Roundtable: Our Long and Winding Career Paths

This roundtable was an A+ member request:

roundtable idea: some of the writers and editors talking about their educational backgrounds/what they did before they got to AS. I’m in that stage of my life where I feel like I need a ~career path~ whatever the fuck that means and it’s terrifying and I consider y’all “adults” and I want your life/career advice

We worried that this roundtable would be a bit limited in scope, as the majority of Autostraddle writers are, well, writers. But we trusted that your desires were perhaps more about the journey itself rather than the names of the roads we took or the type of destination we aimed towards. So, several of us pitched in to answer some basic questions about where we’ve been and where we wanted to go, and this is how that turned out!

1. What did you want to be when you were a child?

Erin Sullivan, Writer: I’ve always loved animals and so I thought I might be a vet until I realized being a vet involved things like putting dogs to sleep and maybe doing surgery on horses. No thank you! Also there was a time when I was very into soccer (do I get some sort of honor for making this the gayest intro) and thought I might make a (three year) career out of it.

KaeLyn Rich, Writer, Organizer, Speaker: I wanted to be a Greenpeace activist (specifically I wanted to cut whale nets) and a veterinarian.

Kayla Upadhyaya , Freelance Culture Writer and TV Critic: According to my second grade journal, I wanted to be a singer “like Jennifer Lopez.” Eventually, this dream evolved into me wanting to be a part-time Broadway star/part-time Hollywood star.


Laneia Jones, Autostraddle Executive Editor: I didn’t have a plan and everything seemed really out of reach and unreasonable, so there’s no answer to this. I knew what I didn’t want to be, though: someone who still lived in my hometown, someone who worked at a boring office job and had to wear pantyhose.

Laura Mandanas, Senior Quality Engineer: When I was 10, I wrote a letter to Disney asking them what I should do to become an imagineer (the engineers who design Disney theme park attractions). They wrote back and told me I should take lots of math and science courses. So I did, and here I am.

I also wanted to be a writer when I grew up.

Molly Priddy, Writer: I really and truly wanted to be an astronaut. Space seemed to be my one shot at actually achieving a life dream of being able to fly – directional floating seemed close enough. I would play all sorts of space games on my computer and imagine I was in my fuselage up in space; Apollo 13 was kept nearly on repeat. This dream died, however, when I learned how poorly my body handles spinning, how much time you have to give to the military before they even consider you for space, and how math and I don’t get along at all.

Nora Whelan, Freelance Reporter, Copywriter, Photo/Video Shoot Producer: A professional equestrian! I wanted to be around horses from as early on as I can remember, and was finally able to start taking riding lessons at seven. I rode steadily for 12 years, but very few people actually make a living riding in competitions, and I wasn’t filthy rich, talented, or brave enough to be one of them. It’s cool; I still love petting a nice fuzzy horse nose whenever I get the chance, but I’m glad now to be in a field that’s creative.

Rachel Kincaid, Autostraddle Managing Editor: Writer and also astronomer and also marine biologist.

Riese Bernard, CEO and Editor-in-Chief of Autostraddle: I vacillated between wanting to be an actress (specifically a Broadway actress, before I realized I was a terrible singer) (not before I performed “Ladies Who Lunch” on my futon for my parents), a YA novelist or a playwright. In high school I decided that I wanted to be a screenwriter/filmmaker.

Stef Schwartz, Venue Manager and Writer: I had so many brilliant, realistic ideas, but I believe I most ardently wanted to either be an equestrian or some kind of writer.

Heather Hogan, Autostraddle Senior Editor: A professional baseball player for the Atlanta Braves or an astronaut.

Tiara, Writer and Artist: So every year in primary school in Malaysia your class teacher fills out a file about you and asks you what your Top Three Ambitions were. My first two were always the same: Writer, which is literally not a surprise to anybody, and Teacher, which I was more surprised by because I found school to be a rather oppressive environment and some of my biggest bullies were the teachers. The third option changed a lot: at different times I wanted to be a rockstar, a stage magician, a fisherman, a chemist, something Internetty, probably others!

Yvonne Marquez, Autostraddle Senior Editor: In the fourth grade, I said I wanted to be a pediatrician because I knew that’s what smart girls said they wanted to be and I was a smart girl. I was really good at math and science in elementary school and even went to a math and science summer camp in 5th grade where we learned algebra and built roller coasters out of popsicle sticks. In middle school, I had horrible math and science teachers and I started disliking the subjects. I think the idea of wanting to become a doctor died in 8th grade.

