Not for Love or Money: A Better Way to Choose a Career, by Jen Gresham

When I decided to leave the military after 16 years of service, just four years short of the necessary time to collect a retirement check at the ripe age of 42, people thought I was nuts. What in the world couldn’t be endured for just four more years with a payout like that? What made my decision even harder to understand was the fact I rather enjoyed the job I was leaving. Definitely nuts. Either that, or Too XYZ.
It’s not that I don’t care about money. I tend to agree with Jennifer Michael Hecht’s theory that a certain amount of money brings a great deal of happiness, but after that, returns diminish. I always thought “for love of money” was a crass, albeit popular, way of choosing a direction. Turns out the correct phrase is “not for love or money,” which I think is much better advice but runs counter to a lot what people will tell you. In this post, I’ll talk about my journey to discover the perfect career and lessons I’ve learned along the way.
1. Look up. I’m a dreamer. Growing up, I went through a ton of potential professions, most of which tried to satisfy some version of the “for love” clause: actress (for fame, a version of love), animal trainer (for love of animals), and diplomat (for a suspected love of glamorous embassy parties).
The one exception was an inkling I might want to be a scientist, primarily because I was a naturally curious kid and had really enjoyed spending my summers working in a genetics lab at the University of South Florida. I had also developed a huge crush on a graduate student, so I guess the “for love” aspect wasn’t completely missing.
My father decided to test my resolve by leaving copies of Discover magazine lying around the house. When I didn’t read them, he advised me I didn’t have the “fire in the belly” for science and should look for another profession.
Did a failure to read magazines really serve as the best indicator? I had won my county science fair. Where was that in the equation? Another way of looking at it might be to look at how I spent my free time, which was largely reading and writing poetry.
All this dreaming meant I was significantly ahead of the average kid in terms of introspection and my parents didn’t even have to pay for a therapist.
2. Ignore the roar. Despite my father’s advice, I decided to major in biochemistry over English because poets are some of the poorest professionals in America and I really like to eat. Turns out kids have good instincts that we often smother when we get older.
What neither my father nor I realized was that being a “biochemist” encompasses a pretty wide range of jobs. Over the course of my career, I have:
  • Served as a first line supervisor for an analysis lab
  • Performed original research as a graduate student
  • Managed a portfolio of basic research grants
  • Taught college level chemistry
  • Provided scientific guidance and vision for a medium-sized research lab
  • Headed corporate communications for a large research organization

Each of those jobs required different skills and presented an entirely new environment to navigate. When I was choosing a major, I only imagined one of those jobs, the one it turned out I enjoyed the least. Most people don’t realize that performing research is a lot of tedious and careful detail work punctuated by the occasional big a-ha moment (if you’re lucky). On the other hand, serving as a scientific adviser played to my big picture focus and gave me continual learning opportunities.

Talking to your instructors in school will rarely give you this kind of insight, because most of them have spent their careers solely in academia. They won’t be much help to you in deciding on a career unless you want to do research and teach.

3. Flexibility is the key to air power. We say this a lot in the Air Force, because it’s true, even though we’re trapped in a huge bureaucracy. This is another reason why dreaming is so important.

Here’s where my father was both right and wrong. I love science. When I was a teacher, I always got the highest ratings in the department for enthusiasm. The problem with all my jobs wasn’t the science, it was everything else. There’s more to being a scientist than just science. In fact, that’s true of any job.

Nicolas Lore, in his book The Pathfinder, points out most people spend more time figuring out what car to drive than what they want to do with their lives. What you need to do is determine what you really require (not just love), and then pinpoint the job that satisfies your requirements. After working through all the exercises in the book, I realized the perfect career for me is to be…a writer.

One of the joys of life is exploring. I have no regrets about the winding path I’ve taken to find the perfect career. It’s been fun. The thing I really wish my father had told me was not to fret too much about my choices, career or otherwise. A career is like building a house. You need a solid foundation, but you should be prepared for significant additions and remodels over the course of a lifetime. That’s what gives it character. The career that doesn’t grow with you probably isn’t one worth having.

Jennifer Gresham is a 1994 graduate of the Air Force Academy. She earned her PhD in biochemistry from the University of Maryland and recently entered the Air Force Reserves as a Lieutenant Colonel. She published a book of poetry entitled Diary of a Cell, which won the 2004 Steel Toe Books poetry prize. She now writes about personal and professional fulfillment at her blog Everyday Bright.


