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How do I get started in a career?
April 1, 2012 5:04 PM   Subscribe

Explain finding a career to me like I'm five, I mean, as if five-year-olds had to find jobs.

About 18 months ago, I lucked into a just-good-enough job ($13/hour and health insurance, but no possibility for raises or promotions, and didn’t require my/any degree) in a larger, more expensive city. The plan was to use this as a toehold in a larger, more dynamic job market. Since then, I’ve sent out 8-12 applications per week, and...nothing. Well, not literally nothing. I’ve had a couple of bites, but always for positions which are frankly lateral moves: jobs with similar wages, no degree requirement, 1099/temporary status/no insurance, and, critically, no realistic potential for advancement.

The problem seems to be that every job, even “entry level” positions, require either specialized education or 2-5 years of experience doing something extremely specific--I apply anyway, but never seem to get any traction. I’ve been working full-time since 1996, but mostly in a weird corner of retail (a food co-op). I completed a bachelor's in biology in 2009, but all that seems to qualify me for is short-term lab tech work. What I want is a job that will eventually lead to some kind of advancement, or will at least provide skills and experience that I can use to find other, better jobs.

Options I’m considering:

1. Find a temp agency and quit my permanent job. Just thinking about this makes my heart race, in a bad way--I don’t have much of a financial cushion and can’t afford to be out of work for very long, and I’m not sure this is a sound strategy for finding a career.

2. Go back to school for a Master’s or some sort of professional degree or certification. Virtually all of my friends and peers who have a career of any kind have done this: three librarians, three teachers, a dietitian, a social worker, etc. But, I don’t have any idea how to choose a program, and I’m extremely apprehensive about buying $25-60,000 more education on spec, so to speak.

3. Accept this as the New Normal and alter my lifestyle to live as comfortably and responsibly as possible on $22-28,000/year. This would probably involve leaving my job and this expensive city, possibly moving in with my aging parents, and accepting that I won’t be able to pay off my debt or save for retirement in a conventional sense.

Other salient facts:

1. My resume is in good shape and I write a strong cover letter for each application.

2. I don’t have any strong preferences about what kind of work I eventually do. I did the What Color is Your Parachute? thing a few years ago and my only conclusion was that I should have gotten an engineering degree.

2b. Except sales, I really can't do sales. I'm also not great at the kind of "hustle" and self-promotion (LinkedIn, personal web page, cold-calling employers) which seems to be expected of job seekers.

3. I'm not sure how to network. My friends and acquaintances are either underemployed or in jobs which have a specific educational barrier to entry (see above) and, similarly, my current job has the firewall of an advanced degree between my position and the professional-level jobs.

4. My university's career services office is 350 miles away and useless; last time I visited they offered to show me how to set up their co-branded Monster.com service and gave me a two-page handout covering basic resume formatting.
posted by pullayup to Work & Money (35 answers total) 34 users marked this as a favorite
 
When I was working in NYC, a front desk administrative assistant was the entry-level position at my company, required a college degree, and paid between 35-40K and benefits not including a year-end bonus depending on negotiations and past experience. Some admins were hired through networking, but more were hired through an employment agency that sent over applicants. If you wanted to, you could also use this position as a way to advance either on a administrative career track or if you became useful/interested in other areas, you could end up advancing in accounting, operations, etc.

So you can get into the stables of a non-temp or temp and perm employment agency while still employed (that was seen as better, actually) and they should be able to set up interviews that may work for you.
posted by vegartanipla at 5:21 PM on April 1, 2012


2. I don’t have any strong preferences about what kind of work I eventually do. I did the What Color is Your Parachute? thing a few years ago and my only conclusion was that I should have gotten an engineering degree.

I'm no expert (other than having a job, I guess), but I'd venture that this is your main issue. You can't network if you aren't networking in a direction, if that makes sense. I'm not saying that you need to be all "follow your passion!", but unless you can define some functional areas, or a professional field, that maps onto modern industry/professional/career tracks, it's really hard to do anything other than drift.

And this: I did the What Color is Your Parachute? thing a few years ago and my only conclusion was that I should have gotten an engineering degree.

