Therapist? Professor? Something else? Help me figure out a career/life-direction dilemma.
September 17, 2008 6:45 PM   Subscribe

Therapist? Professor? Something else? Help me figure out a career/life-direction dilemma. Dear MeFites: You are wise. Please help me think through a tangle of career thoughts.

I'm a 29-y.o. woman living in a large city in the U.S.

I currently work as a freelance writer/online project manager, and teach one section of freshman comp as an adjunct at a small college. I quit a F/T job in new media in February because I was burnt out and no longer believed in the bosses. I learned that I had a knack for people-management, yet multi-tasking on-screen all day made me feel permanently stressed out.

Before that job, I interned at a handful of small magazines and a weekly newspaper.

I have an undergraduate degree in English lit. I really enjoyed college. I went to a small school where scholarship was highly valued; I relished being part of a community whose values I could get behind. I felt completely bereft upon graduation, so I decided to apply to PhD programs in English.

I matriculated into a good one in a rather remote small town. I got there and almost immediately fell into a deep depression (it runs in my family, it's my bete noir, and it often accompanies transitions for me). I got help and went on to have two pretty good years, but I immediately noticed that grad school was not much like college; it did not feel like a community. I envied my friends in cities, decided that scholarship was disappointing, and eventually withdrew from the program.

My second year at grad school, I taught two semesters of freshman comp. At the time, I didn't like the feeling of forcing people to do things they didn't want to be doing (writing papers, mostly), but I also experienced the teaching 'high' and enjoyed connecting with some of my students.

Temperamentally, I always excelled in school, and I love to read, though I also have a hard time sitting still, and given the choice, would often prefer a conversation with a friend. All my life, I've been interested in creating things: paintings, drawings, photography, poems, short stories, novels, a journal, term papers, theses. When I was 12, I decided that I wanted to be a writer; that dream has stuck with me.

My Myers-Briggs score varies some, but I'm a hardcore NF type. Usually I come up INFJ or INFP. I'm primarily interested in people: social history, social anthropology, psychology, the human condition. I consider myself an intellectual but definitely also a feeler, which not all intellectuals are.

I've had a bit of a hard time with depression and anxiety, nothing too dramatic, but I think and talk a lot about moods and feelings. As a child, I felt lonely a lot of the time. I think that most of my interests and passions revolve around communication with other people—through art, ritual, the written word, verbally, etc. Maybe I'm looking for ways to feel connected and to help other people feel connected too.

So here's the deal. I'm here, I'm 29, I'm single, I'm doing a lot of odd jobs and sort of making ends meet, but I want more. I want a career identity, and I want to feel like I'm on a path to something. I also probably need to be making more money, at least eventually.

I'm thinking seriously about returning to grad school. I have a project that would make a good PhD, probably not in English but in a related subject. I've told a handful of people close to me that I intend to apply for PhD programs this winter, and start in 2009 if I am admitted.

But! I have these afternoons blocked off to research what programs I'd like to apply to, and I find myself almost debilitated by anxiety during them. I am scared of a feeling of hostility from advisors or fellow students, scared of loneliness and isolation, committing myself to a long career path and lousy job prospects, scared that school wouldn't make me happy or fulfilled. On the other hand, I want to make something of myself. I want to be goaded into producing good stuff. It's appealing to have a path marked out for me. I think it would be cool to be a Dr. (and many of my relatives are PhDs). And I tell myself it would be different this time. I'd no longer move someplace I don't want to live. I've realized that I do like to teach. Being a professor is a path to writing, and writing books. I could try harder to create a caring community for myself within my institution. Doing a PhD might allow me to balance connectedness (to a school and department) with independence, in the way that I like.

But alternatives flicker across my screen. I had an amazing therapist when I was in graduate school, whom I worked intensely with. I loved our time together, and I fantasize a lot about becoming a therapist. I also think about pursuing writing other ways—should I go to journalism school? Or just sit down and start to write a book? MFA programs strike me as really expensive and probably full of trust-fund kids who are a lot younger than I am now; I'd be afraid of emerging two years later, essentially in the same place where I am now, but saddled with debt. However, I'd be happy to hear from people whose opinions differ.

