I was a math professor, now I'm a cattle rancher
June 9, 2013 12:51 PM   Subscribe

The Scenario: You were moving along in Industry A, when you switched to Industry B, something totally different. Why did you make the switch, and how? Or - Do you know of any specific stories where this has happened that you can relate?

A while back I remembered an essay I had read by a biologist (I'm thinking a molecular biologist), who grew up in a family of artists and had started out in life as an artist. However she discovered she was much more attracted to science than pure art. I believe the way she related it was that she learned to approach science in an artistic way, and I think the essay also included some scientific sketches she had drawn.

If anyone knows what the heck I'm talking about and can find a link then great, but mainly I'm interested in hearing other stories like this from the mefi community and other scenarios like this you may be familiar with. And I should say that I'm not just interested in the daily details of the switch but also in the thought process involved.

A concise example of this latter point that I can think of is from the now defunct Dirty Jobs show. Mike Rowe was down in a sewage chamber with another guy pumping out raw sewage. Turns out the guy used to be a psychologist. When Rowe asked him why he made the change he said, "I got tired of dealing with other people's crap" *Cue cymbal crash*

posted by ajax287 to Work & Money (13 answers total) 17 users marked this as a favorite
I was a public radio broadcaster and became a fundraising professional. The catalyst was one of my employers stepping down to pay my salary. First it started as a routine, then it became a full-time job. Is life better for the change? I am not entirely certain. Journalism is dead easy, which is why it is still such a popular career track. Fundraising put many of my journalism skills to the test for the benefit of a very small set of people to create, essentially, a private social club to enable community social care. Like agriculture, fundraising requires vast entrepreneurial capability. I have taken on a lot of short contracts and volunteer experiences in recent years in order to home and hone the integral art of raising money for causes many do not see as very important. Still, I would not trade the experience. I know oh so many people in the non-profit sector who would rather lay off an employee every year and watch the slow disintegration of their collective effort than face the hard truth and say "we need your help". When one can successfully innovate in a field many consider to be dead for the very fact they never knew it existed it makes it all worth while. Last year I copied a tried method for community development from the United States and have built in eight months a fledgling operation with large local support. It required a major survey, a grant application, recruiting board members, learning HTML & CSS, and taking on volunteers. I faced a lot of challenging questions, particularly if my old career was so tempting as to take me back at some point. I don't think a media employer would have me, a fundraising journalist could be a major liability to senior executives.
posted by parmanparman at 1:15 PM on June 9, 2013 [1 favorite]

As an addendum, I would say you will be encouraged to think twice, mainly by those who have no knowledge of your industry except through casual influence.
posted by parmanparman at 2:42 PM on June 9, 2013

My story: after graduating (aeronautical engineering), I worked for a defense contractor. The work was exciting and cutting-edge but most of time I felt like a small cog in a big corporate machine, hated working in a cubicle and staring at a computer screen 90% of the time. However, I think the biggest thing was realizing that most of my colleagues had either never thought about or didn't care about the effects of their work. Yeah, I'm talking about weapons or surveillance platform development. I realize you can argue that that's the realm of politics, but I now believe engineering ethics should be part of every undergraduate engineering degree (it was not in my day).

That's the 'why', as for the 'how' - well, it all came at a time when I needed to move country for other reasons anyway, so I used the opportunity to try out new things. After an aborted attempt at becoming an outdoor adventure guide (it quickly got boring) I am now an 'informal educator' in STEM (science, engineering, technology and math)subjects i.e. like a teacher, but not in a school. I work in an after-school/summer camp science center where kids come to explore and perform hands-on investigations that they don't get to do in school - think building water rockets, arduino creations, underwater robots, etc. I love it. I am tangentially using my degree, but enjoy much more of the 'small-m meaning' benefit (as Dan Ariely describes in his book The Upside of Irrationality).

During the 90s and 00s I remember reading a lot of newspaper/magazine articles about city-types who had burnt out by 30 and decided to become yoga teachers, entrepreneurs, etc. I always figured I would take heed of their experiences and cut out the unenjoyable middle part and go straight to doing what I wanted to do (yeah, I forgot about the whole making money part). But it was also surprisingly hard to realize that just because I had a degree in a certain subject, it didn't mean I was tied to it for the rest of my life. Something that helped in this regard was a magazine interview with someone who had the exact same degree as me but had gone on to become the editor of a international science journal. It was liberating.
posted by atlantica at 2:47 PM on June 9, 2013 [1 favorite]

Trained in mathematics, I was a high school math teacher for 3.5 years and got tired of managing a classroom and disillusioned with the college admissions pressure cooker.

I was then a freelance writer/book critic for three years, until I went broke and got tired of repeating myself. I found myself equally interested in updating the back end of my website as writing/selling the articles that went on it.

I then became a software developer for an educational publishing company and have done this for eight years. There have been times when I have been bored with this and considered doing something involving green technology but that is proving to have been one career idea too many. I have recently returned to writing on the side, for peanuts and mostly as a hobby. My current career combines the previous two in an attractive way.