If you were sure that was the right track, why not start the engineering degree? The point being that starting something is better than futzing around and years later saying "I coulda/woulda/shoulda."
posted by Forktine at 5:25 PM on April 1, 2012 [2 favorites]


(I'm sorry, I didn't mean to sound like I was saying you are currently "futzing around"; I was trying to say that if something like going back to school is better done sooner rather than later, because it's so easy to have it be four years later without even starting anything.)
posted by Forktine at 5:27 PM on April 1, 2012 [1 favorite]


I've posted this reply before so I'm not going to type it out its entirety again,but here are some suggestions as to how to conduct informational interviews.Before you roll your eyes, they are very useful; not to have someone hire you per se, but to have someone give concrete feedback as to what goes onto a resume for your desired field (as in what hot terms are HR pple looking for and/or hiring managers), other job titles to search for,other ways through the back door,etc. You can google the desired job position
+location +other search terms or look around linkedin (or your former pool of uni students if your uni gives you access to it) and ask people to meet with you.

Also, I'm just throwing this out there - but do you like to write or edit? I would think that with a biology degree that you could break into jobs for medical writing (intro level/find places that tend to hire pple with undergrad level degrees). If you want to know more about this memail me and I can probably point to companies in your area and you can go from there. You would at least be reading and writing material related to your degree, unless there is some reason that you do not want to do so.

Why not do lab work? Unless you are in an odd area, the salary should at least equal to what you get now AND you can get free courses/some people have been able to get fully funded masters degrees in biology,but they had to have lab experience (undergrad degree does not equal lab experience- show you can do with a job). You may have ruled this out for some reason, if so, ignore.
posted by Wolfster at 5:29 PM on April 1, 2012 [2 favorites]


If you were sure that was the right track, why not start the engineering degree?

I would love to but that's, like, a whole new question--my undergraduate loans are close to maxed out, and I don't think I qualify for admission to MEng programs (most require a bachelor's in engineering or a closely related field "such as computer science, mathematics, or physics").
posted by pullayup at 5:34 PM on April 1, 2012


Why not get a teaching credential and sub for a while?
posted by These Birds of a Feather at 5:37 PM on April 1, 2012


You need to reach out beyond your unemployed family and friends for networking. Join a professional association. Go to meetups. Go to local alumni groups. Go to happy hours with acquaintances you haven't seen in years. Google for local young professionals groups and go to their events. Bring a friend if you need to. Ask your favorite professors from undergrad if they know anyone in your city who would have coffee with you. Volunteer.

You need to talk to people--the people in your life are great and you love them but they can't get you a job. That is networking: meeting, talking, following up. Cold calls and LinkedIn are not networking, they are just mostly awkward.

Are you sure there is no room for advancement at current job? Is there an ally in a higher-up position, or potential mentor at work you can talk to?

Also don't shut off opportunities by saying there are educational barriers. Honestly if you can do a job, a lot of folks don't care what kind of degree you have. In my experience--of course doesn't apply to every situation.

And not that you aren't great, but how do you know your resume is solid? Can you have folks look at it? Feedback is great.
posted by manicure12 at 5:46 PM on April 1, 2012


Why not get a teaching credential and sub for a while?

Around here, that's an MEd or one of the alternative certification programs (Teach for America or Teaching Fellows, which are not to be undertaken lightly), and my understanding is that the job market is tight enough that credentialed teachers have a hard time supporting themselves as subs.

Are you sure there is no room for advancement at current job?

I work as a tech in a library. Since I was hired, the professional staff has been cut by 20%, and only half of those positions have been replaced with paraprofessionals like me.

With that I'm going to step away from the keyboard and try not be be cranky for a while (sorry!).
posted by pullayup at 5:51 PM on April 1, 2012


One of the key takeaways from what color is your parachute is that if you aren't specific about what you want you're less likely to find it. Being totally open is not actually a huge asset in a professional job hunt because no one knows how to help you unless you say what field you are interested in. Imagine if you could say something like: "I'm interested in an entry level job in a company that designs websites" to your friends and acquaintances - you'd find that suddenly your friend Sally's cousin works at a place like that and is willing to do an informational interview. There's no way Sally would think of her cousin if you just said: "I need an entry level job with room for advancement." it's too generic.

You need to just pick a field and start specifically networking and searching for entry level jobs in that field.

If you wanted to get an engineering degree, what was interesting about that? Do you want to work at a tech company? If so, look into jobs at companies that have engineers working there. All of those companies have other jobs for people who aren't engineers (anything from operations to marketing to legal.) Try any kind of admin role as vegartanipla suggests, in any department and see what they do. Go from there. Be curious and take note of what you like and don't like about what everyone does. Etc.
posted by rainydayfilms at 5:57 PM on April 1, 2012 [6 favorites]


Yeah, and don't work somewhere that is facing budget cuts - that's not going to be a place with a lot of opportunity. Try a large corporation instead, or a company in a growing area at a minimum.
posted by rainydayfilms at 5:59 PM on April 1, 2012


Cost estimator? Surveyor? Find some working in engineering, ask if you can buy them a cup of coffee, pick their brains about how they got into their jobs and how current candidates are doing it. That's more or less what an informational interview is.

