“If you don’t know where you want to be, use your current skills and knowledge to figure out what you like”
I love the idea of following your heart, of doing work that you love. But how are you supposed to know what work you love upon graduating high school? I know some people set their hearts on a certain career when they’re ten and are happy and fulfilled pursuing that career throughout the rest of their lives. But that isn’t how my life has gone.
At 18, I had no idea what I wanted to do with my life, but I was suddenly expected to declare a major at Colorado State University, to declare what professional field I would study for the next four years with the goal of working within that field upon graduation.
“This directionless state was new for me; it seemed I’d always had a next step planned out, and not having one was mildly terrifying.”
I picked mechanical engineering for a slew of reasons: I was good at math and science (I was good at most school subjects, though); I was creative, and my mom had once remarked the world could use creative engineers; mechanical engineering was the broadest of the available engineering fields, so I felt I could adapt it to any narrower area I was interested in once I graduated. It seemed like a solid plan at the time. I thought that after a few years of study I’d figure out a specific job I’d want to pursue after earning my degree.
When I graduated university with my degree in mechanical engineering, I had no idea what my next step would be. Despite the years of study, or perhaps because of them, I knew only one thing: I didn’t want to be an engineer.
I floated, unsure of where to go next. This directionless state was new for me; it seemed I’d always had a next step planned out, and not having one was mildly terrifying. I’d jumped easily from elementary to middle to high school, then on to university, following a progression I’d planned since I was young. But what came after university had always been a little hazy—some professional career based on whatever I’d studied for my Bachelor’s degree. And now, after four years of studying engineering, I realized I really disliked engineering. Becoming an engineer would not be following my heart.
So, I did some soul-searching. I realized it was unrealistic to try and completely switch directions; I had invested too much time and money into earning my engineering degree to just throw it away. But what was I supposed to do if I didn’t want to directly use my degree and I didn’t want to ignore it completely? Perhaps there was a third option …
Be smart, move forward
I decided to try and use what I had (an engineering degree and excellent problem-solving skills) to get me to where I wanted to go. Unfortunately, I wasn’t sure where I wanted to go, so I worked forward. I made a list of the things I had enjoyed during my university experience and realized three things: 1) I loved learning about how machines worked, 2) I loved writing about how machines worked and 3) I hated actually engineering machines. So, I knew three things about what I enjoyed, but I had no idea if there was a job out there that would match my interests.
I did some research and started telling people what I liked to do (learn and write about machines). Pretty soon, I learned about technical writing. It seemed like a job made just for me! I could be paid to learn about how machines worked and then write about them. My background in mechanical engineering would be an asset in the field, because it would help me understand the technical information I would need to know about the machines I wrote about.
I found out Colorado State University, my undergraduate school, also offered a two-year graduate degree in, essentially, technical writing. I applied and was accepted to the program. The summer between my school years I applied to several technical writing internships and was offered a position at an engineering company. My manager was delighted that I had a mechanical engineering degree and was earning a technical writing degree.
“Build yourself a bridge to get to where you want to be, starting with where you are.”
Ultimately, I was hired as a full-time technical writer at the same company and have been working there since. I was able to follow my heart (once I found it!) by using what I already had as a launching point.
To all those out there contemplating choosing a major, switching your major or changing career paths, I offer my story as possible inspiration. I fully support following your heart and finding that job that you love to do. But do it smart. Don’t make a giant leap just to find yourself back at the start or floundering because you don’t have enough of a base.
Build yourself a bridge to get to where you want to be, starting with where you are. Find ways that your current skills and knowledge can help you get there. And if you don’t know where you want to be, use your current skills and knowledge to figure out what you like and what’s possible! Your next step is just waiting to be discovered.
Sally Runions earned her IB diploma at Loveland High School in Loveland, Colorado, USA. She completed a B.S. in mechanical engineering and a M.S. in technical writing at Colorado State University. She now works as a technical writer for an industrial power supply company and moonlights as a poet; she published her first collection of poetry in January 2019. Connect with her on LinkedIn here.
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