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8 Things I've Learned From Leaving Engineering to Pursue Baking

It's been quite an adventure.

A career change is a big step at whatever stage of life you're in. Finishing up a four year program, I was hesitant to leave it behind to pursue something entirely different. But the beginning of my senior year of college, I decided I wanted to be a baker. I made a plan, graduated in biomedical engineering, and set out to find a career in pastry and baking. Whether you love finding the trendiest places to eat or cooking on your own, you may have also at one point considered going into the food industry. These are the things I've learned by following my dreams, and I hope this gives some insight as to whether or not taking the first step into a new path is right for you.

1. There's Going to Be a Lot of Questions

Every conversation about a career change will eventually turn into a casual interrogation, whether the other person means it to or not. Why are you doing this? What are you going to do next? What's going to happen with what you're doing now? Don't take anything too personally since most people are just curious.

There's also going to be a lot of questions to ask yourself. How comfortable are you with risk and uncertainty? What support do you need to make your dream a reality? There's no pressure to have an answer to everything yet either — just use the questions to guide your own introspection. Use these conversations as opportunities to reflect on what you want and how you're going to reach it. 

2. Reality Is Different From Imagination

Alice Zou

Doing research on a job is one of the first steps when considering a career change. Do your research and know what to expect and you won't be caught off guard when other people bring it up. You'll be more confident in your choice if you're aware of the drawbacks and are still going through with it.

When I decided to be a baker, I learned culinary jobs are physically demanding, have terrible hours, don't pay well, and are monotonous. The entire shift might just be shaping bread or making dozens of scones. I took up part-time jobs to experience the work for myself, and despite everything, I still want to be a baker. 

3. You Become Your Career

Job hopping isn't uncommon. A study by the US Bureau of Labor Statistics found that baby boomers had an average of 12 jobs before the age of 50, so it's not just a millennial thing. But the more unusual the career change, the more interesting it is, so get used to talking about your job. When everyone constantly brings up your career, it's easy to feel a need to impress others to prove you made the "right" choice. There is pressure to have results. Ignore these feelings and go at your own pace. 

4. Having a Plan Helps

Alice Zou

"When are you opening your bakery?" is the number one question people ask me nowadays. The truth is, I have no idea if I'll even open a bakery. Right now I'm happy to keep experimenting and learning professionally and on my own. Knowing what you want is important to get more out of your experiences. Having a goal provides direction. Even a tentative plan is better than none because you at least know what you can do next and you won't get caught up in what others want to see you do. 

5. Sometimes It's Just a Job

Alice Zou

When it's midnight and I have to be at work for an overnight shift, there is nothing I'd like better than to go home and curl in bed. Working in food service is physically demanding and it's hard to muster the energy to be constantly excited about work. I was a little shocked when I realized that I wasn't happy in the moment to be at my dream job, but a dream job is still a job. It's still important to make time for other things and not let work consume your life. Just because you love something doesn't mean you should overwork yourself to reach your goals faster.

6. There Is No "Right" Path

Alice Zou

I didn't realize I wanted to be a baker until August of my senior year. Honestly, it seemed like a bad idea. At first, I thought about getting an engineering job and just baking on the side. But rather than waiting to see what would happen in the future, I decided to fully commit to baking after graduation. I decided to not go to culinary school and instead work my way up.

There is no specific way to start a career. If you find yourself thinking that you "have to" do something, catch yourself and check if that's true. For example, culinary school isn't the only way to make it in the food industry. Thomas Keller, chef of three Michelin star restaurants The French Laundry and Per Se, never went to culinary school. There is no definite approach to life — your decisions just guide your experience.

7. Nothing Is a Waste

The most frustrating comment to receive about a career change right out of college is how I went through a four year program only to not use my degree. Despite not going into a conventional engineering job, I still use analytical skills to troubleshoot issues at work, and I can provide a different perspective on problems in workflow or process.

One of the reasons I hesitated to leave engineering for baking was because I worried I would regret it later. Even if you change your decision later on or you fail to reach your goal, the experiences you go through are meaningful. If I change my mind about baking in the future then I'll still have learned about customer service, scale, and production in addition to culinary technique. Plus, this will always be an interesting topic in future interviews.

8. You'll Know You've Made the Right Decision When You're Happy

Alice Zou

"NOOOOO! DON'T DO IT!" is what a chef at my part-time job yelled at me when I told him I wanted to be a pastry chef. He then continued to yell this and facepalm for five minutes. After all this melodrama, he conceded that if this is what truly makes me happy, then I should go for it. At the end of a long day (or night) of baking, seeing the spread of pastries or shelves stacked with fresh, steaming loaves of bread, and knowing that the food I make makes people happy gives me a deep sense of satisfaction. And that's truly the best part of my job.

Hopefully this list addresses some concerns you might have about going into the culinary world or taking a different career path. If you're not ready to take the plunge just yet, then try to get as much experience as you can. Start an Instagram to document the things you cook, bake, or style. Get a part-time job in the environment you want to check out. Talk to mentors, career center counselors, your friends, and parents. This is your life, so why not do something you really care about?