Executive Editor Laneia teaching some lucky A-Campers how to make granola at A-Camp

2. What’s your educational background?

Erin, Writer: I went to the University of South Carolina and got an advertising degree from their journalism school. I always thought that was a weird setup, but it allowed me to take a lot of courses that I probably wouldn’t have had access to had it not been in the journalism school, which was great because I still use a lot of things I learned in those classes today! I minored in Business, because that is what I am – a businesswoman.

KaeLyn, Writer, Organizer, Speaker: B.A. Women’s Studies & Creative Writing, M.A. Liberal Arts with nonprofit management certificate

Kayla, Freelance Culture Writer and TV Critic: I attended a performing arts high school, where I studied musical theater. From there, I went to University Of Michigan, where I was in the school of public policy and majored in gender and race in public policy and minored in women’s studies.

Laneia, Autostraddle Executive Editor: I graduated high school in a small town in Tennessee and that’s it!

Laura, Senior Quality Engineer: I studied industrial and systems engineering at the Rochester Institute of Technology for undergrad, and recently finished Harvard’s HBX CORe program.

Molly, Writer: Graduated high school in Missoula, Montana, then headed off to get my four-year degrees in communication and public relations from Carroll College in Helena, Montana. After that, I went to grad school for journalism, earning my master’s degree.

Nora, Freelance Reporter, Copywriter, Photo/Video Shoot Producer: It’s a clusterfuck. I didn’t want to go to college right out of high school, but my parents wanted me to and I… I don’t know, I guess I just didn’t put up enough of a fight. Since I’d spent all that time working in barns, my automatic move was to go into an equestrian studies program, which landed me in northeast Ohio with roughly 200 other on-campus students. Next I transferred to SUNY Purchase, where I vaguely planned to go into creative writing, but mostly just drank and followed various significant others around like a sad puppy before dropping out and obliterating my (already not stellar) GPA. A few years later, having worked a number of retail and food service jobs in NYC and realizing I was finally ready to learn in a classroom, I actually bothered applying myself and graduated with a creative writing degree from Brooklyn College. Now, weirdly enough, I miss school; I’d love to go back if I could.

Rachel, Autostraddle Managing Editor: I attended public school K-12 (although I grew up in an affluent area, so it was a very well-resourced public school). Then I went to Brandeis University, a private university about an hour, hour and a half from where I grew up, immediately after high school on a combination of financial aid and loans, about 50/50. After that I was in the “workforce” (lmao) for about a year and then I went to graduate school and got a Masters of Fine Arts in fiction, which took three years.

Riese, CEO and Editor-in-Chief of Autostraddle: I LOVED SCHOOL. I did my last two years of high school at Interlochen Arts Academy, a boarding school for the arts in upstate Michigan, as a Creative Writing major. In fall of 1999 I did a semester at Sarah Lawrence College — you don’t have majors there, but I was doing a “theater third,” a lit class and a humanities class — then I had a mental breakdown, then I moved to New York City with my friends to work at the Olive Garden and intern and do an independent study with SLC, and then I transferred to University of Michigan to finish undergrad in the fall of 2000. I picked UMich because in-state tuition was cheap and I was a mess and wanted to be a less expensive mess. Originally I double-majored in English Lit and Sociology, but dropped Soc so I could graduate on time. I got into the Creative Writing Sub-concentration at Michigan which was this tiny fantastic writing program, and then I graduated in December of 2003 with a B.A. in English Lit and honors in creative writing.

Stef, Venue Manager and Writer: I was a very meh high school student, who went on to study Music Industry of all things at Drexel University in Philly. I also received pretty mediocre grades there, and graduated with a very generalized idea of an industry that was (and still is) rapidly changing shape and very few useful life skills.

Heather, Autostraddle Senior Editor: I went to public school in rural Georgia and to a very small public college in rural Georgia.

Tiara, Writer and Artist: 11 years in Malaysian primary & secondary school, causing a bit of a riot in my final two years because I opted to study Malay Literature in lieu of Biology/Physics/Chemistry despite Humanities being seen as Subjects For Stupid People Who Failed Exams. (I made a difference though; my juniors got inspired to take up Humanities even if they scored “high enough” for the Science stream.) After a gap year, which was seen as highly unusual in Malaysia at the time, I did a year and a half of Mass Communications in a terrible Malaysian university (my schoolmates were awesome, the academics sucked) before taking another gap year to travel and work for a while.

I moved to Brisbane, Australia to study a Bachelors of Creative Industries (think the business side of arts), submajoring in Creative Writing and Creative Industries Management. Despite coming in as a lifelong writer, the degree killed my love of writing for quite some time because I wasn’t getting the support I needed; however, it did help me find a love and aptitude for arts management and artistic direction! A few years later I moved to San Francisco for a Masters in Fine Arts in Creative Inquiry, which was basically code for “do whatever the hell you want”: not the most rigorous of programs, but very open to experimentation, and suits my academic-writing-hating ass just fine.

