Figuring out a career path can be challenging and, for many young people, a bit scary. How might they determine, as teenagers and young adults, how they want to spend the bulk of their time many years in the future?

It’s common to change jobs over a lifetime, but our work as independent educational consultants (IECs) often involves helping students narrow down their professional ambitions so they can properly prepare in college and beyond. What a difficult task!

Considering one’s professional life is, in part, a matter of knowing how wide the range of options is—far broader than the well-known jobs (doctor, lawyer, engineer, businessperson) with which many students are presented. I should know: after college, I studied education, then business; worked for a newspaper, then helped helm a mail-order beauty supply company. It wasn’t until 2004—several decades into my professional life—that I embarked on my current career as a college consultant, which blends and builds upon all of my previous experience and which I consider my true calling. When I was in college, I had no idea this job even existed! 

What career paths might be a great match for your students, if only they knew about them? I spoke with practitioners in a few under-exposed fields that might be just-right fits for your students—or that might inspire you to present other niche jobs that would suit them beautifully. 

Toy Designer: Katie Powers

As a staff designer at SpinMaster, Katie Powers helps create outdoor products—pool toys, pool floats, swimming aids—but her experience in toy design has varied widely over her career. In college at Notre Dame, where she earned her BFA, Powers was trained in industrial design, “so I could have left school and designed any product you might want to buy, from sneakers to kitchen gadgets to camping equipment,” she says. “But I was always drawn to children’s products.” (She strongly preferred design, with its more objective delineations of successful and unsuccessful, to the more ambiguous world of fine art: “For me the beauty of design that I started realizing as I got into college is that while art is subjective, design solutions are much more black and white. You can design beautiful objects all day long, but if they don’t perform their functional purpose, they’re bad designs.”) Since then, she’s worked at Radio Flyer, focusing on bigger, wheeled products like tricycles and scooters; at Fisher-Price, where she worked primarily on Thomas & Friends, designing wooden railway and plastic motorized trains; and at BarkBox, where she designed plush dog toys. Making the wooden trains for Thomas holds special meaning for her: “Even though I didn’t do anything special compared to the designers before or after me,” she says, “it was a really sweet little world to be a part of.”

At SpinMaster, Powers’ job involves a ton of drawing and 3D modeling, as you might expect, but also a lot of collaboration and communication. As a result, developing a toy is a long process, involving many rounds of sketching, building prototypes, and testing samples. Powers works with a team of engineers and marketers to verify the manufacturability and cost of each item, collaborate on features and financials, make samples and debug them, and pitch to different retailers—a sequence so long that, as I write this piece, Powers is beginning work on designs for 2023. A typical day is spent “juggling a lot of balls, and you’ve always got to keep the next one up in the air, but you can’t at any point just track down one task or the rest will fall down,” she says. 

But the variety of challenges, and the need to keep tweaking a design in order to satisfy all parties, are boons for Powers, not detractions. “One of my strengths in this career is that from my very first job I saw engineering as my partner, and (I hope!) they felt the same about me,” she says. She also points to a fundamental curiosity about how people interact with everyday objects, and a persistence to keep on refining a design until it’s the best it can be. (Safety is as important as aesthetics: you can’t have a flotation device that doesn’t float!) “You’ve constantly got to be able to turn things on their head and find a different way to do it,” she says. “I think in order to succeed at what my coworkers and I do, you have to be a highly visual person who loves to draw, over and over again.” 

Powers has loved making art since she was a kid, and remembers her grandmother giving her supplies like watercolors, helping to nurture her budding passion. “I’ve always felt so strongly that it’s not the ability to draw that you inherit, it’s the love of it,” she says. “The ones who are fascinated by art just spend so much time practicing it that they naturally get really good at it.”

Prosthetist and Orthotist: Wendy Beattie

Like Powers, Wendy Beattie works in design, but of a different flavor: she creates prostheses (artificial limbs) and orthoses (braces), mostly for the lower limbs. Currently, Beattie teaches full-time—she’s an assistant professor of physical medicine and rehabilitation at Northwestern University—but she’s treated infants with hip dysplasia, young athletes, adults with arthritis or issues secondary to stroke or diabetes, elderly people who struggle with osteoporosis and fractures, and more. “Every day is different, every day is challenging, the field is rewarding on every level,” she says. 

Also, like Powers, Beattie began her career path in college. At Yale University, she majored in mechanical engineering (“I like solving problems!”). One summer, she worked for a defense contractor “on things I hoped never got used,” she says. But her senior year, her favorite professor gave her a tour of a local children’s hospital and presented one option for her capstone design project: creating a wheelchair seat for children with severe deformities. “I fell in love,” Beattie says. “I got to use my head, I got to use my hands, and I got to make a difference.” After college, she attended graduate school at UCLA for prosthetics and Northwestern University for orthotics, followed by a residency and national boards. The training for this field includes coursework in anatomy, biomechanics, behavioral science, gait, pathology, materials and design, and research. Students who are likely to enjoy and excel at this work, Beattie says, are those who are able to visualize things in three dimensions, want to work with people and with their hands, are team builders, and “can think outside the box.”

