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Inside Education and Health Sciences

'Follow your dreams' and other advice on career changes from grad students

By Emily Clemenson

While graduate school is often used to advance skills in your current field of work, sometimes it can be a springboard into a whole new career. Read about five of the countless students that the University of Dayton has helped transition to a new profession.


Rachel Barnett

"Your career doesn't have to be linear."

Rachel Barnett, Ph.D. '22, started her career in research as an undergraduate student in academia, studying social behavior in elephants and rhinos and later chimps and rhesus macaques. 

After graduating with her master's in the social sciences from the University of Chicago, Barnett pivoted her career from animals to humans. Through a series of government jobs with Housing and Urban Development, Bureau of Vocational Rehabilitation, Civil Rights Commission and the Ombudsman Office, Barnett helped disenfranchised citizens access needed services to obtain housing, education, healthcare, employment, and other social services. 

"I care about social justice. I went from caring for animals that were at one time endangered species and moved to caring for humans. There are plenty of people in poverty who are not getting what they need," Barnett said. "I think that my work as an Assistant Ombudsman was honestly the most important work that I've ever done. But on the other hand, it was really hard. It wore on me, emotionally and mentally."

Barnett was always planning to return to academia. She found the Ph.D. program in Educational Leadership, through the Department of Educational Administration, and chose to specialize in higher education. Earning her Ph.D. gave her a deeper understanding of research methods, assessments, and organizational change. The program operates with a cohort model, which Barnett said helped her stay committed to that program. 

"It was just nice to have that support and connection," she said. 

Now, as an Evaluation and Research Associate at the University of Utah, she evaluates programs across Utah that promote work and health equity, including programs focused on improving gender and racial equity among STEM faculty, and post-secondary success for students with disabilities. 

Her work is still research-based. It is still focused on social justice. And as seemingly unrelated her previous careers have all seemed, each one has influenced the person she is today.

"And like I said," Barnett said, "your career doesn't have to be linear."


Annie Bergman

Annie Bergman didn't put a lot of thought into choosing an undergraduate major, or the effect that choice might have on her future. After graduating with a marketing degree, she fell pretty easily into sales positions and eventually landed in medical sales.

"I got to witness people helping others," Bergman said. "Although I wasn't the one doing patient care, I was surrounded by it. So I've always had that in the back of my mind: 'wow what an exciting career to help people for a living.'"

In her mid-30s, she did some self reflection and realized that while she was quite successful in sales, it didn't make her happy.

That little voice in the back of her head was telling her she should go into healthcare. She tried silencing the voice for a while, because going back to school with a family and little kids is a scary idea. But eventually she decided to start with one class, a science class that is a prerequisite for graduate programs in healthcare. And when that class was over, she felt confident enough to take the next one.

Three years later, she had all of her prerequisites completed to apply to Physician Assistant school.

"The University of Dayton was hands down my top choice," Bergman said. "I know the department took a chance on accepting someone that was older, and the fact that they took that chance on me — I have never felt anything other than completely supported. The faculty and staff do everything they can to make sure I am successful."

Bergman is in her second year of the PA program at UD, having just completed her first clinical rotation. Every experience further solidifies that her decision to change careers was the right one for her, even if it means studying flashcards in line at the grocery store or listening to relevant podcasts during her commute. She acknowledges that it is hard and scary to make that leap having young kids, but she says they are more of an inspiration than anything.

"I have 3 little cheerleaders that are so excited and proud of me. They help motivate the extra hour of studying, they cheer me on for every test," Bergman said. "Going back to school is probably one of the most challenging things I've done in my life, and at the same time probably the most gratifying. I just feel like if I can make it through this, then anything I put my mind to I truly feel like I can achieve."

In sales, she developed critical listening skills that helped her determine which product or service could help meet her clients' needs. She plans to use those same listening and problem solving skills as a PA to help identify and address her patients' concerns.

"Life will take you in directions you didn't even expect it to once you start taking some chances."


