Meet Catherine

Success Stories11 min read

From environmental public health scientist to student, teacher and gardener.

Catherine left her position as an environmental public health scientist more than two years ago. She now works part time in two different roles — as a gardener for a charity and a further education biology teacher — while continuing her training and education.

She made the change after feeling frustrated that her work no longer benefited public health or the environment. With health, wellbeing and environmental concerns all being strong drivers of her personal values, Catherine felt she needed to change careers as she no longer felt the same purpose in her role as a scientist.

Through the help of friends and family, volunteering and taking on opportunities became options as she sought assistance and advice. Catherine’s career change story has involved many leaps of faith. But she now feels much more fulfilled in her two current roles while she continues her learning and development.

Name: Catherine Keshishian

Location: London, UK

Current position: Part-time gardener at a homeless charity and part-time biology teacher at a further education college.

Previous job: Environmental public health scientist

When did you make the change?

Two and a half years ago

What prompted you to make the change?

I left my job for various reasons — boredom, poor management and a move to new premises that had an appalling physical environment. Mainly I was frustrated that my career no longer made a positive impact on public health nor the environment.

Did you know what you wanted to move into?

I had no idea at all. I had been seeing a careers advisor and the themes that kept coming up were plants — a love that I had completely forgotten about — and making people happy.

What did your career change journey look like, what steps did you take to make your change happen?

Deciding to leave my job took a long time. After about 12 years working in environmental public health, I felt bored and that I wasn’t making any kind of positive impact, and that I was completely unconnected to the real world. But it actually took three years to make the leap, and it happened in stages.

I remember the moment I was talking with a friend in the pub and I finally accepted that I was comfortable with giving up my good civil service wage for far less. I didn’t know what my new salary would be, but I knew the kind of things I was drawn to would be poorly paid. Then it took another year or so to get to the stage where I was OK giving up the prestige and personal pride I had in being a manager in a scientific emergency response team. When I’d got over those barriers, I just waited for inspiration to strike about what exactly to do, as I wanted a new career in the bag before leaving. But inspiration never struck, and in the end, I just left.

I had been speaking to a career counsellor for about six months by the time I quit. We hadn’t got to the point where I knew what I wanted to do, but she helped me gain insights into what I wanted. Independence but being part of a strong team, a feeling that I was making people happy, something that involved plants and colours. Part of the process involved me making lists of ways I could bring these elements into my life — either career wise or hobby wise. When I left my job, I had initiated a few things on my list: I had enrolled on a gardening qualification for fun and a laughter yoga teaching course.

Alongside this, I increased the volunteering that I had already been doing with homeless and elderly befriending charities. Chatting to staff and other volunteers, opportunities arose and I signed up to teach about homelessness in schools and gardening in the community and teaching laughter yoga to vulnerable groups — both for money and for free. A few months in, I was hired by one of the charities to teach a gardening qualification — although I barely had any gardening skills by this point, my scientific background and patience with vulnerable people suited this. It was while teaching the carbon cycle to a couple of keen adults that I realised how much I loved learning and teaching science.

This was just over a year after I’d quit my job and I really needed a new career! Teaching had come up a few times with the career advisor, but I had always been against it as I knew from teacher friends how awful teenagers can be and the hours involved. It was August and there were a lot of adverts about ‘get into teaching’ — I reluctantly went to the website and then saw a link to post-compulsory education, i.e. 16+ age group and adult learning. I rang the advice line and was quite inspired. I was still in about five different minds so went to the Jobcentre and made an appointment with a career advisor, who helped focus me.

I started ringing colleges and universities to find out what course I could take and career opportunities, but as it was August, many were away. My dad introduced me to his friend who’d worked in post-compulsory education for years and she advised me, describing how life-changing the work of a lecturer can be and the vulnerability of many of the students.

Just three weeks after seeing the advert, I started my teaching qualification at University College London. I had to pay £9,250 for the course. I didn’t want to take out a student loan at the government’s 6.1% interest rate, as it’s ludicrous, so my father generously paid.

