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Living with post-recession stress disorder
October 28, 2012 9:51 PM   Subscribe

I've landed in a dead-end job, but it's hard for me to overcome my anxiety about retraining or changing the direction of my career. How should I perform an objective, reasonable risk-reward analysis in the face of imperfect options and information?

I've tried pro/con lists, spreadsheets of financial projections, and informational interviews, but when it comes down to pulling the trigger--taking a temp job in a new field, enrolling in a graduate program--I just can't do it. I know that any new job is a leap of faith, but I can't shake my fear that things won't work out, and I'll come out the other side with more debt, less time, more miles on the same car, fewer and/or worse career options, etc. I tend to be someone who lacks the courage of their convictions, and I don't trust myself (or, maybe, believe that it's possible) to make an informed decision about this.

Recent examples:

1. I'm qualified for admission to graduate programs in the allied health sciences, but I can't square myself to the idea of spending $50-80,000 (and two or three years away from full-time employment) essentially on spec. Will there be a glut of graduates (who, like me, headed for grad school after the recession derailed their career) in three years? Will I be able to service $90,000-120,000 of student loan debt--I have ~$40,000 now--on my salary? What about the opportunity cost of leaving work for two or three years? Will I make it to my clinical internship to discover that I don't enjoy, or can't tolerate, the narrow range of jobs which the degree trained me for? Will a shift in the regulatory climate put me out of work in a decade? If I was passionate about being a nurse (clinical dietitian, perfusionist, occupational therapist, vascular sonographer, audiologist, etc.) that might carry me through, but I have to accept that I'm not, and probably never will be.

2. I have a biology degree, so I contacted a lab/biotech staffing service. The positions I've been offered are all unequivocally worse than what I have now: swing shifts or rolling start times (5, 7 or 9 a.m. depending on the day of the week), short contracts (4 to 6 months), 100-130 mile/day commutes, low-ish starting salaries (equivalent to $30,000/year). On top of that, I would lose my un-vested 403(b) match, and my benefits would be in limbo until I land in a permanent position. At this point I wouldn't bat an eye at one or two of these things, but together they seem like a poor trade for just the possibility of a stable-ish career.

3. I recently asked this question about library school, which is now off the table, in part due to the good advice in that thread.

For those of you tempted to encourage me to follow my true passions or interests, What Color Is Your Parachute?-style: I whiled away my twenties doing just that. It was fun but unremunerative--I didn't make more than $18,000/year or have health insurance until after I graduated from college in my early 30s--and now I don't think I have the luxury of taking eight or ten post-college years to get on even keel and start saving for retirement. If I had my druthers I would stay in the job I have now, or work for a bike shop, or in the produce department at a food co-op. Realistically, though, I can't do any of those things and pay more than just the interest on my student loans, let alone save for retirement, put together a down payment on a house, or afford to take vacations.

As I proofread this post, it sounds like a list of entitled complaints--and, in a way, that's what I'm worried about.
Do I need to wait until I find an option which doesn't twist up my stomach and keep me awake at night? Am I overestimating (or underestimating) the amount control I have over my life and career? Am I unreasonably afraid of what is, ultimately, an acceptable level of risk, debt and discomfort?
posted by pullayup to Work & Money (16 answers total) 15 users marked this as a favorite
 
I wouldn't knock What Color is Your Parachute, with the important observation that part of the process outlined in the book is identifying what is important to you, and making sure you find a new job that incorporates all of those elements. Obviously, among other things, opportunities for advancement, a decent salary, and a good work/life balance (ie, no looong commutes) are important to you, so you need to find a job that offers that.

What Color is Your Parachute, in my mind, focuses more on creativity and thinking outside the box, and transfering your skills to other domains.

The book helped me. I lived in Japan for the ten years immediately after graduating from university with a Creative Writing degree, and along the way I got an Education degree. I discovered while in Japan that freelance writing does not pay, but I did carve out a career for myself as a teacher.

However, when returning to Canada, I realized that a) teachers were not in demand and b) neither were writers. I managed to transition to a job in government, in the realm of technology commercialization, economic development and international trade.

