Career Paths and Life Lessons: Know Your Resources And Be Proactive

Written by Dr. Sheryl Walker, CAAB

I recently was a guest lecturer for the Shelter Veterinary Medicine Class at Purdue University and presented on a topic near and dear to my heart: how career paths can be different based on life’s opportunities, and how knowing your resources can help you be proactive. I’m hoping that my fellow Journal readers will find the topic relevant, as well.

There are a few themes that I want you to keep in mind while you’re reading:

  • Life can be unpredictable
  • Everyone has a story
  • The importance of being proactive instead of reactive
  • Know and appreciate your puzzle pieces

My Story

How many of you animal behavior enthusiasts/professionals thought that you knew what you wanted to be when you grew up? I knew that I wanted to be an animal behaviorist, but I thought the only way to do that was to be a veterinarian. Because life is never a straight path, I changed my major at Michigan State University from zoology to psychology, due to almost failing basic chemistry freshman year. It was a small midlife crisis, because being a veterinarian was the only career path that I had ever known. I focused on classes to take me on my next so-called career, either a child/school psychologist or criminal psychologist. I studied abroad and traveled to Australia for six weeks, where I did an independent study on the communication/     behavioral differences between dingoes and wolves. It then occurred to me that I still could study animal behavior without being a veterinarian, and the flame was ignited again. I took all the animal behavior, animal welfare, and applied anthrozoology courses that I could fit into my last three semesters at MSU. Three weeks before graduation, fascinated by my professor’s knowledge and expertise as he talked about indicators of behavioral welfare in sheep, I received a call from a research company in Kalamazoo, Michigan. They invited me to interview for a research technologist position in reproductive toxicology, and within a week, I received an offer.

While working as a research technologist I attended my first professional conference and realized that I missed being in a formal education program. After a year of working full-time, I also began the adventure of being a full-time graduate student in the Behavior Analysis program at Western Michigan University (while raising a puppy during the last 10 months of my program). To say that I was busy is an understatement.

During that time, I transitioned out of research technology and into quality assurance (QA). I loved it, because it catered to my natural skills of being organized and detail-oriented, and I was learning new things about the regulatory industry. Being a QA auditor also allowed me to have more control over my daily schedule.

While I enjoyed working with rats academically and professionally, I wanted to further my education by studying dogs. By using my network, and connecting with former professors and advisors at MSU, a PhD opportunity fell into my lap at Purdue University, and I ran with it. After four and a half very, very long years of shelter behavior assessments, adoption counseling, human personality assessments, and dissertation writing, I added “PhD” after my name. I was proud of those letters, and after a few months of applying for jobs, I became a little bitter toward those letters. To be told that I was “overqualified” for hundreds of jobs that I applied for at first was a great compliment…until it became classically conditioned to mean that I was rejected from another job opening. I spent a year and a half unemployed after graduation, which I was completely unprepared for.

Through a local staffing agency, I was placed with Purdue University’s Marketing and Media      Department as a temporary assistant project manager. I loved it! I learned so much about an industry I knew nothing about, and I completely embraced their work ethic and social culture. After a year and a half, I was on the job hunt again for full-time work. I started as a protocol analyst for the Purdue University Institutional Review Board (IRB). Life brought me back to the world of regulatory compliance. I enjoyed the work responsibilities but found the work environment extremely toxic. I deserved better, so I fought for better.

I have always been a natural observer with an eye for detail. This is what makes me a skilled behaviorist, as well as a skilled auditor. I initially was denied a QA auditor position at a local bioanalytical company because of that funny word “overqualified.” I started thinking back to advice that I received from a fellow PhD graduate while we waited in line to walk across the stage: “Take your PhD off your resume. Downplay yourself. It will get you further.” I was shocked. Wouldn’t you want to boast to the world that you conquered a PhD? Fast forward five years. I took my PhD off my resume so that I wouldn’t look too “overqualified,” applied for the same QA auditor position again, and I was hired two days later! I played the game and I won.

