From PhD to Burger King: Why Did My Life Turn Out This Way?

I met a woman at leadership conference in April and her story intrigued me. Like me, she graduate top of her class from Spelman College. She discovered the field of public health during her academic journey and threw herself into the field. She was heavily involved in public health internships, public health associations, and during her senior year at Spelman, she was accepted into the doctorate of science program at Harvard University, where she matriculated the fall after her Spelman graduation. In fact, she loved her program and mapped out her whole career during the second semester of her second year in the program: graduate from Harvard; complete a fellowship at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), and work at the CDC for 35 years she retires.


Her dream became in reality: she completed the reputable EIS program, and was accepted into a highly coveted FTE (full-time employee) position at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. She had been working in that position 3 years when she received a phone call that changed her life.


Her former classmate from Morehouse College called her to ask her opinion on a business proposal he was writing.

“Felicia,” he started, “I need your help. You’re good with numbers. I need you to review these figures I’ve calculated for a pending business I’m thinking about investing in it. I want to make sure I am making the right decision.”

She was floored. Her Harvard education taught her how to manipulate numbers to benefit populations’ health and her classmate, an MBA graduate, is asking her opinion on what investment to make? This was surreal.

She reviewed the numbers as requested and told him her thoughts. He was pleased and decided to follow her recommendations.

That experience always stayed with her and she dabbled in reading various business articles and engaging in various business conferences since then. Every now and again her friend would seek her advice and she always instinctively understood business concepts and had the right words for him.

She is from South Carolina and during one of her visits to her aging mother, who had been a Burger King franchise owner for more than 30 years, announced to her daughter that she would retire.

“Would you like to take over your business?” her mother asked?

Felicia’s initial response was “no,” for returning to her hometown in South Carolina to work at Burger King did not sound appealing. But after about a year of working at the CDC, she found that public health was boring. She needed a change, so she decided to take her mother up on her offer.


“Are you mad?” asked her fellow colleagues, “Public health is not that bad.”


She followed her instincts, it was time for her depart from the field and channels her skills in the fast food industry.


In order to be a franchise owner, she had to undergo training and various workshops, flipping burgers and the like. She eventually became the franchise owner of her mother’s old restaurant, and currently, she holds a high position within the Burger King Corporation. I wouldn’t have it any other way she said during her speech.


I loved her story and I couldn’t shake how similar her story was to my own. I discovered public health during my undergraduate years and I was certain that making people lives better through research and public health programs was all I wanted to do with my life. I worked at the CDC; I worked at not-for-profit health organizations. I traveled abroad; I did international research in Africa and the Caribbean, but it did not seem to fit. Like her, I love public health, but perhaps there is something else I am supposed to be doing.


I didn’t choose the fast food industry as my next stopping point, but I chose something different from government and health care. I chose Internet and technology.


What I love about her story is the boldness she demonstrated in her pursuit of a career in the fast food industry. Making the shift is not an easy feat. Like her, I have received lots of criticism from former classmates, associates, and relatives. How can you transition from a prestigious position in the field you earned a degree in to an administrative support role at a tech company?


The most difficult part of this journey is battling my own inner voices. The inner voice that wonders whether I am making a mistake. The inner voice that agrees with former classmates, associates, and relatives. That inner voice that says that I making a mistake. That inner voice that compares me to former classmates who are currently pursuing doctorate degrees, having families, and traveling the world – all things I thought I’d be doing at this point in my life.


I can only shake it off and focus on the positive. And that is: I like my job and I like what I’m doing. My life is my own and I have to do what’s right – for me.

One thought on “From PhD to Burger King: Why Did My Life Turn Out This Way?

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s