However, I was laid off in 2009 as the result of the economic downturn and government austerity programs. Government was no longer an option as a career, so I had to do something else. I now work as a marketing writer, and I make a decent living.

From my perspective, I had skills that were not in demand (teaching) or not particularly in demand (writing) and managed to make something happen. I think for me the key has been a willingness to network, and also a willingness to try to figure out what people do all day, and see if I can do it, regardless of job description.

So if I can do it, I think you can too.

Whether or not to go back to school is a tough one, but I have not had the opportunity, as I have a family to support and could never imagine taking on such debt.
posted by KokuRyu at 10:12 PM on October 28, 2012 [1 favorite]


There is no point in going back to school unless you're passionate about whatever it is that you're studying.

The best thing to do is, as far as possible, use and exploit the crap out of your current degree and skillset. You may have to learn something new - but it will be something small that you can do on your own or via some kind of short course. It may wind up being only tenuously related to your current degree/experience. But that's your basis to work from. From there you brainstorm around that.

I think your angst is coming from the fact that all of your proposed changes have been big, involving completely different fields/debt. You don't need to go that big in order to make changes - not unless you're almost 100% committed to something. Making a smaller change will be less stressful, more within your grasp, and could wind up being more rewarding.
posted by heyjude at 10:27 PM on October 28, 2012 [2 favorites]


The Pathfinder got me through the same exact period of stuck you are describing. Can't recommend it enough!
posted by deliciae at 10:37 PM on October 28, 2012 [1 favorite]


Being an adult is all about compromise, and yes, sometimes we work at jobs that we don't like so much just to pay the bills. With that said, since you are still young, and perhaps not yet riddled with things that tie you down (a house, a family, etc.) school, or even the lower paying, highly interesting positions that allow you some unique experiences are still and option for you.

It seems that you are frustrated bcs you know you need to be responsible (financially), but you have untapped skills that you want to explore. Only you can decide if it is worth the risk, but as someone likely a decade older than you, I will just say, that it may never be easier to take those risks than it is right now.
posted by mdn31 at 10:40 PM on October 28, 2012


I'll go out on a limb and say you need to keep exploring the options. Nothing in your post indicates that you even want to make the leap of faith your describing. Maybe that's just the way you describe it, or maybe it's your anxiety dictating the terms, or maybe it's just a straightforward issue: you need to go deeper.
posted by vecchio at 10:58 PM on October 28, 2012


Wow, I'm not sure how you feel about some of the advice above. I think we're in similar situations: I make enough to live decently, but I'd love to have better hours, better pay, less menial and repetitive work, advancement opportunities, etc., etc. Looking at advice above, I really can't imagine someone who'd say no to "opportunities for advancement, a decent salary, and a good work/life balance (ie, no looong commutes)." I would consider utterly useless a career advice book that helps readers identify "priorities" like those.

Off the top of my head, it's hard to imagine a two-year degree that will expand your opportunities to the point of letting you finance that much debt. Would you be a competitive applicant for the kinds of programs that fund their students? I suspect you'd have mentioned this if the option was on the table, but…

Temporary lab positions are not career builders, despite rare exceptions. I think it's unlikely you'll gain anything by taking on jobs with tough hours, lower job security, worse pay, and very long commutes.

In my experience, people my age who have made career headway after college either started out with valuable skills (e.g., good command of Arabic without a complicating ethnic background) or walked into exceptional workplaces that offered internal promotions. The rest of the people I know just went into graduate and professional programs right out of undergrad and now have serious adult jobs.

So, in short, no two-year degree or short-term certificate is a silver bullet. Either the costs far outweigh the likely boost in pay, or it's a hot field that's about to get flooded with fresh graduates. People whose interests and aptitudes are easily identifiable and align well with career tracks have an easier time than people without strong interests that might lead to specific careers.

