I chose Plant Biology as a field for graduate study because I loved the class work and I envisioned a career solving environmental problems. It remains a subject that excites me and sparks my imagination.
About four years ago I transitioned to technology consulting and I am now a project manager and database developer for a small but growing business-consulting firm. My position is completely unrelated to the research sciences, but it is challenging and engaging. I work with smart and motivated co-workers and clients. In addition, I have a flexible work schedule, good work-life balance, and I live in a dynamic part of the country.
Since switching fields I have often asked myself, how is it that I enjoy high-tech consulting as much, if not more than research? I invested and sacrificed so much to get my degree and I found my current position by accident. My conclusion is that as a research scientist, I focused on my intellectual interests, whereas in my current position, I am using the skills that give me the most gratification.
My career transition was not easy. After grad school I took a postdoc at a government agency that was perfectly aligned with my research interests. As that position was coming to an end, my husband and I decided we did not want to move from the Bay Area, so I started looking for non-academic positions.
After working with a career counselor and doing a series of informational interviews I came to realize that the skills in which I had invested were not in demand. It was heart breaking. If a job search is a series of concentric circles I started in the center by looking for jobs related to the plant sciences. I worked my way outward to environmental consulting, public health and biotechnology support. In the beginning, I focused on fields that were somewhat related to the skill set I had developed in academia and gradually worked my way to asking, if I started from scratch, what would I want to do? Oh, how I envied those who got a nursing degree right out of college! I had my first child during my postdoc and my second as the position was ending, so I also asked, what career is going to allow me the flexibility to balance work and family life?
During my job search, I met the owner of the firm for which I now work. She is a mom with kids the same age as mine and we had a friend in common. Her business was growing even though we were in a recession. The skills required were technical, and in demand, and I was lucky to get the job.
In my current position, I design, build and maintain cloud-based databases. How companies collect and use data is intertwined with each business processes. We help organizations create efficient processes so data is collected in the most effective manner. Clients range from small business owners to departments in large companies. Sometimes we add functionality to existing applications, but more often we start from scratch building the database from a specification. It is highly analytical work, as databases are like big puzzles. The technical side is balanced with the need for excellent communication skills. Project managers at our firm often work together and the process usually involves many back and forth communications with the client.
Coming from a background in the natural sciences, getting up-to-speed in database development and consulting involved a huge learning curve. My background in data organization and analysis helped. I also learned by assisting other developers at the consultancy. During the transition I found great resources for people interested in acquiring technological skills. One resource that stands out is RailsBridge.org which hosts free programming workshops for women in San Francisco.
I recently started attending a book group hosted by the Oberlin alumni association, where I did my undergraduate work. During my brief introduction, I traced through my undergraduate major in psychology, my graduate work in Plant Biology to my current work as a project manager and database developer. I always considered my career path to be non-traditional, but later in the evening another participant who spent her career on the faculty of a large research university commented that I have a very contemporary resume. Who would have guessed?
This blog is going to approximate a real ‘week in the life’ but I will throw in a few recent projects to give readers a good sense of the range of assignments I see in a typical week. I hope you enjoy the posts!