A few lucky people know exactly what they want to be when they grow up and follow a straight-forward path to career success. For others though, the path is a windy one. We interviewed four success stories to find out how the educational and financial decisions they made in college led to careers they never would have expected – but are pretty pleased with.
History Major with a Minor in Chinese, to Software Engineer
How does a bachelor’s degree in history lead you to a career as a software engineer
? If you're Tom Faber, software engineer at PayScale, you try a lot of different paths, and then stick with the one that leads to fun -- and a good fit.
Faber began his career at Swarthmore College
, graduating in 1990 with a bachelor's degree in History and a minor in Chinese. He had always been a history buff, he says, and then a trip to China the summer after high school graduation sparked his interest.
In 1994, he earned his master of arts in international studies) from the University of Washington
, Jackson School of International Studies, focusing on Chinese studies. His original game plan was to become a professor. After a while, however, he realized that he "didn't have the passion for research" that he'd need to be happy in academia. He also fell in love with Seattle, and wasn't inclined to leave in order to continue his studies or start a business career in East Asia.
"I spent the next few months trying different things -- I did some volunteer political work, and sold two stories as a freelance journalist, but nothing really stuck," says Faber. "I had some very disheartening job interviews for jobs I got from the want ads and had no desire to do. Then I figured that since the software industry was just starting to boom (this was 1994) I should try that, and assumed that with my liberal arts degree I'd end up as a tech writer. The job I ended up with was a temp job as a software tester
, and after only two weeks or so I said 'this is it!' I'd never had so much fun on a job in my life with the fast pace and puzzle solving, and being a naturally curious and skeptical person, discovered I had the perfect mindset for a tester."
Faber had never planned on becoming a software engineer, so his studies in that area were limited to a computer science class in high school that focused on Pascal and another in college. He notes, however, that the college class was "one of his very few As," and was maybe a sign of his future direction. He also took a discrete math class in college, which, while not strictly related to his eventual career, helped him learn ways of thinking that would become valuable.
Despite his relative lack of a technical background, he was able to parlay temp jobs into a permanent position. Over the years, he picked up various skills and eventually moved into a software engineer role at PayScale.
"Figuring out what you want to do is not an easy thing - I went through my first few decades assuming that the things I really enjoyed were just hobbies and not vocations, and wasted too much time applying for jobs (or worse yet, working at them) that I wasn't a good fit for," says Faber. "There's the Howard Thurman quote that 'What the world needs is people who have come alive,' but figuring out what makes you come alive can be harder than it sounds."
Faber found business books helpful, including What Color Is Your Parachute
and Zen and the Art of Making a Living
, as well as Business Model You
. He also took a workshop at Centerpoint Seattle
, which he found helpful. The bottom line is to keep learning, he says.
"If you ever find yourself thinking you know everything you need, or think that you're the smartest person in the room, you're wrong and you should figure out what you need to learn next," says Faber.
Art Teacher, Former Navy Corpsman, Pre-Med Graduate
If you think that your career has to follow a straight line from point A to point B, take inspiration from the adventures of Jay Martinez, former Hospital Corpsman in the Navy, pre-med Adelphi grad, and current art teacher for Shoeshine Kids Organization
, a non-profit in Antigua, Guatemala. Her story proves that the path to a fulfilling career is sometimes one that is best defined by taking the scenic route.
Martinez’s decisions about choosing what and where to study were entirely pragmatic. She joined the military at 18, working for five years with the Navy and three with the Marines as a Hospital Corpsman, a medical specialist. She then attended Adelphi University
, which she selected in part because it participated in the Yellow Ribbon program
, which supplements the Post-9/11 GI Bill
, and because it would take many of the credits she'd earned while attending colleges in various parts of the country during her time with the military.
She chose her major -- Natural Science -- because it would allow her to take pre-med and pre-P.A. courses.
"It just seemed natural for me to continue on with this career path in medicine, particularly since I spent eight years in the military practicing medicine/medical administration," says Martinez. She was on her carefully chosen path.
Then, in the summer of 2011, everything changed.
"I had a small break from school in the summer of 2011 and decided to go to Antigua, Guatemala to volunteer after seeing a special on 20/20
the year prior about a hospital for malnourished infants, Casa Jackson," says Martinez. "So I saved and bartended part-time to buy the ticket and make it happen. Once I got here, I knew the first night that I was going to come back. I completely fell in love with the country, the people, the energy. Antigua is truly a magical place. I call it my NeverNever Land."
"After working with the babies at Casa Jackson and with education at the local school, I decided that I would like to incorporate more social work and non-profit work in my medical education."
Martinez returned to Adelphi after her summer in Antigua and graduated cum laude in 2012, returning to Guatemala after graduation. At the moment, Martinez says, she's veered totally away from medicine and is working in the nonprofit and hospitality sectors, teaching art at Shoeshine Kids and bartending at a hostel. She also works with several NGOs (non-governmental organizations, a type of non-profit citizens group) in Antigua, dealing with art education and mentorship.
While she might return to finish her medical education or pursue social work, for now, Martinez is happy where she is.
"The good thing about my position is that I do still have that option to return to the states and engage myself in a career helping the underprivileged and at-risk youth population," she says. "But I think I would still like to work in developing countries around the world with my education, skills, and training. I'm too addicted to the world and all its wonderful people to stop my travels."
While pursuing her degree, Martinez supplemented science and medical training with film classes, which helped her learn more about photography and videography, and allows her to help nonprofits with their websites, social media, and fundraising. She also took advanced classes in Spanish and French, which helps her communicate with locals and travelers in Guatemala.
While her education isn't directly related to what she's doing at the moment, it has paid off.
