Why I Left My STEM Career

This post originally ran on The Billfold in September 2017 - I was very fortunate to pitch this piece to them! The Billfold has since shut down but I wanted to share this piece for those who didn’t see it the first time. Enjoy!



 
Photo by  Rodolfo Clix  from  Pexels

Photo by Rodolfo Clix from Pexels

 

Growing up, I was fascinated by science. In the eighth grade, I decided I wanted to be an engineer, and devoted the next seven years of my life to that dream. I started college at the University of Minnesota as an engineering major, but when I got into my first engineering course, I realized that I hated it! Turns out, I don’t really give a damn about how much is coming out of the reactor at time t. I wanted to know what was in the reactor and what reaction was taking place.

I’d spent the previous summer interning in a R&D lab, where I thoroughly enjoyed my days in the lab. Now I understood that, though I’d devoted many years to becoming a chemical engineer, I had a much stronger affinity to chemistry. After that revelation, I changed my major and focused specifically on polymer chemistry. The next two years of college were more suited to my interests, and I spent time interning in labs and doing an independent study in a research lab.

By the time I graduated from college, I had three internships under my belt. I’d learned a ton, including the fact that I absolutely hated working in a pharmaceutical research lab. This was an absolute bummer, as I’d spent years dreaming of one day becoming a pharmaceutical researcher. Turns out, it was more suited for a Type-A personality, which I am not. My internships also taught me that if I really wanted to work in corporate R&D one day, I’d need to get an advanced degree; otherwise I’d be relegated to the role of “technician” for my entire career. So instead of looking for a job senior year, I took the GRE and applied to graduate schools. I got into my dream school: Georgia Tech.

In the physical sciences, you apply straight into a PhD program, and I started mine just three months after I graduated from undergrad. I was an okay college student, so I was in no way prepared for how rigorous a PhD program at a top-ranked school would be. Frankly, it took all the fun and joy out of chemistry. I loved my classmates and I found my research interesting, but I hated how my professors went out of their way to make us feel small and stupid. My health started to suffer and I knew I needed a different environment. So, after I passed my candidacy exam, I decided to graduate with a Masters in Chemistry. Leading up to graduation, I started job hunting, and I found a job as a polymer chemist for Lockheed Martin.

My first “real” job as a chemist was an eye-opening experience; looking back, it was the perfect opportunity for me. I was hired into a lab where there hadn’t been a new hire in ten years; I was also the only woman and person of color in the lab group. In short, I worked with all old white guys who were getting ready to retire, with the expectation that they’d pass their knowledge onto me.

My labmate had worked in that same lab more years than I’d been alive, but surprisingly we got along great. He was a great mentor and taught me a great deal about corporate life, materials chemistry, and how to grow my career. He and my manager both gave me lots of opportunities to grow my skills beyond the lab, such as allowing me to be the project manager for a major laboratory renovation. At Lockheed I ran a materials lab, doing lots of testing on various materials to answer questions like “why didn’t my two-part epoxy cure?”

My job was fun, I had a great schedule, and I was paid handsomely for my work. But I hated where I lived. Orlando is not a fun town, especially for a young Black professional. So, after a few years in Florida, I started job hunting.

My job hunt led me back to the Twin Cities, where I took a job at a GE Water manufacturing facility. I was hired to run the analytical chemistry lab, but I was woefully unprepared for what that actually meant. I went from a pretty laid-back, low-stress environment to a very demanding, high-stress role that left me feeling like I was constantly underwater. I was truly challenged in that role, and working in a new industry taught me a great deal. GE is well-known as a Six Sigma company, and I learned Six Sigma methodology and completed projects before I’d even gone through the formal classes. GE also sent me, along with my lab group, to project management training.

I’ve noticed an interesting trend amongst all of my college friends: those of us who have STEM degrees all ended up transitioning to non-STEM roles at some point in our careers. For me, after six years in the lab, I was beginning to feel burnt out. I wasn’t eager to simply change companies or disciplines; I knew I needed a non-lab role. While I explored opportunities within GE, I got a phone call out of the blue from a Target recruiter. She explained that they were looking for people with technical backgrounds for data analyst roles, and asked if I’d be interested. I figured I’d give it a shot and see what came of it. After multiple interviews, they made me an offer and I accepted.

I started my non-lab career as a Senior Supply Chain Analyst, working on various projects for the distribution centers. My entire team was made up of former engineers & scientists, and we brought statistical and analytical rigor to our roles, which was a relatively new capability to Target. I spent two years as a supply chain analyst, including fifteen months working on Target Canada, before I moved onto a Senior Business Partner role in Store Operations. Essentially I am a process owner/project manager/analyst working on a variety of projects that impacted operations within the stores.