I enjoyed the working environment and had a supervisor who was wonderful. My mental health recuperated, and I began focusing more on where I wanted to take the animal behavior part of my career. After 21 years of dreaming of becoming “one of them,” I was finally board-certified by the Animal Behavior Society as a certified applied animal behaviorist (CAAB). I was now on the same playing field as my heroes in the industry! My shelter work was very reactive – trying to solve problems that couldn’t be solved – and it was honestly too stressful for me. I let my passion for being proactive lead me to who my “perfect client” would be, and I started seeing private clients who shared their homes with puppies. It wasn’t financially lucrative, and I was satisfied with it being that way, because it allowed me to do what I loved without the pressure of it being my sole source of income. So, I worked at the bioanalytical company for two and a half years before the job became stagnant. I wasn’t learning anything new, and continuing education and professional development were discouraged (yes, you read that right) so I started job searching…again.

I just celebrated my one-year anniversary at a company that provides services to sponsors of human clinical trials. I’m now a project manager in the Compliance and Quality Department of Advanced Clinical, one of the best companies that I’ve worked for. I’m very happy with my job:      They respect me, push me to be the best version of myself, and support me in ways that I need.

I recently took Dr. Susan Friedman’s Living and Learning with Animals (LLA) course, and it was one of the best things I’ve ever done for me. I highly, highly recommend this course for all of you if you haven’t already taken it.

As an animal care professional, know your resources.

Key stakeholders in your circle should include a:

Network with people in your community, including:

  • Veterinarians
  • Faculty at local colleges or universities
  • Zookeepers and trainers
  • Aquarists and marine animal trainers
  • Animal shelters such as the SFSPCA
  • Pharmaceutical companies (e.g., Zoetis, Pfizer, Charles River Laboratories, Johnson & Johnson, Nestle, MARS Waltham)
  • Marketing professionals/interns/students (they have the creativity that some of us don’t)
  • Pet health insurance representatives
  • Compassion fatigue educators (e.g., Jessica Dolce,)
  • Enrichment toy manufacturers
  • Local dog walkers
  • Breeders
  • Board of directors or members of professional animal organizations

Continue your education to improve your knowledge and your professional skill sets. This is not a complete list, but it has helped me and my colleagues:

Read, read, and read more. For those of you who do not have institutional/membership logins, please see The IAABC Foundation’s article about how to access information1:

Final Thoughts

I hope that I spread a little ease and comfort to those in the animal behavior world.

If you don’t know where you’re taking your career, that’s okay. Be prepared for something completely different. Something that you may not have ever imagined. Something that may not be related to animals. But it might be the best thing for you and your wellness.

I would not have gotten where I am today without networking, connections, professional conferences, asking questions, pushing myself outside of my comfort zone, building my resume/curriculum vitae, and letting go of what I thought my life would look like when I was 18.

By talking to people whom I normally wouldn’t talk to, I have created lifelong friendships and professional connections. Open yourself up to ALL types of opportunities. Pitfalls are inevitable. Learn from them.

Things often come down to the right timing. If it feels like you’re forcing something, think outside the box and try to understand why. It may not be the right time.

Whether your interests include veterinary medicine, zoology, marine biology, training, behavior consulting, breeding, sheltering, insects, or large/small/companion/wild/exotic animals – wherever you want to take your career, in my experience at least, everything will work out the way it’s supposed to.

References

  1. Miller, T. (2019) Getting over that paywall: Accessing research when you’re not an academic. The IAABC Foundation Journal

Dr. Sheryl L. Walker holds a master’s degree in behavior analysis and a PhD in animal behavior and sheltering. She is currently the only board-certified applied animal behaviorist (CAAB) in the state of Indiana, and operates WAGS: Wonderful Animal Guidance Services, specializing in puppies.

TO CITE: Walker, S. (2024). Career paths and life lessons: Know your resources and be proactive. The IAABC Foundation Journal 29, doi: 10.55736/iaabcfj29.7

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