As a student teacher, you start taking lessons in the classroom quickly at your host college. A few months in, a part-time teacher at my college went on maternity leave and I was taken on as staff to cover. Two years later, I’m still employed there.

Did you face any obstacles along the way?

I was lucky as I had saved up quite a bit of money before, and I could float about trying new things, and it all started falling into place piece by piece. The main obstacle was finding part-time work hours that fitted in with the other hours I had already filled. That’s a very unexpected problem — flexible part-time positions are impossible to find.

It wasn’t trouble-free. My teaching and gardening hours only covered three days a week so I have been very short of cash. I have tried to find other work — in charities, offices, shops, cafes to make up the shortfall — but no one offers work that can fit in around my timetables. Finding flexible part-time work is extremely difficult and frustrating.

Do you feel like you made the right decision?

Absolutely. I have a lower income, which is a challenge, but overall I’m far more fulfilled.

Have you changed as a person since you changed career?

Yes, I feel more empowered and confident, even though I’m starting from the beginning again. I think that’s because I feel more authentic — I am happy to ask for help and admit when I’ve got something wrong, as I know I’m learning a new trade. I feel more independent and definitely proud of myself.

How do you feel your life has changed since then; what impact do you feel your career change has had on your life?

With regards to my life in general… it’s impacted in some negative ways. I don’t go out as much, as I have less money and also have to do marking and lesson planning in the evenings. But when I do go out, I feel far more confident. I’m not anxious anymore and feeling stuck in a rut as I know I’m heading on the right path for me now.

Are you using any of the same abilities for both careers?

I have to be a good listener and patient, both as a gardener with homeless people and as a teacher of teenagers. I am dealing with people and problems that are very different from my previous experience. I have to plan what I’m going to do before going to my jobs and how to make them interesting. Obviously, my plant biology is necessary for both. I’ve completed my teaching qualification, but most of the skills I’m developing are by trial and error in the classroom. It’s the same for gardening — I’m building up my skills over the seasons. It’s interesting that the new knowledge I’ve gained in my gardening and teaching qualifications tends to get forgotten in real life, and it’s on reflection afterwards that I realise I should have followed the instructions I was taught — there are just too many things to remember at the moment.

Although my two jobs — gardening and teaching biology — sound superficially different, and perhaps completely different to my career as a public health scientist, to me they’re ultimately about the same thing — nature and wellbeing. There is much scientific research showing that being in nature improves your health and that learning improves your health. I get to help the environment and people at the same time with both of my jobs.

What are your future career goals?

I would like to continue to improve my gardening knowledge and experience by increasing my hours and gaining higher qualifications so that eventually I can teach gardening.

What advice would you give to someone looking to make a career change?

Be brave and take the leap — things will fall into place. If you can’t afford to give up your current job just yet, ask your current employer to go part-time and spend the rest of the time exploring what makes you happy — volunteering, going on a course, getting another job.

Go back and think about what you wanted to be or do or remember what you enjoyed when you were a child — maybe you can’t become a vet now, but you could get a part-time job working with animals. As long as you’re taking steps in a direction that you’re happy with, you’ll get to where you’re going even if you’re not entirely sure what the perfect job is yet. Embrace not being an ‘expert’ in something and realise that it’s fine to start from the metaphorical bottom again — enjoy the learning process.

Talking to as many different people as possible helped me make the change. A friend of a friend helped me realise I could survive on a lower salary, a random guy in the pub helped me realise work should be enjoyable and changing jobs is a normal thing to do. Then fellow volunteers got me into gardening opportunities and taking sessions in schools. So, network as much as possible. Take advantage of charity days that your employer may offer because many let staff take three to five paid days off from work to volunteer.

If you want to work teaching adults on vocational courses — anything from business to building to baking — you don’t actually need a teaching qualification in England. A college will usually put you through the qualification after hiring you. There are loads of free gardening courses about, and you can gain skills by volunteering in community gardens on weekends. There are online distance courses you can do as well.

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