I'd also be interested to hear from people who have done, or started, PhDs in the humanities or social sciences—academia is such a weird little cult sometimes, I think it's hard for people who don't know it to evaluate it as a choice.

I feel scared of picking something, but even more scared of not picking, and never settling down into anything. I want to find a way to be a grown-up in the world.

I feel so close to narrowing this down, yet also so much all over the map still.

Any insights would be appreciated. Thank you.
posted by anonymous to Work & Money (9 answers total) 16 users marked this as a favorite
Okay, I'll start, with a couple of comments. Regarding I loved our time together, and I fantasize a lot about becoming a therapist, this strikes me as being along the lines of I love going to comedy shows, and I fantasize about being a comedian, or I love going to concerts, and I fantasize about becoming a classical musician. As for the PhD in English or the humanities, it sounds like you think that getting PhD = employment as a PhD in academia. And that absolutely isn't true - there are huge numbers of people with PhDs in the humanities who have been unable to get a tenure track position, and end up - at best - as part-time instructors, or doing something else. And no matter what you do, before you enroll in a PhD program, talk to the department about (a) what percentage of admitted PhD students actually get their PhDs; (b) the average time to a PhD; and (c) what those with PhDs given in (say) the last five years are actually doing.

And regarding should I go to journalism school?, newspapers these days are laying off people, and I suspect that journalism graduates are having a tough time. Again, you can ask the pointed questions about how recent grads in any given program are faring, and if the institution doesn't know, take it as a sign that the actual numbers may well indicate a problem. Or pretend you're a journalist, and find out what you can by researching the issue.
posted by WestCoaster at 7:51 PM on September 17, 2008

Academic here, with PhD in English. I love my job, but there are many costs you should consider, and I would be very wary of making an emotional choice at this stage. You need to sit down and consider what you'll have to do to actually become a professor.

First, placement statistics are pretty dismal - the usual number bandied about is that only 40% of people who graduate in MLA fields and go on the market that year get a tenure-track job. This number is a bit skewed by graduates from previous years, so there are more jobs than the figure would suggest, but there is also more competition. The latest MLA report suggests several other things: that the average time to complete a PhD is approaching 8 years, and that "the career path to becoming a professor of literature and language in higher education can be expected to include a significant postdoctoral period of non-tenure-track teaching."

So you need to ask yourself:
- are you willing to potentially spend 8 years getting a PhD?
- are you willing to potentially spend several more years after that cobbling together a part-time or visiting load, possibly with no benefits?
- are you willing to accept the possibility that you might *never* get on the tenure track?

Another thing you need to consider: in order to be one of those 40%, chances are *very* high you'll have to move somewhere you don't want to. Unless you're in a very desirable field, there just won't be that much choice. If you want a sense of how it feels to be on the market and then on the tenure track, go to the Chronicle of Higher Education forums and read what's going on there. It's very enlightening.

Once you do get a tenure-track job, in pretty much any field, you're looking at another 5-6 years of scary vulnerability in which you struggle to prove yourself in your department. We all have this magical idea that we'll get a position and it will all be worth it. But being on the tenure track is the start of another race. It can be lonely and isolating. It most definitely is anxiety producing, even for the best of scholars and teachers. Except for the salary and the respect, it can feel like grad school all over again a lot of the time. And "publish or perish" can mean you'll have to pass up many projects you actually want to do in favor of ones you can get out the door fast enough to get tenure.

I say this not to tell you to give up on the idea of "being a professor." There are times when being a professor is great. But it requires sacrifice, discipline, and sometimes sheer bloody-minded determination to get there. I watched 50% of my cohorts in grad school drop out before the dissertation was complete, and then watched another 25% go on the market several times without success. And when you get there, you're still you.. being a professor doesn't change that. It won't make you happier, or smarter, or a better person. That's something you have to work out on your own.
posted by media_itoku at 8:02 PM on September 17, 2008 [5 favorites]

I don't have time to elaborate here, but don't do the Ph.D. route. You sound eerily, uncannily identical to me, but I'm already doing a humanities doctorate. It's not what you're looking for, I guarantee it -- I only know this because I could have written your post several years ago, and now I'm here, and no. Just don't. Email me if you'd like to talk to someone who has been there, is doing that, and knows it's not the answer you think it is.

