When I Grow Up, I Want to be a . . .

Vocational Psychology. I had low expectations for the graduate course – that’s why I signed up to take it over the summer. Memories of bad guidance counselors telling me to fill out surveys that revealed my true calling as a floral designer.

Enter the professor, an accomplished psychologist who peppered us with wonderful anecdotes, sound theory – and occasional group counseling! The class itself was a microcosm of the topic at hand. Thirty students – mostly women, over 60% career changers. Our first major assignment was to write a career autobiography. What internal and external forces had influenced our career decisions? I was surprised by how many women in this group recognized a certain passivity in their career path – doing what their dad wanted, what their mom did, what was expected.

I’ll share portions of my essay another week (I was surprised by how much a vocational narrative became a poignant glimpse into how I make decisions and who/what motivates my actions). But until then, I hope you’ll humor me – because I’ve wanted to ask our blog readers this since taking the course: What were the primary factors influencing your career decisions? or Why do you do what you do? (Did you choose “it”? Did “it” choose you?)

To give the question some shape, here are some factors that often influence our vocational choices:


  1. Parent expecations
  2. Close Role models (your favorite Aunt was an EMT)
  3. Distant Role Models (Eleanor Roosevelt’s bio got you thinking about politics)
  4. Gender Expecations (“female vocations” — would include choices to DEFY such expecations)
  5. Local Environment (what occupations were visible in your immediate community — was it a college town? a factory town?)
  6. Cultural Expectations I – race/ethnicity/nationality
  7. Cultural Expecations II– religion
  8. Cultivated skill (you learned computer programming in jr. high . . .)
  9. “Innate” skill/talent“born to be a . . .”
  10. Temperment (like to work alone; need structure; etc.)
  11. Personal passion (if so, can you identify the root of the passion?)
  12. Economic Necessity
  13. Education level/Access to education
  14. Serendipity (yes, this word appears in the professional literature — a certain opportunity falling into your lap in an unexpected, seredipitous way . . . and the rest is history)

These don’t make the books, but given our readership it’s worth adding these two as potential factors:

  1. Personal revelation (from prayer to patriarchal blessings)
  2. Counsel from religious authority figures

P.S. I could envision your answer having two parts (e.g. college major vs. actual career; first career and then home with children; home with children and then new career, etc).


Deborah is K-12 educator who nurtures a healthy interest in reading, writing, running, ethics, mystics, and interfaith dialogue.

You may also like...

20 Responses

  1. Caroline says:

    I kind of fell into my profession. I knew I wanted to do literature in college, and I had taken 4 years of Latin in high school. When I went to college, the classics profs were so thrilled that I knew Latin that they were super nice and welcoming to me. So I kept on taking their classes.

    I graduated as a classics major and went to grad school. Married Mike. Realized I wasn’t all that passionate about getting a PhD in classics. Went into the teaching program because it seemed like a practical thing to do. And voila, here I am. A Latin teacher. (But I do have aspirations to move on sometime… I don’t know if I’m perfectly cut out for teaching kids. I hate the discipline aspects.)

    My career makes sense considering my family background. My mom was a language teacher too.

    Deborah, can you tell us your career story?

  2. Deborah says:

    I will once I get it edited down enough to be blog-size — look for it in a couple of weeks.

    Sounds like your are a mix of family models, other close role models (teachers), and economic pragmatism. If none of these were a factor, what would want to do, do you think?

    One thing I loved about the class was watching women begin to take ownership for their career choices — to refocus on their current trajectory or begin to dream (and practically plan) anew . . .

  3. Caroline says:

    I’m not sure. I was and still am ambitious. (I’m not after wealth or fame, but I want to use my talents to have an impact on the world, to make it better.) I have mixed feelings about that ambition. On the one hand, I know i shouldn’t find value in society’s estimation of me, but on the other hand, I think it’s not a bad thing to want to help the world on some scale bigger than raising a family and doing my church calling.

    Anyway, what would I do without any type of limitation? Here are some options: Run a non-profit dedicated to helping impoverished women around the world. Be a professor in women’s studies. Be a vet that travels to third world countries and offers free services to animals there. Write novels which explore issues of gender and class.

  4. Caroline says:

    Oh, another one I forgot. Be an organic farmer with lots of animals which live long happy lives.

