around if you’re not doing what you want to be doing.” After all, says Dasher-Riddle, “It’s absolutely imperative that people like what they do.”

Knowing what your skills and interests are will help you determine which jobs you would like to do. (Self-assessment exercises are found in many job-hunting guides.) Once you identify your skills and interests, figure out how they help you become marketable in the work force. “If you can combine several interests, it will make you very valuable in the job market,” says Pabilonia. “Be creative in inventing your own job; think about dual interests.” Prepare to use that creativity to show potential employers how your specialized skills can be applied to other areas as well.

Anyone thinking about making a career change should plan on doing a lot of exercises in areas like self-assessment, ranking priorities, and setting goals. But people with specialized skills have additional considerations. Your training might be narrowly tailored; as discussed previously, education for occupations such as nurse, engineer, and lawyer does not always leave room for broad-based electives. Careful assessment of your skills and knowledge will help you determine what courses, if any, you need to take before embarking on a new career.

Even if you take a few classes leading toward a new career, try to ensure that the direction you plan to take is one you really want to pursue. Volunteering or working part time provides a test run for finding out how well the expertise you have combines with your craving to do something else. It’s better to discover that you lack acting ability when you are in community theater than after you’ve quit your job. Volunteer and part-time jobs, like internships, can also help prepare you for your new career. “When I was in college, I didn’t think internships were really important,” says Doerfler. “But internships provide opportunities for networking and getting hands-on experience, which are the most important tools you can develop.”

Convincing an employer that you have what it takes to do a job always requires preparation. But when it comes to pursuing a new career field, you may have some additional explaining to do. When Pabilonia was asked in an interview how a nurse could be prepared for the business world, she focused on her ability to get things accomplished: “I told them I’ve always been successful at whatever I’ve done.” Demonstrate to potential employers your enthusiasm, self-confidence, resourcefulness, flexibility, perseverance, and commitment to a new career direction. “Go into every interview like you really want the job,” says Floreck. “You have to do your research and be prepared. But also try to prepare yourself to find alternatives.”

The better you ready yourself to move into a new field, the more sure you will be of your decision to change careers. Self-doubt might be one of the biggest hurdles you have to overcome, especially since there are no guarantees the doubt will evaporate when you embark on your new career. Feeling confident about your calling, however, makes it easier to be comfortable that the decision is right for you. “I see a dam or a structure and think, `I could’ve done this,'” Ganio says. “But when I think a step beyond, to the work environment, I know I wouldn’t be happy doing that.”

If you’ve spent 2 or 5 or 7 years training for a specific occupation, you’re bound to encounter bewilderment from others when you decide to pursue something else. Pabilonia still gets surprised reactions when she attends nursing reunions and reports what she’s doing now. “I loved being a nurse; I loved every specialty. And although I have many other interests, I always thought I would stay in nursing,” she says. “Most of my classmates have stayed with nursing, so they’re really surprised to hear I’ve gotten away from patient care because they know how much I like nursing.”

Some reactions span both ends of the spectrum. “People who knew I was an engineer — it’s almost like they’re disappointed to hear what I’m doing now,” says Ganio. “But people who’ve known me all along know I’m in my element.” Doerfler encounters different reactions from those in his former profession and the ones he works with now. “Lawyers I talk to generally understand what’s going on. Some even ask, `Can I have a job, too?'” he says. “But a carpenter who was in one of my classes used to say, `I’m a doctor, but I do carpentry on the side.’ He didn’t really understand. I think sometimes people have an idyllic view of the legal profession.”

But responding to others’ reactions, both positive and negative, is elementary once you incorporate your training into your new career. “People say to me, `You go to all this trouble to get your law degree, and you’re not using it?'” says Tran. “But I’m glad I had the experience with law. I tend to ask `What if questions, more contingency questions, in my work now. Because of my legal background, I do have a different perspective that I bring to my job.”

Finding More Information

Being informed is one of the best things you can do to sort your way through the job maze. To learn about specific occupations — job duties, working conditions, education and training required, earnings, employment prospects, and more — consult the Occupational Outlook Handbook (OOH). Find out which occupations would allow you to use your talents and interests, and then learn as much as you can about those jobs. Most occupational entries in the OOH also include associations to contact for more information.