If you're a working tech, as much as I hate to say it, there are tech support roles that do offer chances for advancement. I have a cousin who got a job at Apple doing tech support after being unable to find a new gig as a programmer when he old company closed. He did iPhone support, then got moved to some other item's support, then got moved to a shift supervisor, and is now interviewing internally for a dev role. There are other companies besides Apple with strong reputations for promoting from within. Find out which ones.
posted by DarlingBri at 6:03 PM on April 1, 2012


there are tech support roles that do offer chances for advancement

Sorry, my job is almost 100% customer service--"tech" is just what we call our paraprofessionals. The closest I get to that type of tech support is explaining how to use PubMed.
posted by pullayup at 6:05 PM on April 1, 2012


I agree with those who said you need to narrow down what you'd like to do.

Here's a link to a resource that might help with that:
http://www.onetonline.org/

It has a database with info on growth and wages of many different jobs.

And what are your interests and passions?

You also might try contacting former professors and classmates.

About going back to school, consider community colleges. Their tuition is usually much lower. In a shortish amount of time, maybe you could get a certificate in a vocational field that would complement your biology degree. Medical care is one such growing field.

Some fields to consider, just based on either the biology or engineering:
* Nursing
* Physical therapist or assistant
* Biomedical engineering
* Environmental science
* Environmental health
* Geographic information systems (Roughly speaking, this is analytical mapping. It can be applied to many fields, including wildlife, forestry and public health.)
posted by maurreen at 6:22 PM on April 1, 2012


And once you have a better idea of what you want to do, you can get "entry level" experience through the side or the back door -- such as by volunteering.

I work as a journalist. Most people who do what I do have at least a bachelor's degree, but I don't.
posted by maurreen at 6:24 PM on April 1, 2012


Another possibility is forensic science, as in "CSI."
posted by maurreen at 6:25 PM on April 1, 2012


Just a random idea: you have a biology degree and like science-y stuff. Have you considered something like Clinical Lab Science? With a biology undergrad, the post-bac would be minimal I would think, no advanced degree required, no sales, none of that. At the school I work for, we train them and they start at about 55k/year after undergrad.
posted by Lutoslawski at 6:42 PM on April 1, 2012


3. Accept this as the New Normal and alter my lifestyle to live as comfortably and responsibly as possible on $22-28,000/year. This would probably involve leaving my job and this expensive city, possibly moving in with my aging parents, and accepting that I won’t be able to pay off my debt or save for retirement in a conventional sense.

This...may just be how things are right now. Very few people seem to be having luck in job hunting, career starting, etc. This is why I'd say to not go back to school unless you are really sure that you want a job in an industry that requires advanced schooling. A lot of people have gone back to school and then still not been able to get jobs to pay off the even-bigger debt. And even the fields that seemed guaranteed to be big moneymakers are failing these days, like law school.

My advice would be to keep plugging along with the applications-- 8-12 is probably paltry these days for the amount being set out-- and try to figure out a career field you might be interested in that doesn't require more schooling/debt. But right now, things are sucking for about everyone these days, especially folks out of college since 2008, and I'm not sure there's much you can do individually about that.
posted by jenfullmoon at 6:46 PM on April 1, 2012 [3 favorites]


Networking is how most people find real jobs. Most people would rather hire from their network than sort through stacks of resumes. Networking is nothing but knowing people. As others have mentioned, industry associations and meetups are great. But so are regular customers, the owner of the local independent coffee shops, librarians(!) and that guy two seats over at the bar. Meet them. Talk to them. Not about getting a job but talk about what motivates you. They might know the person to hook you up with to make things happen.

Depending on the industry you can get around the "2-5 years of experience" thing if you have a portfolio of work. Take that hobby (whatever it is) of that thing that special thing your friends and family ask you to do to help out, and go pro with it. I know people who have gotten jobs this in everything from sound engineering to computer programming.

