Help me get back on track
August 16, 2004 2:01 PM   Subscribe

Help me turn around my life. I'm caught in a trap. [mi]

I'm a intelligent and creative guy stuck in a dead-end job. I took AP classes in high school and honors courses at a state college. Depression and anxiety derailed my college career, and I've been stuck in a series of no-future jobs since. I can literally feel my brain atrophying. I finally have the anxiety and depression under control (I think) and I want to go back to school. I recently turned 30 and I'm pretty much at a loss on where to start. Part of me is still defeatist and says it's too late. Tell me I'm wrong!

I think I'd like to become a professor, but other career options are definitely not ruled out. My interests are: history, journalism, and photography. Where do I go from here? Should I go back to school? How does one do that when they can barely pay all their bills as it is?
posted by keswick to Work & Money (41 answers total) 2 users marked this as a favorite
 
Go to the college library and ask the reference library where the financial aid section is, and if they have any books about financial aid for adults. While I can't remember the name of the book, I remember shelving a book that was specifically for adults over the age of 25 or so, and contained nothing but scholarship after scholarship. Other than that, perhaps go talk to the financial aid office of the college you want to attend, and ask them for help.
posted by stoneegg21 at 2:07 PM on August 16, 2004


Schools tend to like older students, or at least they did back when I was in school. So look into scholorships!

Also, this won't help you if you want to be a prof (because you will probably need at least a master's degree for that), but if you find something else you want to do, there are a zillion ways to educate yourself nowadays besides a four-year college program. There are night schools, correspondence courses, web courses, etc.

I don't think it's ever ever EVER too late! By the way, I teach for a living, and the majority of my students are over 30.
posted by grumblebee at 2:08 PM on August 16, 2004


Sounds an awful lot like a friend of mine who has some very similar experiences. Went to college at a young age, had some problems with performance and depression, dropped out, has tried going to college a few times since, some times with more success, sometimes with less. He's been back in school and doing exceptionally well for a few years now, should finish in 2 semesters.

Paying for it: there are lots and lots of scholarships and financial aid. Student loans are exceptionally low interest and you don't pay anything on them while you're in school. My student loans are less than 4% interest. There are forms of student aid that you may qualify for that are free no-strings-attached money. He lives very very cheaply and is currently not working. It's not for everybody but it's possible.

It's not too late. The school I went to was filled with people in their 30's to their 50's. I encountered lots of them in electrical engineering, physics, computer science, math, etc, but these are just the kinds of courses I was taking, they're probably all over history, journalism, photography, etc. Most of them were excellent students -- most 18 year olds are not really ready in my opinion. I would have benefitted from waiting a year or two myself I think.
posted by RustyBrooks at 2:10 PM on August 16, 2004


By the way, I don't know where you live or if you have any options to move around, but I recommend going to school in a big city.

I went to a tiny school when I was older than most of the other students, and it was a social nightmare. Some people might be able to deal with it (or even enjoy it), but I didn't enjoy being the only 30-year-old around a bunch of 20-year-olds. Nothing against them, but they were dealing with being away from their parents for the first time, experimenting with drugs, etc. I had already dealt with all of that stuff years before, and didn't feel like replaying it.

I was in a VERY small college town, and there was NO other social life. In retrospect, I wish I had studied in NYC or London or somewhere like that.
posted by grumblebee at 2:12 PM on August 16, 2004


Caveat: There is not a four-year university where I live now. It's about 60 or so miles away. Our public library is open about 20 hours a week and isn't known for having new materials. There is, however, a community college.

I've resigned myself to finishing my education in California due to the expense of out-of-state tuition, but I'm leaning towards escaping the state once I get my degree. It's getting too crowded and too expensive, though I love the land and the weather.
posted by keswick at 2:13 PM on August 16, 2004


Trapped? Staying in California is the trap you set yourself in. Go to school abroad as it may open your horizons about yourself. Look into your University's abroad program.
posted by thomcatspike at 2:26 PM on August 16, 2004


By way of encouragement, I'm in a Ph.D. program in English, and a good number of the students are older -- in their 30s, for sure. One of the older grad students is actually in his 50s; after working his entire life as a farmer and carpenter, he wrote a book on Milton and went to grad school. My program is fully funded, so, while you're not rich, you do have enough income to pay the bills. Going back to college and, eventually, grad school is definitely possible!
posted by josh at 2:32 PM on August 16, 2004


Also, consider getting a job at a school that will pay for your college.