The problem-solving begins when a patient arrives with a prescription, their unique body, and a range of desires. “We will sit and do a full evaluation: what do you do? What do you want to do? What did you used to do?” They’ll discuss the patient’s home life, work life, support structures and barriers, “and then we’ll come up with a plan together,” Beattie says. If a patient who’s lost part of their leg wants to ride a bicycle and dance and stand up for many hours a day, the prosthesis needs to allow for those activities: the trim lines will need to accommodate the knee-bending that bicycling requires; the foot will need to adapt to uneven ground; with that much standing, the leg will need to adapt to the body’s volume changes throughout the day (not to mention that the limb is going to change over time). At that point, an impression or a scan of the remaining limb is taken to create a model of the prosthesis. “Every patient is different and the technology is constantly changing, so we need to adapt what we do to changes in both the patient and the technology,” Beattie says—which she loves. 

And there’s a huge emotional reward in the relationship with patients. “You become a part of their lives,” she says. Prostheses can enable people to walk down the aisle for their wedding, return to work, or go back to playing a sport they loved; orthoses can help people walk who’ve never been able to before. “In many ways we provide them with a more tangible increase in their quality of life than anyone does,” Beattie says. She also points out that, because the field is relatively small, every practitioner has the ability to make substantial waves: “Each person has the ability to not only change the lives of their patients but, if they’re interested in becoming involved, they can change the whole career.”

Beattie’s own enthusiasm for her work hasn’t waned over decades in the field. “It’s financially rewarding—I’ve made a good living throughout my career; it’s emotionally rewarding, being able to help people and have them attain their dreams; and it’s intellectually rewarding,” she says. “It’s always different, and it’s always changing.”

Psychoanalyst: Tom Wooldridge PsyD, ABPP, CEDS

Tom Wooldridge, a psychoanalyst in private practice and department chair and associate professor in the psychology department at Golden Gate University, “probably didn’t know that there was such a thing as a psychoanalyst in high school,” he says. He grew up in a small town, where “I don’t think there were any psychoanalysts within a couple hundred miles at least.” 

Unlike Powers and Beattie, who had career clarity in college, Wooldridge’s desire to practice psychoanalysis arrived over time, and with experience. “I didn’t have a long-term plan to end up here,” he says. “It unfolded more organically.” In college at Brown University, he studied computer science and philosophy, where he had some contact with psychoanalytic theory, “but it didn’t really catch my interest; at the time, it seemed obscure and didn’t really speak to me.” Eventually, he decided computer science wasn’t the way he wanted to go, became a patient in non-analytic therapy, and decided to become a clinical psychologist. 

Initially, in graduate school at Argosy University, he was drawn to more directive, behavioral approaches. But over the course of that education, he gravitated increasingly toward psychoanalysis, which—unlike more symptom-focused, task-based approaches like cognitive-behavioral therapy—aims to uncover patients’ unconscious conflicts and desires, enabling patients to inhabit their lives and relationships in healthier ways. “I really came to understand that change was not so simple—that people had deep reasons that they were the way they were, much of the time. You could teach somebody to behave in a new way and, some of the time, that would stick, but often it would revert back, because the underlying reasons—the underlying meanings—hadn’t been addressed.” Around this time, Wooldridge started his own analytic therapy, which he found transformative. “From there, it’s just been a straight path,” he says. “Very quickly it became clear to me that this was the way I wanted to try to be helpful to people.” 

The training to become a psychoanalyst, like that to become a prosthetist and orthotist, is extensive. For the most part, psychoanalysts must have a mental health license. They also go through analytic training, which tends to follow a tripartite model: several years of classes; a personal analysis (that is, being treated in psychoanalytic therapy); and treating patients under supervision. Once Wooldridge had finished graduate school, he started analytic training, and became a professor around the same time. 

“I think of psychoanalysis as a sensibility, I think of it as a form of treatment, and I think of it as a body of literature,” he says. “In terms of a sensibility: the reasons that people do what they do are complicated, and they’re historically determined; our minds are not transparent to us through introspection; the reasons that we do what we do are often veiled or unconscious in one way or another; and a two-person treatment—a dyad of analyst and patient—can help us to understand things about ourselves and have experiences that are transformative that we wouldn’t be able to have on our own.” 

The qualities that make someone likely to be a good therapist, Wooldridge believes, are usually “an interest in other people, an interest in how the mind works, care and concern for other people, and interest in being empathically engaged in other people.” Students with these traits are likely to enjoy and succeed in work as a psychoanalyst, too, if they have a desire to take their training further, as becoming an analyst requires. “The answer there is whether you want to take the process of self-understanding and understanding other people deeper,” he says. 

Once students have an idea that the range of career options is broader than they might have imagined, how are they to choose one in particular to pursue? I often guide students through a series of assessments, including the MBTI, in order to help them define what they desire. But a lot of it is a matter of trying something and seeing how it feels. Elective courses, summer academic programs, and internships all provide chances for students to dip their toes into different experiences and get a sense of their reactions and preferences. I encourage students to approach this process with curiosity and a willingness to experiment: there are no wrong directions, and—as my own career path demonstrates—there’s always room to change course and find an ideal match. 

By Julie Raynor Gross, EdM, MBA, CEP, IECA (NY)

Julie Raynor Gross, Collegiate Gateway LLC, can be reached at [email protected]