  5. Deborah says:

    “Be a vet that travels to third world countries and offers free services to animals there.”

    I love that! Vets without Borders. I sometimes hope that reincarnation is an option because I have lots of careers I’d like to explore . . .

  6. Tatiana says:

    Genetic predestiny, I’m afraid. My great-grandfather was an inventor and industrialist. Grandfather on the other side was a consulting engineer. Dad made things always in our workshop which included metal working tools like a lathe and a milling machine. He would put thousands of hours of machining into one telescope that he built. I did grow up really liking to build things, to figure out how things worked, and to put broken things right. One aunt was a programmer in the dark ages, helping to write an early assembler for an IBM mainframe. Obviously assemblers are written in machine code. She was a math major. Another aunt was a med tech. She got her masters in Chemistry, then married a Chem prof and raised 2 scientists and 3 engineers. Great-grandfather on my dad’s side taught engineering at Mississippi State. From the time I was little, I would dissect dolls and toys to find out how they worked. I just needed to understand.

    When I went to choose a major in college, I wasn’t thinking of any of that, but an older brother chose engineering and it seemed cool. I also had always enjoyed doing things girls don’t do (and supposedly can’t do). I was good at most things like that, and had learned not to pay attention to the naysayers by then. So that may have been an influence as well. A bit of contrariness, maybe, but mostly a history of realizing those were the things I found most fun.

    Then I programmed computers, and did engineering in various industries for a number of years, and found it enjoyable and found that I was good at it. About 4 years ago I realized what I’m supposed to do is work to get the human species through the next few hundred years without going extinct. It’s a pretty daunting task, but quite possible, because of course I don’t have to do it all myself. This latest career direction came through revelation.

    So I combined several of the factors on your list in my choice. I’m not sure which had the most influence. I always felt that I was choosing for myself, rather than taking a passive role.

  7. Tatiana says:

    So mine came a little bit from 2, 3, 4, and 8-14.

  8. Deborah says:

    Tatiana: Thank you!

    You wrote, “I also had always enjoyed doing things girls don’t do (and supposedly can’t do).” I think one reason I resisted becoming a teacher (though it was both “in my genes,” a passion, and an innate ability) was because of its perception as a “female profession.” I hated having people congratulate me on making this decision — not because it was the right choice for ME but because it was the right choice for me as woman. I was likewise frustrated by the following verbatim exange in dozens of singles ward munch and mingles:

    Him: So, what do you do?
    Me: I’m a teacher.
    Him: That’s sweet — you must love kids . . .

    And I do. Very much. But I want to scream about the intellectual and creative demands of the job (which isn’t very lady-like — the screaming that is . . .)

    But Tatiana, now you have me intrigued: What do you do that will help save us from extinction? (And thank you, whateve it is!)

  9. Tatiana says:

    =) The main thing is to follow the guidance I receive when it comes. There are many pieces to the puzzle.

    One is to expose smart, creative, and idealistic young people online to these ideas, that they are responsible for the bigger picture, and that wisdom and intelligence can guide us to true paths. It’s a sort of mustard seed idea.

    Second is fostering intense study of these issues. I was greatly heartened by a single topic issue of Scientific American magazine dealing with all the facets of this idea.

    When you dissect it, you find that environmental degradation, third world poverty, exploration and colonization of space, and specific dangers are the main four categories that need to be addressed. All these are important religiously as well. For instance, we are told to give of our substance to the poor. I see that as a mandate to eliminate poverty.

    For environmental degradation I see our relationship with other species being transformed (not sure exactly how) so that we act more truly as stewards rather than rapists of other species, and of the earth.

    For poverty, I see organizations like kiva.org, the church’s PEF, and IDE (International Development Enterprises) being the key. Also the clean water initiative of the church’s humanitarian aid organization also has the right idea. As an engineer I’m working to learn as much about infrastructure as possible, with an eye to serving future missions, and possibly directing efforts in the area of third world development.

    The internet is a new tool for humanity that has barely begun to be tapped. It has amazing potential. That’s going to be involved in every area of this effort, and perhaps an online university will open a wiki or forum or study field of “averting human extinction”. It’s a huge multidisciplinary field, but it’s vitally important.