When people hear about my background as a lab chemist, they always ask me how I ended up in my current role at Target. I tell them that it was a combination of luck and building my skill set. While I was a laboratory chemist, I accumulated a bunch of other transferrable skills. But I also got lucky and was recruited by a company that understood the value of a person’s skills over the subject matter of their degree. My project management and Six Sigma training have come in handy, and so has my experience writing lab reports, solving client problems and troubleshooting issues.

A STEM degree teaches you how to think critically and solve problems logically—both valuable skills in any job. My time at Target has added other skills to my toolbox, like SQL and supply chain methodologies. Almost every day I rely on a skill that I learned in my “previous life” as a chemist, but I apply it in a different way.

Addendum: since this post was originally published, I’ve changed roles within Target but I’m still a senior data analyst, just in a new business unit. I continue to enjoy my work at Target and growing my skillset.

The Greatest Lessons of My 10+ Year Career

Do you remember what you wanted to be when you grew up?

“Career” is not a word I knew when I was growing up. Everyone in my world talked about “having a job”. In school, teachers would ask us what jobs we wanted when we grew up. I knew my parents had jobs that involved dressing up everyday in “work clothes” and driving to an office. As I got older, I learned what my parents’ jobs entailed - my dad was a CPA and auditor in state government; my mom started out as a secretary and later progressed to an analyst role. Through my parents I learned little career nuggets, but my true learning began when I got my first job at 16, as a cashier at McDonald’s.

I transitioned from having jobs to having a career when I graduated from Georgia Tech and began my first full-time role as a laboratory chemist. That first corporate role was over 10 years ago - I think about how completely green I was when I first started, but I learned quickly and took a lot of mental notes. In the years since that first role out of school, I’ve worked for three Fortune 100 companies, and pivoted to my second career as a retail data analyst. I’ve experienced so much - promotions, bonuses, bad reviews, terrible managers, layoffs - you name it, I’ve probably seen it

Here are the biggest lessons I’ve learned in my almost 15 year career journey.

 
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Loyalty To Yourself Is Most Important

My mom has been a state employee almost my entire life, and when she retires, she’s going to enjoy a fully funded pension as well as healthcare benefits. My paternal grandmother was a longtime GM employee, and she also retired with a full pension and nice benefits, after years of service. My generation is not so lucky - pensions are virtually unheard of, benefits continue to be scaled back, and too many of us are working as contractors instead of full-time employees. Add on wage stagnation and the constant threat of layoffs or corporate bankruptcies that can leave us without a paycheck at any moment. Our parents and grandparents made career decisions knowing that their employers would be loyal and hold up their end of the bargain, but my generation doesn’t have that luxury.

I got an up-close and personal lesson in why loyalty to oneself is so important in 2015, when my company held enterprise-wide layoffs. Approximately 10% of the entire company was let go in one single day, the biggest layoff they’d ever had. There’d been smaller, more targeted layoffs before, but nothing this massive or wide ranging. I saw people who had devoted decades of their lives walk out of the building with a stack of white boxes, filled with the contents of their hastily packed desks. I heard from so many people how they never expected that they’d be the ones to be let go, how they’d devoted so much of their time to their jobs. They’d worked so hard and given up so much and yet ended up with a severance package and a quick thanks.

As I’ve moved through my career, I’ve seen what can happen when you put loyalty to your employer above loyalty to yourself. I’ve seen people develop health problems due to work stress, or sacrifice their family time for work commitments. I’ve kept those scenarios in my mind as I evaluate my options and make decisions in my career. Not every move has been perfect, but I know that I’m the only one who truly has my best interests at heart, and I have to advocate for myself if I’m going to get to where I want to be in my career.

You Are Your Best Advocate

There are tons of books and articles out there about how you need to have a mentor, a sponsor and an advocate in the office to help you move ahead. All those roles are important, and can help you, but the biggest way you can boost your career is to simply learn how to advocate for yourself, instead of waiting for someone else to do it for you.

One of my favorite blogs is Ask A Manager, where the author Alison Green answers work questions. Almost everyday there’s a letter from a writer that boils down to needing to advocate for themselves, whether it’s their manager asking them to do something sketchy, or dealing with a chatty coworker who distracts them from work. Advocating for yourself starts by understanding what you want and then sharing that with people who can help you get it. Sometimes the what you want is a raise, or a promotion, or just a different role. Other times you want to not participate in the company rafting trip, or to not have to share a hotel room on that company trip. Sometimes advocating for yourself doesn’t work but it’s important that you try. As they say, a closed mouth doesn’t get fed.

I’ve been fortunate to have great mentors throughout my career, but ultimately my career is what I make it, so I had to learn to ask for what I wanted, and make moves to make it happen. Most recently, I knew that I wanted a new role with a new leader, but I also wanted to stay with my company. Waiting for a new role to fall into my lap wasn’t an option, so I turned to my internal network to help me find a new role. I talked to everyone I could, both to learn about new opportunities but also to sell myself and my skills. After months of searching, I successfully transitioned to my current role. I have the skills for the role, but my network and advocating for myself definitely helped me land the role.