The OOH is in the career reference section of many libraries. Bring your library card when you go, because you’ll want to investigate the rest of the career and employment section, too. Look for resources on topics such as choosing and changing careers, job-hunting strategy, work options, and resume writing. Don’t overlook tomes that could be packed with useful tips but are written about another field; much of the information in books about lawyers changing careers, for example, is adaptable to job changers in general. Plan to spend a few hours of reading to find the ones you like best. You may settle on a source or two worth perusing; or, you might elect to pluck bits of wisdom from sages old and new to the career information field.

Career counseling is another plan worth following. Whether you’re still in school or have been out many years, career counselors often have a wealth of information at their fingertips. In addition to any resources and online services they may have, they often also have a network of contacts available for you to explore your prospective field. If you’re a college graduate, check with your alma mater to find out if career counseling services are still available to you.

Self-Defeating Career Strategies: Are You Your Worst Enemy?

One of the first things to determine when considering changing career fields is whether you’re genuinely unsatisfied with your career choice or just unhappy with your job. Deciding to change jobs is one thing; launching into a completely new field is another. Almost all workers experience highs and lows in their jobs. The key is to recognize when you’re in a normal rut — and when a drastic career move is the only way to improve your outlook.

But don’t be too quick to start marching to the beat of a disgruntled drummer. Carefully evaluate your options, skills, knowledge, and interests; otherwise, you might find yourself searching for the perfect career when all you really want is a better job in your field. If you’ve adopted some or all of the following tactics, it is likely you are unsure about your decision to change career fields:

* Deciding from the outset that you must earn the same amount of money or maintain the same level of status, responsibility, or prestige in your next job. Humility is an important trait for easing the trauma of job change, especially if you are planning a move from a prestigious job to a fresh start in a new field.

* Getting another educational degree when it isn’t a requirement for the type of work you’d like to do. Investigate your target industry to determine whether a specialized advanced degree is an absolute prerequisite — or just another of your attempts to postpone making a career decision. Apprenticing in the field for a year might go as far as the 2 or 3 years and thousands of dollars you could spend on more schooling. On the other hand, don’t rule out taking a class or two if you feel it would be helpful for your new venture.

* Trying to do something about your career only when you’re fooling unhappy with it. Do you make a half-hearted attempt to find another job only when things get tough at work, then shelve those plans when work pressure eases up? Most career counselors agree that an effective career search must continue through the good times and that it requires stamina and commitment equal to at least a part-time job.

* Waiting for opportunities to fall in your lap. You may feel you’ve paid your dues and should be able to reap the benefits from all your hard work. Better get used to the idea that making contacts and building an image are an ongoing process, not a finite one.

* Believing that you’ll only be hired to do something for which you have been formally trained or educated. You have skills; it’s up to you to translate those skills into something marketable. Be creative in figuring out ways to transfer your knowledge, interests, and experience into another field.

* Keeping your feelings of dissatisfaction to yourself, or dumping them only on your family. This is one time you need to surround yourself with people you can relate to. Seek others who have made a successful career change, and use their examples to find solutions to your own problems. Look for support from people who are undergoing a similar experience. In short, find the allies you need to complete your transition,

* Expecting your work life to bring you complete personal fullfilment. One theory holds that each person’s sense of satisfaction relies on fulfillment in four areas: Work, relationships, leisure, and challenge. Instead of expecting work to satisfy all four elements, figure out how you meet your needs in the other three; then evaluate your job.

* Slamming doors shut behind you. Don’t bad-mouth the coworkers, boss, or profession you left. The quality of your past work and the relationships you developed there are the keys to obtaining future employment.

* Holding onto the belief that you owe a lifetime commitment to your current employer, your next job, or even to your career field. Think in terms of building experience over the long term, rather than looking at each job as a 35-year commitment.

* Staying where you are because you’re afraid of failing. Fear of the unknown may keep you from evaluating your likes and dislikes or from facing up to the fact that you might not achieve the success you crave in your field. But retirement regrets could be worse.

COPYRIGHT 1997 U.S. Government Printing Office

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