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Career Changers: from medical scientist to marketing manager and back

In this week's Career Changers instalment, medical scientist Nyree Walshe tells Mary-Lou Ciampa about her meandering professional pathway.

‘If your intellect is not soaring, you’re stuffed. You need to fly in your own skies,’ says Nyree Walshe, a medical scientist in her ‘early sixties’ on the topic of job satisfaction. While she is currently working in a similar job to the one she started her professional life in back in the late 1960s, she has had a meandering pathway in between. In fact, it’s a tale of seemingly constant flux – and that’s just the way she likes it.

Proving that age is no limitation, she’s hitting the books again and is close to completing her Masters in Health Administration at La Trobe University. This is proof of Walshe’s enduring quest for knowledge.

‘There’s never any single reason why I do something. It’s usually a kaleidoscope of stuff,’ she says.

‘I chose science at school. I was into being a naturalist: zoology, environmental science – though there wasn’t any of that when I was growing up. There seemed to be no path to that [environmental science] at the time. That came later.’

‘My parents’ focus’, she continues, ‘was getting a professional job. They were keen on us all having a career.’ The ‘us’ being Walshe and her two younger sisters.

‘I actually got into Arts but didn’t tell my parents, as we wouldn’t be able to afford it.’

‘My career was decided at that point. I got a scholarship to study at RMIT – into the brave new world of medical technology’.

Starting in 1968, this involved a five-year traineeship – full-time work experience at an accredited lab and part-time study. She did her work experience at St Vincent’s hospital, doing pathology in the Blood Bank on the sixth floor. ‘It provided a lot of cheap labour for the hospitals,’ Walshe says wryly.

‘I didn’t like it at all. I found it very boring and hum-drum. [Initially] I enjoyed the novelty of it, the drama of being in a hospital. It wasn’t by any means my dream job. But I could see it was a good living.’

‘It’s all routine. It’s prescribed. You’re not allowed to vary it.’

A rolling stone gathers no moss. Nyree Walshe has always been driven by a thirst for knowledge. When she felt extended as far as she could go in a given work place, she would look around for alternatives and the next challenge.

Not long after completing her traineeship at St Vincent’s, she left to join the Red Cross. ‘To study more,’ says Walshe. That was followed by a stint at the Mercy hospital working in bacteriology.

When an opportunity arose shortly after to work in a role that was focused on sales – but still within the medical science field – for a fledgling company of her now ex-husband, Walshe enjoyed the challenge and discovered other talents: people skills.

What she didn’t appreciate at the time was that this role ‘raised me up from the bench to get to know people higher up in the pathology firms and hospitals – the decision-makers’. This proved useful when moving between jobs.

‘It’s because you’re talking to them about technical things, equipment, and they know what you know. They have a respect for you and keep you in mind when jobs come up.’

In all her career transitions, Walshe says she always had to consider earning a living. ‘The main thing I wanted when I was young was independence,’ she says. ‘And I’ve done that.’

‘I’d made several attempts to leave [this field]. But it’s a respectable job and well-paid compared to many other jobs.’

This was even more important when her marriage ended and she was supporting a young daughter on her own. Initially working in the business side of the medical field, this time as a marketing manager within a pathology firm, she found the work stimulating, but the travelling and long hours took their toll.

‘It was exhausting doing it all [parenting and a career]. I decided to go back to hospitals and do shift work [in the pathology lab].’ She reduced her schedule, essentially working school hours so she could be at home for her daughter, but also including a few night shifts – offering the more lucrative penalty rate (at the time).

Given her curious, searching mind, did she ever consider academia or further study?

‘I did, but it seemed unattainable,’ says Walshe. She started an Arts degree while pregnant with her daughter in the late 70s, stopped and then returned to study in 1985, aiming to major in literature and communication.

However, life kept getting in the way.

‘Being a single parent is a career in itself. You need resourcefulness and energy and drive. In a way that career came to an end, in a practical sense,’ says Walshe, referring to her daughter growing up and becoming financially independent.

‘It left a reservoir of energy, intellectually. I felt this intellectual drought. And my career was just doing the endless, ceaseless science work.’

Four years ago, while on a tram, she spotted an ad for various courses. Returning to study had always been Walshe’s ambition.

Inspired but unsure which direction to take, she asked herself: ‘where was I most happy at work? Probably when I was managing things.’

So she enrolled in the Masters and she should be finished at the end of the year. ‘If I pass,’ she says with a chuckle.

‘I’m not even sure I’ve done the right course, but I’ve had a good education in resource management, law and ethics, human resources and how organisations are planned. Uni has given me more scope.’

Walshe has also joined the Australian College of Health Services Management. It has allowed her to meet other health managers. She advises joining professional associations to help develop your career, by networking with key players in your chosen field.

Walshe has learnt a lot about herself over the years: that she is ‘uncompromising’ and ‘can hold a line of argument’; that she has ‘clarity’ in her thinking. Both of which are ideal qualities for an advocate, she says.

‘I’d like to think I could do something in animal welfare.’

One thing is for certain, she says. ‘I’m entirely different to the person I was before I did this course.’

For more information on this ‘Career Changers’ series, click here.

Mary-Lou Ciampa is a Graduate Diploma in Journalism student at La Trobe University, and upstart’s co-editor. You can follow her on Twitter: @zialulu.

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