Three years ago, I graduated with a Physics degree. Since then, I've been working in a soul-crushing IT job. Realistically, what are my options to push my career forward? Help me find my passion. Lots of snowflake details inside.
I graduated from a well-respected public university in 2009, with a GPA that was just a hair below 3.0. Although I completed a bunch of lab work and internships, I had neither the grades nor the ambition to pursue the PhD/Postdoc career path that's traditional to the field.
I stuck with my degree, with the promise that it could eventually lead to a career in engineering (which seemed a lot more interesting than the theoretical Physics stuff I was working on). This didn't really pan out, as no employers were even willing to look at a candidate that hadn't taken the EIT, and my grad school options seemed to be severely constrained by my mediocre GPA.
Since graduating, I've been working in an IT job for a huge government contractor in Washington, DC. My official title is "Systems Engineer," although "IT Polymath" might be a better description. I have a ridiculously broad array of job duties, ranging from low-level systems administration/helpdesk duties, writing code, media editing, server administration, and a bit of fairly high-level engineering work. Most of the systems that I oversee are highly proprietary and specific to our office's function. Unfortunately, this also means that most of the "typical" IT responsibilities (AD administration, NOC, etc) are delegated out to other departments within my client's organization. My client also tends to be relentlessly conservative with its IT practices, so I'm missing quite a few buzzwords (ie. anything with virtualization) from my resume. In other words, there are some gaps in my skills and experience that are making it very difficult for me to apply to similar jobs elsewhere -- every advertised IT vacancy seems to require a laundry list of incredibly specific experiences and skills.
Unfortunately, my job lacks a clear sense of direction, has no coherent management chain to speak of, and has no obvious path for advancement. I'm the youngest person in my office by about 15 years, and can't help shake the feeling that I'm often treated like a child. Even after 3 years on the job, I'm also still the newest "employee" (and only contractor and only non-union person) in the office. My coworkers still occasionally call me by the name of my predecessor.
Despite these numerous respect issues, my client seems incredibly satisfied with the work that I do. I've received three glowing performance reviews, but my pay ($50k) has not increased by a dime, and my benefits have gotten progressively more expensive (to say nothing about the cost of living in DC spiraling out of control). At my last review, I inquired about advancement opportunities, training, or opportunities elsewhere in my huge firm, and was told something along the lines of "Why would you want that? You have stability and the best job in our company." I know that I'm not making bad money, but I also get the distinct impression that my career isn't going to lead to anyplace good if I stay where I am.
I've recently been focusing a lot on the web development aspects of my job, and have gotten to the point where I feel extremely competent as a web developer. I've had a few interviews for full-time web development jobs with startup-y companies, all of which have progressed quite far until one interviewer sets out to prove that I don't have a CS degree or experience as a full-time developer on a big team. These setbacks have frequently been exhausting and humiliating. I'm trying to churn out a few personal projects to build a portfolio, although I've been finding this to be surprisingly difficult
to accomplish while also holding down a full-time job and attempting to have a functioning social life.
I've contemplated going back to school to study engineering (probably Civil, but I really don't know), but my options seem to be constrained by my mediocre GPA, having few professors who would write me a favorable recommendation, and the cost of tuition (as a DC resident, I don't have any good 'in-state' options). Additionally, I'd rather have some experience in a particular discipline of engineering before committing to a degree. Urban planning's also caught my interest, but I also really don't know how I'd determine if I'd find that sort of career to be fulfilling (or even attainable). Although I don't mind having a desk job, I also do like that an Engineering career could potentially lead to something that doesn't result in my butt being stuck in the same chair every single day.
I apologize that this is rambling and somewhat open-ended, but what are my options to move my career forward? I'm feeling more and more like I'm going to be stuck here forever.
In-thread replies are appreciated, but I've also set up a throwaway email at firstname.lastname@example.org