Dr. Michelle Mudge-Riley, D.O, is a career coach who works with those navigating the transition to another profession. She is a physician by training and underwent her career transition 15 years ago. Mudge-Riley has since served as Entrepreneur in Residence for Trinity University and teaches a course there on traditional and nontraditional options for a career in science. Join her email list on her website to access stories of professionals who have started side gigs, transitioned to other careers, or figured out how to get what they want out of life.
How do you know if you have what it takes to be an entrepreneur? Every week several people tell me they hate their jobs and want to do something different, but they aren’t sure what they want to do or how to do it. These are professionals who have gone to school for a long time, sometimes decades, have taken extremely challenging licensing exams, and keep up with continuing education within their STEM (science, technology, engineering, and math) fields. But they fantasize about having a business. One person wants to have a food truck. Several have mentioned their desire to open a bar in the Bahamas.
I don’t think it’s the allure of selling $2 tacos from a hot, cramped space on a truck or getting sand in their shorts every day selling drinks in the Bahamas that has gotten these doctors, engineers, or Ph.D. scientists excited. I know that because I’m one of them. What’s exciting about these possibilities is that they get you out of the stifling environment that has become mundane or unsustainable with the overwhelming amount of work that doesn’t interest you in the way it should.
The number one problem every one of these people has is not understanding how their current professional skills could be applied to another career field.
Any professional with an advanced degree, especially those in the STEM fields, has spent years in the traditional education system focused on attaining a career position. Education gives you skills on how to approach problems, documenting within a variety of settings, gathering data, interpreting data, and coming to an evidence-based conclusion. But traditional education doesn’t always foster creative approaches to problem-solving, and it’s easy to miss opportunities to develop that skill set. I ignored those opportunities completely when I was becoming a medical doctor because I figured I wouldn’t need it.
When the time comes for figuring out how to understand, communicate, and apply transferable skills to another field or setting, many professionals feel lost once they realize they don’t want to do what they were trained to do.
Here are three things to consider if you’re a STEM professional who’s ever thought, “I’ve always wanted to open a business.”
Just because you are good at something doesn’t mean you should do it as a job.
Some scientists love to cook and think they should become a chef or a nutritionist. Actuaries by day who are gym rats by night are convinced they missed their calling as personal trainers. While it may be true that another career is a better fit for you, doing your hobby full time turns that pleasurable pastime into a job, one where there’s always at least 20 percent of your time being spent on things you don’t want to do. Suddenly the details you could ignore or minimize become important, like regulations and laws you didn’t need to worry about before. You don’t have work-life balance anymore because the thing you used to do for “balance” is what you do all the time now.
Consider that before you jump into a degree program or spend a small fortune on professional baking supplies and a membership to a community kitchen. It’s a mistake many highly educated people make. Don’t do it.
Your educational and experience are valuable skill sets and could be applied to a variety of different roles in different settings.
Those of us in traditional careers have defined skills that enable us to perform essential tasks in our job, like creating spreadsheets, teaching students, or modifying audit reports. Doing these things allows us to be able to say we “do our jobs.”
Instead of budgeting for a Fortune 500 company, an accountant could create financial projections for a founder’s pitch deck. If that accountant has managed clients or accounts, that strategic planning, operational, and managerial experience opens the door to six or seven jobs in a variety of industries – probably more. The employee who can implement and follow through – skills learned in almost every professional degree program – will help any company have a higher chance of success.
You don’t have to leave your field entirely to figure this out.
Some people tell me they are “trapped” because they have a mortgage, loans, and a car payment and lack the financial freedom to leave their current corporate job. They long for a creative outlet that isn’t there in their work or to escape daily workday routines. I ask these people if they have ever thought about starting a side gig. Some people who succeeded in a career transition started out with a side business that grew to the point where they could make it their full-time job. Often, these people end up doubling or quadrupling their income.
You are responsible for your own life. Don’t stay in a job that’s making you miserable for the next 20 years. Be smart about it and know your value and worth. Understand your skills can be applied to a variety of industry sectors and if you’re worried about a pay cut, know you might make more money than you do now. There is hope, and you CAN do this.