"Though it does help to communicate with a wide array of travelers that I come across," she says. "My background, training, and past travels are so diverse that this helps to make interesting conversation ... My military medicine training has been more beneficial to me here in a developing country. Assisting my friends and travelers with certain ailments or sickness. It helps to always be prepared when out on hikes or traveling to have essential items or emergency kits for various scenarios."
For anyone who wants a career like hers, which combine a passion for travel and helping others, Martinez says:
"Just go out there and do it. Book your ticket! Stop making excuses like, 'Oh, I still have to pay my student loans.' or 'I just have to pay off this credit card first.' Because you know what? You'll always have some excuses or some expenses that you feel require your attention and they'll always be there. Things always have a way of working out and it is possible to travel, even with a little bit of debt. You'll find that once you open yourself up to more travel, special people and magical moments, those issues or expenses that at one time seemed so important, will become trivial. I've learned to live without Sephora."
Of course, if you long to travel the world after graduation, it helps to make smart decisions about your major, school, and financing options beforehand. Martinez's military career and carefully considered decisions allowed her to minimize the need for student loans. If you want to have similar freedom to travel, it pays to think about the burden of post-graduation student debt before deciding where to attend college.
Senior Operations Consultant (Banker) at a Financial Institution in the Boston Area
How do you go from sociology to banking? For Brian P., now a senior operations consultant at a financial institution in the Boston area, it involves equal doses of serendipity and pragmatism.
Brian entered Northeastern University
in Boston as an undecided major, and eventually chose sociology because the classes he'd taken in sociology interested him the most.
"I liked learning about people and society," he says.
He picked up an economics minor by accident, when, during his junior year, an advisor pointed out that he had taken enough economics classes while he was still undecided to be only a few credits away from a minor. Later, that decision would help him get his first interviews in the banking industry.
For five years after graduation, Brian worked for a human services company, helping people deal with mental illness, substance abuse, and homelessness.
"The pay was really low (as I knew getting into the field), but I saw how hard it would be to do what I wanted to do in life (family, travel, etc.) if I stayed in the field," says Brian. "I used my background as a property manager -- my wife and I lived in and owned a multifamily home -- to get a job in property management. I then used my property management background to get into banking ... and I lived happily ever after."
Brian was not the only former classmate to make a sharp turn after graduation. Among his fellow alums who majored in sociology, there's a police officer and an insurance manager.
For students who want to go on to a career in financial services, however, Brian advises choosing something more in line with their career goals -- such as business administration, which he says will give them the skills they need for their chosen career, but is also open enough to allow students to take a lot of different classes and not be tied down to one specific track. Banking managers, he says, don't necessarily need to see a narrow focus, just a solid background, which a business major provides.
Unsurprisingly, general business majors earn more than sociology at every point of their career: $45,600 annually for early career median pay, compared to $38,600 for sociology majors, and $74,800 annually for mid-career median pay compared to sociology majors’ $60,300.
"I don't get to help people like I used to," says Brian. "Nothing in banking is quite as rewarding as finding someone a home."
In other words, figuring out the best major, salary-wise, isn't just about the numbers after the dollar sign. It's also about getting hired in your field. If your heart yearns for a "less practical" field, the answer might be to do as Brian did and back up your dreams with STEM classes or a more practical minor.
John D. Roberts
Co-Founder comiXology/Director of comiXology Submit
The next time someone advises you to major in something practical, remember that being practical looks different for everyone. For John D. Roberts, co-founder of digital publishing platform comiXology
and director of comiXology Submit, practicality meant combining classes in programming and animation with a BFA in Life Drawing at Kutztown University
"I drew naked people and they gave me a degree," he says.
Roberts initially planned to do graphic design, and applied to Kutztown's Communication Design program, only to wind up not getting in.
"So instead I thought I would apply for the Fine Arts program and try to transfer into the Communications Design program after a year, something I am told is very difficult but not impossible to do," says Roberts. "Then a funny thing happened – I loved the Fine Arts program and chose to stay, and ultimately got my degree in the program."
While earning that Fine Arts degree at Kutztown, he took classes in creative writing, silk screening, and psychology, as well as those programming and animation classes, with the goal of attaining a well-rounded education.
So was his degree related to his eventual career?
"Not at all!" he laughs. "While in college, I was introduced to two things – computer programming and animation – that would both change my career goals."
While he fulfilled his arts requirements, Roberts prepared himself to be an animator, learning a program called Macromedia Director, which also contained a programming language called Lingo. During "the age of AOL," he says, he used Lingo to create an interactive portfolio. His skills helped him get his first job, as an interactive presentation programmer.
"After college I went to a temp agency and they came to me with two offers, one at an ad agency and the other as a computer programmer
," says Roberts. "I'll be honest: the programmer job paid more so that's the direction I went. That choice lead me to focus on programming which would lead me to move from Pennsylvania to New York City, land a job at Marvel Comics and ultimately start my own company, comiXology, which we would sell to Amazon
in early 2014."
Roberts' favorite part of his job is discovering and working with independent creators, helping them get their big break, and introducing their work to a wider audience. It's not something he takes lightly, he says, and it's something he truly loves.
For anyone eyeing his career path with envy, perhaps the most important thing to keep in mind is that Roberts supplemented his fine arts major with STEM classes – something non-STEM students often neglect to do, and a decision that can provide graduates with many more options – and a higher salary – both directly after graduation and in the long-term. Beyond that, Roberts' advice is to not be afraid to take risks.
"Recognize when life is presenting you with your chance and don't be afraid to take it," says Roberts. "I moved from Philadelphia to New York City with only a job, no friends, no apartment, not much of anything and I was able to turn that into what I have now. If I had taken the easy, more comfortable path, I'd never have been able to achieve what I have. I've always been a risk taker which has worked out very well for me."