Off-the-beaten-path careers

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Not everyone thrives in the typical office environment.

The vast expanses of utilitarian cubicle farms are best left to those whose personalities jibe more with logical and structural tasks as opposed to those who lean toward the visual and intuitive, says Judith Gerberg, a New York City-based career development expert and head of Gerberg & Co.

You’re likely a good fit for an offbeat type of job if you’re more driven by self-expression, can work independently and are more holistic by nature, she says.

Offbeat jobs can range from relatively benign pursuits, such as acting and software engineering, to hazardous occupations, such as commercial fishing and aerospace operations.

Gerberg recommends that you thoroughly assess your skills and the demand for them before setting out to pursue an off-the-beaten-path career because competition for some of these jobs is intense.

“I think that to pursue an odd or risky way of earning a living, you do have to have something that you are passionate about, something that you’ll do no matter what and something that is needed and wanted,” she says.

Extraordinary vocations
  • Cell biologist
  • Alaskan crab fishing
  • Intelligence officer
  • Candy manufacturer
  • Peace Corps volunteer

Cell biologist

Mike Kiledjian, who has a doctorate in molecular biology, is one of many scientists pushing the edge of the genetic envelope to find cures for human diseases.

He says his interest in research started in high school and evolved into an interest in gene expression — the process by which genes are switched on and off.

Today, the professor of cell biology and neuroscience at Rutgers University in New Brunswick, N.J., leads a team of investigators searching for a drug treatment for a disease known as spinal muscular atrophy, or SMA. It is a leading cause of hereditary infant death in the United States, occurring once in every 6,000 births, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

“It’s an extremely challenging job, and you’re answering questions that really have no answers until you address them, so that’s pretty exciting and rewarding if you can answer them,” Kiledjian says.

But for every breakthrough there are hundreds of frustrating dead ends. “You can’t be easily discouraged because there are many failed experiments, and you have to learn from them and improve on them to get an experiment to work, and hopefully (it will) give you a reliable result,” he says.

You have to be patient enough to hang in there until your “eureka moment” arrives, says Kiledjian.

His team identified a scavenger enzyme in 2002 known as DcpS that suppresses a beneficial protein known as SMN. The compound his team is working with inhibits the action of DcpS and may provide some relief to those who suffer from SMA.

What they do: Study the physiology, components and the life/death cycle of cells as they relate to their environment. 

Pros: Work can lead to breakthroughs in finding cures for human diseases.

Cons: Requires patience and persistence to deal with setbacks, which are common.

Education required: Bachelor’s degree for basic research positions up to Ph.D. for lead researchers and university-level teaching.

Salary range: According to, the average is $45,859 for a junior level biologist to $103,030 for a Ph.D. level, depending on experience and regional markets.

A job that’s good for: People who enjoy working in a laboratory setting, are adept at solving puzzle-like problems and are very tolerant of failure.

Alaskan crab fishing

Next time you snap open a king crab claw, think about the people who brave some of the world’s harshest working conditions to bring these scary-looking but tasty ocean crustaceans to your table.

The industry, like the quarry it pursues, is huge in Alaska.

Some 80,000 jobs in the state are related to commercial fishing, according to John Hilsinger, director of the Alaska Department of Fish and Game’s Commercial Fisheries Division.

Those drawn to the rugged wilderness of Alaska and the seasonal work schedule of Alaskan crab fishers often earn lucrative pay, but not without great physical exertion.

Work on the Bering Sea, where the fishing takes place, is grueling and dangerous, and unless you have significant at-sea experience, you can easily find yourself facing a life-threatening situation on the open ocean in the middle of winter — the height of the king crab season.

Weather conditions on the Bering Sea can change rapidly, and waves as tall as two-story buildings are common.

Still, crew members are not in short supply despite the industry’s high occupational fatality rate.

“I think it attracts people who are independent-minded and who are not interested in punching a time clock,” Hilsinger says. “They like to work outdoors and sometimes make big incomes. Plus there’s an element of excitement and risk to it.”