And be patient. Approach networking or building a portfolio with the same attention as a 2-year degree. It's not going to happen overnight and you need to keep some kind of income in the meantime, but work at it every day, as if you're working on a degree, and you'll get it.
posted by Ookseer at 7:33 PM on April 1, 2012


Why not look for entry-level jobs related to engineering? What kind of engineering are you interested in? Could you work as an electrician's apprentice? What about as an assistant at a big construction management firm?

You really might need a masters degree, if not a Ph.D., to go far in engineering. I would start planning toward graduate school. Taking one or two college courses per semester now might both help you finish (or skip) your pre-requisites and also help you network.

Here is a sample of what networking might look like if you were working toward a job in electrical engineering. Take an "intro to electrical wiring" course or workshop. Work hard. Choose which class by researching the various teachers' connections to likely employment. Somewhere near the end of the course, ask him/her for advice on getting a job where you can use this knowledge. Hang out with your coworkers. Learn which ones are working in the field (however entry-level) and ask them to tell you if their company has any openings. Go to your friends' parties. Talk to people you don't yet know about your job search. Hope they tell you that their cousin runs a small electrical firm. Go to electrical supply stores. Buy things for your small home wiring projects. Ask the shopkeeper if they know of electricians that are hiring. Join a build-your-own-robot meet up group. Create a list of five electrical engineering firms and then look at their staff's bio pages. Do they attend any particular conferences or belong to any trade groups? Volunteer at those conferences or events.
posted by slidell at 8:16 PM on April 1, 2012 [1 favorite]


Working as a lab tech might not necessarily be a dead-end. If you do a good job and ingratiate yourself to your superiors with an eye towards promotion or new kinds of jobs, THAT'S networking. If you think you might be interested in working for a pharmaceutical company or biotech, try to get one of the lab tech jobs. Then, try to figure out the nuts and bolts of what you need to know to be the best at that job, and advance.

At one of the biotech companies I interned at, there were lots of bioprocess technicians in pilot plant (manufacturing) who had only a bachelors, or even just a high school degree. Some were able to advance into managerial or more technical engineering positions. If you're good at what you do and make connections with your superiors, you can advance in those kinds of jobs.
posted by permiechickie at 8:18 PM on April 1, 2012


Here's my advice on "how to get started in a career" explained such that a five-year-old might understand it. It's supposed to be a general formula, not a specific recommendation for you.

1) Think of the things you find interesting or might find interesting to work on every day. If you can't think of things that are interesting at least think of things that would be pleasant and you could be good at.

2) Sort these thing in order of how much money you could be paid to do them, assuming you'd been working on them every day for 20 years.

3) Pick something from the top few places on the list, weighing possible salary and how much you'd enjoy it.

4) realize it's going to take you *20 years* to get where you were just looking, and you have a lot of time and practice to put in.

I started programming computers when I was 15 because I thought it was interesting. I got a job doing real basic stuff laying out websites for like $10/hour when I was 17. If you'll pay attention to that, I was able to get a pretty lousy job after two years of part-time practice. In college, I worked part-time in an internship like position making somewhere between about $13-17/hr. When I left college (I was 25 by then, I did not follow the traditional college schedule exactly), I got my first "real" software job and was earning $68k/year. Note that this was after I'd been practicing, working and studying in this field for ten years. I am about to turn 31 and now have 15 years of experience in this field, most of it employed (if you count all the way back to the crappy job I had at 17), and five years in what I'd call sort of the "top-tier" silicon valley software community. I took a new job at the beginning of this year and am making more or less in the neighborhood of $150k/year. This has worked for me because software development is way up high on the list I made in step two, and because I have spent the last *15 years* working towards where I am today, continually improving my skills and making new connections with people who may need to hire programmers in the future (after so many years, I have friends and former co-workers who know my skills and would vouch for them, and are in the position to be able to hire people or at least make sure my resume lands on a hiring manager's desk, at a variety of companies many people would like to work for).

Building a career is not like buying a car, where one day you don't have a car and the next day you do. It's like climbing a mountain, where you spend a long time getting to the top. When you've just started out, you can turn around and look behind you and you can't even see over the trees, and it looks like you haven't made any progress at all. The solution here is too just keep going. Eventually you will make it above the tree line and you'll just how high you've gotten. A mistake too many people make is to give up after a year or two, when they're still fairly close to the bottom, because the view from there isn't very impressive. They decide that what they need to do is go climb a different mountain, or go back to mountain climbing school. That's not it. The keys are: 1) choose a big mountain (from the list you made in step two). 2) just keep going. Try hard. Aim for the top. Even if you don't make it to the summit, you'll get a lot higher than you would wandering around a valley trying to pick the best mountain, or sitting on top of a 50 foot hill and saying, "well, I'm 50 feet up from the bottom, and the view's not bad. I can't go up from here, but I sure as hell don't want to go back down through that valley and lose the view I do have."

