June 2011

Decisions

Ralph Thomas talks about going from industry to finance and back again. 


 Career-Insights---AT0611 
 Ralph Thomas is a freelance and contract tutor in algebra I and II, calculus, geometry, pre-algebra, pre-calculus and chemistry. In 2009 he exceeded his extended service guarantee and prepaid debit card account goals as a rookie tax associate at H&R Block. Before that, he was a senior financial consultant at First Wall Street Corporation. Before his financial services endeavors, Thomas led an interdepartmental team at NAPP Systems Inc. He received his doctorate from Northern Illinois University and bachelor’s degree from Illinois Institute of Technology.
 

The summer before my sophomore year in high school, I opened my sister’s biology book in an attempt to prepare for my biology class that fall. I soon found myself lost in the chapters discussing DNA replication and protein manufacture. I was mesmerized by the sections devoted to carbohydrate metabolism and fatty acid production. I waited for biology class to start with great anticipation and couldn’t wait to take chemistry the next year. By then I knew what I wanted to do for a living, and I charged through the rest of high school with a laser-like focus on college. 

My valedictorian accomplishments were inadequate preparation for freshman year, but I rebounded in subsequent semesters and earned a hard-won Bachelor of Science in chemistry. I then returned to the paint manufacturing company where I had been employed as a work-study student. My new job as an infrared spectroscopist at the company was truly stimulating for me, but upward mobility was out of the question anytime soon. A colleague who was enrolling in graduate school told me about available scholarship money and a seed was planted. I elected to defer the paycheck and chase my academic calling. 

Fast forward to my first postdoctoral appointment. A very long day in the lab had ended. I went home feeling totally confused and very disillusioned. For the first time in my chemistry career, I was stuck. I was impaled on a terribly low-yielding step in a multistep synthesis of a potentially medically useful steroid. My advisor was growing restless. If I couldn’t dislodge myself from this jam, then how did I expect to be a promising tenure-track professor loaded with fresh ideas and spewing out papers like a printing press? I feared it wasn’t going to happen. What I wanted to do for a living had to be reassessed.

A stint in industry

My second postdoc was much more rewarding, both in terms of laboratory satisfaction and number of publications. But by then I had made up my mind. If I wasn’t going to be a professor, then I might as well get paid. I interviewed with Revlon and soon found myself in sunny San Diego at the fledgling Revlon Science Institute. An industrial postdoc, to be sure, but the weather was great, and now I could make and save money. A return on my hard-working parents’ investment in education was finally here. 

Paradise lasted only two years. The concept of a research and development facility distantly flung from its New York City corporate headquarters wasn’t overly novel, but it turned out to be significantly underfunded, and the CEO gradually lost interest. The institute’s doors were padlocked within three years of its opening. At that point I was carrying a two-month-old mortgage on a downtown San Diego condo in a complex that sat helplessly among soon-to-be-sagging commercial property values. With most of my savings now buried in the condo down-payment and unemployment at hand, I was chasing job leads one day when I received a fateful phone call. It was my panicked investment advisor, who had called Revlon and was told I no longer worked there. He asked me, “Have you ever considered becoming a stockbroker?” My response: “Not really.” 

But I had to face the prospect of selling a newly bought condo in a dropping real estate market in order to facilitate a relocation that might permit me to secure a chemistry gig somewhere. There were too many unknowns wholly to dismiss the idea of an abrupt career change. So I decided on a two-track course. I would study the material for the general securities license during that summer while continuing to hunt for chemistry-related employment in San Diego. I passed the Series 7 exam in mid-August with no chemistry job in sight. I began my career as a commission-only full-service stockbroker in late August, and Saddam Hussein invaded Kuwait a week later. No clients, no savings, an almost depleted brokerage account, a relentless mortgage, and southern California real estate was in an official recession.

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COMMENTS:

I find this article fascinating. Many can relate to the nessecity of sustainability in dealing with the current economic state. It is delightful to know that you are continuing to persevere in the midst of navigating consequences. Your optimistic and insightfulness will lead you to great success. Teresa Ford

 

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