A couple of years ago, while stuck with my parents in Malaysia for 9 months with nothing to do, I got bored enough to start taking online intro-to-business classes hosted by Harvard Business School. I was probably the least business-experienced person in my cohort but got High Distinction; who knew accounting was actually interesting?! I’ve also had a lot of training and courses in performance art, writing, programming, and various other skills.

Yvonne, Autostraddle Senior Editor:  I attended public schools my entire life. I have a Bachelor of Journalism from the University of Texas at Austin.

3. What was your first job straight out of college/high school?

Erin; Writer: I worked for a tutoring company as an office manager of sorts and occasionally I’d attempt and fail to teach someone long division.

KaeLyn; Writer, Organizer, Speaker: McDonald’s!

Kayla; Freelance Culture Writer and TV Critic: Freelance writer! I worked at my college newspaper and after graduation, I transitioned into doing the same thing I was doing there (television criticism/culture writing) but out in the “real world.”

Laneia; Autostraddle Executive Editor: My first and longest-held position was as a stay-at-home mom. I did that for about 10 years. Solid work.

Laura; Senior Quality Engineer: In my first job out of college I worked as a simulations analyst, building mathematical models of tanks and giving supply chain recommendations to the US Marine Corps. I ultimately decided that I didn’t want to play such an active role in the military industrial complex, but I learned a lot of handy data analytics tricks while I was there.

Molly; Writer: Working at the newspaper in Northwest Montana that I still work at right now.

Nora; Freelance Reporter, Copywriter, Photo/Video Shoot Producer: Marketing!!! I resigned myself to probably not writing the great American novel, and ended up doing SEO copy for everything from wineries to bras to nursing homes. That kind of writing remains my only non-artsy fartsy skill.

Rachel; Autostraddle Managing Editor: I worked as a barista/food service worker in Cambridge in the last month or so of undergraduate, and kept working there as my main form of income after graduation for maybe four months; later I got a job formatting RFPs for the sales department at a huge health insurance software corporation, which I kept for about six months while also sometimes picking up barista shifts on weekends and working at Autostraddle. I was also working at Autostraddle (sort of, if being an intern is “working”) starting my senior year of college and have been here ever since.

Riese; CEO and Editor-in-Chief of Autostraddle: I was a waitress at the Macaroni Grill when I graduated, and I maintained that prestigious position post-graduation until moving to New York five months later.

Stef; Venue Manager and Writer: In college I worked at a bookstore in Liberty Place and also did a ton of unpaid internships at record distribution companies and online marketing companies. The online marketing gigs were huge for me; I learned that I was capable of doing the actual account executives’ jobs, and made lifelong friends/connections there. I thought that was what I wanted to do, until I graduated from college and immediately went on tour with a band called theSTART. That was it for me. I never wanted to do anything but live music after that.

Heather; Autostraddle Senior Editor: When I was in college I started working as a file clerk at a mid-size company that manufactured superabrasives (which means sandpaper but also means those diamond saw blades that are four-feet tall and cut through the pavement on airport runways). From there I worked my way up to being an accounting clerk and then a senior accounting clerk and then an accountant.

Tiara, Writer and Artist: Building & maintaining the official website for one of my best friends who was a regional TV/media personality, as well as being a youth journalist for a national Malaysian English-language daily, both of which I did right after high school. In between my Malaysian and Australian university years I wrote scripts and was a PA at an Asian music TV station based in Kuala Lumpur.

Yvonne; Autostraddle Senior Editor: I was a general reporter at The Daily Texan, my university’s newspaper, for a year. I guess that was my first official job because technically I got paid $15 per story, which is nothing for the amount of work I did.

KaeLyn Rich, Assistant Advocacy Director, New York Civil Liberties Union; Staff Writer, AS; Lecturer in Women & Gender Studies, SUNY Brockport

4. What other jobs have you had as an adult?

Erin; Writer: So many! I’ve done transcription work, I’ve done food industry stuff, I’ve worked for a theater company, I’ve worked in marketing, I’ve worked as a writing assistant, I’ve walked dogs, I’ve been all over the place.

KaeLyn; Writer, Organizer, Speaker: Rape crisis advocate, domestic violence shelter worker, Planned Parenthood campus organizer and public affairs coordinator, Mary Kay consultant, touring professional speaker on sexuality education, ACLU regional director, adjunct lecturer, food service worker

Kayla; Freelance Culture Writer and TV Critic: I’ve only had one job that I actually count since graduating college. Technically, I worked as a copy writer at an ad agency for like a hot second, but I like to forget about it. But during college, I worked as a campaign manager for a city council campaign, a copywriter for a website that sells products made from bamboo, and a script reader at a production company.