I'm 33 an I'm getting degree #2. All of my "peers" are in their 20s, but I love it, because they seem to warm up to me and the ladies are so adorable.

Anything you can conceive you can acheive.
posted by pissfactory at 2:53 PM on August 16, 2004


Well the good news about being 30 and not filthy rich is you should have no problem receiving a good financial aid package from many universities. University financial aid offices can tell you what you need to know.

I wouldn't worry about your age either.
posted by Krrrlson at 2:56 PM on August 16, 2004


If you do want to become a professor, know what you're getting into. I suggest reading the archives at Invisible Adjunct.
posted by kenko at 2:56 PM on August 16, 2004


Anything you can conceive you can acheive.

Nothing is impossible. Not if you can imagine it. That's what being is a scientist is all about.
posted by Pretty_Generic at 2:58 PM on August 16, 2004


Welcome to Zombo.com. You can do anything at Zombo.Com. Anything at all. The only limit is yourself. Welcome to Zombo.com. The unattainable is unknown at Zombo.com.
posted by Kwantsar at 3:11 PM on August 16, 2004


Furthermore, if you're the kind of "bright" that can take standardized tests, there are plenty of schools that will give you a good scholarship on those scores alone.
posted by trharlan at 3:24 PM on August 16, 2004


Nothing is impossible. Not if you can imagine it. That's what being is a scientist is all about.

If you're thinking of becoming a professor in a science discipline I would advise you to read up on some philosophy of science rather than rely on this thread.

Now for my heart warming story of academic endeavour. I too made something of a hash of my first degree, being, shall we say 'overly social', and ending up with something less than a third (that's very bad for those not familiar with UK higher education), but managed to worm my way on to a masters degree course by dint of applying very late, not mentioning how poor my degree was and being willing to pay my own way for the part-time course. I used the MSc as a springboard to get myself on to a funded PhD and now have a research job at a highly rated UK uni.

If you do decide to aim for professorship pick something you are really interested in as the focus of your work, just doing something for the sake of it will make it a miracle if you get through your PhD. Check up on what it really involves as kenko advises. You also should look into studying a PhD other than in the US, some places have much lower demands. For example, A PhD in the UK will take 3-4 years, whereas I am given to understand one in the US will take 6 or so.
And remember, be nice to people and they'll be nice to you.
posted by biffa at 3:39 PM on August 16, 2004


keswick -- it is NEVER NEVER NEVER too late to begin school! And believe me -- 30 years old is, nowadays, probably smack-dab-in-the-middle of the average college class, age-wise.

I don't have anything more specific for you -- only to tell you to DO IT. Slowly, at whatever pace you can (or can afford to) -- even one class at a time -- but do it.

Best wishes.
posted by davidmsc at 3:50 PM on August 16, 2004


Here's another "Just Do It" vote. I'm 22 and restarting school this fall for the first time in 2.5 years. My boyfriend is 32 and graduates this May.

If we can do it, anyone can do it.

(As far as affording it goes, I'm working full time and taking night classes. God Bless cheap community colleges.)

