Mathematics and engineering have been part of my life for as long as I can remember. Growing up with two mathematics teachers and two engineers, I was surrounded by it. So, naturally, when it came time to make choices about my future career, I leaned toward the technical fields. Perhaps "choices" is not the right word to use, though, as options outside of engineering (or at least medicine) were not really presented to me as viable ways of making a living. Or at least, not a decent living with a steady paycheck and a guaranteed job. (Which, by the way, ha! Like any job can be guaranteed in this market.) On some level, I can understand this logic. If you are an engineer or a doctor, and you work hard, you will earn a steady paycheck (at least, this was the case when I was making all these choices). On the other hand, you can work your ass off till you have no ass left, but you might still not earn much if you are say, a writer. Sure, you can be a successful and money-making writer, but it's not "guaranteed" no matter how hard you work.
Of course, none of these thoughts went through my mind as I took an exam to get into a specialized math and science high school, which, to be fair, provided a well-rounded education, that I took full advantage of. My bizarre senior year schedule included second year calculus, second year computer science, AP chemistry, and two English classes, including a creative writing workshop. I also didn't think too hard about all of my interests (math, chemistry, foreign languages, writing) when I applied to various engineering schools at prestigious universities. I somehow remained clueless to the fact that if you are in an engineering school at a university, you are not allowed to select a major from that university's liberal arts college. So when it came time to select a major during my sophomore year in college, I chose chemical engineering because it seemed to be the closest thing to what interested me (chemistry) and was available through the engineering school. Boy, was I in for a rude awakening - it turned out that chemical engineering had little to do with chemistry. Oops! How is that for making uninformed life decisions?
I successfully graduated, got a job, wasn't too excited about it, and so... I went off to grad school. I was looking for something different this time, but I wasn't entirely sure what exactly it was. Sounds like I was totally ready to make a decision about graduate studies and invest tons of money in a masters program... right? Still not thinking outside the box, but trying to push the box's limits a little bit, I switched majors to a different, but closely related, engineering field. Going for something completely outside of engineering did not even occur to me at that time. You could say, I was subconsciously playing it safe - stick with what you know, my brain was telling me, and so I did.
One year and oodles of debt later, I had a masters degree and a job offer that sounded super exciting (this was about a month before the market crashed). It turned out though, as it often does, that job descriptions tend to sound incredibly better on paper than they actually are in real life. I suppose that's how it goes in life. Certainly, I've seen many people deal with this, accept the facts, and move on with their lives. But I have also discovered a small minority of people who love their jobs, who look forward to Mondays, and are excited to stay late to get more accomplished. And so I thought to myself, why can't I be one of those people? This little thought snuck into my brain and made itself comfortable there, amid the general chaos that usually resides in my head.
At the same time, I began to notice something else. The day-to-day process of doing science and engineering left me mostly uninspired. But there was a part of my job that I looked forward to, and it involved writing. During the seasonal onslaught of grant proposals, I spent many long nights planning and outlining and putting words down on paper. Sure, I may have publicly bitched to the world about the lack of sleep and the caffeine-induced tremors, but secretly, I enjoyed the writing process. As I acknowledged this to myself, I recalled another time when I thoroughly enjoyed writing - in high school, when I made time in my schedule to take all the creative writing classes that were offered (all three of them).
And so I find myself now, slowly approaching that scary place where I can no longer be satisfied with where I am, and there is a need to take the next step. I am even more inspired to do this when I read about other women taking these next steps right now, the economy be damned! The question now is not whether I should do anything about that little thought in my head, but how do I move forward. Am I really ready to leave science, and is that even necessary? Is there a way to combine my background in science and engineering with my desire to write? I think the answer is yes, and it's just a matter of time before I figure it out. Meanwhile, I'll be cheering on the brave souls that are reaching for their dreams despite the fear and the "common sense" logic of staying put until the economy digs itself out of the hole that it's in (whenever that may be).