One of the biggest concerns of grad students is what to do after grad school. This is especially true of Ph.D. students who know they don’t want to continue in academia, don’t want to be professors or post-docs, but aren’t sure what other options are out there. This post is the first of what I hope will be a series of posts interviewing people that have gotten their Ph.D. and done something unexpected with it.
“People don’t really think of real estate as being artistic.”
Neither did I, until I spoke with Marilyn Garcia. Marilyn got her Ph.D. from the University of California, Berkeley in Economics, taught economics at the University of San Francisco for five years, and is now a realtor, and loves her job. This may strike you as an unusual path, it certainly did to me. But it was also just the sort of unconventional post-Ph.D. career path I was curious about, so I had to talk with her, and Marilyn was nice enough to have a conversation with me. We spoke about why she decided to move from academic economics to real estate, what she loves about being a realtor, what she didn’t like about being a professor, and how her Ph.D. still gives her an edge in her new career.
Why She Chose Real Estate
Of course, my first question was the obvious, why? She said, “I wanted to be doing something more creative, as in visually creative, which no matter how you spin it, economics just isn’t.” Fair enough, but this makes me think that she wanted to start a painting career. Real estate is visually creative? She explains that it’s more than just signing closing papers, “It is artistic in the sense that the marketing is creative, and doing the marketing materials.” In addition Marilyn spends time working with sellers to “basically go in and help them make over their houses while on a reasonable budget…I love houses. I love architecture, and I love sort of envisioning what the houses could be, with sort of the right changes here or there.” Contrast that with studying GDP trends from the past decade, and you can quickly see how real estate wins in the more-visually-creative fight.
But certainly someone that goes through years of economics training, gets a Ph.D. from a top 10 program, and lands a professorship must have a serious appetite for the analytical that needs to stay satiated. She gets that as well, explains Marilyn, “[Real estate] is a fantastic mixture for me because I love doing all of that. I honestly feel like I’m playing and having fun…there’s sort of the figuring things out, and watching the market, and calculating statistics, which of course I do more than kind of any other realtor, because of my background. There’s an analytical side as well, which I think is really important to me and makes me happy also. And it’s that, the mix of those things: the logical analytical side, the artistic side, and then it’s a flexible lifestyle that works with the family.”
Realtor vs. Professor
Issues like “lifestyle” and “family” came up often in my talk with Marilyn because, as she explained, one of the factors in switching from teaching economics to becoming a realtor was the birth of her first child while she was a professor, “which,” she jokes, “tactically was not the optimal thing.” But moving from being a professor to any other profession for a more flexibile schedule struck me as odd. I mentioned to Marilyn that setting your own schedule and not having a boss are often the most cited pros of being a professor. Marilyn responded, “I think that that’s very true, except for, for me it was the: you can set your schedule, but certainly at the junior level, every moment that you’re not doing something that you’ve scheduled, you really should be doing research. And it’s sort of that continual, 24 hours a day guilt — I truly don’t miss that at all.” That doesn’t exist in real estate? Marilyn explains, “in real estate…I work at all different times of the day, but I’m doing very specific things: I need to do this and then I’m done and I can go enjoy my life.” To which I asked, “but how is that not true [as a professor]? You can’t delineate that like: I’m going to finish this grant proposal and then I’m going to call it a day?” Marilyn elaborated on the more subtle distinction, which is one of the most important differences between her old job and her new one. “I think that’s true to some extent but I think the activities are much more open ended and long term. Okay, a grant proposal is one thing but you need to write a paper that’s going to be published in some fabulous journal so you can get tenure,” she said. “Setting a specific goal is great but you have no idea how long, really, it’s going to take to achieve that goal. So you work for three hours and you’re not there, and then what do you do? You work for three hours after you’ve been in class all day, and you’ve got the faculty meetings, and had office hours, and driven back and forth.”
This is one of the parts of my conversation with Marilyn that I’ve thought about the most. Comparing careers, especially in the context of finding your “dream job” (whatever that means), is not a matter of just counting hours, dollars, or some other seemingly objective measure of comparison. Instead it has to do with feelings like guilt and contentedness, subjective feelings, that are difficult to quantify and differ from person to person. As a professor, the demands of the job meant that she felt more guilt when she was not working. As a realtor, she feels more content and simply doesn’t feel that nagging guilt. She agreed with me, “I don’t. And you know I think the other thing for me, honestly, was that doing economics, like doing research to me, never felt like fun.” Bingo. “Right…could it just be that you just simply enjoy this more?” I asked. “I think that’s absolutely true. I do enjoy this more and that’s why I’m willing to do it for far more hours. I mean I think that the people who are fantastic academics get joy out of the process and they’re having fun while they’re doing it. There isn’t this sort of trade off that I felt.”
That gets to the heart of what I learned from talking to Marilyn, she switched from academic economics to real estate because she likes being a realtor. She has fun doing it. That was not true of being an economics professor, despite having spent years studying the subject and developing her skills. It’s not that she wasn’t good at it. Not everyone that gets a Ph.D. is good enough to become a professor. She was. Yet, she found she plainly wasn’t having fun doing it, and, lucky for her, she found something else she does enjoy. Perhaps equally as important was the fact that her new profession gave her more autonomy (a subject discussed recently by Cal Newport), which she feels was more suitable to being a mom at the same time. Lastly, note that for her, there was little autonomy in being a professor, despite the fact that it’s a quintessential “you’re your own boss” job. Specifically, when she stopped doing work as a professor, she felt various pressures to do more, ruining any sense of autonomy that the professor job has on paper. The same was not true of real estate.
The next obvious question is how she decided on real estate out of all the other creative professions out there. But in addition, Marilyn and I also talked about the concrete steps she went through to become a realtor when she was already a professor, whether her still considers her Ph.D. useful, and what advice she has for other people thinking of leaving academia. Stay tuned for Part 2!