Good Luck.
posted by amandaudoff at 3:57 PM on August 16, 2004


Don't let the money hold you back. Your will has ways - every will has a way.
posted by thomcatspike at 3:59 PM on August 16, 2004


Get your bachelor's degree - at this point it doesn't much matter where, since your life and work experience will be your selling point for future endeavors. Try some practice standardized tests - LSAT, GRE, GMAT, etc., to see if anything clicks. For example, I know a lot of people who did completely random things for a long time and then found their niche in law school.
posted by PrinceValium at 4:42 PM on August 16, 2004


I've been there keswick, I've lived this scenario. You really can start again, I was working crappy jobs and didn't know where to start. I ended up joining the military, to 1) serve my country, 2) get some discipline and 3) get college money. Am I saying join up..no, it was something I wanted to do for years, and worked out for me, but it's not for everyone. Now, with my second objective achieved, I'm about to finish my first degree in Information Studies at 33. I've been doing a full time schedule for the past four semesters (6 classes one semester), making a decent living, getting good skills under my belt, living a healthy lifestyle, positioning myself for an officer position, or a good job if I decide to get out.
Like davidmsc said, take just one class at a community college or something..get your feet wet and get the ball rolling from there. Good luck!
posted by tetsuo at 5:23 PM on August 16, 2004


I went to school at night and worked all day--just don't take too many classes each semester, and take advantage of all the grants and scholarships for working/adult students--many schools have them now. Go state or city college too, or find a job where they'll pay at least some tuition. I'd major in English or History or something general for journalism/teaching--you can refine your choice later. And you can take a photography class each semester too. : >
posted by amberglow at 5:31 PM on August 16, 2004


I went to grad school when i was 30, and loved every minute of it! I would be a student forever if I could.

Maybe a way to afford it would be to get a part-time/full time job at a university that offers tuition waivers for employees? That's how I got my MSW - free thru the U I worked for!
posted by tristeza at 5:45 PM on August 16, 2004


Get a job at a college. One of my minions at Harvard has gone from McDonalds Assistant Manager/Community College Drop-Out to Harvard College Dean's list, all for wicked cheap. Sure, his degree will have the word "Extension School" on it, but I expect most folks will be blinded by the VERITAS to care.

That said, also consider tetsuo's point. When I was getting my MLS, I was a youngster in many of my classes at 25. Also, librarians have the added advantage of getting further degrees from the schools they work for, so even in your 30s, your Trail O' Learn'n need only just begun.
posted by robocop is bleeding at 6:05 PM on August 16, 2004


I've been there, exactly there. The trick is to take it one step at a time, the first being to get your brain turning again. Go down to Shasta College tomorrow, and get a counselor to help you pick out a class or two. Registration at California CCs is insanely simple and unless you're very solidly in the middle class you'll qualify for a BOGG (free tuition). So your only cost is books and maybe a parking permit. El cheapo. Don't worry about planning your whole future off of this first semester, just find something that interests you and can help you mentally re-engage. Once you're doing something again that challenges and stimulates you intellectually, you'll be in a better position to decide what to do next with that renewed creative energy. And you've already gotten a ton of useful suggestions for that next step.

Oh, and "...under control (I think)" sounds an awful lot like "...it's poised to take control over my life again at any time". If there's any doubt, make sure that's properly treated so that another bout of anxiety or depression isn't going to be able to sabotage your new life.
posted by nakedcodemonkey at 6:30 PM on August 16, 2004


Hey keswick - for whatever it's worth, I'm in exactly the same boat as you. My attitude about it is a little more optimistic, perhaps. Now that I'm through with the self-doubt of adolescence, the cloistering unreality of college, and I've proven to myself that I can make enough money to get by in the world, I'm starting to wonder what in the world I have to fear. I really feel that life has opened up to me. Guys in our position can really do anything in the world they want to. I agree that "anything" and "wide open" can be daunting. I don't really know what I want to do either. I don't have much advice for you, except to choose a big challenge, and learn how to work the financial aid circuit (there is a lot of money out there) but if you want to grab a beer and kvetch about it the next time you're in the Bay Area - look me up.
posted by scarabic at 6:33 PM on August 16, 2004


The good news: Almost anything is still possible.

The bad news: in my experience (myself and the dozens of grad students I have known) many people who suffer from anxiety and depression seem much happier in 'real' life than they do in grad school. YMMV tremendously, of course, but before devoting yourself to it, please talk to a lot of people and be honest with yourself about how you would deal with the isolation, low pay, minion status, years of thankless toil, competition, and often grim job prospects.

