As Princetonians, many of us assume the profession we choose to enter after leaving academia will be directly related to our undergraduate major or professional school choice. In my case, I was a biochemistry major, but had also enjoyed taking programming courses in the electrical engineering department. (There wasn’t yet a computer science major.) This led to my first job out of Princeton, working at a pharmaceutical company as a scientific programmer. So far, so good. My career path was right on track.
Most of us back then also assumed our first career would be the one we’d practice in for our entire life. At least I did. Once a doctor, always a doctor. Once a scientific programmer, always a scientific programmer. Although this may have been true for many of my classmates, I chose a different path. To date, I’ve had four separate careers. At the moment, I’m simultaneously working in numbers three and four.
After climbing my way up through the ranks from scientific programmer into management, I decided to quit corporate America and set out on my own. I knew it was time for a change when my boss refused to let me take five vacation days in a row, even though I had accumulated more than enough time off to do so. This was the turning point that made me realize it was time to find a job where I had more control (and less staff). I disobeyed my boss’s wishes and took the days off. When I returned, I gave my notice. To say this was scary, was to put it mildly. I was jumping from a secure, high-paying job into the great unknown. I had savings, but would they be enough?
For career number two, I founded a mail order company specializing in books about adoption and infertility. Later I added another catalog, books for families with gay or lesbian parents. My programming skills came in handy when I created a bookstore on the web before Amazon did.
After selling that company, I embarked on career number three — as an adjunct professor of computer science. In addition to teaching on campus, I conduct classes at maximum-security prisons for men on the inside who are pursuing a degree.
Career number four, and the final one so far, is writing books for children. I have two published books and more on the way. Both of these are picture-book biographies, Ada Byron Lovelace and the Thinking Machine and Grace Hopper: Queen of Computer Code.
So why did I make all these career changes? Was it burnout at the old job or did I simply crave the excitement of doing something new? Without a doubt, burnout was the reason I left my first job. My next job change, though, was due to neither of these reasons. I received an offer to buy my company.
Soon I was out searching for my next job. I found my teaching job via a method that seems totally archaic now — through the help-wanted ads in the newspaper. Writing became career number four when I decided to become serious about an avocation and pursue publication.
Deciding to change jobs is one thing, but how did I decide on what job to do next? Three of my four careers were related in some way to my education. (After Princeton, I received master’s degrees in information systems and in writing for children and young adults.) Career number two, selling books via mail order was the outlier. I had never studied business or retailing. But selling books in these niche markets did reflect my love of reading and my interest in helping families.
Will I stop at four careers? Considering my track record, it seems unlikely. Chances are I will eventually stop teaching, but I doubt I’ll ever stop writing books for children. That still leaves room for me to start another career. There are so many possibilities.
I could always go back to school. I’ve audited many Princeton courses, from music theory to robotics, children’s literature to cybersecurity. My favorites were in neurobiology and linguistics. Maybe I’ll pursue a degree in one of these disciplines. This, in turn, might lead to a new career.
Or, maybe I’ll turn one of the many jobs I’ve moonlighted at into a career. I’ve worked as a corporate speaker, a conference organizer, a website developer, an editor, and a publicist, to name just a few. Some of these jobs were successful, some not so much. (But no matter where I work, I always seem to be tapped as the tech-support person.) There’s no reason my day job has to be my only job.
Will any of my side jobs or possible future degrees lead to career number five? Possibly. Or maybe it’s time for me to do branch out into something completely different. I was recently asked to be a scientific advisor for someone else’s graphic novel series. That’s something I’ve never done before. If I like it, maybe I’ll turn advising into the next profession on my resume.
No matter what, I intend to keep my options open and grab opportunities whenever they present themselves. To quote the trailblazing programmer Grace Hopper: “I have insatiable curiosity.”
Award-winning author Laurie Seligman Wallmark ’76 has an MFA in writing for children and young adults from Vermont College of Fine Arts. When not writing, she teaches computer science at Raritan Valley Community College.