Many scientists go the traditional route of undergrad > master's/TA > Ph.D. > postdoc/adjunct > TT > tenured > retired, all the while gathering publications, students, teaching awards, and of course, prestige.
I, on the other hand, have always gone about things backwards, or more precisely, in a try-before-you-buy scenario. I didn't know what I wanted to do after getting my bachelor's degree (in 2003). Sure, I knew I liked science, I had majored in science, and I was good at science, but I was also good at lots of other things (namely informal education, though I didn't know that was the word for it). One thing I knew for sure is that I would never be happy chained to a desk or lab all day every day. I thought that was all "scientists" did and I knew I would be out of place. So I decided to dip my toes into the world of nonprofit science education and found myself a job at a zoo summer camp. I learned a lot about organizational management, inventory, hierarchies and order, and enough about science education to make me want more. For a full year (2003-2004), I worked for that zoo and a few other science-outreach type jobs. I was hooked, and decided to go earn a master's in science education.
I chose to return to my undergrad institution because I like the familiar. I had enjoyed my time there, and even though I would be working with a different program, I knew I would be more comfortable. But after the first few weeks (2004) it was clear I was in the wrong place (again). My classmates were working schoolteachers. The assignments in these classes required me to develop, deliver, and assess assignments for students. I was the only one without students. The professors were nice enough about it, altering assignments for me, but I was definitely the "other" in the room. I enjoyed classes like Topics in Chem Ed and Topics in Earth Sci Ed and Integrated Science, but I liked my Experimental Design class I was toe-dipping even better. I got along with the other students, who were all older than me, and we learned from each other, but I found myself wanting to join the biology students' events instead.
During the second semester (2005), I shifted into a more traditional science graduate program, choosing to complete a MNS in Biology, and using those science ed courses as an area of emphasis. I was excited to complete my thesis project, a study of the science and methods of evaluating foraging behavior. I used a well-known forager, the eastern gray squirrel for my study. Essentially, I and my research assistants set up feeding stations, analyzed the number of seeds eaten and compared that to risk factors of coyote scent, distance from a safe tree, and location (suburban/forest).
I graduated (2006), again not sure, but knowing that I had to be doing outreach in some way and that I had enjoyed the management aspect of my thesis project. I began working right away as the programs manager at a science center. There were things I loved - developing science programs; hiring, training, and learning from some amazing educators, being a part of an important community destination, and living the mission. There were things I hated - bureaucracy and red tape, the insistence of some administrators to prioritize money-making fluff over real science-based mission work, and especially hated sales and customer service. Essentially, I wasn't doing science OR education; it was all business.
Personally, those years were good. I got married, we bought a house, we were saving money, living was easy. But I was miserable professionally.
In the middle of the third year (2009) at the science center, I started applying for science jobs at local universities. Lab techs, research assistants, etc. I put in one application for a job as a prep lab manager. By the time I sent in my application, the school had already filled that position, but offered me a slot as an adjunct, teaching one section of general education life science. I wasn't sure if I could do that - I had never taught college before, really. I did some TAing in undergrad, and had worked with groups of all ages at the science center, but had never run my own college course. I graciously accepted, with one caveat - I was due to have my daughter two weeks before the end of the semester. They didn't mind. I was grateful for that.
For that semester, I continued to work at the science center, but I could feel the pull of the university. I was hooked, once again, by doing it the toe-dipping way. They asked me to teach the course again in the spring, along with another lab-only course, and to design a course in plant biology to be taught the next year. After my maternity leave was up, I moved to part time at the science center and took a (substantial) pay cut to be able to do the real work of that institution. I helped families and school groups conduct real science experiments on the museum floor, I helped take care of the live animal collections, and I worked in the preschool room. Meanwhile, I continued to adjunct at the same school, and did one class with each of two other schools. I was happy. Broke and uninsured, but happy.
After two years, the full time lab prep manager position opened again (2011). It was an easy walk-on to that job, though it wasn't easy to learn. There were things I hadn't done since undergrad, and back then had just done enough to get by in those things as a means to an end - particularly organic chemistry and microbiology. With only google to train me, I quickly picked up skill sets I never had thought I would need. Best, I still got to adjunct. I've taught at least one class every semester here since Fall 2009. Plus I've participated in a curriculum overhaul and an update of the department's mission, I've designed a few courses, and finally (finally!) will get to teach the new ecology course next year. This is a small school and a small department. FOUR full time faculty for all of biology (and its variants), chemistry, and physics? That's right, and this means everyone pitches in for everything. I wouldn't be doing the same things I am here anywhere else.
Now that I've been in this position for a while, having successfully entered full time employment at a science department at a university in quite the backwards fashion, I'm trying to feel out what comes next. I'm interested in public perception and understanding of science. I'm interested in tackling misunderstandings of GMOs. I'm interested in continuing work where my thesis left off, and combining the study of GUD with working with plants, learning more about how optimal foraging behavior applies to plants. I've got my first research student this fall. I alternate between researching Ph.D. programs and realizing how great someone like me already has it. I have found my perfect fit at a school near me in a lab that studies the cognition and development of feeding behaviors. But shall I bite that bullet - live for five or six years in poverty and agony of grad school just to come out the other side having given up a pretty sweet deal and with no guarantees of anything? Or do I sit pretty, knowing this is as good as it gets?