What You Need to Know Now About the Career/Life Balance You’ll Want Later

I would like to say I had a plan my senior year in college, but it was more of a lemming approach; my friends were interviewing with investment banks so I interviewed with investment banks. Unlike my classmates however, I hadn’t structured my summers for a job on Wall Street. My jobs were more geared to buying cute clothes with employee discounts. Luckily, a summer when I was especially broke, I worked for the Bureau of Labor Statistics which offered government-grade pay and kept me away from the malls. One banker who interviewed me must have thought that anyone who worked at such a dead-boring job was a quant, so he made me an offer. To celebrate, I balanced my checkbook. That was my preparation for a job on Wall Street.

I did begin my job with a bit of trepidation. It was like being offered escargot at a French restaurant. I was slightly repulsed, mostly intrigued and pretty sure I wouldn’t like it. But, surprisingly, I did like my job. It not only played to my strengths but helped me develop in areas where I had been weak. I began to consider a career in finance and realized I should give some thought to the next few years. Most of my peers planned to apply to business school but I wasn’t so sure. If I earned an MBA, I would probably feel the need to work hard for years, which wasn’t in my original game plan. Someday I hoped to have a family; I may then want to stay home.

Not many young women know exactly what they want to do ten years down the road. Even if they do, the plan often goes out the window. I did go to business school, returned to Wall Street, became a Managing Director in the Private Equity Group at Merrill Lynch and then started my own private equity advisory business. I now stay at home with three children and work on my business when I want to. I was lucky to have a supportive husband and timing in my career that worked well for me. But, even without luck, there are decisions a young woman can make that may cause her career and, frankly, life, to be more fulfilling. Here they are:

1. Don’t assume you will not want to work hard later in life. If you have always been driven and ambitious, you will want to work hard to do your best, you just may not want to work long hours. They are not the same.

2. Consider a graduate degree. I’m a fan, I can’t hide it. Graduate degrees help women eliminate gender discrepancies including lack of: pay, confidence, and mentors.

3. Achieve reasonable success before you have children, biological clock notwithstanding. I had my first baby when I was 34 and had already established myself as a successful mid-level professional at my firm. After I had my first child, I began to leave work each night before my boss. That practice did not slow down my career progression.

4. Establish rules for yourself while working. I traveled internationally after I had children, but I tried to limit my trips to no more than two days. You may not have much flexibility, but if you make family-related rules that you can follow, you will feel good, not guilty about your work.

5. Leaving full-time work is ok. Yes, you CAN go back. Just keep up your contacts.

6. Network, network, network. The most important factor in easily returning to work is your ability to network. Yes, you are interesting, even though you have spit-up on your face and pureed carrots in your hair. Call your old colleagues. (just don’t use Skype.)

My advice is really more about life than about work. Structure your career now so that if you do take a break, you will be proud of past achievements. No one can take that success away from you, whether you return to work or not.