Also: how the hell are people supposed to "explore options" in a vacuum? It's easy to look around you and check if anyone at your workplace is doing something you might like to explore. From the outside, it's a lot harder to identify what positions and titles people have, and what responsibilities and skills they correspond to. You can't learn more about something until you know that it exists.
posted by Nomyte at 11:32 PM on October 28, 2012 [3 favorites]


Wow, I'm not sure how you feel about some of the advice above. I think we're in similar situations: I make enough to live decently, but I'd love to have better hours, better pay, less menial and repetitive work, advancement opportunities, etc., etc. Looking at advice above, I really can't imagine someone who'd say no to "opportunities for advancement, a decent salary, and a good work/life balance (ie, no looong commutes)." I would consider utterly useless a career advice book that helps readers identify "priorities" like those.

Well, it worked for me, and I don't find myself stuck like you.
posted by KokuRyu at 12:03 AM on October 29, 2012


What I was getting at by mentioning that "salary, working hours etc etc are important" is that the entire "follow your passion and the money will follow" advice is actually bad advice, and there are some people who criticize What Color is Your Parachute for promoting the "follow your passion" route, when really the book does not.

Instead, WCiyP is more about being creative while being realistic. On the other hand, the book was written by an evangelical Christian, and having faith that things will work out (thanks in large part to one's own hard work) is another key pillar of the book.

But at the end of the day, the book won't work for everybody. It worked for me. I have combined relatively low-demand skills (writing and teaching) to change careers twice in a geographic location where there is not a lot of demand for mid-career professionals like me, so if I can do it, anyone can.
posted by KokuRyu at 12:12 AM on October 29, 2012


I don't think you are unreasonably afraid of the debt and risk, especially considering that you are in your 30s. If you wind up closer to 40 with $90,000-120,000 debt, no savings, and looking for an entry-level job in a chosen field, you will probably have a very difficult time. Is a compromise possible, where you can go to school at night while still holding a job in the day? At least with that, you'd have some continuous work history and less debt.
posted by Houstonian at 4:52 AM on October 29, 2012


it's hard to imagine a two-year degree that will expand your opportunities to the point of letting you finance that much debt. Would you be a competitive applicant for the kinds of programs that fund their students?

These are two- and three-year Masters-level/professional programs in the health sciences. Unlike academia, they're almost universally unfunded, but offer starting salaries in the $50,000 to $90,000 range: think nursing, physician assistantship, physical/occupational therapy, clinical dietetics. I'm a competitive applicant. If anyone has any tips on ways that these programs can be funded let me know.

Is a compromise possible, where you can go to school at night while still holding a job in the day?

Unfortunately they're also almost universally rigorous, tightly scheduled programs with a clinical component (the third year), so you can't take classes a la carte over a longer period of time or even hold a day job. If anyone has made it through part or all of one of these while working, though, I'd love to hear about it.
posted by pullayup at 5:30 AM on October 29, 2012


Incurring debt "on spec" when so many people are doing so, WILL result in a glut on the market of over-qualified people in the allied health sciences.

Even now, nursing positions are harder and harder to get.

More education isn't the answer.

Finding a job you enjoy is what you need to do.

Do a wide-reaching job search. You aren't in dire straights, desperate for a job. You have one that works for now.

Search every day for "job charming". This job will utilize skills you have, and let you learn new things.

For example, when I was laid off from the phone company, I knew I wanted out of that melieu. I didn't want to be in Telecom anymore. My resume was amazing for that industry, but I couldn't stomach doing it anymore. I got a job that paid crap, but allowed me to learn Salesforce.com as a System Administrator.

Now I have a fun job, and I'm combining my sales engineering experience with my Salesforce.com experience and I'm learning all kinds of neat stuff about analytics.

It took a couple of years to get to this point, but I'm a pretty happy camper right now.

I'd also like to point out that my job pays in the job range that you're aiming for.

Women especially believe that more, and specific training will make them more employable and it's simply not true.

Is there a way you can leverage your current job for more training? Excel is pretty universal and if you're a wizard on it, you can get amazing jobs.
posted by Ruthless Bunny at 5:49 AM on October 29, 2012 [1 favorite]


A BSc in the biosciences won't take you very far in a traditional "bench work" positions. You'll want a MSc for that. If you like benchwork, this is viable - there are actually lots of MSc (or BSc+5 years rel. exp.) jobs being advertised around here. Not all are bench only; lots of sales/inside-sales, logistics, marketting, tech support &c.

