My Career Story

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When I wrote about vegetable oil, I mentioned that I had been involved in medical research, and that I had been thinking about becoming a dietitian. But when I shared my Irish Soda Bread recipe, I talk about being a teacher. And my site title is “Hardheaded Homesteading Housewife.” You may be confused.

So I decided to share a little bit about my career background. This isn’t a post with helpful tips or recipes or advice – it’s just my story so you understand what exactly I’d done with my life so far.

At the time of writing this post, I am 24 years old (Yup, super young), and I’ve changed my career plans many different times. But each time gave me an incredible wealth of knowledge and some really useful skills.

Childhood

If you would’ve approached me when I was five years old and asked me what I wanted to be when I grew up, I would’ve told you I wanted to be a farmer. I grew up reading the Little House on the Prairie books and thought there was no greater goal than to have a milk cow and grow crops.

Seriously.

Then my mom told me about how modern farming involves selling things to people and following government regulations. It does not mean that you have a little self sufficient farm where you go to town once a month to trade wheat and animal furs for sugar and coffee. I was devastated. My dreams were crushed.

Next, I decided that I wanted to be an environmentalist, because I liked nature. I thought that meant I would spend my life hiking and observing animals. My mom’s cousin actually did this, though he called it being a “scientist” and spent his career exploring the rainforest and studying butterflies, so it seemed pretty doable. My parents encouraged me by kicking me outside to play most days, and buying me cool science experiment toys. I grew to love science almost as much as nature.

School came easily to me, and I ended up in bazillion advanced placement classes, including a special program at my high school that emphasized math and science. I was able to take college biology, chemistry, physics, calculus, statistics, and computer programming while still in high school, and everybody was pushing me to become some sort of doctor or engineer. “Farmer” and “nature photographer” were, according to the guidance counselors, non-options.

But I was a teenager, and I decided I was sick of math and science, and didn’t want to do what everybody expected me to do. Plus, school was easy…but boring. I was athletic and a very hands-on person, and I had grown to love true crime stories. Instead of doing anything science-y, I decided to become a cop, with aspirations to join the FBI.

I know, I know. I was a teenager okay? Teenagers aren’t known for their good decision making skills.

My Career in Criminal Justice & The Beginning of College

Since I had a crazy high GPA, crazy high ACT and SAT scores, and a bunch of college credit, I could pretty much go to any college I wanted. I opted for a state school that was about an hour from where I lived – close enough to come home, but far enough away to be on my own. This school also happened to be #2 in the nation for criminal justice at the time. Since I was entering the school with 62 credit hours from my advanced placement classes, and I had scholarships that required me to be a full-time student, it became obvious that I needed a second major or minor to have enough credit hours. I decided to double major in psychology, since psychology was cool and supposed to be really easy. My dorm was also across the street from the psychology building, so that was convenient.

I really enjoyed my criminal justice classes, and I was getting excited about my career plans. But I was also beginning to have doubts. Most of my friends were in some sort of science field, and I sometimes studied with them in order to learn about the stuff they were learning about. Yes, I know I’m weird. As an honors student, I was allowed to take whatever classes I wanted and count them toward university-required science and arts classes, instead of taking the generic undergraduate required classes. I decided that it would be “fun” to take physiology and animal behavior, and liked those classes at least as much as my criminal justice ones.

To top it off, I realized that work-life balance as an FBI agent would be terrible, and I was starting to feel that I might want a family someday – not soon, but someday. After a lot of thought, I decided to switch majors.

My Career in Medicine

I still loved science, and my physiology elective had been fascinating. Many of my friends were going to school to become doctors. It seemed like an obvious choice to follow suit. I switched my primary major from criminal justice to neuroscience, and kept psychology as a second major because I still needed the extra classes to keep my scholarships.

Some textbooks from the days when I was pursuing a career in medicine.
Some of my college textbooks – I actually kept these, because they’re still useful to my understanding of human health and nutrition.

The pre-med program took me through my junior year of college, and I really liked it. I also excelled in it, to the point that I got approval to take a few graduate level classes in physiology and nutrition instead of the standard undergraduate ones. Plus, one of my scholarships freshman year gave me a stipend in exchange for being an intern in a research facility, and I was heavily involved in research from that point forward. I even got more stipends later for traveling around the state presenting my research to college alumni, who donated to college research.

It was pretty great, especially since I was paying practically nothing for my education + living expenses – just a few thousand a year. Since I worked part-time, I was on track to graduate debt-free. By the middle of junior year, I was hired for a real (part-time) job in a breast cancer research study. I worked with patients, wrote grant applications, dealt with ethics committees, and learned more than I ever wanted to know about writing and publishing articles in scientific journals.

However, as much as I liked my classes and my job, I was beginning to have doubts about being an actual doctor. I volunteered at a hospital, and used that as an opportunity to talk to doctors in a variety of specialties about their careers. A lot of them worked really hard, and really cared about their patients…but they weren’t able to spend much time with them because of red tape and pressure to fit as many patients as possible into a day. On top of that, many of them were unable to pay off their immense student loans until they were into their 40s, or even later. I currently had no debt, and I was getting pretty serious with my boyfriend (now-exhusband – read about that here), and wasn’t sure I wanted that life.