Of course, what I've said applies primarily to Ph.D's, rather than terminal master's / professional programs.

Good luck!
posted by stonerose at 6:36 PM on August 16, 2004


I went to a local college and got work in a bank. I was being 'groomed' for management, but emotionally I was in your same spot - every day I went to work, and I felt as if it was sucking my will to live.

So I quit and went back to school. Six years later, I am in the thesis stage of my MA in Sociology, and I love it. People will try to scare you away from Academics, but if you find something you love, I think it will work out in the end. I have no ambition of being a "super star" professor - all I want is steady work in a quiet town where I can teach and research in peace. Trust me, you don't have to play the "game" if you don't want to, as there are lots of smaller colleges and universities with positions (and stats show that more and more will be opening up as well - at least here in Canada)

I am so happy (yet terrified at the same time - I am just starting my own research) but I have not ONCE regretted quiting my 'career.' I think that is the strongest endorsement I could make. Not once have I thought "gee, I wish I was wearing a suit in a shitty office in the armpit of Southern Alberta selling stupid people mutual funds (*shudder*). What do you have to lose? DO IT.
posted by Quartermass at 6:51 PM on August 16, 2004


Seeing as y'all have the practical aspects well in hand, I just want to add my voice as encouragement.

It is not too late. Not at all. Graduate students run the gamut age-wise, and when I was last at university (large state school, teaching in the English department) there were undergrads in their 50s -- not many, but they were some of the better students. I knew, studied with, taught, and socialized with people who couldn't vote yet and people three times as old. It was fantastic, and one of the things that made it fantastic was the variation.

Do it, do it, do it. You will make the classroom better. You will make your life better. Go slow, but do it.
posted by amery at 7:12 PM on August 16, 2004


A lot of stuff about school is actually much easier with a little maturity under your belt. 3 or 4 hours of class a week and 4 or 6 hours of reading to keep on top of things seem like nothing when you're used to working 8 hours a day. You already have known the angst of young crushes and futile romances, and are past letting them rock your world so that you get nothing done. You're already used to navigating through administrative systems without parents to guide you and are not afraid to ask questions (I hope) or just keep plodding along. You're also not afraid to talk to professors (I hope) since they're much more like peers than intimidating adults to you. For all these reasons, you will probably find going back to school to be a lot less a nightmare than you remember it to be. You'll probably do much better with a lot less effort, most older students do. It's a great and worthwhile thing to do for your future, and you'll feel really good about doing something for yourself. Go for it!
posted by dness2 at 7:50 PM on August 16, 2004


Re: biffa's suggestion to investigate UK PhD programmes, while it is true that getting a doctorate takes less time in the UK, the academic demands are certainly not lower than they are in the US. Three aspects are different:

1. You are expected to ARRIVE at your university with a workable topic and plan to finish in 3 years. There is no such thing as casting about for 2 years, just getting to grips with your field. You hit the ground running.

2. You won't be likely to be expected to teach (although you can if you want to do so).

3. You aren't expected to publish papers DURING your doctoral work-- all attention is concentrated on finishing in three years. So when you do complete, your CV will reflect this. Many people take time at the end to write papers, but only after they've submitted.

In a nutshell, those are the main differences. E-mail me if you have more questions about this; I'm finishing my doctorate now.
posted by yellowcandy at 9:25 PM on August 16, 2004


IMO: You need to make a definite decision NOW on what exactly you will do as a career. Quit being so wishy-washy and grow yourself a backbone and then do it.

