Dana McDonald

The bumpy road to career transition

Submitted by Dana McDonald

It was spring of 2007.  I was wrapping up my Master’s degree in Physical Geography and was filled to the gills with keenness.  I’d been in Kingston, Ontario studying for 6 years and I was ready to move on and explore the world.  To be a real adult.  I applied for jobs across the country, with no particular preference where I ended up.  I got a call from a consulting firm in Calgary and, with very little hesitation, took the job.  Mountains! Adventure!  A salary!  Benefits!   What more could a newly-minted graduation want?  Within a month, I’d wrapped up my degree and headed west.

I spent three years in consulting working on an industry-funded research project, learning the technical and political intricacies of water management in Alberta and extending my knowledge base farther than I could have imagined.  It was an excellent job and an excellent experience, but I didn’t see the things I did each day making any difference in my life or the life of people around me.  I felt a little disheartened at not enjoying such a great job and not feeling like I was getting out of it what I should.  A great friend gave me a valuable piece of advice:  He said “Dana, this is your very first job.  Did you think you’d be doing this the rest of your life?” And after about two years, I started thinking about how, when and where to move on.

I knew I wanted to work in a non-profit.  I’d passed up a job with one at the end of my schooling and part of me regrets it to this day.  So, I started a journey to decide what to do next.  First, I started applying for other jobs in Calgary.  Then jobs outside of Calgary.  Nothing came of it.  I wanted out of consulting, but didn’t have enough experience doing anything else to be competitive, especially in a weak market.  So I went back to school.  I took a leave of absence from my job and took some courses I’d been interested in for a while at the UBC, including two that will lead me toward a Certificate in Watershed Management, which is something I’ve been interested in since my time as an undergraduate.  Within a week I knew I’d found a new home and near the end of my 4-month leave I gave my resignation.  It was one of the most stressful and exciting decisions I’ve ever made.

Dana (centre) at the 2010 Meaningful Work Retreat in the shadow of the Rocky Mountains

In the middle of this journey, I attended the Meaningful Work Retreat.  It lit a fire under me and opened my eyes to the number of people making decisions similar to mine.  I learned that it was okay to change my mind about what I wanted to do with my life.  It helped me realize that I had reached a jumping off point in life and that my goal was to find a place to land.  A part of me had felt embarrassed and ungrateful that I didn’t like the comfortable and well-paying job I had.  Attending the Meaningful Work Retreat helped dispel that embarrassment and my fear of talking with people about how I felt about my career and the choices that had lead me to where I am today.  It helped me to refine my direction and to blaze my own trail toward something that makes me feel happy and productive.

I live in Vancouver now.  I’m part of a progressive community doing inspiring things.  Many people I encounter are genuinely interested in making change and in making a difference in their community.  We have similar interests, but different passions and are supportive of one another’s paths.  We ride bikes everywhere, take transit, compost, garden, support municipal politics and host and attend community events with valuable messages.  I’ve been to countless networking events, shaken a lot of hands and made a lot of interesting connections.  Over the last year, I’ve taken the time to find a path that I find fulfilling and meaningful.  I spend the majority of my time volunteering and I’ve fully immersed myself in organizations whose mandates I believe in.  This experience has shown me that, while I spent some time floundering, taking a risk by quitting my job and pursuing things that make me happy was well worth any stress and uncertainty I’ve felt along the way.

I view the day I left Calgary as the day I took a leap.  I didn’t know where I’d end up, but I feel I’ve hit the ground running.  I’m constantly meeting interesting people, learning new things and creating opportunities for myself.  I’ve recently been offered a part time position with Waterlution, a non-profit with whom I’ve been involved for about a year. And I’m working with the manager, and a mentor of mine, at Evergreen to develop a watershed stewardship and restoration program in Vancouver.  In the near future I hope to make full time work for myself my being a part of a couple of organizations.  It’s been a bumpy road with much penny-pinching and persistence, but an exciting time of life and worth every moment.   When I tell people I quit my well-paying and comfortable job to volunteer and find something I felt good about, I receive reactions ranging from “I would never do what you did.” to “Good for you!” to “Are you independently wealthy?” to “I’m so proud of you.”

There are two things I’ve learned over this time:

1.  Don’t settle – we can all find work that we find motivating and fulfilling;

And 2. Get out there!  Network, talk to people, listen to people, be open and friendly – everyone has a story and something to teach others and you never know who you’ll meet!