Thursday, January 12, 2006

Career What Ifs

I’ve recently had reason to think about my career. You see, instead of filling out retirement papers, I’m applying for a new job. Well, not really a new job, but rather the legitimization of the job that I have been doing for the last 12 years.

I haven’t ever talked much about what I do, focusing more on my desire to move on into retirement and leave my job behind. I am eligible to retire under a very liberal federal government retirement system that doesn’t require you to work until you can no longer enjoy life and I was planning to do so when my youngest child graduated from college this year. So what happened to change all this?

I am in charge of the data processing of the largest survey in the US – the American Community Survey, sampling 3 million households a year in every state of the US and Puerto Rico, which recently received a permanent budget of 168 million dollars a year (too bad my salary isn’t a straight percentage of the budget!). This survey will take the place of the Census long form in 2010 and as such has a lot of interest in Congress and in the world of demography in general. I wonder if anyone reading this has been in sample? If so, you probably opened the envelope and said things like: How could they dare ask me all these questions about my income, about when I leave for work, about how much I pay for gas? Those nosey bastards! But then if you were smart you heeded those 3 little words on the outside of the envelope – REQUIRED BY LAW – and spent a few minutes filling it out and sent it back in. Otherwise you had to endure phone calls and maybe even a personal visit from a Census enumerator. A word to the wise – just about any stray mark on the paper form will spare you endless further contact if you should come into sample!

My boss Larry retired last week. Larry had quietly shepherded this survey from its inception in 1996 where the first sample was in 4 counties of the country, instead of 3219 counties, and where no one – I mean NO ONE – thought this idea of a “continuous measurement” survey would ever fly. But Larry, the eternal optimist, succeeded where others might have failed. He was a good boss, who quickly figured out that I wasn’t interested in talking about local sports teams, but instead we talked about the values of meditation and yoga, other interests of his.

I was secretly hoping they would bring in a really awful replacement for Larry, someone who would make retirement seem like the only real option for me. But instead they filled Larry’s position with Lisa, a career-minded woman who could easily be my daughter by virtue of her age. Lisa sticks her head in my door every day “just to say hello”. She actually answers my e-mail messages, where most of them previously went into some black hole in Larry’s computer because he was not terribly well organized and he much preferred face–to-face communication. Lisa actually gave me a box of Godiva chocolates for Christmas (not her holiday either), and anyone who gives me chocolate is a friend for life.

So as I consider retirement, I am suddenly faced with the elevation of our staff into a division that after 20 years offers me a chance for a promotion. I can hardly walk away from this opportunity that really requires nothing more of me than to continue to do my job well.

Not having applied for a job in so long, my first task was to develop a resume. What a trip down memory lane that was. There was...
– My first job at the FBI which I took not because it was the higher salary, but rather because it seemed to be the more interesting of my 2 offers in DC. I lasted 3 months there and felt like I was released from prison when I left to go to the Census Bureau. I actually wrote a letter to J. Edgar Hoover upon my departure.
– My first job at Census where the first person I met was my husband, who at the time had shoulder length hair and who came in late every day because he was always a night owl and who was addicted to Drakes Cakes for breakfast. When we started sleeping together, I thought it best to look for a new job so as not to complicate our relationship.
– My 15-year stint in the international area of the Census Bureau, where I became moderately fluent in Spanish and French in order to work in developing countries around the world, giving technical assistance in place like Bolivia, Chile, Peru, Morocco, Kenya, Lesotho, India, Thailand, and Jordan. I often felt like a used car salesman, brokering assistance deals with US AID and the UN and even with foreign country governments. I attended international conferences in places like China, Japan, and the Netherlands, where I was on a first-name basis with big shots in the statistical community. These trips had wild adventures that will never be chronicled in this Blog, but will forever remain in my memory.
– A period of 6 years back in the US learning what the worst of bureaucracy was all about and why I much preferred a job that allowed me to exercise my technical skills.
– And finally the last 12 years building the ACS from the ground up. Not many people get this chance to do something brand new, at least not something with the budget or the notoriety of the ACS. Fortunately my boss Larry trusted me to do things right and basically left me alone. I could hire whom I wished and do whatever was necessary to create a processing system that could handle a continuous stream of data in and produce yearly estimates from that data.

As fulfilling as this work has been, as I wrote my resume, I started to wonder how different my career might have been had I taken some different paths. For starters, from the minute I went to college at FSU, I knew that I would major in math. From the minute I started working in the computer center as a freshman, I knew that my job would probably be in the computer field. I knew that I would take mainly math courses and foreign language courses, courses that I was relatively assured of doing well in. I knew that I would continue my string of good grades, just because I was programmed to be a good student. I didn’t take chances. I didn’t try a lot of new things. I didn’t allow myself to take classes that required a lot of writing, lacking the confidence that I could write acceptably well, or that at least I would enjoy it. What a shame!

My father was of the mentality that a sure future was the only future. There was not even a hint of trying something just to see if you would like it. He was a brilliant inventor who could never discuss his work with me because it was top secret. He hated bureaucracy and put up with it only because that is how you advance in the government. He stopped advancing and just treaded water for a long time until he could retire at the earliest opportunity. He scrimped and saved unnecessarily so he could live like a pauper during his last 10 years and leave me (his only child) a fat inheritance that allowed me to completely renovate my house and still have plenty of money. If my children are reading this (unlikely), be forewarned that I intend to spend my money doing things I enjoy, so don’t count on remodeling your houses after I am gone.

So I ask myself, what would have happened if I had at some point just thrown caution to the wind and followed a different path? Where would I be today? Would I be happier? Would I be wealthier? These are questions that I will probably never be able to answer. But every time I hear of someone who is really between jobs, I start to wonder what if...?

2 Comments:

Blogger Jamy said...

Not directly related to your musings...but I have a bunch of math friends (MAs & PhDs)--no wonder we get along!

Also, I need to talk to about the ACS. We need it for something at my agency. But it's not an emergency.

8:29 PM  
Blogger always write said...

This is what hobbies are for.

I wanted to enter U. of Maryland as a music & art major, but my parents said No Way, there's no money in it, and thank God they talked me into journalism instead. Not that I'm living the high life, but I do have a marketable skill and I can still sing and play and piano any old time I want. Except between the hours of 9 and 5.

3:05 PM  

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