  1. This is very sound and prudent advice Jen! At some point you just have to jump into the workforce and see where it takes you. Too many recent college graduates expect to find fulfillment and meaning in their first job. I don't claim to have it figured out myself, but I'll attest to the fact that it's not easy. Each and every work experience I've had has broadened my perspective, which is always beneficial.

    Great post!


  2. Thanks, Greg! Yes, my biggest realization was not that I wanted to be a writer, but that the journey to that a-ha moment was valuable in and of itself. As I like to say: forget regret. Learn!


  3. Bri

    Love this post Jen. I am a scientist too. Now that I've been in the field for a few years, I do regret getting my masters degree simply because the business of science far outweighs any excitement I feel for the process nowadays.

    But your general message is sound. Every day I learn more and more about what I DON'T want from an employer and/or job. I learn what my strengths are and how to look for future employment that will allow me to shine.

    I don't really regret any of my choices because they've brought me experiences and stories and people that I couldn't imagine living without. Every day gets to be Day 1. What choices can we make from here on out to point us in the direction in which we want to go.

    Thanks for writing this!

  4. I like that, Bri. Everyday is Day 1.

    And I agree, I have made so many wonderful contacts and friends through my scientific work. The added bonus is many writers are criticized for not having a life. Can't argue that here! LOL

  5. I'm a relatively new engineer (~3 years) and I am struggling to decide where I want my career to go next. I don't know what kind of engineering positions are out there, so it's hard to match that to my strengths.

    It's good to see a successful person who's jobs weren't a direct progression. With all the advice you hear it's hard to know how to forge your own path or if you can be successful that way.

  6. I too have taken the rather winding path, from an interest in psychology and english, to international studies to freelance writing. Someone once said that the career path is less of a ladder, and more of a lattice. I think the single-mindedness that comes from wanting to reach a goal sometimes creates the tunnel vision that keeps us from keeping our minds and hearts open to new possibilities.
    It looks like you've had a very successful career doing exactly what you wanted to do, and you did it your way. For that you should be proud. Thank you for sharing your advice. It's totally honest and apt at this time.

  7. Kelly- I'd be happy to do some mentoring off line if that would help you. I had no idea what the range of options was until pretty late in my career, so I understand the frustration well. It's not you, it's the system!

    Mehnaz- Thanks. I like the idea of a career lattice. That's terrific. I actually want to write a book on how people have successfully taken a winding path in their career. You get this impression everyone knew just what to do, but for most, it doesn't work that way.

  8. Hi Jen!

    Thanks for another wonderful, thoughtful post. I think it's funny that your dad left copies of Discovery magazine around the house and was dismayed when you didn't read them.

    One of my close friends in college was a chemistry major and people were always surprised when she said she didn't plan to pursue a career in science. She always pointed out that no one is surprised if someone doesn't “do something” with their English major. She just loved chemistry.

    I've been practicing nurse-midwifery for 15 years and I continue to be surprised that I love it as much as I do after all this time – that it continues to bring me everything I need in terms of satisfaction, meaning, and money. My husband is a writer who hasn't published (yet), so it's especially nice that I love the work that pays our bills.

    Oh, but I graduated from college with a degree in German Literature. Go figure! 🙂

    Thanks again for presenting such a thoughtful discussion on such an interesting and important issue. The more people can see that there are many paths to maintaining a nice standard living, and one sure path to happiness (to be true to yourself), the better. Best, Stacey

  9. Stacey- German lit to midwifery. I totally see the connection! Also had to smile at the comment no one is surprise when you don't use your degree in English! Does that make pursuing writing without an English degree even odder? LOL Thanks for the kind comments.

  10. Thanks to everyone for all the comments on this post, and to Jen for writing it.

    I think we all have to remember that sometimes there just isn't a direct line to where we “should” be or what we “should” do. That we can have a destiny, but that are destiny is not always the same as a destination. What we are all about cannot always simply be walked into like a room…even if the door to that room has our name painted all over it in our favorite color.

    It take a zig-zagging road sometimes to find home. A road that doesn't let us know what we want right away. So don't try to force it. Just keep moving.

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