Am I insecure in my life-path, or doing something wrong?
October 12, 2009 3:46 PM   Subscribe

Plodding through school and working: am screwing myself over or doing it right? Long and sordid within.

I am 25 years old and in the second half of an English B.A. I dropped out of school for a while due to mental health issues (that are currently maintained by a whole lot of expensive but insurance-covered medications,) went to community college, came back to the university, and I've been getting straight As ever since (it has been two years.) After the B.A., I plan to get a Master's in Public Administration and hopefully do some sort of brain-work for either the government or a non-profit. Specific, right?

I currently work at a small but high-revenue division of a very well known non-profit. Mostly I do detail-oriented administrative stuff (we're a temp agency, so there's lots and lots of paperwork proofing,) but I do de facto HR legal training as well (I know all the ins and outs of the I-9 paperwork, etc.) I'm also the guy in charge of our document imaging program: I find the hardware and test the software, help the DB engineer make databases, research the legality of being able to preserve certain types of data, and so on. I've survived repeated layoffs, and am well regarded in the company. Hell, even I can see what I've done has improved the company (sadly, in no ways related to actual revenue.)

Well, my best friend is currently in a moderately high-level position in the city government. "Get your MPA and come work for me," she says. I know that she can't get me hired on the spot, but she is definitely a very important in. If her career trajectory continues the way it does, I will have a fantastic contact to do something I really want to do -- in fact, it is listening to her telling me what she does at work that made me want to get the M.P.A. in the first place. From her experiences, and meeting her co-workers and so on, the system (at least the part that she is in) is not as obviously crony-ist as one would think it would be, and the program I wish to get my M.P.A. in is in a school linked to mine by the city university system (CUNY, in New York City, if it helps,) so getting in will be a challenge, but a surmountable one.

I just feel like I'm doing something wrong right now. Obviously, relying on one person to hook me up fresh outta school (in three and a half years) is ridiculously near-sighted, but I'm not sure what else I'm supposed to do. I'm getting experience that is tangentially realted to what I want to do (and, at the very least, is office experience. All else I've got to offer is a three-month library internship and years of NYC boutique management.) I keep hearing "network, network, network," but with whom? And for what? I have a job, I'm getting good grades, but I feel like the second I get my M.P.A., I'll be screwed. My mother has inoperable cancer and the chemo might be working, but no one is sure how long she'll be around anymore (she's fine right now, fortunately. Dad's long gone.) There's no life insurance, no iheritance, but the union will drop three years salary on me in case it happens, god forbid. She's a few years into a mortgage on an apartment, and owns a car. That is the extent of my financial safety net. The only other family I have is elderly grandparents. Something keeps scratching at me that I'm making a giant fucking mistake and should've gone into an actual, useful trade. I recently lost my insurance and signed up for medicaid-managed care, but hope to hell nothing goes wrong with that: a few months of having to pay full-price for my medication (without which I am not able to hold down a job, period) will put me underwater.

So, I guess the actual question is this: is there some really basic, important thing I am missing right now? Is that nagging I experience daily an indication that I'm doing something wrong, or just my own insecurity considering my family situation and the fact that the economy is eating itself?
posted by anonymous to Work & Money (3 answers total) 1 user marked this as a favorite
You're freaked about your degree choice, your job choice, your future plans, your family, your health, your money...I think thats fairly normal. Anyone I know with a liberal arts degree, especially in this economy, is experiencing the same things. I'm your age, and I get the fear that I should have done something else, that my experience isn't going to get me to where I want to go.
Something that might help is to make a list of everything you can do, every skill, every program, any field you know about. Think of different ways to describe these items. Keep this list, refer to it. You'll remind yourself what you can do (most people know way more than they give themselves credit for), and its relevant to job search/school applications.
And keep talking to your friend's coworkers, who knows where they'll be once you're done with your MPA. Consider informational meetings with professors at the programs you're interested in. And any decent grad program includes internships, which will give you networking and experience cred. Do you have any spare time for an internship now? Or some sort of independent study project/paper you could relate to your future field?
posted by shinyshiny at 4:14 PM on October 12, 2009 [1 favorite]

[I]s there some really basic, important thing I am missing right now?

Nope, sounds good to me. You're getting an education to do what you want to do and have a contact who demonstrates that there is a future in that field. My only remaining suggestion would be to go to as many conferences (or whatever your field calls them) you can while you are in school. If there is an on-campus organization related to your future degree--the MPA--then join it and attend everything. You said you've met your contact's co-workers. Try to keep in touch with those people, though "how" to do so is the very definition of networking. You might want to get on Linkedin and start building a profile there, especially if there are other people in the Public Admin field who are using it.

Good luck, you can do it!
posted by fireoyster at 4:39 PM on October 12, 2009

I work roughly in your field and I'm here to tell you to relax. No, you will never get rich working in public service, but hell, there are always some sort of jobs in this field. The fact that you're not sure what you want to do at this point is actually sort of a blessing. You have 4 years to figure out what's "hot" and what you enjoy in the field.

I don't have rich parents either - actually contrary to the popular cliche, most people I know in this field are pretty solidly middle class. ie, we have good educations but no trust funds.

My only suggestion is that at some point you will probably want to try to swing it so that you can do some really solid, impressive internships. This probably means quitting or taking time off from your job, so you'll have to save up or take out loans to do that. Which is scary, but will be a good investment in your future earning potential, as long as you choose internships wisely.

Feel free to email me if you'd like.
posted by lunasol at 7:39 PM on October 12, 2009

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