Biology Did Not Prepare Me to Be a Beekeeper

Sometimes your field isn’t what you think it is

Dear New Grad,

Congratulations! You’ve made that long walk across the stage and now have that paper in your hand that says it’s time to release you into the working world. You’ve picked a specialization. You’ve trained and studied. You’re optimistically hoping that you’ll escape the statistics about the newly graduated and underemployment.

I hope you do too.

I hope you find a job in your field. I hope it’s as gratifying as you thought it would be the day you picked the major that put you on the path leading to where you are now.

And if it doesn’t?

Join the club.

I graduated more than a decade a go. I was in the top ten in my class of biology graduates. I knew about ecosystems, biogeography, and bootstrap values. I gave conference talks and once subjected my parents to a drunken lecture about resource partitioning in the rocky intertidal zone on a beach in the Bahamas.

Three months after graduating, I got a job in my field. It was the kind of job my mom could proudly tell her friends about. It was the kind of job with business cards, so I could put ‘B.Sc.’ at the end of my name permanently. It was the kind of job that fed my love affair with spreadsheets, and helped me see that maybe there was an application for statistics after all.

After doing that job for eight years, I kind of hated it.

Turns out a scientific career wasn’t for me.

It happens. What are the odds my guess about where I wanted to focus the rest of my life when I wrote my college applications at 18-years-old was right? When I was 18, I thought Destiny’s Child’s red carpet outfits were the height of fashion. Clearly I had no idea what I was talking about.

This morning, almost 20 years after I wrote my college essays, I stood in the company lunch room with my arm around a grown man dressed in bee costume. We asked coworkers to attend a company-wide team building event. Or rather, I asked them to attend. The bee doesn’t talk. He was just there to create buzz (we didn’t see that pun coming when we picked the bee as our mascot, but you can bet we’re running with it now).

The man in the costume works for me. He volunteered to be the bee, I swear.

I am a beekeeper, and not the kind my biology degree prepared me for. Instead of statistical regressions and toxicological modelling, my days are spent now talking about thought leadership, building strategies to re-engage dormant clients, and coaxing nervous engineers to appear onscreen during live webinars. It’s a long way from botany labs and literature reviews. I still put ‘B.Sc.’ at the end of my email signature, but more out of habit than because I think it gives me any marketing cred.

If you find yourself in my position, don’t worry. And don’t hesitate to make the change because of all the time and effort you put into that degree. There are still lots of things I learned while finishing my degree that I use all the time, even if biology isn’t actually one of them. Here’s a short list:

  • How to write a decent paper following a style guide. Granted, my style guide instructions in university were to follow the style of the Canadian Journal of Botany, but learning how to format for academic or professional work is a key skill.
  • How to prioritize when everything is a priority. Those weeks when you had three mid-terms and two research papers due? Yeah, that doesn’t change in the working world, except now those mid-terms are called promotional campaigns and those term papers are competitive bids to customers. They’ve all got deadlines and not much flexibility.
  • How to manage egos bigger than your own. My thesis supervisor was an ass who didn’t understand why asking us to do 3 hours of botany reading a night on top of the rest of our workload and readings was unreasonable and mathematically impossible. I left the office after 6:30 on a Friday last week because I had to completely rewrite an internal memo for our CEO at the last minute, even though he’d had my draft for days. He has the big office. I don’t. You’ve got to learn to work with the people in charge.
  • How to soldier on. 8 a.m. classes with a hangover are never pretty, but eventually you have to go if you want to pass the semester. Two people from my team of eight have quit in the last month. That 25% of my workforce, while our company of 400 keeps on trucking. Sometimes you have to grab another Gatorade, pour another coffee, and suck it up.

So, New Graduate, I wish you luck in your job search. I know it’s going to be hard, and I know it’s not the same as it was back in my day. If you’re in the right place at the right time, I hope you get that job you want, the one that will make the last four years worthwhile.

And if you find, a few years down the road, that your career path has changed and the new job you really want doesn’t use any of the information you spent the last four years cramming into your head, it wasn’t wasted time. You learned lots of valuable other skills that you can use every day.

Beekeeping, for example. You never know when that will come in handy.

Allison Temple is a romance writer, novice cat lady, and expert couch potato from Toronto.