Life Beyond Research: Notes from an Unexpected, Inspiring Journey

By Paulette Bilby, graduate student in Master of Chaplaincy and Pastoral Care program, Seminary of the Southwest, Austin, Texas, and Jeffrey Walker, PhD, director of research, Development and Alumni Relations Office at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee 

Paulette and Jeff first met by phone more than a decade ago, to brainstorm about handling wealth screening results strategically. In the course of their long friendship, they have weathered many professional and personal changes. Paulette’s new career plan sparked this Q&A. 

Jeff: So, let’s start at the beginning. What was your background in philanthropic research? 

Paulette: I went to work for Texas Tech University in 1997 as the research coordinator. I was brand new to the industry and discovered that I loved it! I was promoted to research specialist and stayed at Texas Tech until 2003, when I went to Southwestern University, in Georgetown, Texas. I was at Southwestern for 14 years, and, during that time, I was promoted twice. I was the director of prospect research when I ended my tenure there. 

J: What did you enjoy the most about research? What were the passion points?

P: Honestly, I loved being nosy and finding stuff out. I am a very curious individual, so that aspect of research really appealed to me. I also love puzzles, and I think prospect research is like putting a giant puzzle together. 

J: When did you decide to explore moving in a different direction? 

P: I think it was a mid-life crisis. Joking aside, I got to a point where the passion and love I had felt were starting to fade. I wasn’t enjoying the work as much as I used to. I believe very strongly that life is precious, and I did not want to look back and regret not taking a risk and trying something else. And then I had an epiphany! I decided I wanted to make a real difference in the world. I was discussing the matter with my priest, and he said, “Have you thought of the seminary?” Since I have no desire to be a priest, I had never given the seminary much thought. But he explained that there are programs other than a Master of Divinity. 

J: So many possibilities! How did you choose this option? 

P: For me, it was simple. The biggest attraction to my chaplaincy path is the potential for connecting with and helping others in meaningful ways. When I first began looking into programs at the Seminary of the Southwest, the Master of Chaplaincy and Pastoral Care immediately caught my attention because of the multiple career paths. I could be a hospital chaplain, a hospice chaplain, a school chaplain or a volunteer chaplain with a police department. The idea of being with people during some of the most difficult times in their lives appealed to my sense of wanting to help. 

J: As you learn about your new profession, what are you enjoying the most? 

P: Oh my goodness, I don’t know if I can narrow it down to just one thing. But I would say that I feel as if I have found my place and my “tribe.” All my life, I always felt like I didn’t quite fit in; I was on the outskirts. The journey in becoming a chaplain has shown me where my passion truly is and where I belong. I had to do a unit of Certified Pastoral Education (CPE), and that required completing 260 hours of clinical service. A friend came to the hospital one day to have lunch with me and when I met her in the lobby, she seemed taken aback. At first, I thought something was wrong. But she smiled and said, “You fit. You belong here. It shows!” 

J: What do you see for yourself a little farther down this path? Where would you like to be in five years or so?

P: I hope to be serving as a hospice chaplain. I entered the seminary with that goal in mind, and that hasn’t changed. In fact, that path has never been clearer to me. Whenever I tell people that I want to work in hospice spiritual care, the most common response I get is, “Oh, I could never do that, I’m too emotional. I would cry all the time.” Anybody who knows me knows I am emotional! Heck, I can cry at commercials. I have no doubt that I will cry, and there will be moments where it all gets to me. But it is an honor and a privilege to be a part of someone’s sacred journey. I am being welcomed in homes and treatment rooms; I am allowed to bear witness to the incredible strength that lies within us all. Doing this work, I am blessed in so many ways. I almost feel like I receive and learn far more than I can ever give. 

J: What practical advice would you offer to researchers who are also thinking about “life beyond research”?

P: Listen to your gut! Think about all your dreams, your goals, your passion. Talk to people you respect, trust and love. Not that long ago, I never would have imagined doing this. But now, I can’t imagine not doing it. 

This journey has not been easy. I did not want to lose my former job; I did not want to struggle so hard to make ends meet; and I did not want to be away from my teenage son as much as I have had to be. Most of all, I did not want to have to ask for help (I’m a little stubborn). As tough as this journey has been, I know it will make me a better chaplain, because it has made me a better person. I have a new perspective on the world that I never had — never could have had — before. 

J: What would you like researchers — from newcomers to long-timers — to learn from your journey? And what might other professionals learn? 

P: This sounds so cliché, but the truth is: Never stop learning. Never stop questioning. Never stop exploring. Never stop asking yourself, “Is this what I feel called to do? Is it my dream? Am I satisfied? Am I happy?” We only get one shot at this adventure we call life. We really need to make it count. 

J: Thank you, Paulette, for sharing your story. I can’t wait to see where you’ll be on this path in a couple of years. 

P: Thank you, too, for suggesting this conversation. If I’ve inspired even one or two readers to think about their professional future a little differently, I’ll be delighted.

Paulette Bilby is a part-time graduate student at the Seminary of the Southwest (Austin, Texas), working on a Master of Arts in Chaplaincy and Pastoral Care. She is available via plbilby@gmail.com and https://www.linkedin.com/in/paulette-bilby-16ba6a4/.

Jeff Walker has been the director of research in UWM’s Development and Alumni Relations Office since January 2011 and is also a longtime member of the Editorial Advisory Committee for Connections. He is available via walker34@uwm.edu, www.linkedin.com/in/jeffwalkerphd, and www.facebook.com/jeffwalkerphd.

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