How many hours do you waste on television each week?
posted by mischief at 9:40 PM on August 16, 2004


Okay, while that was a little harsh, there is a gem to be mined from it:

You need to make a definite decision

To paraphrase, you must be willing to let several good options go by the wayside in order to follow the one thing you decide to choose in the end. The source of indecision, for me, is usually a plethora of attractive options, out of which selecting only one seems a vast destruction of possibilities. That's a nice trap. Of course, if you never even choose that one, you'll never develop any of them to fruition.
posted by scarabic at 12:04 AM on August 17, 2004


By all means, go back to school. Contra some others, I do NOT think you should make a definite decision about the long term now, except for the immediate future (i.e. deciding to go back to school). How could you? You don't know anything about what you might end up doing from the choices you listed. Most schools don't require you to pick a major immediately. I think if you do go back to school, future decisions will follow from that. In the end, you will need to discard many options. You (imo) do NOT need to discard all of them now.

I suggest you try the undergrad degree first, and then think again about grad school after the third year, talking to your professors/TAs. To be a professor (except perhaps at some junior/community colleges), you'll need a phd, and most phd programs are 4-7 years depending on field. This means you wouldn't be out of the system for another 7-11 years depending on your speed. (Most masters seem to be 1-2yrs) Phd programs are also typically extremely intense, and are something many people enter without realizing what they're entering. Then, they finish, and discover there aren't that many academic jobs with any kind of permanency. Actually, you'll discover it around your second year or so, from the demoralizing experience of watching (really smart) colleagues graduate and float around post-docs and visiting-assistant professor positions while about 2 tenure-track positions open up each year at best, in the entire US (the story is somewhat different outside the US, and probably not better). I speak for smaller fields; your mileage may vary in engineering/cmpsci type fields. If you are willing to take teaching-only positions (i.e. 4-6 classes a year at the beginning) your options are also slightly better, but don't expect to have a research career again.

I don't mean this to sound as bitter as it came out - I just suggest that you don't fixate yourself upon staying in academia in the long-term without more direct exposure to its inner workings. Young undergrads (and the general public), I think, are completely isolated from this and have a rather idealized picture. I know quite a few people who thought from their first or second year on as an undergrad that a phd program was for them, and left their phd program of choice after about the 2nd year of that. Then, because they made an uninformed long-term decision 4 years ago, and now don't keep to that decision, they think they are failures (they aren't).

Also, as someone else said (I think), grad school is not a place that helps people with a tendency towards depression.

That said, many grad students are returning students, and older students with more life experience probably have an advantage. Namely, they are motivated - you will need to work, and many people fresh out of their undergrad degree don't understand this.
posted by advil at 1:50 AM on August 17, 2004


Try and get antidepressants. They're great.
posted by Pretty_Generic at 2:52 AM on August 17, 2004


Re: biffa's suggestion to investigate UK PhD programmes, while it is true that getting a doctorate takes less time in the UK, the academic demands are certainly not lower than they are in the US

Perish the thought.
posted by biffa at 3:54 AM on August 17, 2004


School is easier when you're older. That's my experience, anyway. (Perhaps I just took about 26 years to grow up enough to go to university.)

Another "go for it" vote.
posted by dayvin at 6:54 AM on August 17, 2004


Echoing what nakedcodemonkey said, my friends and family have reported that California community colleges and university extension schools are great--at least in the bigger urban areas. It is not at all uncommon to do two years at CC and then transfer to one of the UCs--meaning that you can ease yourself into one of the best universities in the world while taking free (or almost free) night classes. You will also have the option--which probably wouldn't be available at a liberal arts college--of taking practical/job-related classes alongside Shakespeare's Histories and Tragedies. Which might not hurt, if you hate work right now.

And I definitely reccomend checking out the library and bookstore. There are some great colleges that have older student bodies--Evergreen occurs to me, but it might not be your style--but are still very smart/intellectual/academic places.
posted by armchairsocialist at 7:29 AM on August 17, 2004


First off, I recommend going into debt and going back to school. Work at the school. Small paying jobs at schools are usually easy to find once you are enrolled. The important thing is to get in - even if it means taking a loan.

Jobs as professors teaching English, History, or Photography can be difficult to find. Use school as a way of figuring out another, backup profession. There are tons of careers you don't even know about. As a financial copy writer you could make $200,000.00 a year. If you focused on this niche during school, you would be a shoe in.