And I have completely exhausted that mountain climbing analogy, but that's my take.
posted by tylerkaraszewski at 9:41 PM on April 1, 2012 [35 favorites]


tylerkaraszewski's analogy is great. To add one element, some careers switch skillsets halfway up, just like mountains switch terrain. So keep in mind not only the height of the mountain and your enjoyment of the climb, but what kind of terrain changes you'll experience when.

The first half of the climb might be hiking, or in the real world let's say it's technical skills like building a good database. Then, the terrain might change to bouldering, or in the real world let's say to managing other people. The terrain might even change again to ice climbing, or in the real world let's say to sales, fundraising, or politics. If you know you can't ice climb, don't evaluate the height of the overall mountain, but the height at which it changes to ice.

Let's say you're a great logician and persuasive writer, but terribly anti-social. Well, looking only at the approach to the mountain, as a good writer, you could probably go into law, journalism, or many other fields. However, writing and logic remain important, and being anti-social remains somewhat tolerated until fairly high up the mountain in certain kinds of legal work (of course not all, with no offense intended to the many socially-skilled lawyers). Whereas in journalism, your career would likely max out much sooner if you lacked the ability to build relationships with publishers, win sources' confidence, and sell articles and books.

Career changes often happen, I think, when people get halfway up the mountain and realize, "I'm okay at this career, but I'm never going to make it to the top because I don't want to do what it takes to make this next leg of the climb." Some decide to camp where they are, and some go all the way down again and try to climb up a more well-suited mountain.
posted by slidell at 10:41 PM on April 1, 2012 [7 favorites]


slidell, your last paragraph is full of awesomeness and is going to be my new way of explaining to people why I switched from web development to therapeutic massage.
posted by parrot_person at 10:59 PM on April 1, 2012


I would love to but that's, like, a whole new question--my undergraduate loans are close to maxed out, and I don't think I qualify for admission to MEng programs (most require a bachelor's in engineering or a closely related field "such as computer science, mathematics, or physics").

There are a number of bio-medical, bio-mechanical or bio-electrical engineering degrees out there. You might need to take some undergrad physics and mechanics classes, but there are certainly ways to get into the engineering field not coming from engineering.

The best way to find out what is possible is to find someone doing some research you like and email them. Tell them your background. Ask them what classes you should fill in to be ready for a grad degree in their field. Remember, in science and engineering graduate school, a lot of the time you are working for your professor. You usually get your tuition covered and get a stipend. Also, any federal loans will be deferred while you are in school.
posted by chiefthe at 12:49 AM on April 2, 2012


It's like climbing a mountain, where you spend a long time getting to the top...[e]ventually you will make it above the tree line and you'll just how high you've gotten.

I want to preface this by saying that while I don’t resent your successes, I do think that it’s easy to look down from the heights back along your path and think how well it was chosen rather than how lucky you were.

I was the produce buyer at a small food co-op from a few months before my eighteenth birthday until I was twenty-seven. I loved it, and I was good at it. For a good part of that time, my produce department was the only place to buy certified organic produce within 50 miles--in an unwashed armpit of the rust belt--and for all of it, I think, it was the best. I saw the department through the transition to the USDA National Organic Program and the 2001 recession. The customers loved me, and I brought business to the co-op even beyond what my department contributed to the overall margin. I started out at $5.00/hour, and when I finally saw the writing on the wall, I was making $16,000/year. The general manager may have pulled down $19,000. For a long time, it didn’t bother me that my job was unremunerative, because I loved it, and because I felt like I was part of something bigger than myself. When it finally did start to bother me, I did an about-face, climbed down, and went to college.

At the time, in late 2004, the buzz was that biotech was a safe bet for a middle-class career, so I started a degree in biology. I worked through Pfizer “streamlining” its operations in Ann Arbor and Kalamazoo, and by the time it was clear that biology wasn’t going to open the doors I thought it would, I was too late to correct my course (though I did still manage to graduate summa cum laude). At the end of my degree, I took a lab job in a small pharmaceutical company as a temp and a contractor. My commute, 3200 miles per month, ate a quarter of my gross income. And I was very, very slightly in the red every month just for the privilege of working. The permanent employees--who, if you count their education, had been improving their skills and making connections for eight or ten years--were only making a dollar or two more per hour than I was. I left, and a few weeks from being unable to pay my rent, got the job I have now. Since then, I’ve had one other interview with a manufacturer of medical devices. After asking pointed questions about whether I was involved with vegetarian or animal rights organizations while I worked at the co-op (I wasn’t), they announced that I might not be a good fit for a lab which experimented on animals.