Relationships Matter More Than You Think

It’s important to be good at your job and have the right skills, but the relationships you develop as just as important to your success. I’m sure you know someone who is technically excellent but just can’t seem to get ahead, or move up in their company - many times it’s because the person is missing the relationships piece. Relationships are critical in almost every career - it’s rare to find a career where you can be successful all on your own, and you never interact with anyone else. You don’t need to be best friends with everyone, but you should be able to connect with different people and find those who can vouch for you. People are going to talk about you and your work, and you want to have strong relationships so those people say great things about you and your work product.

I try to approach relationships in an authentic way, meaning that I’m not doing it because I know I need to network or share what I’ve been working on. I genuinely like people and I love connecting with different people and collaborating. I’ve also been involved in various Employee Resource Groups throughout my career, which provide an avenue to meet people you normally wouldn’t work with. In my career, I’ve had so many instances where my relationships have been instrumental to my success. My relationships have been key to finding each of my last three roles. Even when I’m not looking for a new role, I make sure to keep up a connection with former teammates or key partners, even if it’s just a social connection. With current partners or teammates, I like to get to know them a bit on a personal level, and I’ve found that it’s easier to get the work done when you all know a bit about each other, understand your motivations, etc. You don’t have to be best friends and braid each other’s hair, but having a rapport really helps in the long run.


What have been your biggest lessons in your career? Share in the comments!

I'm Giving Up My Career For "Just A Job"

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I had a revelation a few weeks ago: careers are a scam. My generation has been bamboozled into thinking that a career is the best thing since sliced bread, and that we should all pursue it at all costs. We spent our early years with a constant refrain: "go to college, get a degree and start your career. work hard and you'll be rewarded!"

Implied in that message about getting degrees and having a career was a message of what not to do: don't just settle for having a job, because a job isn't as prestigious or important as a career. Unlike most of our parents, who worked the same job for 30+years, we'd have a career and all the other shiny accompaniments - the salary, the retirement plan, the title, and the company car.

Yeah...I've realized that was all bullshit. And now, eleven years after I first started my career journey, I'm ready to just have a job. Yall can keep this "career" nonsense. It's all a swindle and I'm tapping out. 

For a lot of us, having a career means being invested in the work in a deep way. It was a motivation to get us to get a company phone (or access our work email on our personal devices), so we could always check in and answer questions. It drove us to work remotely on weekends or in the evenings, or even take a call or two while on vacation, because we knew we needed to get the work done. It led us to sign up for extra projects, or put in more face time in the office, in order to get that promotion to the next level.

But at what cost? What did working all those extra hours get us? How about logging on while we were on vacation? Maybe a promotion, but most likely all it got us was a brief "good job" if we were lucky. We did it cause it was expected of us, and because our peers were all doing the same thing. To do less than the extra was to be at a disadvantage, to be seen as less dedicated to the work. And so we fall in line with everyone else. 

I've never been one who enjoyed working a lot - work/life balance was important to me even when I was a single woman. But now, as a wife and mother, I value my time outside of work even more than ever. My daughter already spends so much time without me, I don't want to spend the limited I time with her working instead of playing. And while work is fulfilling, and I'm glad I'm a working mother, my priorities are to my family first and work second. Work allows me to have the lifestyle we have, but it does not define me. It's a means to an end. 

And so, I'm dropping out of the race. I will show up on time and complete my work. I will go to meetings and give suggestions. I'll even bring a store-bought item for the team potluck and a gag gift for the gift exchange. But I will not give my nights and weekends to the work. I will not grab my phone to check email. When I walk out the door at the end of the day, I will give work zero thought; instead I'll be focused on my family, and my personal pursuits. For me, it's a better use of my time, and much more valuable to me. 

I Changed My Definition Of Career Success

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I'm a typical Gen Y'er and if you're a Gen Y'er like me, you probably grew up with the same mantra - do well in school, go to a good college, so you can get a good job. Then work work work so you can get all the promotions and climb to the top of the corporate ladder. Making lots of money, having an executive title - THAT was success, and hence what we all should strive for. This mantra was repeated by our parents, our teachers, our mentors, and reinforced in the media. So I adopted it, and I set my sights on achieving it. I started college as an engineering major and interning at a Fortune 500 company. I switched my major to chemistry but headed to grad school, to further my training, and hopefully make more money after graduation.I had a brief flirtation with the idea of going into academia, but in the end I decided to go the corporate route.

