Kate Wiedner, 32
Degree: MSJ, Medill School of Journalism, Northwestern University
Current Job: Director of Production
Soon after graduating from Boston University with a Bachelor’s degree in Political Science and Business Administration, Kate Weidner landed a high-profile communications job with a federal government agency in Washington, D.C. But although her career was moving fast, she knew she wanted to do something different.
“I always had a desire to work in television,” she said. “At BU, I took a few classes in broadcast television and loved them, but I discovered I loved it a little too late. I kept going down my path, even though it wasn’t what I loved.”
Three years later, she decided to quit her job, move to Chicago, and enter the Medill School of Journalism at Northwestern University for a full-time, 15-month Master’s degree in broadcast journalism. The immersive program left her little time for anything else, but she was happy to complete her degree quickly. “I had no life while I was in school,” she said. “But if you can find a program where you can knock it out in one year, do it. One year, it was done, and I had all the training and skills. It was like hitting the reset button.”
She decided to take out student loans to pay for the degree, despite receiving financial aid offers from other journalism schools. “I knew having Northwestern on my resume would help me anywhere, but that was a tough decision,” she said. “Looking back it was the right choice. I met my husband, and Chicago was where I wanted to be. It positioned me well, gave me the best training, and put me on the career path that led to a higher salary.”
Find a Field You Love
After graduating, Weidner had two offers: an on-air position in a small town and a producer job in Chicago. Both were low paying and entry level, and although it was hard for Wiedner to start over, she picked the latter and worked her way up. She now works for a strategic communications agency, where she recently earned a promotion. “I love being behind the camera and having control over telling the story,” she said. “In six years, I never thought I would be a director of production. It’s been a great career trajectory.”
As a new mother, having a career that she loves has become very important to her. “My son gives me a new reason to be great at my job,” said Wiedner. “It’s important to me that I’m in a field I love and work for a company that I love working for. To me the real reason to go back to school is if you haven’t yet fulfilled your passion.”
Kate’s advice: “What’s so important when you’re a working mom is to love what you do. It’s hard to make the decision to leave your child and go to work. Many don’t have that choice. But if you’re going to do that, do what you love.”
Kristin McCann, 30
Degree Earned: PhD, Higher Education Administration, Loyola University Chicago
Year Graduated: 2014
Current Job: Assistant Director, Higher Education Administration & Policy Program
As early as middle school, Kristin McCann remembers researching colleges and becoming fascinated with “the little bubble of people who are interested in the pursuit of knowledge.” While attending the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, the English major decided to become a professor. On the advice of several female faculty mentors, she went straight into a MA/PhD program in English at the University of Illinois so she could begin the long tenure process as soon as possible.
Follow Your Passion
While passionate about working with students at a college or university, she grew to realize that faculty life would not provide the work-life balance she sought. McCann wanted more control over her career and feared landing a tenure-track position in an undesirable location with a partner who might not have good career prospects. Although she enjoyed conducting research, she didn’t want her career to hinge on it. “Through that process, I decided to switch fields to be a higher education administrator and enter a program designed to help me do that rather than taking the winding road of being an English faculty member,” she said.
After taking a year off to teach and research in France, McCann moved to Chicago to enter a new PhD program in higher education administration at Loyola University Chicago. This field would allow her to work with students, conduct research, and keep the door open to a faculty position later on.
Define Your Own Success
As a PhD student, she held a research assistantship with a faculty member who was examining the female faculty tenure-track experience and how it relates to their personal lives. What she learned further confirmed her decision to switch paths from professor to administrator.
“A lot of women shared in interviews that they had gone into the field to advise and teach students but found out along the way that wasn’t valued in getting promoted. It was the research that mattered most,” McCann said. “They said, ‘If you want to have kids, have them now, because if you’re tenure track, you won’t have time.’ What I found is faculty life is designed around a traditional male who has a partner at home doing the homemaking and caretaking, and all the faculty member has to do is produce and publish. I decided, for me, that’s not the right path.”
During the summers, she gained practical experience with a college access program, which led to her current position as an administrator for a Master’s degree program at a major university. The job has proven to be a good fit for her career interests.
“I still get to do research. I have opportunities to teach. I still get to mentor and work with students,” she said. “It looks different than a tenure-track position, but I still get the things out of my job that I like and value, just in a different format than it would be if I were a faculty member.”
Kristin’s advice: Listen to your gut and do what’s right for you. Other women’s paths and challenges—learn from them. But that doesn’t mean it will be your challenge.
Kjersti Drott, 36
Degree Earned: JD, Loyola University Chicago School of Law
Year Graduated: 2013
Current Job: Compliance Specialist
Kjersti Drott wanted to advance in her career and earn a higher salary but found herself both uninspired and unable to see a future career path in her job with an industrial supply company. Interested in applying her business background and compliance experience to the healthcare industry, she entered the evening program at Loyola University Chicago School of Law while continuing to work full time.
Decide to Make It Happen
“The thing about going back to school while working full time is that you have to decide that you’re going to do it,” she said. “You have to make the decision that you’ll figure out how to make it happen. You can’t do it unless you’re really committed to it.”
She was able to balance school while working for an employer who never required her to work nights or weekends and allowed her to use unpaid vacation days to take an externship. Good time management also proved critical to her ability to complete her degree. Drott often woke up early to study but also set aside time to see friends and take care of herself by splurging on regular massages.
During law school, she met and married her husband and became pregnant during her final year. Drott quit her job to study for the bar and nine days after being sworn in as an attorney, she gave birth to her first child. “I figured I would have the baby and try to find a job at the same time, but it was harder than I thought,” she said. “I felt like I wasn’t enjoying my time with the baby because I was constantly looking for a job and felt a lot of pressure to contribute financially.”
Use Transferable Skills to Enter a New Industry
Unable to break into the healthcare field, she ultimately found a compliance job at a bank several months later. While initially worried about moving into an industry in which she had little experience, Drott received good advice from a mentor she had been connected with at Loyola. “She told me banking law, like health law, is a highly regulated field. New regulations are coming out all the time, so having the skills to read and interpret them transfer well,” she said.
While Drott’s current position didn’t require a law degree, her employer said that’s what jumped out in her resume. The degree also gave her the confidence to believe in herself that she could figure out how to do the job, which has proven to be a great fit with her analytical personality and past work experience.
“This is the perfect job for me right now,” said Drott, who is now a mother of two. “I can’t believe how much I actually enjoy it in terms of being challenged in the right way and having potential for career growth while being able to balance being a mom.”
Kjersti’s advice: “Talk about it with your family and make sure they’ll be supportive. If they’re not, it’s going to be very hard.”