Struggling INFP ISO college major and life advice
April 28, 2010 6:30 PM   Subscribe

I don't know what I'm doing with my life; help me!

I spent two reasonably successful years at a notoriously difficult University and then, during my third year, everything fell apart. I've never been the perfect student. I procrastinate as a result of fear or failure and perfectionism. As a result I have always, to some extent, underperformed. But during my third year, I found every paper nearly impossible to complete at all, much less on time. It was excruciating an humiliating and a lot of other unpleasant things that end with -ing. Even though I have at certain points not lived up to my potential, I've never been the sort of person who doesn't do my work. There was a lot going on at home: my father was ill and my parents were struggling financially. Additionally, I found the pressure of finally having to commit to a major terrifying. So, I took a year off. I did some other things: I studied art which has always been a passion, got a job, tried to stop worrying so much. I'm glad I've taken this time, but I still feel much the same way I did at the end of last year: overwhelmed, struggling to complete simple day to day tasks that shouldn't be hard, and utterly paralyzed by the notion of committing to a field of study that may somehow guide my life in a direction that will make me miserable. I think too much, and realize this is mostly ridiculous. It is, nonetheless, something I have little control over. (I know I should see a therapist, but unfortunately my health care plan doesn't cover that and I can't afford it on my own.)

When I took my leave of absence, I was an Anthropology major and a creative writing minor. I have since decided that Anthropology probably isn't for me, but I'd like to hang onto my writing minor. I need to graduate in the next two years at most, and I don't really have any more time to experiment with classes. I need to settle on something before I start again and stick to it this time. Deep down, I feel resigning myself to Visual Arts is the best option, because it won't be as stressful as a more academic field and creating has always made me happy. It should be simple, shouldn't it? However, I can't help but worry that if I choose Visual Arts, it will hurt my chances of getting into grad school (I've considered art conservation, historic preservation, architecture, photography, creative writing, or archaeology as potential future courses of study) should I want to pursue academia. I fear, more generally, that it will harm my chances of being taken seriously as an intellectual person period. (Yes, I realize this attitude is ridiculous and ill-informed--I also realize a lot of people ARE ridiculous and ill-informed.) Mostly, I want to ensure that I have the option, post undergraduate, to go on and do something that is engaging and exciting (and ideally pays well enough that I don't have to live in a box). Do any of you have any experience with this? Or advice on making important, scary life decisions? Or helpful tactics to push the fear out, and go on living life? Any insights would be appreciated really. Thank you and sorry for the long, rambling, somewhat incoherent post!
posted by faeuboulanger to Education (15 answers total) 27 users marked this as a favorite
In my experience the most important part of college is that you come out learning how to do something. Once you know how to do something well, you can do anything. Visual Arts is the best way to make sure that happens. And the bonus is that it also makes you happy. Being taken seriously as an intellectual is the least of your worries, but something you can take care of on your own time; just read alot of books. But mostly concentrate on getting really good grades. The rest will flow from that.
posted by amethysts at 6:51 PM on April 28, 2010

Best answer: There are two complementary methods for getting what you want out of life.

One is to work like a steam train in pursuit of whatever goal you set yourself. The other, which is often overlooked and regarded with suspicion and scorn, is not to want very much.

If you still don't really know what you'd like your future to be like, I recommend paying serious attention to the second method. Identify and prioritize your needs (I suggest starting with air, water, food, love, shelter and exercise), and pare back your activities until those are truly the only things you're working to support. Once you've done that, I'm tipping that you'll have reduced your internal clutter to the point where what you want to do will become quite clear.
posted by flabdablet at 6:52 PM on April 28, 2010 [57 favorites]

Do I know you? Are you me ... a long time ago? Are you one of the many people I've known since that time.

Look, I don't know the key to happiness. I've been happy, I've been satisfied, I've been depressed and distressed. I think the like flabdablet said it's getting things down to the essentials. Someone might say that as, "get to know yourself," but I won't, in part because it is a lot more than that, it's creating yourself.

What you do in the next two years isn't going to be the end of the process, or even the end of the beginning of the process. Your first job, even your first career, isn't necessarily going to be you last and only, and your happiness is going to depend on more than how you buy food and shelter.