A key aspect of this metaphor, I think, is the sense of agency: you may not know the details of every slope, boulder and crevasse, but you can pick a mountain, gauge its height (say, eighty or ninety thousand dollars), and begin to hike uphill. You can climb down, if you like, and start up another hill, or you can decide to enjoy the view from below the ice fields at $45,000. And if you had asked me in 1998, or 2003, or 2007, I would have said, yes, I feel like I’m on a mountainside, and I feel like I’m climbing. Now, I don’t. I don’t feel like I have that much agency. I feel like the choices I make in my life have little-to-no bearing on the outcomes. I’ve made decisions in good faith and based on the best information I had at the time, and I’m staring down the second half of my thirties with no savings and no money in my checking account until Friday, and, frankly, it frightens me. If I’m on a particular mountainside, I’m there because I needed to start climbing something before started missing rent and student loan payments; if I have to force a metaphor of my own, I’m slogging through dunes. The peaks shift and blow away, I can’t tell where I am, and sand is getting in my knickers.
posted by pullayup at 12:53 AM on April 2, 2012 [4 favorites]


I completed a bachelor's in biology in 2009, but all that seems to qualify me for is short-term lab tech work.

You're right, that's true. The thing is that you start out with short term lab tech work and move to jobs like "clinical research coordinator" or "program coordinator."

I’ve had one other interview with a manufacturer of medical devices.

You got one interview, so maybe you can get more interviews. Basically, this is your path, though if not with that company, then another company.

Another person I knew facing a similar dilemma as you because a surgical technician in the hopes that she'd be in contact with more people that would enable her to get a job in a medical device company. That requires more training, but if you stick to programs in hospitals and community college, it might not cost that much. (and I'm not sure what a good path it was to end up in medical devices, honestly, but it does pay decently)
posted by deanc at 5:53 AM on April 2, 2012


I want to preface this by saying that while I don’t resent your successes, I do think that it’s easy to look down from the heights back along your path and think how well it was chosen rather than how lucky you were.

I only sort of agree. It's easy to tell these career stories without emphasizing luck and privilege, but it's also really common to talk with people who aren't able/willing/interested in slogging through the foothills (to stay with the mountain metaphor). I get people stopping by for "informational interviews" now and then, and I'm pretty sure that of all of them, only one has followed through and actually started working in the field; I run into a few of the others around town and they are all still stuck in the "I dunno" stage.

Accept this as the New Normal and alter my lifestyle to live as comfortably and responsibly as possible on $22-28,000/year. This would probably involve leaving my job and this expensive city, possibly moving in with my aging parents, and accepting that I won’t be able to pay off my debt or save for retirement in a conventional sense.

That sounds like about what my organization would pay for genuinely entry level work, for someone with maybe some education but no experience or special skills, so the raw salary you are talking would be reasonable here, for what that's worth. The interesting thing is watching who gets resentful and quits, and who kicks ass and gets promoted or gets hired away -- that seems to be an individual choice, and what feels to one person like a dead end job will seem to another to be a stepping stone. As someone very slightly higher on that "mountain," those possible career paths from the entry level jobs look really obvious to me in a way that I don't think they are for someone slogging through the sand dunes, as you described it.

And if you had asked me in 1998, or 2003, or 2007, I would have said, yes, I feel like I’m on a mountainside, and I feel like I’m climbing. Now, I don’t. I don’t feel like I have that much agency. I feel like the choices I make in my life have little-to-no bearing on the outcomes. I’ve made decisions in good faith and based on the best information I had at the time, and I’m staring down the second half of my thirties with no savings and no money in my checking account until Friday, and, frankly, it frightens me. If I’m on a particular mountainside, I’m there because I needed to start climbing something before started missing rent and student loan payments; if I have to force a metaphor of my own, I’m slogging through dunes. The peaks shift and blow away, I can’t tell where I am, and sand is getting in my knickers.