That doesn't help you find the answer itself, but just keep looking. Do an internship somewhere, volunteer at a bunch of places, follow your passion, but every single one of your ideas about what grad school might be like, or might help with, or might answer is basically antithetical to the process of doing a humanities doctorate these days.
posted by barnone at 8:13 PM on September 17, 2008 [1 favorite]

A key question here -- how are you with long-term projects? You strike me as quite a P (J's generally love to make decisions and would probably not have quit without knowing what was next) but you say you're borderline P/J. To me, that's one key difference between being a journalist (fast, short-term projects, externally-imposed deadlines -- great for Ps) and being an academic (slow, long-term projects, internally-imposed deadlines -- terrible for procrastinators, great for people who are very structured).

Another key question to me is the degree of people contact. You say you: relished being part of a community, had a knack for people-management, enjoyed connecting with some of [your] students, have a hard time sitting still, given the choice, would often prefer a conversation with a friend, [and] are scared of loneliness and isolation. This is another reason I'd lean against academia for you, because it really can be isolating. I think academia is most of all for people who love time alone with their books. As a journalists or therapist, those skills and interests would come in handy.

It also sounds like (like most of us) you're a bit concerned about "achievement" and status, and you're a bit afraid of failure. These are neither good nor bad, they're just part of how you seem to be analyzing your options, so I'd recommend that you either deliberately work to overcome them, or you deliberately do something that works for those desires. Here's where I'm getting the "status" thing: "I want to make something of myself... I think it would be cool to be a Dr. (and many of my relatives are PhDs)." Assuming I'm not off-base here, you can either accept this and then seek out a job with a clear status (therapist would work), or you can challenge your assumptions here and do something that isn't something that other people automatically give respect to. My "fear of failure" guess is coming from these phrases: debilitated by anxiety, appealing to have a path marked out for me. Again, I think everybody has it to one degree or another, and it seems to be a factor here for you. So again, I'd either try to set aside that fear, maybe working with your therapist, or I'd do something where you won't have to deal with it, like go through a well-marked path toward becoming a therapist.

In summary:

If you're a P like I think you are --
Good jobs: therapist, journalist
Bad jobs: academic researcher, trying to become a writer (eg, MFA)

To take advantage of your skill & desire to connect with people --
Good jobs: therapist, journalist
Bad jobs: academic researcher, trying to become a writer

To fulfill your desire for official status --
Good jobs: therapist, academic researcher
Bad jobs: trying to become a writer
(Journalist could go either way here.)

To minimize the fear of failure --
Good jobs: therapist
Bad jobs: journalist, trying to become a writer
(Academic could go either way here, depending on how you define success.)

(You also remind me a lot of myself -- I'd love to MefiMail sometime.)
posted by salvia at 8:16 PM on September 17, 2008 [6 favorites]

I remember reading (I think in U.S. News and World Reports, about 5 years ago) that the only language-and-literature-type Ph.D grads whose job prospects were at all bright were those coming out of rhetoric and composition programs. If you think you could enjoy working in corporate communications or something similar, that might be a good area for you to explore.

Another thing to think about, if you really want to be a professor, is law school. I did law school, and hated it, so this is not a suggestion I'm making lightly. But the facts are these:

To teach law school, you do not need a Ph.D., though some law profs have them. You just need to graduate from a top-tier law school in the top 10% of your class (or higher), and you need to have been on law review, ideally as an editor. That process takes 3 years, not 8. Law profs are in higher demand than English profs, and are much better paid. Additionally, there are a lot of interesting things you can do in legal academia-- fields like law & society, law & literature, legal anthropology, critical race theory, and jurisprudence can be quite fascinating. On the flip side, law school is gruelling, competitive, and it would most likely do your depression no favors.

If you want to investigate this option a little further, you might consider auditing a law school class, or taking one as a nonmatriculated student. (That's possible, especially at state schools, albeit rarely done. Though if you do take a class for credit, for the love of Pete take it pass-fail.) A lot of people find law school classes miserable and boring, but there are others for whom Socratic method classes and reasoning by analogy are pure, sweet crack-- and who knows? You may be one of them!
posted by palmcorder_yajna at 8:36 PM on September 17, 2008

To be honest, the way you describe your temperament (you get down when you're lonely, feel lively when connecting with people etc) sounds like high odds of getting into a PhD program and never finishing. Humanities PhD work is terribly isolating. To get through you need to be really focused and steely and mercenary about churning through the narrow, specialized research; it's the opposite of that intellectual breadth you loved in college.

