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Thursday, March 10, 2022

The Hard Truth About Changing Careers

 tl;dr:  There is no guarantee of success in changing careers (or anything else, really) even when you are trying to make well reasoned, responsible choices.  Your miserable experience going back to school will not necessarily be inversely proportional to the job you eventually get.

I started seriously thinking about changing careers when we were working in Kazakhstan.  I knew pretty quickly that our employment situation over there was not going to be satisfactory for the long haul and started applying to jobs in the US pretty early on.  I applied to dozens of jobs, but got very little response from employers, which made me think that I might need to change directions.  A few months ago, I came across a Google Doc I made at the time, which laid out information I found about various career paths that interested me.  I decided that if I were to make a change, I would explore speech-language pathology.  Everything I read suggested significant job growth in the field and decent salaries.  I also thought it dovetailed nicely with my language background.

I eventually did get one of the jobs I applied to while I was still in Kazakhstan, so temporarily shelved plans to try to change careers.  However, my new job offered tuition remission, so I thought maybe it would be a good idea to take some prerequisites to a speech-language pathology graduate program.  My idea was that if I ever needed to change careers, any course I completed for free would be to my advantage.  The university made it very easy for me; they had just started an evening program geared toward non-traditional students who wanted to take those courses.

I liked my job and viewed these courses as a back-up option.  Then, in the summer of 2017, I was laid off.  I was rehired about three months later, but during the time I was laid off, I was able to get only a part-time job.  All of a sudden, my back-up option became the main option.  It was a hard decision to leave my job and go back to school, but my workplace continued to be unstable.  Had I stayed, I would have been laid off again a couple months later anyway.

Since I already had one masters degree, I thought I understood what grad school would be like a second time.  Wrong.  A graduate program with a clinical component turned out to be much more time-consuming and stressful than my previous program.  I won't get into this in detail here, but there were also aspects of my specific graduate program that were quite unpleasant.  Especially in the first year, I was stressed, had almost no time to myself, and found my health suffering.  I wanted so badly to drop out, but stayed, both out of fear that I wouldn't find another good job with my existing skill set and out of optimism that a degree in speech-language pathology would open doors to stable, well-paying work.

I graduated in May of 2020, right into the throes of the pandemic.  Since that time, I have had three jobs as a speech-language pathologist, along with some "breaks" in employment.  I completed my clinical fellowship year with a combination of starting at a small private practice and then becoming a contractor with a local school district.  After completing my clinical fellowship year and being awarded my certificate of clinical competence (CCC), I worked for a stint at a skilled nursing facility.  To be perfectly honest, none of these jobs have been the stable, well-paying, "good" jobs I was hoping to get.

There are almost too many problems to mention with the small private practice I started with.  The job as a contractor with the school district was arguably the best job out of the three, both in terms of pay and predictability.  But, there are downsides to being a contractor.  The school district was not able to guarantee my employment from year to year (I didn't get a firm offer of a second year until July).  Also, this two-tiered system of employing speech-language pathologists never sat well with me.  If I had the same responsibilities, stresses, and aggravations of a county employee, why wasn't I eligible for the same benefits?  The problems of being on the lower tier of a two-tiered system became very apparent when I had to make a big fuss to get my Covid vaccine along with the county employees.

When I took the job at the skilled nursing facility, I knew from reviews I read about the company that it wasn't going to be a dream job.  But I was interested in working with adults, and hoped that getting experience working with them in a not-so-great job might set me up to eventually get a better job.  For a while, it seemed okay.  Then I started hearing about how I wasn't meeting productivity standards.  I made changes to what I was doing, and while on my best days when everything worked out perfectly I got close, I never actually met the productivity standards my employer wanted.  Then, admissions plummeted and my hours plummeted.  It was not a salaried position, though the expectation was that I would work 30-40 hours per week.  I was getting so few hours that I left at the end of January, thinking that (a) I wasn't losing out on that much money by leaving, and (b) that it would be difficult to both work (even at a reduced number of hours) and conduct an intensive job search.  (I was right about that--I've had quite a few interviews since then, and interviewers almost invariably want to do them in the middle of the day.  Last week alone, I had three in-person interviews all at 11:00.  It's not exactly easy to fit work in around those midday obligations.)

Having lots of interviews should in theory be an encouraging sign, but being interviewed is not synonymous with getting a job, let alone a good job.  I'd say that in probably half the interviews I have, the employer never officially rejects me, even when they say they'll get back to me within a certain timeframe.  Also, a lot of these jobs just aren't that great and seem to be geared toward people who don't actually need money.  I went to a virtual hiring event for a local hospital system and was told that the only current speech-language pathologist opening they had was a PRN position (someone who works as needed, not on a regular basis).  This position would be mostly weekends.  Then, the interviewer told me they were looking for someone who was independent with swallow studies because they didn't want to have to do a lot of training for a PRN employee.  I get where they're coming from, but who are all these people who get a graduate degree in speech-language pathology, develop advanced competencies in swallowing, and then decide that instead of having a salary and benefits, they would like to work occasional weekends and get whatever money they can get?  I had a similar experience with a private practice recently.  This employer actually was courteous enough to send me an email rejection, but in this rejection sited that (a) she couldn't offer me consistent hours, and (b) she was looking for someone with significant experience in literacy testing.  Again, who becomes specialized in anything only to decide to work for scraps?

At this point, I feel like I didn't read the fine print when I decided to become a speech-language pathologist.  Only the problem is, I never knew there was fine print, and I still haven't seen what it says.  I can only infer from my experience that it exists somewhere.  Maybe the fine print says that speech-language pathology would have been a viable career path for me, except during a pandemic.  Maybe it says that I can have a well-paying job as a speech-language pathologist, but that I have to uproot myself and live in a different part of the country.  Or that I can work as a speech-language pathologist in the DC area, but will only ever get paid scraps.  Or, maybe in the worst case scenario, the fine print says there is something specific about me (my age, unusual educational path, personality...) that is preventing me from getting a good job as a speech-language pathologist.  I have very few useful lessons to share from this experience so far, only a cautionary tale about how the best laid plans don't always work out.


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