For most people, the path from undergraduate studies to a profession is not a straight line. There are changes of heart, changes of major, and changes of career. As college counselors, we talk to many high school students who are convinced the major they indicate on their college applications will determine their futures, so they must choose wisely or be doomed. But a quick poll of, say, anyone around you, will confirm you know plenty of people who work in a role they did not directly prepare for in college. Yet these same people benefit daily from the knowledge and skills they gained as an undergraduate.
Matt Callahan is one of those people. After a brief stint as a physics major, he switched to math (proof changing your major won’t ruin your life!) at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill, in his home state. As he progressed through his studies and began thinking ahead to his post-graduate plans, he heard that math majors often did well on the LSAT, the admission exam required by most law schools. He decided to give it a try. “I studied for a week,” Matt recalls wryly. “Turns out you need to study for more than a week for the LSAT.” Sensing he hadn’t done well on the exam, he immediately canceled his scores and decided he needed more time to figure out his next move. Like many math majors, he considered the field of engineering, but didn’t feel a strong calling to the career. As graduation approached and Matt felt unready to commit himself to a costly grad school program in either law or STEM, he decided to take an entirely different pathway and become a teacher.
Unsurprisingly, math teachers were in great demand, and Matt spent two years as a middle school instructor and three at the high school level. In his fifth year teaching, he took stock and decided that, while teaching was rewarding, it wasn’t the best use of his skillset. This is a theme that comes up when you talk to Matt: the idea that you should work in a job that maximizes your strengths. As he pondered his next steps, he had a realization: While he might make a pretty good engineer or a pretty good lawyer, what if he combined these areas to be a lawyer specializing in cases related to STEM? “If I combine those two, I could be the best,” Matt remembers thinking to himself.
This time around, he spent much more than a week preparing for the LSAT. It paid off. By his first semester at the University of Southern California’s Gould School of Law, he knew he’d made the right decision: “It just clicked.” In addition to his law school studies, he simultaneously enrolled in a Master’s of Computer Science program. “I chose Computer Science to set me apart in the job market, but also because I found it interesting. It was both practicality and idealism.” His hunch that STEM law was a fit was confirmed in his externship the summer after his first year. The judge he worked for had a patent case on the docket and, as his peers took pains to avoid the case, Matt felt himself drawn to the challenge of differentiating how one invention differed from others. Again, it clicked: “I thought, ‘Ah, maybe this is the thing for me.’”
It was. As an associate at a prestigious international law firm, Matt now advises clients on patent litigation. Every day he draws not only on his graduate degrees, but as he puts it, on the “technical problem solving skills” he began honing in his undergraduate courses. “I have to be able to compare pharmaceuticals or software and understand why they’re different, but also explain those differences clearly.” Some of the most valuable training for explaining complex concepts succinctly? Teaching science to middle schoolers. “Seriously, I’ve talked about that in job interviews,” Matt says, confirming that each part of his journey—even the part with tweens—continues to inform his work.