    The last category of special dangers contains things like asteroid defense (the solar system, we’ve come to realize in the last few decades, is something of a shooting gallery), bird flu preparedness (a widespread enough disaster can bring down civilization), and disaster relief efforts (heavy equipment needs to be ready to be flown into earthquake areas to rescue survivors within the first 24 hours).

    The field is truly huge, and I’ve only scratched the surface in this overview. What needs to happen is for some sort of wiki to be hosted online for all of humanity to collaborate on this project. Perhaps the Wikimedia Foundation will be interested in that idea.

    As for my own efforts, they have been focused on increasing the awareness of kiva, (and developing my own kiva portfolio, as well as a group portfolio for a forum I frequent), gaining experience in engineering infrastructure (so far I’ve done generation, and power, nuclear power, water and waste water treatment, and general industry). I’d like to add some experience in communications technology, animal husbandry and agriculture.

    Of course political theory is really important to this field as well, but I don’t think I’m the one to understand that. I think I’m the technology specialists.

    I’m not positive what direction my involvment will take long-term yet. I just know that this is what I’m supposed to do, and I’ll be led toward how it is I will do it. =)

    If anyone reading this feels led to find out more, or to contribute your efforts, you can email me at TheTatiana AT gmail DOT com.

  10. Seraphine says:

    I ended up in my profession because I’ve always loved school, and I’ve always loved reading and critical thinking, and I’ve considered being an English professor since high school. And even though I entered college undecided about whether or not this was really what I wanted to do, the more I did it, the more I loved it. And then I realized that the unstructured nature of being a professor would work well for me. So, maybe #s 8-11, and 13.

    And Deborah, I can empathize with the attitudes you’ve run across (i.e. “isn’t that sweet that you love teaching”). I used to get driven crazy by people who assumed that English is a major that is for people who slack off/women who have no identifiable career path/etc. Though I get less of that now that I’m pursuing a Ph.D.

  11. Ana says:

    I do public relations for a university, specializing in scientific and technical topics. The writing part comes from genetics/born to be a writer sort of stuff. Writing is easier and more natural for me than speaking. My grandfather was a reporter for the Deseret News for his entire career. I didn’t make the connection between his vocation and mine until he passed away. That was as significant moment for me.

    The science part and the university part also come somewhat from family. My dad is an engineering professor, and because of him, science topics were always sort of in the air at home. I also married a scientist who comes from a family of scientists and professors. My dad tried to encourage me to consider science, but I think he always recognized I was more interested in creative pursuits. When I was very young, he made me a book of “story starts” — ideas for stories that I could write the endings to. Even when I thought I wanted to be a Broadway star, my family was supportive, so really I don’t think I ever had undue pressure to do anything but what I wanted most.

    My patriarchal blessing told me I would know what to study and how to apply those studies. My English major made the most sense to me — and it was probably the best place at BYU for someone like me in the mid-1990s. I got to take courses from Eugene England and Bruce Young and many other wonderful professors who helped me navigate doubt and faith and hard questions. As I got ready to graduate and got an infertility diagnosis at the same time, I realized i was going to have to get an actual job, so I took some technical writing and editing courses.

    I ended up working for WordPerfect Magazine (I was the LAST editor of that publication!) which was actually a great opportunity for a very young person to learn how to manage a whole publication. At the time I sort of resented having to do the job of a more mature editor without the pay of a more mature editor. Now I recognize the serendipity of the opportunity as well as the value of the faith placed in me by the publisher, Edie Rockwood.

    After that company folded, I spent a year doing PR for a small software company in Salt Lake. It was a small blip and really not the most fulfilling job, but it gave me experience with the PR side of the media fence that proved really valuable later. This company also allowed me the chance to freelance while my two boys were very young, which was a great way for me to keep earning and learning while also being a mom at home.

    When we moved to California for my husband to start a Ph.D. program, I first tried to keep freelancing to supplement our drastically reduced income. It wasn’t enough. But one of my new clients, the communications office at the university, ended up being my full time employer. I have done this work full for 2.5 years now. It is the first time I have had a paying job that I feel is worth it. My co-workers are wonderful, and I feel like we are doing work that matters, helping to make higher education accessible in the poorest area of California. My vocation right now mainly falls in the category of blessing!