The king crab season typically lasts for only two months.

Experienced crewmembers working on top-producing boats often earn a decent percentage of the season’s catch with the captain and other senior crewmembers taking home the largest percentage after expenses.

Inexperienced deckhands, or greenhorns, earn substantially less and are often paid a day rate, according to Hilsinger.

What they do: Fish for one of three king crab species in addition to opilio and snow crabs.

Pros: Potentially high wages earned in a short amount of time. During the off-season, crewmembers can fish for other species such as salmon to supplement their incomes.

Cons: The work is extremely dangerous, hours are long and work conditions can be brutal. In addition, crewmembers are responsible for buying their own boots, coats and survival gear, which can cost hundreds or thousands of dollars.

Education required: No formal education is required, although substantial experience working on a commercial fishing vessel is recommended.

Salary range: Boat captains can earn around 15 percent after expenses; engineers and other senior crew may earn 7 to 7.5 percent; inexperienced crewmembers may earn 2 to 3 percent of the season’s catch.  In terms of dollars, experienced crew members can earn between $15,000 and $40,000 during the short two-month season, according to estimates by Forrest Bowers, a fisheries biologist based in Dutch Harbor, Alaska.

A job that’s good for: Those who like working outdoors and do not like prescribed work schedules.

Intelligence officer

If you think the federal government doesn’t hire people to fill off-the-beaten path jobs, think again.

The U.S. intelligence community, which consists of 16 acknowledged civilian and military agencies, has long been glamorized by actors Harrison Ford, Ben Affleck and Jake Gyllenhaal, who portray the lives of stoic field operatives.

But what most people don’t know is that organizations such as the Central Intelligence Agency — possibly the best known of the 16 agencies — also actively recruit personnel for roles beyond the National Clandestine Service for which the CIA is best known.

Well-paying jobs as language instructors, information technology specialists, cartographers and even graphic designers are available to qualified job seekers.

A recent survey of the agency’s Web site revealed a job posting for an electronic publishing specialist, otherwise known as a desktop publisher, that pays between $45,639 and $79,248 to start. It requires only an associates degree and is based in the U.S.

“All of our directorates are hiring,” says Marie E. Harf, a spokesperson with the CIA’s Office of Public Affairs in Washington. “We’re looking for a wide range of skill sets to fill positions with the agency.”

Harf says people who work as intelligence officers come from diverse backgrounds and have unique skills, but all have the highest standards of character and are motivated by a desire to serve their country.

The lengthy application process can be a turnoff for some job seekers, since background checks can take a year or longer.

What they do: CIA agents essentially act as the eyes and ears of the president in collecting and analyzing information relating to national security. Officers serve both in the United States and abroad.

Pros: It is a meaningful and well-paying job with excellent job security. Those who leave government service to pursue civilian work have clout. Many government contractor jobs, for example, require civilian employees to obtain security clearance.

Cons: Competition for all positions is fierce. The application process is complicated, lengthy and includes taking a polygraph test. Relocation to the Washington, D.C. area is required for most support positions.

Education required: Bachelor’s degrees are standard for most positions, and advanced degrees are highly sought after but not necessary for all positions. Some positions only require an associates degree or relevant training.

Salary range: Foreign language instructors earn $55,512 to $95,026, fitness specialists who train agency operatives earn $50,408 to $79,280 and graphic designers with interactive multimedia emphasis earn between $48,682 and $95,026, although the Agency says they can earn more depending on experience.

A job that’s good for: People who are interested in federal service and who don’t mind working within a rigid organization.

Candy manufacturer

Amanda Jones ditched her 9-to-5 job a few years ago to make fudge.

She now works up to seven days a week as head of Brooklyn Fudge in Brooklyn, N.Y., and although she now works a lot more than she used to, she wouldn’t trade her job for any other.

