The lesson here is not “find a friend who works for a magazine, and see if you can get a freelance assignment.” The lesson is: Share your hopes and plans for a career change with anyone you trust, even if you’re not sure what you want to do. He or she might know someone, or know someone who knows someone, so keep your ears open and jump at any opportunity that comes your way no matter how scared you might be of failing. Ask people to tell you their stories, and volunteer to help them with their work. Give it everything you’ve got. If you can’t summon your “everything,” look elsewhere, because that’s a clue that this is not what you’re suited for. And use any small successes to propel you forward.
Don’t Wait for Opportunities— Create Them
My experience with the magazine inspired me to go into communications. I signed up for university extension courses in journalism and public relations and worked up the nerve to introduce myself to the instructors. I sought out mentors, cold calling people in the communications department at the university where I worked and asking them to lunch to learn about what they did. I asked if there was work I could help with on a volunteer basis, and I met with their friends when they offered introductions. I studied everything I could about communications in science and researched potential employers who might need a Ph.D. scientist who liked to write. I tracked down phone numbers and called the executives of companies and took them to lunch. I handed them writing samples from my magazine gig. I kept learning about my prospective new field, and eventually I landed a job at a public relations agency specializing in health care communications.
Again, the takeaway message is that we have to create our own opportunities— I did not get that job from a posted ad or even through a personal referral. My first off-the-bench job was a direct result of my own research efforts and relationships I’d created from scratch. By seeking out connections, asking them questions and building relationships, I was able to figure what I wanted to do. And eventually, I gained the confidence I needed to contact people who might need me and convince them that they did need me.
Make Every Step in Your Transition a Learning Experience
My first job wasn’t perfect— the agency’s client roster was heavily weighted toward medical-device companies and hospitals, and, although they’d been hoping to move more into biotechnology and pharmaceutical work, they didn’t have the senior-level strategic expertise to attract those kinds of clients. But, during my three years there, I learned about the business of communications— about working on multiple projects under deadlines, tracking and billing for time, managing clients and accounts, and the fundamental strategic principles of marketing communications that apply to any industry. Most importantly, I learned that I loved both the actual mechanics of science writing and the strategy that tells us what to write and why. The key was that I approached my work with passion— and always with my eye on the most successful people. I learned the business by watching them, even while I was learning the basics.
After I’d been at the agency for a few years, my husband and I were ready to start our family, and my long commute and demanding work schedule didn’t seem compatible with my vision of parenthood. I negotiated a small but steady freelancing agreement with my employer, and, with that bread-and-butter arrangement in place, I turned to my professional network. Over the years, the colleagues and clients I’d met and friends I’d made had moved on to new jobs themselves, and they have become a self-perpetuating source of referrals.
Push the Finish Line Ever Farther
Working for myself, I’ve been able to mold my client and project roster toward my favorite kind of work— long-term relationships with a strategic component and lots of deep-level scientific writing. I’ve also been able to let my workload ebb and flow as my family has grown and changed. But, I’ve made a point never to become complacent about my career. With each new prospect, I look for personal and professional growth opportunities. I routinely take on projects that require me to stretch intellectually— and I do the requisite studying to make sure I’m providing the best service I can for my clients. I continue to network and meet new people and join and become involved in professional organizations so I can learn from others.
In the end, I found what I wanted to do, and I get to do it every day. But it didn’t just happen to me— I made it happen. So, to any aspiring career-changers out there who might be discouraged, wondering how on Earth a crazy set of coincidences will ever happen to them, I say “close your eyes and jump.” Go out and create the coincidences that will form your path to a fulfilling career. It takes work, and guts, but you can do it.