After an insane amount of pressure and stress and thinking, I decided that although I would like to be a doctor, it wasn’t worth the time and cost of medical school. But it was junior year. What else could I do with my degree?

My Short-Lived Career in Nutrition

Since my favorite part of physiology was digestion and my favorite topic in health was nutrition, I settled on dietetics (a fancy word for nutrition). That would involve graduate school, but it wouldn’t be as long or as expensive as medical school, and work-life balance had the potential to be better. I didn’t need to change my undergraduate major (which was good, since I was about to graduate); all I needed to do what apply to grad school instead of med school.

Senior year, I was promoted to project manager of my research team and made near-full-time (I worked just few enough hours to go to my classes, then come straight back to work. I also skipped a lot of my classes. Whoops.) They also offered to make me truly full-time after graduation, with a good salary and benefits. This was a pretty tempting offer, and I decided to really think about whether I wanted to go to grad school or not.

To make sure of my decision, I took some dietetics classes outside of my university. I paid for these out-of-pocket, and was struck for the first time by how expensive college was when you had to pay for it. To make matters worse, I quickly got frustrated because the “science” they were teaching us was antiquated. My work in research and my education in physiology (which surpassed my dietetics professors knowledge of it) wouldn’t let me accept the nutrition claims they were making at face value. As you read in my vegetable oil post, I was convinced that some of the things they were teaching were incorrect – and even harmful! And it wasn’t just vegetable oil – many of the tenants of nutrition made no sense to me, and after investigating thoroughly, still make no sense to me.

This, by the way, was when I really began to explore alternative health – some of which I think is good, and some of which is just pseudo-science “fake news.”

Either way, how could I pay boatloads of money to go to school to tell people nutrition things that I was pretty darn sure were dead wrong?

Should I just take the full time job in breast cancer research instead?

My Career in “I Don’t Care, I’m in Love.”

I was 21, and I had just graduated college. I could keep working in my current job, get a good salary and great benefits, and pursue a career in academic medical research. The job even offered tuition-reimbursement if I went to graduate school for something research related.

There was one big problem though.

My boyfriend was back home, in my hometown.

We’d been dating since high school, and I was quite sick of not living in the same city as him. He still had another year of school. On top of that, all of my college friends would be moving to different states or back home after graduation, which would leave me with a great job…but no family, friends, or boyfriend closer than an hour away. On top of that, our hometown was ripe with engineering jobs – my boyfriend’s major – and my college town was not. Chances are, I’d have to move to be with him when he got a job anyway.

I (somewhat foolishly) decided that screw it, I was going home.

Sort of unrelated to my career story until this point, I had fallen in love with children after running the preschool program for Vacation Bible School at church, and accidentally stumbled across a program at a community college where I could get my teaching certificate with only 4 night classes, some student teaching, and a bachelor’s degree (which I already had).

The more I thought about being a teacher, the more appealing it sounded. I could get a job anywhere, and I would have reasonable work hours, and when I started a family, my work hours would match school hours. That’d be a pretty big advantage. And I could help people and have a meaningful career – which is really what I wanted.

My Career in Pharmaceuticals

I was (slowly and uncertainly) thinking of pursuing teaching, but I needed a job because I didn’t want to move back in with my parents. I’d been on my own since 18, and at 21 I didn’t really want to go back. I got myself hired at a small company that contracted with numerous pharmaceutical companies to run research studies. My boss told me that many of the workers went on to work in pharmaceuticals, where I could make hundreds of thousands of dollars. In fact, I watched several coworkers move on to exactly that in the year that I worked there.

There was a problem.

It was obvious to me that the pharmaceutical companies cared more about the bottom line than they did about human health.

They ignored side effect reports, manipulated statistics to exclude people who experience severe side effects after taking the study medication, and set insane criteria for study qualification that made the drug non-applicable to the majority of Americans. It was appalling. I hated myself for working there. And I wanted no part in it.

I quickly pursued teaching, attending classes at night. Money or no money, I couldn’t work in an industry like this. I could go back into academia and work for a university, but I felt so jaded about science after seeing what went on behind the scenes that I didn’t even want to do that. I just wanted to teach kids about cells and Shakespeare and actually feel good about myself when I came home at night, instead of feeling like I’d made a deal with the devil.

***Note: I realize that my experiences may not reflect the entire industry of pharmaceuticals. I’m sure there have been drugs produced with the best interests of the consumer in mind, and I don’t mean to put down people who may work in this field. In fact, one of the companies I worked with seemed to genuinely care about their clients. However, I saw too many that put profits before people to want to work in the industry***

My Career in Education

I quit my job when it was time to start student teaching, and I loved it. I received my probationary teaching certificate (I would be probationary for three years), and was thrilled to have finished school with no debt and a nice chunk of change in the bank from my pharmaceutical job. My boyfriend was finally done with school too, and was starting his first career job – and moving in with me. We were on the same page about marriage and children, even though we weren’t technically married yet, and I was excited for our future together. I had even bought a house with the money I had saved while working in pharmaceuticals. Everything was going amazingly well…except that I no longer had a job.

