From Lawyer to Sociology Professor

EHG Photo-UVA LawnLiz Gorman spent years working at prestigious law firms before realizing that what she really wanted to do was teach in the social sciences.  She switched careers entirely after ten years in practice, and is now a tenured sociology professor at the University of Virginia

Liz spent her first few years after law school at a Washington, DC firm, but she didn’t enjoy government work. She moved to New York and joined a Wall Street firm, but that had problems of its own.  “It was all about money. It took my breath away to see these incredibly smart people spending 100 hours a week figuring out whether one corporation could get a little more money than another.”

Frustrated, she left the firm and spent some time on the kind of comprehensive self-assessment she now wishes she had done in college. She read “What Color Is Your Parachute,” and loved working through the book’s exercises. That self-analysis led her to realize both that she had an academic bent and that she was most interested in the social sciences.

Although she didn’t know which of the social sciences she wanted to focus on at first, auditing classes at Columbia helped her narrow her interests to sociology.  Her family moved to Boston so that Liz could study at Harvard, where she had been an undergraduate.   “The hardest thing about going back to school was restarting the learning curve,” she says. For the previous ten years, Liz had been a professional with a certain amount of autonomy. Now, she was studying unfamiliar subjects, like advanced statistics, and learning about theorists she had never read.

After getting her doctorate, Liz joined the faculty at the University of Virginia, commuting on the weekends to her family in Boston.  She loved academia from the start.  While she was on the tenure track, she stopped the clock when she and her husband adopted each of their children. She got tenure, and is now an associate professor.

Liz’s advice to unhappy lawyers is this: make a move as soon as you know you’re unhappy.  She remembers that when she was practicing law in New York, she sometimes felt as though she was in Invasion of the Body Snatchers. She barely recognized the person she was during the day at the firm, but she would get herself back at night. “If your job pulls at you like that,” she says, “listen to that voice and take some action. You don’t want to wake up at 75 and feel bad about what you did with your life.”

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