And when you get done, would you be content with basically the same adjunct work you're getting now? In order to choose your location (and location is tremendously, world-makingly important - you've already seen this in your master's), you may be stuck taking what you can get. And that might be teaching 3+ courses a semester for low pay with no benefits. In many cities this will barely be enough money to scrape by unless you marry someone who can help.

If you love, really really love, teaching, this might be ok. Part-time work can be good because it gives free time for staying home with kids, or pursuing your own projects if you are the kind of person who realistically will use that time well. Be honest with yourself about how much you like teaching.

But if you like teaching and are open to doing other things too, I would say you should think creatively about what kinds of jobs are open to you now given your skill set. The job situation of academics is only getting worse (more part-time low-benefit jobs). Don't be sucked in by the thought of how nice it would be to be able to tell people that you're a professor. You can get a job that suits you better and the day-to-day of which will make you happier -- it might not have a convenient name but think about where that ranks in your priorities.

Think about jobs where your lively community skills would help. Maybe a job like your previous one, but less screen time and more face time? Maybe as an arts consultant for school programs? Maybe development (fundraising) work at a university or an arts nonprofit? (I've recently had friends get into that work and they are surprised at how much they love it.)

What do you imagine writing about, when you think of being a writer?
posted by LobsterMitten at 9:06 PM on September 17, 2008

Nice to see the outdated relic of a personality inventory, the Myers-Briggs coming up. From an abstract on the subject:

"Consistent with earlier research and evaluations, there was no support for the view that the MBTI measures truly dichotomous preferences or qualitatively distinct types, instead, the instrument measures four relatively independent dimensions"

The full reference:

So, take your Myers-Briggs with a grain of salt. I once heard it captures only about 20% of "personality." It's probably a bit better than a Cosmo survey though, I'll give it that. I'm still waiting to see what dies harder: the Myers Briggs or the 3.5" floppy. Probably the former.
posted by No New Diamonds Please at 9:24 PM on September 17, 2008

Um, very simple, very short bit of career advice which sorted me out.

If you so something which you are naturally good at and which you enjoy then you will be successful. Figure out what you are good at; ask friends and family, think about your hobbies, your interests, things which friends look to you for. Break it down to key skills, dont be too abstract; come up with a list of simple things. Then think about what you enjoy. (The two probably won't coincide exactly). A job which requires your skills, doing things which you enjoy is one which will be make you happy, fulfilled and should be successful.

Trite stuff, but it changed my life!
posted by BadMiker at 6:40 AM on September 18, 2008 [2 favorites]

Hmmm... you sound a lot like myself, also. My therapist recently told me "This is it! You're in the game!" after I kept complaining I didn't know what to do with my life. (I'm 26, recently left my masters program). I thought I wanted to be a therapist also ( was getting my MSW), but now I'm thinking more like consultant/writer/project manager/PR work. Some combination of working by myself but also alongside other people. Do you think you may be craving a sense of community rather than a career? (Perhaps you'd like both, actually). I feel like the most important thing I can do for my happiness and sense of well being is to foster as much community in my life as possible. Reaching out to people, getting involved with different things, working on projects with other people, cooking big dinners, baby sitting for friends, anything to help break the rut of the daily grind. It really helps with my anxiety/depression, especially when I start feeling really down about myself for leaving grad school and going back to odd jobbing and winging it.

Also, if you're thinking about becoming a therapist for real, I would definitely consider working for awhile in some type of social service agency or group home first, or at least interviewing many different kinds of therapists first. I had NO idea what I was getting into when I started my MSW program. Granted, an MSW is not the only way to go to become a therapist, but like any profession, to become a therapist there are a lot of hoops you have jump through to get to where you want to be. write me if you want the scoop.
posted by Rocket26 at 1:44 PM on September 18, 2008 [3 favorites]

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