Photo of my first planting - a few potted herbs on my patio.
As soon as I bought my house, I planted some potted herbs. It was too late in the season to have a full garden, but I at least wanted to grow something. I quickly fell in love.

I decided to temporarily work as a substitute teacher, and start applying for real teaching jobs as soon as possible. Before long, I was offered a full-time job as a parapro at a school only three miles from home. Even though that wasn’t quite teaching, it was a good job with benefits, and was a better choice than subbing while I was looking for a teaching position. I would be working with troubled students, with my own classroom and some modicum of independence.

It was fantastic. My commute was ten minutes, and I worked when the kids were there…but that was it. At 3pm, I went home and could take care of cooking and cleaning and the garden that I was finally able to put in now that I had a house. I liked working with kids and even though the job was hard sometimes, and didn’t pay a whole lot, it was a pretty great overall. I was excited to start teaching for real, but I was also content with where I was at.

My Career as a Homesteading Housewife

Over the last few years, I had been begun following several real food and homesteading blogs. I was rekindling my old interest in growing crops, except now I was just growing a few “crops” for me, in my yard. I loved learning old skills, like bread-making, and finding frugal ways to eat healthy and do things independently. DIY cleaners, home improvements, soil amendments, and more began to find their way into my life. I started off just doing a few things to save money or to optimize health…but ended up really falling in love with the whole homesteading concept. I was determined to have my own homestead, even if it was in the suburbs and couldn’t include cows or chickens.

One of my first garden harvests as I began my journey toward a "career" in homesteading.
One of my first garden harvests – I was so proud! And my husband realized how awesome growing food is.

At first, I did all this on my own. My (now-ex) husband hunted, fished, and cooked, but that was the extent of his interest in “homesteading.” But after I had my first “summer off” of work, and introduced him to the joy of growing plants, vermicomposting, and started talking about raising meat rabbits…he was hooked.

And I do mean hooked.

Like, we decided we want to save up our money and buy land out in the country, then move out there as soon as he finds a good job. That’s our 5-10 year plan. We’re currently homesteading in the suburbs, but we fully intend to go whole-hog farm-life when we are financially able.

The other thing I learned from my first summer not working, was that I liked not working. And I don’t mean that I liked sitting around, drinking iced tea and watching Netflix (though I do like that on occasion). I liked working at home for my family. I liked doing all the chores so that when my man came home, he could relax and do things he enjoys, like clean guns and build garden planters (I’m not kidding. He considers that fun. He also likes to play video games, but doesn’t do that too often). I liked picking up odd jobs and surprising him with extra cash randomly. I liked reducing stress by always being available to do what was necessary. I’m pretty sure I worked harder that summer than during the school year, and I love every second of it.

Photo of my work badge - my current job as a parapro
My current work badge. This will be my job until I either have kids or move, whichever comes first. My career, however, is at home.

Moreover, my husband liked me not working. He really liked it. He liked it so much that he tried to convince me not to go back to work in the fall. I won that debate, because we don’t have kids yet and my income is 100% going toward paying our current mortgage, which is important to our dream to buy our own land. He acknowledges that my working makes sense, but he doesn’t really like it.

As a compromise, I actually decided to stay in my current position as a parapro, because it frees me from a lot of the work load that teachers have. I don’t grade papers, meet with parents in the evening, or have professional development workshops in the summer. I don’t have to take continuing education classes – although I have my fill of continuing education as I try to add useful skills to my repertoire of homesteading skills. To be fair, my income is also lower than a teacher’s income. But I chaperone many of my schools’ athletic events and other after-school activities in the winter, which almost makes up for it.

I genuinely care about my students and I like helping them, but I’m not working on my teaching career anymore. I’m working to make money to serve my family, and I will continue to serve my family to the best of my ability inside and outside of the home. When we have kids, I’ll probably stop “working”. When we get our farm, I will certainly stop “working” – though you can rest assured that I’ll be working harder than ever.

Am I Insane?

If you read this far into the article – and I commend you, because it’s a very long post – then you may be wondering if I’m out of my mind. I got straight-As in school, went to college for almost free, had a variety of opportunities to have an insanely successful career at a very young age…and threw it away to make a garden and try to become a farmer?

What?

Well, I don’t think I’m insane. I think I could’ve been happy as a doctor, or even as a police officer. I know I’m happy working in education and would like being a teacher. Honestly, I think most people can be happy doing lots of things. But at the end of the day, I kept making choices that would get me closer to what I ultimately wanted – a family, a garden, and a simple life. What I’m doing isn’t for everybody. I think a lot of people would benefit from eating healthy, adding a garden, and learning to cook, and I hope lots of people in lots of different situations can benefit from some of the information in this blog. But the whole-hog, pay off the mortgage and move to the country by the age of 30 thing…yeah, not for everybody.

But if you think about it, I’m just doing what American culture tells us to do – I’m pursuing my dream. You know, the one I had when I was 5. And that’s okay with me.

Gee, 5-year-olds are smart.

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