Also, MScs should pay you a minimum stipend and you might be able to have student loans deferred while going back to school. Unlike PhDs, MScs are still pretty standard 2-3 years and opens more doors than it closes.

This experience might also allow you to acquire transferable skills like statistics, programing, project management, writing, or allow you to develop one particular marketable skill (like, prion or virus work, for example).
posted by porpoise at 12:28 PM on October 29, 2012


Are you inclined towards clinical/’helping’ work, or are you more drawn to the fact that allied health programs offer formal points of entry to a profession? (Because if things really go tits up, occupational therapists won’t survive either, or not in hospitals, anyway.)

I’m the same age, and am going through similar thought processes around my own decision-making; like you, I’ve very much been trying to frame it in quantifiable terms. Here’s where I’m up to. Some of the forces affecting us are predictable (bottlenecking, etc), many not; and it’s true, I think, that the only certainty now is uncertainty. But in the middle of that, some people are doing all right, even well. And I think the factors protecting them are in fact the loathsomely fuzzy things left out by labour stats/projections.

I’m cringing as I write it, but the ‘passion’ thing counts among them, I’d argue. I’m not talking about realizing childhood fantasies, but I think people with robust, consistent, and deepening interest and skill in something they’re intrinsically motivated to do set things in motion through self-fulfilling prophecy.

Networking is easier when there’s a degree of genuine interest in the job/field, and you don’t have to force yourself to stay twigged to who’s doing what, which opportunities are out there, etc. You’re more likely to offer value, because you’re probably better at what you do, as a function of interest and energy. You’re probably projecting more attractive qualities to employers/clients than someone going through the motions. Of course, all that could be true, and you could still hit a wall (a change in regulation, shifts in political commitments/funding, etc). But you’d still be in a much better place to make the kind of lateral transition KokuRyu described.

I hope you don’t mind, but since you opened up your posting history, I scanned some of your responses to other people’s questions here (because here especially, people answer questions they feel competent to address, whether from experience, knowledge or interest). Based on those, and off the cuff/out of my ass, I’d have guessed you might have something to do with engineering/industrial design. Even: epidemiology, geospatial/health informatics, science writing, usability, green tech/development*... I’d picture you somewhere in there, vs working night shifts in palliative care. Could so easily be wrong, those are just impressions, forgive the indulgence.

Point is: you already know some things about yourself (even if I don’t). I think it’d be smart to leverage them, and not chase security, because it doesn’t exist.

*Or yeah, bike shop person, is another one.
posted by nelljie at 8:53 PM on October 29, 2012 [1 favorite]


"Excel is pretty universal and if you're a wizard on it, you can get amazing jobs."

Is this true? If I put some real effort into doing a bunch of free Excel tutorials, will I become way more employable? My background: physics BSc (no longer pursuing physics), environmental tech diploma (currently pursuing environmental jobs), office administration (the field I'm actually employed in).
posted by fullerenedream at 9:04 PM on October 29, 2012 [1 favorite]


Is this true? If I put some real effort into doing a bunch of free Excel tutorials, will I become way more employable? My background: physics BSc (no longer pursuing physics), environmental tech diploma (currently pursuing environmental jobs), office administration (the field I'm actually employed in).

I know this is A Whole Nother Question, but I'm kind of interested in the answer to this as well. I'm no slouch with Excel, but have close to zero opportunity to practice it at work--since I work in a library, all of the data-wrangling kinds of tasks that would use it in a more general office setting are done with specialized tools, and, well, knowing how how to use them is pretty much what many of the librarians are employed to do (in fact, I have been gently reminded, in as many words, that these things are "above my paygrade"). What skills do I want to have, and, without a job which throws interesting problems at me, where would I learn them?
posted by pullayup at 9:24 PM on October 29, 2012 [1 favorite]


A friend of mine was an entry-level analyst with CEB. He learned Excel VBA. About a year later he quit to go to business school, but continued to do VBA consulting part-time. Apart from that sort of thing, I haven't heard of anyone getting amazing jobs based solely on their Excel wizardry.
posted by Nomyte at 11:55 AM on October 30, 2012


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