Make sure the jobs you take at school will fit into a resume. That way you are building experience as you learn. No one need know that you were only paid $10.00 an hour at the such and such Center for such and such.

Develop a story for yourself that you can actually see achieving. As you go through your education, this story will inevitably change. I strongly disagree with the poster who said "don't decide what you want to do - you don't know yet." Rather, decide what you want to do (or give yourself a couple potential options) and be open to changing those stories as you go along. They will change all the time.

Work hard. Going back to school at thirty is a blessing, because you are going to be sooo much more interested in what's being taught in all the right ways. Go to career counseling sessions every week (they're free). Actually, go to a couple of these at a nearby school BEFORE you go to school.

You need to put some specificity behind your goals, other than "English". Ask your counselors to explain what copy-writers or journalists make. Where would you like to be working? Don't feel you need to make a set decision for life - don't take it to seriously - come up with a couple options you wouldn't mind.

With luck, soon after leaving school, you will pay back your debts and save more than you could in a hundred years at your dead end jobs. The move you are making is not the passionate, idealistic thing to do - it's the SMART move.

Finally, you are not old, especially for school these days. Enjoy your education.
posted by xammerboy at 8:22 AM on August 17, 2004


Thanks for the advice and encouragement, everyone. I'm just a little overwhelmed on where to begin. I guess I'll start with the FAFSA and go from there... I don't even really have a nestegg for moving expenses and such, and I'm feeling pretty overwhelmed.

oh, and mischief? none. i don't have a television. :P
posted by keswick at 9:23 AM on August 17, 2004


keswick - I let my brain atrophy go on until I was a bit older than you are. Fate pulled me out of my situation but, in retrospect, I'd say this :

Brain atrophy is a real thing, and most behaviors known to combat more advanced forms of age related metal decline (such as Alzheimer's) are beneficial at all stages of life in stimulating the release of brain growth hormones, improving circulation, mitigating depression, and improving overall brain function. Key elements are social interaction, travel, exercise, nutrition, and most importantly, perhaps - learning of all sorts.

Here's a thought - some holistic retreat centers, which tend to have a heavy emphasis on shorter term seminars that often teach a wide array of subjects, will give you room and board for work - a deal?..... Well, in some cases very much so - it sounds to me as if you need to just walk out of your current life, for a while at least, into a new environment which is life affirming, highly social, and which could give you some breathing room to consider your options. A lot of these sort of places are set in beautiful locations and frequented (and staffed) by highly intelligent, curious, unorthodox types who are overall a joy (and a challenge) to be around. Just a thought.

There are many types of volunteer position, I'd say, which you might be able to find that could help you to break out of your current stagnation : money needn't get in your way.

My point is this : if you just feel too overwhelmed to find your way through the process of selecting and applying to a school, let alone moving and so on, try a different approach - leave the issue of school aside for a bit and first concentrate on removing those negative environmental, physical and psychological influences which are consuming your energies. I'm suggesting that, also, as someone who has been through similar transitions and has a long history of depression - because I truly believe that there are easy temporary remedies to your immediate problems of "environmental negativity" which are hobbling your ability to come to grips with the longer term changes which you feel you need to make.

Good luck with the transition. You'll make it.
posted by troutfishing at 11:23 PM on August 17, 2004


Here's a more concrete expression of my suggestion :

Google search : volunteer positions

You always have options. Remember that.
posted by troutfishing at 11:28 PM on August 17, 2004


Another thought : At 10, 20, 30, 40, 60, and 90 everybody is old and washed up and all efforts are useless.

Or : reverse that statement, substituting "Fine ages to begin new life projects and learn new things."

Point being - your negativity is a somewhat arbitrarily assumed attitude and - even it is somewhat tied to your life experience - don't let that get in your way. Change it! That can be hard or very simple, but change it you must - if you want to change your life.

Why not look into the rather extensive literature which has been done on research into the actual process of life change itself, of how people actually do it?

Here's a book list which has some stuff on that subject
posted by troutfishing at 7:39 AM on August 18, 2004


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