When I started my "grown up" career at 24, I was full of new grad optimism and enthusiasm. I wanted to learn as much as I could, and overachieve so that I could get promoted, because that's what I was expected to do, right? So I volunteered for all these extra projects at work, and did the career development stuff that is pushed to new grads in large corporations. I believed all those stories that said if you work hard and don't be a lazy young person, you'll be rewarded. And I was, at least monetarily. My salary grew by leaps and bounds but that promotion? I had to change companies to get it. Despite my work, networking with allies and mentors and career development, for whatever reason, promotions in role weren't coming my way.

It's been almost ten years since I started my corporate career, and my view of success has changed drastically since I was a new grad. I had a feeling that my priorities and career goals had changed, and last week showed me that  my definition of success has changed as well.

Last week I had my performance review. I wasn't super excited about it and expected the worst, not because of my performance but because of the drastic changes happening within my company. I survived many layoffs in 2015, and the subsequent personnel changes resulted in numerous changes to my chain of command. I've had 5 direct managers, plus many VPs and other executives that I report to. When the review period started, I realized that there was no one left in my department who could reflect and comment on my entire 2015 performance, because everyone was gone. Crazy, right? So I didn't have high expectations for my performance review results. My score was decent, and I received a small raise but once again, I was not promoted. When I started with this company 3.5 years ago, getting a promotion was high on my list, but due to circumstances beyond my control it has yet to happen.

I expected to walk away upset, questioning myself, questioning if this is the place for me - the types of reactions that I've had before. This time I walked away with a #kanyeshrug and went about my business. And then I paused, and I asked myself if I should be upset because I wasn't promoted. Like my initial reaction went something like this:

Me: Still got a job? Getting more money? Cool

My brain: Wait, you're still at the same level you were when you started. Aren't you upset? You should be upset.

Me: Wait, I should be upset? For why?

My brain: You're supposed to get promoted! You're supposed to want to be an executive with a fancy title and a big office! Did you forget?

Me: OH. For real? I'm supposed to want that?

My brain: DUH! Everybody wants that...right?

And that's when I had to have a quick DM chat with a couple of friends, who talked me off the ledge. I was totally fine until I started thinking, and all those rules about success that I was taught as a child started flooding into my brain. I grew up with a message that success meant a fancy title, a big office, the big money, etc. Everyday I see lists about the Top 30 under 30, or see LinkedIn updates from people I went to school with announcing their promotions and fancy jobs and whatnot. I've been conditioned to want a specific type of success but I have not been able to achieve that, at least not yet.

I'm OK with where I am in my career. During these ten years I've worked, I see what it takes to get to those high levels, and nothing about it is appealing to me. I don't want to spend my nights and weekends working. I don't want to have a company cell phone and spend every waking moment being available for work. I don't want to go on vacation but still log into work each day (that's not a vacation). I don't want to work 60+ hours a week, and not have time to do anything other than work and sleep. None of that is appealing to me. I love my work-life balance and I love that I can leave work at work and pursue other things in my free time. I don't love that my hard work doesn't directly benefit my bottom line, but I love that my direct deposit hits my account on a regular schedule.

I've arrived at a state of peace in my view of my career. I've realized that my passions lie elsewhere and that I value different things than I did when I was 24. I've learned that a successful career doesn't look the same for everyone, and that I have the ability to define success for myself. After a moment of angst, I realize that not getting a promotion is a blessing as well, as it gives me time to focus on the things I enjoy, and less pressure in the office. If I do climb a ladder, it's going to be my ladder, not a predetermined corporate ladder. I probably will never have an executive title, unless it's a title for my own endeavor. And honestly, I like the sound of CEO of My Thing better than VP of Corporate Whatever.

What say you readers - what does a successful career look like to you? Have you achieved it? 

Things I'd Rather Do Instead Of Working A Traditional Job

I've reached the point in my career where I fantasize about all the other things I'd rather be doing instead of going to work everyday. Here's the list, in no particular order:

  • Knitting fun things - hats, scarfs, coffee mug sleeves, fingerless gloves, mittens, etc.
  • Going to yoga practice
  • Writing
  • Researching wedding stuff - trends, cool vendors, interesting traditions
  • Writing about things found during previously mentioned wedding research
  • Completing yoga teacher training
  • Opening an Etsy shop to sell all those cool knitting projects I want to do
  • International travel
  • Going to movie screenings
  • Writing reviews of said movies seen during screenings
  • Domestic travel
  • Writing about the cool things I saw during all this travel
  • Continuing to knit cool things
  • Maybe teach some folks how to knit some of the cool things I've made
  • Teaching people how to do Six Sigma
  • Teaching people project management methodology
  • Advising college students - specifically Black college students in STEM fields
  • Presenting workshops
  • Still more knitting
  • Some more travel - I need more passport stamps
  • Throw some more yoga in there - more classes both as a student and a teacher
  • Doing wedding research for busy brides or brides who don't know what they want and where to start

Any idea how I can make a career or at least make some money doing these things? Cause this corporate game has me pretty down.