    • Oleah Morris says:


      You may not remember me, but I hired you as an editor for WordPerfect magazines. My maiden name is Clegg. I am trying to find Edie. Do you have any contact with her?

      Thank you!

  12. Ana says:

    Heh, all that about being a writer and my comment is full of editing errors. I do apologize.

  13. Deborah says:

    “Heh, all that about being a writer and my comment is full of editing errors. I do apologize.” Yeah, I feel like that when I have to edit my post about being an English teacher four times *after* posting it!

    I really love hearing these stories. Tatiana — I am humbled by your passion, vision, and pragmatism. For me, a sign that I’m on the right course is a wealth of energy and creativity — and your post had that in spades.

    Seraphine: My other major was English 🙂

    Ana: I love your last line. I’ve enjoyed reading about your career on your blog and it’s nice to see the mixture of skills and serendipity that went into it (by the way, I think it’s delightful that “serendipity” is actually a term used in vocational psychology literature . . .)

    (More please!)

  14. AmyB says:

    The idea for my career was planted when I was working in a library while I was in high school. I was checking in books, and flipped through one called “Best Careers for the Year 2000”. The page fell open to Music Therapy. I thought it sounded very cool, much too cool for me, in fact. With some serendipity, and what seemed like the Spirit leading me, I ended up in a music therapy program. At the time I was also attracted to that career because it seemed like I could do it part time and be a mom. I continued on and got my Master’s degree in music therapy as well. Currently I am a full-time (and then some) practicing Music Therapist. I also have the great pleasure of training graduate fieldwork students, so I get to do some teaching, which I love.

    It’s worked out well for me so far, and I love what I do, but I’m getting antsy for more. I’ve got my eye on a ph.d in developmental psychology. I shamelessly admit that I aspire to being called “doctor” one day.

    It’s been interesting to read about family influences. My mother never finished college. My father has a b.s. in computer science. I’ve gone farther then either of them educationally. They didn’t do much in the way of pushing me toward one thing or another. In high school I took all of the math and science classes . . . so college was a major swing in a different direction. I almost did engineering. What a different life I might have now if I’d taken that path!

  15. Deborah says:

    Music therapy *still* sounds really cool.

    “I almost did engineering. What a different life I might have now if I’d taken that path!”

    I know I said this on another thread, but I hope there’s a heavenly version of the holodeck/choose-your-own-adventura series where I can see what my life would have been if I had become a journalist . . . or made any number of choices I had been tempted to make . . .

  16. Anonymous says:

    I was lucky enough to have the career I wanted most and that was to be a stay at home mom. This wasn’t expected of me by my family, I didn’t grow up in the Church, I did go to college and earned a degree in Sociology because nothing is more interesting to me than people and why they do what they do and think what they think etc.. But the truth is, I always wanted to be a mom, I wanted to be the perfect mom, which I wasn’t, and I was sure I would have 3 boys and 3 girls and I have 7 girls, and I was going to have the perfect home, which I didn’t but all in all I’ve never been sorry that I did what I did and I have felt so lucky that I was able to do exactly what I wanted to do. I really think that’s the most important factor in a career choice, that it is what you want to do most. I am loving reading this one and seeing the fascinating and very different choices that each of you unique individuals have made and are making. ps now I’m a grandma and that’s the best by far.

  17. Deborah says:

    “I’ve never been sorry that I did what I did and I have felt so lucky that I was able to do exactly what I wanted to do.”

    I’m sure there are a thousand stories to tell within your comment (conversion, raising seven girls, personal choices). But that comment is extraordinary. I hope many many us will be able to say that at the end of the day, whatever our paths. Thank you for writing in!

  18. maria says:

    My decision to become an immigration attorney was based mostly upon the #11 personal passion category. During my mission to the Spanish-speaking immigrant community in California I was continuously saddened, outraged, and disgusted by the unjust obstacles faced by the undocumented immigrants I worked with. It was a life-changing experience. I felt a fiery, fierce passion begin to burn within me. Before then, I didn’t know if there was something I could dedicate my life to completely. A few months into my mission I realized that there was.

    Other contributing factors? If I’m being honest, I’d probably also have to admit to a desire to buck traditional gender roles, in addition to a desire to have a career that could provide me with some level of financial security should something ever happen to my husband.

Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.