A geneticist, French artist, and English tutor take the stress out of choosing the right college major or career

A geneticist, French artist, and English tutor take the stress out of choosing the right college major or career

If you have anyone in your life stressing over choosing the right college major or first career, this week’s story is for you.

With all the pressure on kids to go to college, and the ridiculously high cost of doing so, there’s more and more anxiety over choosing the “right” field of study. In the United States, for example, delaying that choice or changing direction even one year in can cost tens of thousands of dollars in added tuition. But even where cost isn’t a major concern, pressure to make the right choice can be paralyzing. Someone who hears about that anxiety firsthand is Anne Favrelle.

Anne is an artist living in Annemasse, France, just across the French border with Switzerland, seven miles east of Geneva. She works primarily with acrylic, chalk, pencil, markers, and even some ceramics. And when she’s not working on her own creations, she runs an art gallery for fledgling artists (www.pronoiart.com) hoping to update the public’s perception of what contemporary art looks like.

But she also finds time to tutor local high school students in math and English. Spending those few hours a week with teenagers, she gets to hear about their hopes and dreams and of course their fears. One of those fears, she says, is making the right choices about higher education. “In France,” she explains, “the first choice you have to make about higher education is around the age of fifteen or sixteen. So from the age of twelve, they’re told ‘you need to start thinking about what direction you want to take, and make good grades so you have options.’ That puts a lot of pressure on young people. They feel like they have to choose what they will do for the next forty years!” It’s a concern shared by young people in many places around the world.

To put their mind at ease, Anne explains that they’re not really making a forty-year decision. She reminds them of the now ubiquitous statistics that the average person changes careers seven times during his or her working lifetime. And even if that’s an exaggeration, clearly the correct number is greater than one. “You’re making at most a ten-year decision,” she ventures.

That seems to comfort some of them. But what they find more comforting is hearing her personal story. Her first sentence usually gets their attention. “In my early twenties, I completed a master’s degree in genetics from Pierre-and-Marie-Curie University in Paris.” Not exactly the background they expected to hear from their English tutor and French artist.

She goes on to explain that her plan was to become a research scientist and university professor. So her next step would be to complete a Ph.D. But after finishing her master’s degree, she had an opportunity to do a research internship in exactly the kind of academic environment she would eventually work in after getting her doctorate. By the end of the internship, she explains, “I didn’t like the work at all.” Doing more of the same for a living was out of the question. “So I decided to study marketing.”

Anne relocated three hundred miles south, to the Institute of Management for the Health Industry in Lyon, France. A little more than a year later, she completed her degree in marketing and took her first job as a marketing research manager for a big pharmaceutical company. This change is probably the most telling to her young audience. In just over a year, Anne went from having completed a master’s degree in genetics and working at an active internship in the field, to a completely different industry and career, completing an advanced degree in that new field, and landing a job at a prestigious firm in the industry. But she obviously wasn’t done yet.

After two years, she moved to a global consumer products company, still in the market research field, where she stayed for eleven years. After a few months with a market research agency, she decided to follow her greatest passion and become an artist, which is how her students know her today.

So in the span of eighteen years, Anne has gone from geneticist, to marketing researcher, to artist and gallery owner and tutor. And she’s been successful with each new venture.

At that point she can get back to tutoring her student, who’s now settled down enough to focus on her math instead of stressing about her future.

As with all these stories, I encourage you to share this with your kids. Then have a discussion about it. Here are some questions to get you started.

  1. Have you felt any anxiety or stress over choosing your education or career path? Tell me about that.
  2. What would happen if you decided you didn’t like your first job out of college? What else could you do with the degrees you’ll have? Or what else might you want to go back and study?
  3. How many jobs or careers have your parents had so far?
  4. What kinds of decisions do you think are made for a lifetime?

[You can find this and over 100 other character-building stories in my book, Parenting with a Story.]

PAS square profile Paul Smith is one of the world’s leading experts on business storytelling. He’s a keynote speaker, storytelling coach, and bestselling author of the books Lead with a Story and Parenting with a Story.

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