When I meet with students, they are often interested in hearing about my career path. Here’s a tip: Be open to opportunities you may not have considered.
Step 1. Deciding what to do
When I was in high school in the mid-1960s, I asked my guidance counselor how to decide on a college. She said, “Go to a school that’s good in what you want to study in order to prepare for your career.” I asked, “How do I decide on a career?” She gave me a Department of Labor book with a very long list of occupations. As I read it, I was drawn to hospital work. I ruled out a lot of professions because they required a graduate degree, and I wanted to get right to work after 4 years of college. Dietetics fit the bill. I thought learning about the link between nutrition and health and disease would be fascinating.
Not too many people pick a career in high school and stick with it for life. I guess I was lucky. Plus there a lot of things you can do with a degree in nutrition.
Step 2. Finding a college
I looked for schools that had excellent nutrition programs; but I quickly found that, believe or not, most required majoring in home economics and that meant taking at least one sewing course – not an interest of mine. I found three universities where I could major in nutrition and not home economics. I was accepted at all three and went to the one that offered me a scholarship – Western Reserve University (It became Case Western Reserve before I graduated). I was drawn to public health, and it was easy to get a master’s degree in nutrition with a public health emphasis by staying on for a fifth year. So that’s what I did.
After that I completed a clinical dietetic internship at the University of Michigan Medical Center. I wanted to be a Registered Dietitian and thought (and still believe) that hospital dietetics would be an important foundation for any career in nutrition.
Step 3. Getting the first job
I landed my first professional job as a clinical dietitian at the District of Columbia General Hospital. Back then it was the city’s only public hospital. It was a teaching hospital, and whenever a new group of third-year medical students came to my floor for a rotation, it seemed that the first thing the medical interns would let them do was write diet orders. I spent a lot of time chasing down physicians and asking them to change those diet orders. This was inefficient. So I asked if I could have 1 hour with each new group of students on their first Friday afternoon (when no one else wanted to be teaching them). I taught them how diet therapy was practiced on the fourth floor of D.C. General. I used the Socratic method and quickly realized I needed a refresher course in biochemistry. About that time, I learned that only 3 percent of PhDs in science and engineering were being awarded to women. That motivated me to take biochem as the first course in my PhD program at the University of Maryland.
After a few years the job became a bit boring. I began to look around and discovered what I probably knew all along: The action in nutrition in the nation’s capital was in the federal government. I filled out a lengthy form, the SF171 Application for Federal Employment and took it to the Office of Personnel Management. The person who accepted it was not encouraging. She said there were only 200 nutrition positions in the whole government. I thought, “That’s OK. I only want one of them.”
Step 4. Starting federal service
That led to a job at the Navy Food Service Systems Office in the Washington Navy Yard. Even though I wasn’t eligible for the draft, this position fit my desire for alternative service. I edited a newsletter that went to all the dining facilities used by enlisted members of the Navy around the world on land and at sea. My favorite memory was when our commanding officer took everyone in the office to Norfolk to visit an aircraft carrier. Awesome. But I knew working as a civilian for the military wasn’t really in line with my values, so I began perusing other federal job openings.
One job that caught my eye was at the USDA Human Nutrition Information Service in suburban Maryland. Articles written by staff members appeared frequently in the Journal of the American Dietetic Association. It seemed like they did interesting work. The posting was about working on the food consumption surveys. The KSAs included knowing how to design a large survey, which I had no idea how to do, but I figured I could learn. (Turns out the contractor actually designs the survey.) When the contractor’s staff didn’t know how to code a food reported in the survey, they sent the food description to us. The fun ones came from Hawaii and Alaska. I learned how to write reports and design tables and became interested in survey statistics. I’ve always enjoyed working with statisticians. And I had opportunities to work with people in other agencies on important issues related to nutrition monitoring.
All the while I continued my graduate studies one course at a time. I had trouble finding an adviser. Faculty wanted me to quit my job and work in their labs. Eventually the department chair took me under her wing and let me do secondary data analysis of the survey data I was working on. Everyone else had said I had to collect my own data. When it came time to pick a dissertation topic, I asked my supervisor for ideas. She gave me a list of 10. Soft drinks interested me, and sugar- sweetened beverages is a topic that continues to have legs more than 30 years later. You know your dissertation topic has arrived when it gets an acronym – SSBs.
Step 5. Commuting cross country
In 1996, I was off to Utah, where my husband had a fabulous opportunity. I did some consulting work, a lot of volunteer work, and got my two kids through high school and into good universities. When the younger one was a senior, she said, “What are you going to do next year when I’m away at school?” So I signed up at USAJOBS and started getting three emails a day about openings I might be interested in. It wasn’t long before one that was right up my alley came along at the USDA Center for Nutrition Policy and Promotion…but it was in Virginia. I applied anyway.
I got that job in 2003, rented an apartment in Alexandria, across the street from the office, and began commuting back and forth to Salt Lake City. I worked four 10-hr days, Monday-Thursday, came home for a 4-day weekend, then worked four 10-hr days, Tuesday-Friday. Repeat. (Don’t try this if you have been married for less than 35 years.) Eventually I worked my way into being the lead for the revision of the Healthy Eating Index and developed a wonderful working relationship with nutritionists and statisticians at the National Cancer Institute. I also served as staff for the 2010 Dietary Guidelines Advisory Committee and was member of the group that wrote the Dietary Guidelines for Americans, 2010. Originally my plan had been to stay at that job for 3 years so that I could get the most benefit from the federal retirement system. Once I was there, however, I found out I had to work for 5 years to get health insurance in retirement. So it became a 5-year plan. But after I was there for 5 years, I really liked the work and stayed another 5 years.
Step 6. Transitioning to academia
By then I was ready to retire from government service, but not from professional life. I had had an appointment as adjunct associate professor at the University of Utah for several years, serving on a couple of masters’ committees and giving an occasional lecture. When I told my department chair I wanted to get more involved, he was very encouraging and recommended me for promotion to research professor. That means I raise my own salary through grants. It also means I don’t really have a boss and get to do whatever I want every day.
Looking back, I didn’t have a long-term goal or strategy for my career, but I followed my interests and was open to new possibilities. I’m very happy with the way it played out.