The Adventure Budget's Backstory

I painted a rosy picture of the freelancer life in my last post, but my path to get here has been anything but straightforward.  This is a story of setting my sights on a goal, pursuing it hard, burning out, and eventually stumbling into my current work-life balance.   Hopefully this will help place future topics into context and provide some background for those who are curious. 

My interest in personal finance never stemmed from a desire to retire early.  Quite the opposite, in fact.  From my late teens onward, I wanted to be a wildlife veterinarian.  Most wildlife vets work for Fish & Game departments, universities, or NGOs.  There's quite a bit of variety in actual job description, but the more applied positions involve helping catch animals for tracking collars or relocation, doing studies on health in wild populations, and developing management strategies for diseases that impact wildlife, human, and livestock health.  The jobs are scarce and it's generally low paying work, but I saw it as a chance to do many of the things I love as part of my job.  My early experiences in the field, working as a technician on wildlife field studies during my summers off from college, reinforced this idea.  I was getting paid to hike and look for animals - of course I wanted to pursue this path further!  Increasingly, wildlife vets hold a PhD as well as a DVM degree since there's often a significant research component to the work.  So, I was looking at being overeducated and underpaid, but the allure of such purpose-driven, adventurous work was strong. 

In vet school, I encountered skepticism about this career path.  Both professors and administrators in the program cautioned me about the gap between the large number of students who want to do wildlife work and the very small minority that ever make their living with it.  While I wasn't dissuaded, I accepted that it wouldn't be an easy path and was open to the idea of working in a more traditional veterinary role for my first few years out of school.  I'd build my clinical skills, establish my footing financially, and then do whatever it took to land the dream job.  In the meantime, my electives and externships as a vet student were geared toward wildlife work.  By making an effort to seek out and speak with every person who was remotely involved in that field at my institution, I found opportunities to help with field research in the Amazon rainforest and work with large mammals in Africa.  There are resources for students to get financial help with travel costs for externships and summer research, which I'll address in a future post. 

Relocating rhinos on an externship

At the end of vet school, I applied widely for jobs and received several offers at small animal clinics.  Small animal medicine has its own set of rewards and challenges, and I enjoyed clinical practice.  It kept me busy, on my feet, and mentally engaged every day - and the puppies and kittens didn't hurt, either.  Still, I missed my summers of working in the field, and used my spare time to keep a foot in the wildlife world.  I attended conferences, published a research paper, and used a vacation to help with fieldwork and teach vet students about conservation.       

I spent my vacation working, but had a much better office view than usual

Finally, after 3 years of practice, it was time to move on.  I'd applied for and been rejected from many wildlife vet jobs since graduating.  The repeated rejections emphasized that I'd need more training to qualify, and so I returned to school as a PhD student, doing research on wildlife disease.  A fellowship from the school covered my tuition and living expenses, and I continued practicing as a veterinarian a few weekends a month to keep the skills fresh and bring in extra income.  Things did not go as planned.  The research project I was working on turned out to have only tangential relevance to my interests and background and there was little prospect for improving it.  I was developing new skills that would be valuable in a career as a researcher, but moving further and further away from the things I actually enjoyed about the field.  I was facing 4-5 years of working primarily in a laboratory while others did the fieldwork.   I discussed my concerns with my advisor and reached out to my professional network about other opportunities.  This ultimately led to a collaboration on a small pilot project with an international NGO.  The work was much more up my alley, but they just didn't have the funding for me to do dissertation level research on it. 

At that point, I evaluated my options and made the decision to quit the PhD program and leave the wildlife vet career track.  I'd had so many wonderful experiences in the field, but they weren't at the DVM/PhD level.  They were at the entry level, where I spent all of my time outside collecting field data, and the times when I was in brought in for my vet background to help with animal capture and handling.  Academia had never really appealed to me, and pursuing a PhD as a means to an end had been a poor decision.  I realized I could still contribute to conservation efforts as a private practitioner who volunteered or contracted on projects when my skills were needed in the field.  My personal life and happiness had suffered when I was working 6-7 days a week in the PhD program, and I also wanted to tick off some non-career bucket list items, like hiking the Continental Divide Trail. 

Our culture celebrates people who exhibit grit and perseverance in pursuit of their goals.  They're valuable traits, but it's also critical to evaluate those goals and what you're sacrificing to achieve them.  Quitting was one of the hardest and best decisions I ever made.  And, bringing this back around to money, the savings built from frugal living and hard work at the beginning of my career helped immensely.  They gave me space to take risks, to accept a significant pay cut in pursuit of a dream, and to land on my feet when things didn't turn out as planned.  My next personal adventure will be thru hiking the Appalachian Trail.  After that - well, it turns out I have some choices.  An unexpected opportunity in the wildlife world came my way recently, and I have a few months to consider it as details are worked out.  I'm excited by my current prospects and grateful even for the pitfalls I've encountered along the way.  

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