If you like writing, do that! You will probably not make a living of it, few do, but TRY. It is something that can be, is needed, in thousands of other areas. When you do graduate, worry about the job and the bills, and cuss me if you take this advice, but before you graduate, learn something! Learn how to think, analyze, reason and dispute. That's called an education, and college should be more than pre-career training, if it wasn't they would call it 'pre-career training', and those that have used that period are lacking (though they may be richer, but not always).

Relax: Life is what happens when we are busy making other plans.
posted by Some1 at 7:15 PM on April 28, 2010

Best answer: I'm not sure if this is appropriate, but some of what you wrote in the first paragraph sounds like some stuff I've always struggled with. Anyway, I read a huge ADD/ADHD thread here a few weeks back that totally knocked me out. I had no idea what it meant to have it, but have since paid the Dr a visit and, sure enough, I've been suffering from this for 36 years, feeling like a total failure, shifting around, never quite settling, never really understanding why and worst of all not being able to start to even attempt to fix anything. And the difference I'm feeling now, even just from being aware of what it is and how I might start to try to develop workarounds, is really remarkable.

Again, not sure if it fits, but there were a few things there that sounded like a bit of a fit.

As for being paralyzed about your career for fear of making a move that might doom you to misery forever, keep in mind that you aren't locked into anything. Everything you mentioned can be perfectly useful in a pretty wide variety of employment scenarios, often in ways you can't see now but will become obvious when the time is right. I know it's hard, but try to just settle in, stop worrying, and dedicate yourself to whatever makes you feel energized. If you have that, chances are you'll stay passionate and be way more persistent about making it happen.
posted by nevercalm at 7:17 PM on April 28, 2010 [2 favorites]

My best advice on figuring out what you want to do when you get out of college: become an intern. Spending time in the environment you're considering committing to will open your eyes to the realities of it, and help you evaluate it from a place of knowledge and experience rather than conjecture.

If you're savvy with your college system, you may be able to get credits for interning, which would be icing on the cake, and may help you rationalize spending more time off campus.
posted by nadise at 7:24 PM on April 28, 2010

You didn't mention what university you go to but I know that my university offered free mental health services for students. Check out your health center. Mine offered 6 one hour sessions for free.
posted by just.good.enough at 7:44 PM on April 28, 2010 [1 favorite]

I want to ensure that I have the option, post undergraduate, to go on and do something that is engaging and exciting (and ideally pays well enough that I don't have to live in a box).

You will always have the option to completely change your life. Picking a major doesn't lock you into anything, even getting a PhD doesn't lock you into anything. They don't guarantee anything either. If you really wanted to, you could find engaging and exciting work with a high school degree. You can always go back to school.

In reality, it's difficult to completely shut any life doors.

Do any of you have any experience with this? Or advice on making important, scary life decisions? Or helpful tactics to push the fear out, and go on living life?

Just do whatever makes you happy for the time being. If something is too much pressure to deal with, either break it into manageable chunks or ask yourself why you're bothering in the first place, because it probably won't get easier later. In all honesty, even complete irresponsibility in the present might give you additional obstacles to overcome, but you could completely fuck up your life, hit absolute rock bottom, and still come back later. I forgot to add a few more anecdotes to that thread I linked above, but Ann Richards was an alcoholic, recovered, and came back to be the last Democrat governor Texas had. She was much beloved.

With that in mind, realize that you're not even going to have it that bad. Don't stress over picking a major: tons of people pick majors that have nothing to do with their future careers, especially in liberal arts and fine arts. I have a government degree and worked my entire college career in politics just to realize that working in politics stressed me out more than it gave me joy. So I have a degree I don't use. It's fine. I don't regret having got it; college is a good experience and my classes are still valuable to me even though I don't use a lot of the things I learned. My friend got three liberal arts degrees simultaneously -- English, Government, and Psychology -- just to go on to law school and become a lawyer, and she could have gotten into the same law school with just one degree. I have friends that went to law school, worked hard even though they hated it, and can't find a job now. I have friends struggling in medical school just because they don't know what else to do.

Just pick something you enjoy and follow it. It might not bring you joy all the time, and it probably won't always bring you money, but it beats the hell out of being stressed your entire life because you're spending your time doing something you don't enjoy. If I were you, I would go ahead and major in Visual Arts; I can't even see it hurting your prospects in any of the things you listed. It's not like you're looking to become a neurosurgeon. (I will say, though, that if you want to do creative writing, getting a degree in it is a waste of money. Just write and read books about writing and find people to critique your work. Agents don't care if you have an MFA, they care if your story is good. I wonder if it's a similar story with photography, so definitely research that before you invest years and money into a degree.)