None of these transitions was easy - each took at least a year of learning the ropes, and I may finally have reached the point where entering a new trade at the ground floor is no longer attractive. There's something to be said for giving your 40 hours to Mammon in whatever you happen to excel at, and reserving the rest for what you love. At least in the current economic regime. In an ideal one, to echo Marx, I'd write in the morning, code in the afternoon and tutor at night.
posted by seemoreglass at 3:12 PM on June 9, 2013

My stepdad was a literary agent who started law school the same day I started highschool. I was in education and switched to self-taught web design because I loved it. My favourite client worked a corporate job at BP for years before he quit to follow his passion and open as a wine retailer. I have one client who was a Big Three accountant before she left to open a jewellery store. I have another who was an airline pilot before selling iPhone cases and accessories. My uncle has been a commissioned officer, a lawyer, a yogi and finally a Methodist minister. People do this all the time.
posted by DarlingBri at 3:24 PM on June 9, 2013 [1 favorite]

I trained to design huge pressure vessels for an industry where failure isn't an option. Near the end of my postgrad degree, I decided to be a writer, and got accepted on a very tough journalism course. Before I started that, I saw a more interesting type of engineering, and did that instead for a few years. Then I became an editorial project manager for a large reference publisher. After that, I was a systems programmer for a specialist financial house. Then I became an engineer again, but doing something different yet.

I have ADHD. All of these seemed reasonable choices at the time.
posted by A Friend of Dug [sock] at 3:32 PM on June 9, 2013

I switched from statistics/demography to law. I got my MA in statistics and PhD in demography, then did a post-doc. I taught a bit, published a bit, and decided that -- teaching aside -- it wasn't terribly earth-shaking stuff.

So I went into law, with the idea that I might be able to make a greater, more positive change in the world.

I've been practicing law for about nine years now. On balance, I think it was a positive change, but I had to make a few more left turns (within the law world) to get there.
posted by mikeand1 at 7:17 PM on June 9, 2013

After college, I worked in publishing for a few years in the nineties, when the internet boom was just getting started. I became interested in web development, took some night school classes and moved from assisting to producing websites for a magazine to programming. I worked for a couple tech start-ups as a programmer, and then a manager, then a junior executive. I liked what I did, but no longer loved it. I'd always wanted to be a writer--at night I was taking classes at a community center, then got an MA (also at night), and then when I started to publish some stuff in magazines--granted, nothing that would pay the bills, but I got to the point where I was bored at work, and always thinking about how I could make my life more centered around what I loved (writing) instead of always looking for time to read and write. So, I decided to give all that up and go to grad school full time--so at 33, I went off to grad school and got a Ph.D., published a book, and now I'm an English professor at a small liberal arts college. I still don't have enough time to write, though :), but I love that my life is all about reading and writing. I still do freelance programming projects from time to time, but I feel like I'm doing what I always wanted to do (though I have no regrets!)
posted by drobot at 7:37 PM on June 9, 2013

I got driven to the airport recently by a dude who used to be an economics professor. He said it wasn't exactly a deliberate choice to switch to taxi driving, but he moved countries because of war, and no one took his credentials seriously in New Zealand. He reckons he's a lot happier as a taxi driver than he was as a professor, though. He says his customers are generally more polite than his students were, and he doesn't have to take his work home with him in the evenings and weekends. And there's no pressure to publish and win grants anymore either...
posted by lollusc at 7:58 PM on June 9, 2013

I worked in book publishing for about 10 years after college. It was a job I liked, but when the owner of the company died, it wasn't much fun anymore and I knew the writing was on the wall as far as being sold off to another company. I took the opportunity to be a stay-at-home dad for a few years, and by the time I was looking for work again, we'd moved out of New York for family reasons. I wasn't dying to get back into publishing, and Indesign had replaced Quark since I'd left anyway. I did a program to get certified to teach school, but didn't like the classroom management side of things. In the end, my wife and I bought a yarn store. Owning a business and doing retail are things I never thought I'd do, but it's a lot of fun being our own bosses and fostering a creative community. There's a lot to learn, and it mostly pays the bills. My wife once worked in a magic shop. The owner's philosophy was to change careers every 10 years, no matter how well things were going. That seems a little arbitrary and extreme, but it's appealing in a way. Most industries don't have jobs that last decades anymore. Changing technologies and skillsets mean we all have to stay on our toes and be willing to transition into doing something we didn't expect.
posted by rikschell at 8:57 AM on June 10, 2013

My father worked as a CPA for 25 years before he decided to "retire" early and become a rabbi at age 55. He still does some CPA work on the side, but now he teaches Talmud, Midrash, Hebrew, and Aramaic at the seminary, and does some hospice work.

The process was fairly abrupt, from the outside. He had had a health scare in his early 50's, his firm was having in some financial trouble and he just decided to bail. He sold his share of the business, applied to seminary, and BAM- from working stiff to yeshiva bucher in less than a year.
posted by bluejayway at 10:03 AM on June 10, 2013

My dad used to be a lawyer; now he teaches wood furniture making. He's always built furniture, but since retiring from law, he's had the chance to really improve his craft. Of course, setting up a teaching studio was somewhat capital-intensive, so having had a lawyer's income for years probably helped. But what really helped, I think, was years of practice. In general, when you are teaching, knowing how to detect and correct mistakes is key. And part of that is having made those mistakes yourself.
posted by novalis_dt at 7:52 PM on June 10, 2013

Peter Rosenthal is a math prof at University of Toronto and also a lawyer. He has a very cool story!

I also read this on slate.com recently: How a Slate journalist became a psychiatrist.
posted by foxjacket at 5:39 AM on June 11, 2013

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