This post was originally published in March 2014. Since I’ve gotten some questions about and interest in my career story recently, I thought I’d update and repost the series. Click here for part 1, here for part 2, here for part 3, here for part 4.
When I ended the previous installment of my career path series, I’d just started a PhD program in German Applied Linguistics.
When I think about my career path up to starting the PhD program it seems like a straight line. I went from one clearly defined experience to the next. But when I started my PhD, my career path became much less linear and whole lot messier.
During the seven years it took me to finish my doctorate (yes, seven) I continually ventured out in one direction, pivoted, ventured out in a slightly different direction, pivoted, ventured, pivoted, etc. I remember not knowing exactly where I was going to end up – or where I even wanted to end up – but I knew my career was still moving forward. I was confident that trying a lot things would help me figure things out in the end. (It did.)
I started out in world language learning and teaching, thinking I might become a German professor and language coordinator. I studied second language acquisition, applied linguistics, Germanic linguistics, research methods, cultural studies, educational technology and – because I had to – German literature. I taught as many first and second year German courses as I could. I loved it.
During my first year in the PhD program I collaborated with another grad student and received a $60,000 grant to purchase and integrate new technology in our second-year language classes. Later, we completely revised the second-year German curriculum in our department, started presenting about the project at conferences, and wrote a couple articles. It was awesome!
The entire multi-year project was on our own time (A LOT of our own time) and I don’t think we were ever paid for it (the grant just covered the technology) but at the time I didn’t care (also, I didn’t know any better). I mean, I was working on a super cool project that I thought up, got funded, and that people were interested in. Plus, I was collaborating with my best grad school friend whose strengths and skills complemented mine. What could be better? Looking back, I realize this project was a major catalyst for helping me better understand what I wanted in my career.
I tried a lot things in grad school and developed many new skills through my classes, teaching, interning, writing, researching, presenting, applying for grants, and creating, pitching and funding projects. I developed a serious interest in websites, online learning, and study abroad, and as I approached my comprehensive exams I knew I’d have to narrow my focus in order to write my dissertation.
I was equally interested in technology and education abroad. After a few years in the PhD program I was on the fence about spending my life as a German professor at one university, so I started exploring a career in study abroad because I thought it would offer more career options. Then, I was selected to teach for a study abroad program in Germany. Perfect! This turned out to be the second pivotal experience that helped me figure out the direction I wanted my career to go in.
During my semester with the study abroad program I co-created a month-long orientation program, and then taught an upper-division language and culture course. My class focused on finding your voice in a new language and culture.
While there were many wonderful moments, overall, it was a tough 4.5 months. The semester-long class I taught was condensed into about two months, so it was intense, to say the least. All I did was plan, teach, and grade. I felt like I had no idea what I was doing most of the semester, and sometimes it felt awkward being a non-native German speaker teaching German to US American students in Germany. Plus, 9/11 happened less than a week after our students arrived.
Fortunately, I shared an apartment with my two fellow TAs, who were also PhD students, and we helped and supported each other. And, even though I focused on teaching, rather than the running of the on-site study abroad program, it was extremely valuable to experience a study abroad program from the program management perspective. It was one of those experiences that was very challenging but I’m so glad I did it.
On the personal side, my semester in Germany was the first time Aaron and I had spent a significant amount of time apart since we’d gotten married a year earlier. He came to visit twice and we had a lot of fun traveling together but it was hard to be apart for so long. I just missed experiencing life with Aaron. That semester in Germany helped us define how we wanted to balance my wanderlust and global career with Aaron’s desire for roots and his location-dependent job.
My semester teaching for the study abroad program was pivotal. During my time there, I took stock of what I enjoyed doing and what I didn’t enjoy doing, what I was good at and what I wasn’t so good at, what I wanted my work environment to be like, and how Aaron and I envisioned our future. When I got back to the US I had a dissertation topic and clearer idea for my career…