One Woman’s Career Choices

A colleague asked me years ago why I (and other women) appeared to be leaving aerospace. It’s a career that takes some dedication. We all survived at least four years of engineering college and a few internships. Yet we were disappearing in droves 5 – 10 years into our careers.

I left aerospace after three years.

I had a friend that spent nearly ten years in aerospace before quitting to travel the world. She amassed nearly two years worth of expenses and seems in no hurry to return to work.

I also had a female friend join aerospace and triple her previous income.

For the first two scenarios, I started to understand this phenomenon thanks to an article in The Atlantic. It appears when women have the choice to do STEM or not, many choose not. Yet, in countries where engineering or science is the ticket to a better life, more women stick with it.

I’ll admit that the salary was, in part, what drew to me to engineering. It’s essentially the biggest bang for your college tuition. Not many other careers offer $50,000 per year after only four years of schooling. But I always had a choice, which is why I chose to major in writing too.

I liked the article because it backed up my decision to leave engineering. However, sometimes I miss the complex problems that I used to solve. Loving writing doesn’t seem like a good enough reason to entirely leave STEM behind.

This is where I run into trouble because I’m not sure what I believe about the role a job should play in my life. If I believe that my work should be my passion, I should obviously spend all my day writing article queries and editing my book. Yet, if I focus on a job as a way to simply pay the bills, many other opportunities open up for me. Trying to match your passion is a high bar that few jobs meet.

Thanks to another Atlantic article, I’m thinking about this question in a new way, and my third friend’s decision to join aerospace makes more sense. In a survey of college-educated women, two researchers found that those who wanted passion in their work were more likely to leave work for motherhood or other desires. However, those that saw work as means to support themselves were more likely to stick with their jobs and cultivate some interest in them.

I find myself straddling these two ideas awkwardly. I do want to spend the majority of my time pursuing my passions, particularly writing. It would be excellent if I got paid for it, but experience has taught me that passion projects are more soul-fulfilling than coffer filling. Pursuing my passion in the face of monetary obstacles has landed me with credit card debt and a long list of IOUs. So, at the same time, I also want to support myself. I hate relying on others to help pay the bills.

So I’m also trying to straddle these two ideas in reality. I want to have a well-paying job that, while possibly not soul-fulfilling, pays the bills (hopefully at a rate where I can work 20-30 hours per week). Then I want to have enough time and energy left over to pursue my writing.

While that conclusion seems crystal clear, it’s not.

I’ve spent days deliberating with myself whether it’s the right choice. The publications that extol being your authentic-self seem to tell me to just trust that the writing will work out and keep going (even as I fall further into debt). And I just can’t bring myself to do that. Supporting myself is too important to me. However, I am also loathe to chase a full-time job because having time for my passions is also important to me.

Not picking a side makes me feel like I’m walking the edge of a knife. I’m constantly trying to balance passion and energy expended for money. Even now, I wonder whether my time would be better spent working rather than writing.

It’s a confusing gray area, but I’m unwilling to leap into a full-time job or to trust that I can be a full-time writer. The middle ground is hard to walk, but I can’t seem to find a more appropriate place for me.

One year of wandering, now a return

More than a year ago, I fell while I was running. Somehow the blood running down my elbow dislodged a deep sadness within me. The sadness was the hole in me where my writing used to be. But I took it as an insight that aerospace engineering was not the right course for me. I limped back to my aerospace job, bandaged my arm and leg, and let a deep well of sadness open up within me. After I quit three months later, I felt like I never wanted to return to engineering.

But my boyfriend would not let me forget my engineering background as I wandered toward writing.

“Don’t you think you should give it another try?”

“There are lots of different parts to aerospace that you haven’t tried yet.”

“You might like it.”

Every time he said this, I remembered my fall. I would check my right elbow again to see if the scar was still there, reminding me. In my mind, engineering had made me betray my lifelong goal of writing. I wasn’t sure that I was ready to forgive engineering for that.

Except, I heard an excellent opportunity right after I quit.

At the Space Entrepreneurs meetup, a company owner and CEO told me about his aerospace systems engineering company. It had a unique setup, where all the employees were contractors (and technically owned their own companies). The company had a weird set of expertise that culminated in an understanding of complex aerospace systems. These people were the architects of such systems, defining the engineering vision. The ideas called to me, as did the flexible hours, high pay, and ability to take months off at a time (…to write…?)

Despite my need to leave aerospace, this aerospace opportunity became my measuring stick. Would I like this freelancing job as much as that contracting one? Would I be able to live the lifestyle I wanted, like the contracting job would allow me to do? Nothing really held up in comparison, though I applied and was rejected by other jobs anyway. And then I drove Uber for a while, the perfect job for the uncommitted.

Then I stopped doing everything. In writing my memoir, I had unearthed some old memories. They seared through me and left me in a haze. It seemed like the only way to heal was to stay in the house and read science fiction books all day. I read three books by Guy Gavriel Kay in two weeks. I distracted myself; I grieved for my past self, who gave up her ability to argue – in order to make someone else happy. I wouldn’t leave the house because other people made my skin feel raw.

In all this chaos and confusion, a clear thought came to me. I’m ready to seize the opportunity put in front of me nearly a year ago. I emailed the company owner, saying I hoped that he remembered me after all this time.

He did. The opportunity was not lost. It was waiting for me to be ready.