“I worked for corporate America for a long time and made a lot of money there, but I didn’t really feel like what I did mattered,” Jones says.

The native Virginian says that she was always inspired by her Aunt Mae’s southern cooking and found that it relaxed her to re-create her aunt’s recipes.

It was that combination that coaxed Jones out of the cubicle and into her kitchen where she initially started the business.

“I started playing around with my aunt’s fudge recipe because it was something I enjoyed doing and before I knew it, I had 40 pounds of it so I started trying to educate myself on how I would go about selling it,” she says.

Since 2006, when Jones first started selling her handmade confections at local craft fairs, the business has evolved to the point where she now fields orders from international clients and is looking for ways to improve packaging and shelf life.

Her uncanny ability to tinker around with flavors enables her to offer a product lineup that ranges from the relatively safe to the sublime. Standards include pecan and cinnamon-almond and seasonal varieties like blueberry vodka, pumpkin pie and absinthe.

What they do: Produce, package and market sweets for the retail and corporate markets.

Pros: You get to produce a product that most people find pleasurable to consume.

Cons: You may have to wear several hats until you can hire employees. You have to work according to your production and marketing goals and customer demand for your product.

Education required: A basic affinity for cooking and culinary background is recommended as well as knowledge of FDA labeling requirements.

Salary range: Net profits vary with $40,000 to $50,000 per year on the low end, according to Jones. Based on her current pricing structure, Jones should have grossed about $1,120 from her initial 40-pound batch. She anticipates a much higher income going forward. “I think the goal is to become a million-dollar company.”

Who this job is good for: People who enjoy cooking or baking and interacting with customers and suppliers.

Peace Corps volunteer

When David Leavitt graduated from the University of Denver in the mid-1980s with an accounting degree, he likely could have found a well-paying corporate job.

Instead, he dreamed of overseas adventure and became a Peace Corps volunteer, teaching business skills to locals in the Dominican Republic.

Leavitt was interested in doing international development work and saw the Peace Corps as the perfect vehicle to get relevant experience. Today, he is a public affairs specialist for the Peace Corps’ Southeast regional office in Atlanta.

The Peace Corps does not pay a salary, and volunteers are required to commit 27 months of their lives. Leavitt says the value of the experience transcends salary and really provides career benefits long past the two-year commitment.

“The real value there is that (volunteers) have developed language skills, they have developed cultural sensitivity and they have more of a world view which is an important asset both in the public and private sectors,” he says.

Volunteers who stay in the Peace Corps for two years qualify for one year of non-competitive eligibility, says Leavitt. That means a federal agency can hire you without even advertising the position. Many times, federal agencies call Leavitt to see if he can refer a recent volunteer to fill a position.

“That’s a huge advantage to get into the federal service because it is hyper-competitive,” he says.

What they do: Volunteers work in foreign countries assisting local communities with education, youth outreach, business development, agriculture, health and information technology related issues, etc.

Pros: Special eligibility for federal jobs when you return home. Camaraderie of being with a group of like-minded Americans. No upper age limit. Minimum age is 18. Full medical coverage during service. Student loan deferment. Compensation of $6,000 upon completion of service. Forty-eight vacation days over two years. Perkins loans are eligible for a partial cancellation benefit.

Cons: Twenty-seven-month commitment. Isolation from family and friends. Potential for political instability, depending on country assigned. Could contract illnesses while on duty.

Education required: Formal education not necessary, although certain educational degrees such as agriculture, business and information technology are favored. Practical business experience is also acceptable in lieu of education.

A job that’s good for: People in certain in-demand backgrounds such as agriculture and education. Also, people who have a curiosity about foreign cultures and a desire to help them.

Salary: Volunteer positions do not pay, although staff positions can be competitive depending on job title. Administrative officers serving overseas, for example, can earn between $42,314 and $76,688 to start. A regional recruiter serving in Los Angeles can earn between $42,782 and $51,083 to start. An occupational health nurse serving in Washington earns between $64,284 and $94,403.