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Career Stories: I’ve Always Been a Writer… Now I Work in a STEM Field

Writing was always MY thing. I can't remember a time that writing wasn't part of my identity... but life took me somewhere else, and now I've found another passion... in a STEM field. (Read Natalee's inspiring journey here.)

Writing and I go way back. While my classmates were kicking around soccer balls and playing video games in elementary school, I was stapling pieces of printer paper together to create floppy books, written and haphazardly illustrated by yours truly. I assumed every kid did the same thing at home.

Because, as it turns out, other kids were not doing the same thing at home, my family and teachers thought I stood out as a natural writer and storyteller (no comment on the illustrations). They didn’t hold back on telling me that I had found my niche in writing.

Of course, as any elementary schooler would, I took an unreasonable amount of pride in this. I felt special to have an answer when asked what I wanted to be when I grew up; each time, I proudly proclaimed “an author!” How lucky I was to have my whole life figured out at age eight and a half.

JK Rowling being my natural idol, I thought a day of work would look something like: wake up, stroll to an adorable coffee shop, pen some ideas onto a napkin, head home. Eventually those brilliant ideas would find their way into a Barnes & Noble and shape the lives of children everywhere. That’s how I’d make my riches. Simple.

This fantastical idea carried on well into high school. There was sophomore year, when I hit peak emo and penned the tortured poetry that only a teenager can get away with writing. Then there was junior year, when I was 100 percent certain my future would look exactly like Carrie Bradshaw’s glitzy New York life in Sex and the City.

I avoided all but the required math and science classes (writers don’t need to know that stuff, duh), took my high school’s Creative Writing class twice for fun (or three times maybe?), and my senior quote from one of my favorite songs at the time was this monstrosity:

“Oh, what am I to think of what the writing of a thousand lifetimes could not explain if all the forest trees were pens and all the oceans – ink?”.

(Still a good song but like… chill).

When it came time to register for a college major, I picked English without a second thought. Everyone could have predicted it: my grandparents, the lunch lady at school, and probably my dog if she could talk. It was one of the few certainties of the universe: Earth round, force equals mass times acceleration, and Natalee will be an English major.

Almost as soon as I submitted the form to declare my major, I literally felt sick to my stomach. By making a choice that I was so comfortable and familiar with, I wondered if I was about to miss the whole point of college. Wasn’t I supposed to learn concepts that made my head ache? Wasn’t I supposed to come out of college a completely different person? I let go of my would-be English major around the same time I declared it.

I tried out several classes in my freshman year and kind of floated along, unsure where my path would take me. I all but gave up on writing. Life was too busy, too fun, too full of more important things than my introspective thoughts.

As I continued through college, it became clear that I did not want to be a writer. At least, I didn’t want to make it my career.

I wanted something outside my comfort zone. I wanted to surprise myself. I suddenly regretted avoiding all those math and science courses back in high school when they were free of tuition. Darn it.

Eight years have passed since I declared my English major for the first time and quickly retracted it, a process I would become quite familiar with as I cycled through several different programs. I ended up graduating with three majors, none of which were related to writing.

Now I’m on the brink of starting a graduate degree in a STEM field, which is about as far away from my original plan as I can imagine.

Since none of the quantitative stuff comes naturally to me, I have to work harder than some of my peers and I have to overcome a boatload of impostor syndrome every single day. I spend a lot of time wondering if I am good enough (the answer is always yes) or if I should have stuck to what was familiar (the answer is always no).

Working my way through these challenges has changed the person I am for the better.

For one, I have had to become a bit more practical and hard-headed, which was a welcome change for someone who used to have her head in the clouds all the time. I have also had to get more comfortable voicing my opinions, even if they are not perfect (which is a hard thing to do since girls are socialized to avoid mistakes).

A necessary note here is that, no, I do not think STEM fields are in any way better than non-STEM fields. This article easily could have been written the other way around, a math nerd who decided to study English. It’s more about eschewing my comfort zone, leaving behind my comfortable Plan A for a more challenging Plan B.

I realize the irony of writing an article about how I gave up writing. I didn’t get away from writing that easy – writing crept back into my life after college and I may even get back into it full steam someday when I’m looking for a new type of challenge. Maybe.

Does your life look completely different from what you always imagined it would be?

About the Author

Natalee Desotell

Natalee graduated from the University of Wisconsin-Madison in 2013 with a triple major in Political Science, International Politics & Economics, Languages & Cultures of Asia, and a minor in Global Public Health. After a couple years in the working world, she recently returned to her alma mater to study Cartography and Geographical Information Systems. A self-proclaimed public health nerd, her dream job is to communicate epidemiological information visually through beautiful interactive maps and graphics. She enjoys iced black coffee, punk rock music, and surprising people.