Ariana Bostwick

Ariana Bostwick is in the middle of her career change. She graduated with a bachelor's degree in fashion design and worked for over seven years as a professional jeweler. But with the hardships that came in the industry with COVID, as well as her introverted personality not jiving in the competitive world of fashion design, Bostwick decided to make a change.

She picked physical therapy because she noticed the way that shoes and clothing can transform the way we live our daily lives, and how that can affect a person's health — especially with age. 

"There's a love-hate relationship between fashion and function," Bostwick said. "My great grandmother wore pointy toed shoes every day, and she couldn't walk toward the end of her life. Dress shoes, especially pointy shoes, can inhibit the function of your feet. A lot of the problems people, especially women, have seem to start from the floor and go up. You don't know that you are buying a daily posture device."

Bostwick is in her second year of UD's physical therapy program, scheduled to graduate in the spring of 2025. Her plan is to focus on outpatient orthopedics and women's health — including braces, orthotics, and other soft goods that seamlessly tie into her experience in fashion design — but she's not limiting her options just yet. 

"I didn't know the breadth of physical therapy before I started in the program, so I might end up somewhere else," Bostwick said. "But I was driven to make the change. The world was calling me to do this." 


Eric Gilkey

Eric Gilkey spent 18 years excelling in the publishing industry. He managed a team that created a dozen magazines, developed and ran high-traffic websites, wrote hundreds of articles, and forged many professional relationships. 

In 2017, he and his husband provided kinship care for two young boys, one of whom was demonstrating some adverse behaviors in kindergarten. 

"Being an editor and journalist, I tugged on the string a bit to see how it was being addressed, and was fascinated by all of the different professionals in his school who were helping provide him what he needed to be successful," Gilkey said. "I had no previous experience with the inner workings of public schools, so it was a whole new, complicated world to understand."

A few years later, after a whirlwind adoption of their daughter, Gilkey again ran across school psychology when researching interventions for a couple developmental concerns. 

"I just felt the urge to challenge myself in new ways and work in a field that I felt could make a difference and was in high demand, especially since the future landscape of publishing felt less and less clear to me," Gilkey said.

Gilkey is anticipating graduating from the School Psychology program at the University of Dayton in August 2024 ("If I can get my thesis written," he jokes). He is currently completing his year-long internship in Hamilton City Schools, which is close to home and was an ideal placement because of the district's diverse student body.

"I feel extremely fortunate to be able to work with different types of needs and populations before heading out on my own," Gilkey said. "I've often struggled with imposter syndrome, having come to this field without a psychology or education background, but my professors have encouraged me to continue and provided loads of support and understanding."

Gilkey also knows that his background in publishing gives him a slightly different skill set when he starts looking for full-time jobs.

"Being inquisitive, asking the right questions, and knowing when to push a little harder to get more information are skills that translate well to my new field," Gilkey said. "Additionally, leading teams toward a common goal has taught me the value of collaboration and trusting the skills and viewpoints of others."


Nikie Walker

Nikie Walker, Ed.D. '22, has always been a nontraditional student. In spite of that — or perhaps because of it — she has also continually looked for opportunities to learn.

Walker was in the first cohort to go through the Doctor of Education program in the Department of Educational Administration at UD, completing her degree at the end of the summer term in 2022. She is now a professor at Brescia University, but her career path has not always been focused on education.

She started out working in the business office of the OBGYN department at the University of Louisville, working her way up into the role of Human Resources manager. She has a bachelor's degree in psychology and a master's degree in human resources. And after working in HR for over a decade, Walker decided she wanted to pursue a doctorate. 

"I knew once I obtained my doctorate, I didn't want to be an office manager," she said. "The program at the University of Dayton is a doctorate in organizational leadership and development, which I thought would be a more broad skill set than specifically human resources."

Walker now teaches business management and human resources to undergraduate students in her hometown of Owensboro, Kentucky. While collegiate teaching was not necessarily her plan, she is thrilled to have achieved her dream of earning a doctorate, and is happy with where UD helped her land.

"It's never too late to follow your dreams," she said.

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