Laneia; Autostraddle Executive Editor: I worked for one month as a receptionist at a chiropractor’s office, where the doctor’s wife was the office manager. I quit that job by leaving for a 15 minute break and then never going back. I worked part-time as a barista at a local coffee shop in California for about a year, until the owner sold the business and we were all let go. Right before Autostraddle started, I spent one month on the verge of a mental breakdown working at Tutor Time in Arizona, which is a chain of preschools and made me want to die.

Laura; Senior Quality Engineer: Compliance manager at a kitchen gadgets company, quality engineer at a kitchen electrics company, staff writer for Autostraddle, math tutor, software instructor at a veteran’s center, pre-production specialist at a company that manufactured credit cards, manufacturing engineer at a company that made radios for the Army, internet installation technician, industrial engineering co-op at a graphite milling company, freelance writer at a various publications.

Molly; Writer: Oh so many: gas station attendant, camp counselor, lifeguard at the YMCA, flinging dough at a bagel shop, kneading dough at a bread bakery, and a gracious but never-to-be-seen Airbnb host.

Nora; Freelance Reporter, Copywriter, Photo/Video Shoot Producer: Barista, vintage store employee, tattoo shop receptionist, ice cream scooper, local news reporter, BuzzFeed bot.

Rachel; Autostraddle Managing Editor: I’ve done a bunch of freelance work, from editing people’s novels to rewriting their resumes to babysitting and nannying. I used to work as an assistant to a literary agent and would help edit stuff, write query letters. Once I helped ghostwrite the memoir of a Loch Ness Monster hunter. A couple years ago I served pierogis at PolishFest for my friend’s restaurant for a weekend; I used to pour drinks at a beer festival back in Michigan sometimes, too.

Riese; CEO and Editor-in-Chief of Autostraddle: I waited tables all through college. My first summer in New York as a grown-up (aside from when I lived there in ’99 and ’01) , which was 2004, I waitressed at like four different restaurants and got fired from all of them. I started publishing a lot of erotica and doing some freelance magazine work, but a full-time job remained out of reach so I gave up and became a sex worker, which I did for around 3.5 years, on and off. Also during that time I: worked the floor at Banana Republic, did some weird modeling stuff, interned at a literary agency and was eventually promoted to Office Manager/Accountant for that literary agency, interned at, temped for some banks but never lasted more than two days, worked the desk at a fancy tennis club and did all the overnight copywriting for an HR outsourcing agency in Australia (Crystal, who works here, was my boss!). I also did a lot of freelance copywriting and video-editing and freelance writing and regular writing! My best gig ever was when Showtime paid me to talk about the L Word for YouTube, although the comments were vile and life-changing in a bad way.

Stef, Venue Manager and Writer: I worked at another Borders, then ran retail for a venue, then got a nebulous online marketing/merch gig for a local independent promoter. They taught me the back end of live music, which I’d previously only ever seen from the touring band’s perspective. After that, I picked up box office gigs, merch shifts, eventually working up to a job counting money at a bigger club which then evolved into running day-to-day finances and liquor inventory at the Bowery Ballroom and Mercury Lounge. I picked up enough there to learn how to manage a club on my own. Now I’m the dark overlord of a 650-capacity venue in Williamsburg.

Heather, Autostraddle Senior Editor: I left one accounting job for another accounting job and then another accounting job. At my last two accounting jobs I was also the office manager, which meant I was in charge of handing out paychecks and deciding who got to spend how much money on pens and staplers. I started freelance writing a handful of posts a week at AfterEllen in 2008. Founder/EIC Sarah Warn plucked me out of the comments section one random day! Her parting gift was to bump me up to senior editor.

Tiara, Writer and Artist: Oh geez, all sorts of things! A lot of writing in various forms, mostly essay/journalistic rather than fiction per se. Performance art, stage management, office administration, updating websites and social media, passing out flyers for public transport, selling magazines at street corners, selling hummus at markets, a fair bit of before & after school childcare, academic tutoring, assisting with teaching, editing, erotic modelling, assisting with games and events, public speaking, call centre…I’m sure there’s more that people have paid me for that I’ve forgotten because they’re often really ad-hoc.

Yvonne, Autostraddle Senior Editor: I worked at an ice cream shop for a summer in college and it was terrible. I was really depressed that summer and I just remember crying a lot in the back when I wasn’t serving customers. I had a couple of unpaid internships at magazines and I had one paid position as a part-time Lifestyle Editor for an online publication. When I graduated from college, I was an associate editor at a lesbian and gay magazine in Austin for a short while before I started working at Autostraddle as a senior editor.

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