That sounds less like a question about how to find a career path, and more an expression of frustration and demotivation. Not that that's a bad thing, but it might be worth reflecting about what advice you are ready to hear, or if you first need to work through the anger and frustration to be able to look more dispassionately at the situation and try new things.
posted by Forktine at 6:35 AM on April 2, 2012 [2 favorites]


Have you looked for jobs at universities? Lab tech jobs, or library jobs, or other entry-level jobs that are low-paying but which at a university (unlike most other places) might include free/highly discounted tuition as a benefit? That way even if the particular job you're in doesn't have a specific path to advancement, it can still serve as a stepping stone by getting you affordable education that can move you towards a different kind of a job. (Obviously easier said than done to get a job like this, but...)
posted by EmilyClimbs at 10:55 AM on April 2, 2012


I would definitely not deny the importance of luck and privilege, the challenge of incomplete knowledge, nor the powerless feeling when things are out of your control. I can't go as far as agreeing that "the choices [you] make in [your] life have little-to-no bearing on the outcomes," but I don't know which of your actions felt like a "choice," and external forces have also had a major impact. Since none of us know what will bring you luck, we can only advise you with steps that you can take.

It sounds to me like you're headed on the right path now. Someone above recommended doing many informational interviews with those who offer employment in the biotech field so that you can figure out how to get your foot in the door. Have you made a list of the places you'd most like to work?

Your update impresses me with how much grocery experience you have. The ability to manage inventory like that is a real asset and would make you a good lab manager, assuming you had the necessary science credentials, or a good assistant to one if you did not.
posted by slidell at 11:51 AM on April 2, 2012


@Forktine: Perhaps you should read the rest of the post the OP made, in which he/she indicate that they obviously have the tenacity to work at a low-paid job and do it well, and that they've already switched fields and put in the hard work to find a better paying job. It must be awfully condescending to hear advice like "you first need to work through the anger and frustration to be able to look more dispassionately at the situation and try new things". They're 35+, have tried multiple fields (and well, apparently), gone the STEM route and gotten nothing. Can you blame them for thinking success is luck-related, considering they've apparently tried more things and worked harder than at least half of the people I know (and I'm a professional myself)?
posted by speedgraphic at 2:15 PM on April 2, 2012 [1 favorite]


Can you get someone powerful in your corner?

Is there somebody higher up in your job that you trust, that might have connections? A professor you worked with on your undergrad degree? An alum of your school? Is there a mentoring program in your area? Chamber of commerce?

You mentioned that you feel you don't know how to network, and your current network can't do anything for you. There are a lot of people out there who, for no other reason than wanting to give back to others, like to help people who are motivated enough to seek them out and to affirmatively act on their advice. You've tried sending out resumes -- maybe you should direct your efforts to finding someone who can help you. This isn't the "attending a big event and shaking hands" kind of networking -- this is finding a mentor, someone who will take you under their wing. It may work best if you have a goal or a few limited goals in mind. Or find someone you think is really successful and that you have some connection to, however tenuous, and try to get in touch with them and ask them how you can become them.
posted by chickenmagazine at 2:30 PM on April 2, 2012 [1 favorite]


1. Find a temp agency and quit my permanent job. Just thinking about this makes my heart race, in a bad way--I don’t have much of a financial cushion and can’t afford to be out of work for very long, and I’m not sure this is a sound strategy for finding a career.

I can speak a little bit to this concern. After I went back to get a BS and my job search after graduating turned up nil for over 6-months I signed myself with an ad agency. They had me come in and talk about my situation and what my goals were. I told them I'm willing to anything, I'm not the kind of person who considers any type of work beneath me but I'd really like something full-time and permanent.

There was on particular company that I had set my sights on and I found out that that company used that agency exclusively. Not only that but they often used them for temp-to-hire positions.

I had my first temp assignment with a few weeks. That ended up lasting 9 months (7 months more than anticipated). Near the end of that assignment (after I had a definite end date) I was nearly offered a temp-to-hire position in another division of the company before something fell apart at the last minute with the approval process for the position that had nothing at all to do with me.

I had my second assignment (with the same company) about one month after the first one ended. That was supposed to last 1-month. It turned into 4-months and then I was hired on to a permanent position with a different team in the same department.

From what my contact at the temp agency told me, my story was not uncommon perhaps bordering on somewhat common (but she might have been blowing smoke). I feel pretty lucky about how things turned out but I'm certain that part of it was that I didn't have to try to be impressive and sell myself in an interview. I'm not very good at that stuff and I'm not an extrovert but I work really hard, I'm really smart, had a good attitude toward the work and I was able to demonstrate that through my temp assignments in ways I wouldn't have been able to make clear with my resume or in an interview.

I was also able to make a lot of contacts within the company, confirm that it was someplace I wanted to work, and get some great ideas on the type of work I wanted to do.

The hard part was that I just didn't have the security that comes with a permanent position so even while I was on an assignment, I didn't know how long it would last so I felt like I couldn't plan things, I had few benefits (though they did have a kind of health insurance plan that would have worked okay), and I still had to live like I was unemployed.

My first assignment paid $16/hour and the 2nd one paid $14/hour and this is in Minnesota so I would assume that the same types of job would pay a little more in your area so this might be an option for you. You might start by identifying a large company that you would like to work for and see if you can call around and find out who they use when they need a temp and then talk to a recruiter from that agency. The reps that I talked to were awesome and very frank and honest with me about what to expect and they worked really hard to find work for me, especially after the first job where I demonstrated some of what I could do. I just don't know how unique my experience was. Feel free to post here or memail me if you have other questions or just want more details.
posted by VTX at 4:41 PM on April 2, 2012 [1 favorite]


"3. I'm not sure how to network. My friends and acquaintances are either underemployed or in jobs which have a specific educational barrier to entry (see above)."

You are right, you don't know how to network. Networking isn't asking everyone you know if they know about any job openings, it's about asking people if they know someone else who might help you get closer to whatever it is you are shooting for. Wash-rinse-repeat, because it's a process, like going from a fertilized egg, to a living, breathing, free-standing mammal. (it's also worth mentioning that you should endeavor to put at least as much into networking as you get out of it, so ask people if there anything they need that you should keep an eye out for as you network)

As for what to shoot for: right now it sounds like you might benefit from finding examples of how one can get from from an undergrad biology degree to the point where one is well down the road of having one's student and a job with room for advancement.

Sounds like you are working as a library tech in a health sciences setting, which sounds to me like a great place to start such a quest. Chances are good that many of the people you deal with every day have a undergrad degree in bio or another science. Odds are good that most, if not all, of them have former classmates who didn't get a MS, PhD or MD, and instead well down some other path. So, start up conversations with some of your patrons, ask what they do now, what their undergrad degree was in, how many friends they had who went into something else, etc... This isn't sales and don't look at it as hustling, it's being curious and inquisitive.

Good luck! I graduated into a recession 21 years ago with a degree in bio. I took a lab job thinking I wanted to apply to grad school after a couple of years, instead, I decided that it wasn't for me, and through luck, curiosity, foolishness, and bad work habits, managed to get an entry level job where I could do stuff with the Internet. I'm still figuring out what I want to be when I grow up, but I've made a reasonable living so far. I spend some time these days talking to students and recent grads from my alma matter about how to get started on finding a path through life. You can MeMailmme if you want to talk.
posted by Good Brain at 9:51 PM on April 2, 2012


BTW, why do you feel like you should have gotten an Engineering degree?

Also: how are you with numbers and data? Have you taken a stats class?
posted by Good Brain at 10:09 PM on April 2, 2012


For what it is worth, I finished a Bio degree a few years back and got a job in a medical device/pharmaceutical company lab. I spent a year in the lab as a contract worker with no benefits, all the while feeling directionless and wishing that I had majored in chemical engineering because I saw no other job opportunities or clear direction upwards. In that year, however, I always did my best and took every opportunity I could to work on new projects not specifically under my job description. When the Quality Manager left on short notice, I was hired full time to help pick up the slack and transitioned to an entirely new QA/Regulatory Affairs type of role.

My resume would never have been considered for if I was applying externally for this position, but my knowledge of the company processes and demonstrated abilities made me a good fit. I have since gained an entirely new set of skills and feel like I have a pretty solid direction I want my career to take.

Honestly, luck/timing is always going to be an important factor. But my best advice would probably be to get your foot in the door of the industry you want to work in however best you can, and demonstrate the quality of your work from the inside. Actively seek projects that will expose you to new things and look for opportunities to gain new skills.

Several years into a career, the exact degree is less important, it is simply the fact that you have one and have the skills/experience that a company needs. Bonus points if your chosen industry looks favorably on a science background (eg pharma or medical device). Also target smaller companies if you can - if I had taken a job at one of the big pharma companies they would have had me performing one assay all day and never given me the opportunity to work on additional projects.
posted by cccp47 at 1:51 PM on July 17, 2012


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