You might also find the book A Whole New Mind by Daniel Pink helpful; it's about how there are so many more opportunities for people in unexpected disciplines, for example, businesses wanting to hire people with fine arts degrees to do things other than drawing, writing, singing, whatever their specialty was.
posted by Nattie at 8:03 PM on April 28, 2010 [2 favorites]

You sound like you might be depressed -- 2nding that you should go see your school's student counseling center or student health center or whatever you have.
posted by Jacqueline at 8:27 PM on April 28, 2010

It's a false can always get a second undergrad degree. Yes, it may cost more (more time, some of which may be spent at work).

Does your school offer counseling/therapists?

Also check out the Study Hacks blog if you haven't done so already.

For making scary life decisions, I like to make it not scary before deciding:
1. redefine the question so it's not an either/or choice between sucky options
2. realize that if I'm torn, both options are about equally valid, given the information I have, so I need to either learn more or be okay with picking one randomly

It concerns me that you said your attitudes are ridiculous and ill-informed. Be happy with who you are.

Another idea...switch to a science or engineering (like me) and you'll have higher-paying opportunities (that may be less interesting).

For pushing the fear out, the Litany Against Fear from the Dune novels makes me feel better. But usually the fear is there for a reason.

Basically, I think you might want to get more experience with the kind of work you imagine yourself doing, to check that it's really what you want to do. Seconding getting an internship.

Also, don't go into debt for grad school.
posted by sninctown at 8:41 PM on April 28, 2010

Do you really need to get a degree -- and, if you do, do you really need to get it from this big scary university?

I think many of us have gotten the notion that college is absolutely essential, even if we don't know what we want to do with that education. That's a lot of money (and time) to spend on something that we feel so indecisive about! I mean, if you knew you wanted to go to law school, then of course you would need a Bachelor's degree first. Or if you knew you wanted to be an engineer, you would need a degree in engineering. But if you don't know what you're there for, you can really feel overwhelmed and aimless. So your feelings are definitely normal and understandable!

So I wonder if now just isn't the time for you to be getting a degree. You could work and take night or online classes at the local community college -- an inexpensive way to keep your mind engaged and learn lots of different stuff and figure out what path(s) you want to go down.

Or . . . what about switching to a different school? Some place less competitive and intense. Maybe go part-time? One thing I would really stress, if you do choose to stay in school, is that you should use your time getting this degree to learn a practical skill. Learn something that you can parlay into a job after you graduate. It doesn't need to be your career, but it will be something to pay the bills until you really figure out what you want. You don't want to graduate and have no skills that will land you a job, because then you'll feel even worse than you do now (I am speaking from experience!).

Also . . . please, please understand that the decision of your major is not going to result in your life being happier or more miserable. It is not going to define your life. Your job/career is also not going to define your life. There is no "right" choice of a major (or career) that will magically make life happier or easier or more interesting. So please take the pressure off of this decision and off of yourself!

I know your health plan doesn't cover therapy -- but many colleges with psychology PhD programs or psychiatry departments have clinics that work on a sliding scale. You may be able to pay as little as $10 or $20 a session. I would really suggest looking into this option.
posted by imalaowai at 9:30 PM on April 28, 2010

I fear, more generally, that it will harm my chances of being taken seriously as an intellectual person period.

Why do you want to be taken seriously as an intellectual person? It's one of the lowest-value things to be taken seriously for. You will get far more mileage if people take you seriously as an artist, as a social person, as an attractive person, as a 'smart' person (as opposed to intellectual), as a nice person, or as a good person.

Honestly, though, the highest-value parameter to maximize is happiness. And you already know what can make you happy; making art, majoring in visual art. Study art, and do very well at it, and you can worry about something that will make you money for grad school. Most grad schools (except for technical fields, of course) only care that you have an undergrad and did very well at it. You can always go back for prerequisite courses too.

But if it is actually really important for you to be taken seriously as an intellectual, you can do that through visual art too, as you already seem to know. You can do curatorial studies, criticism, architecture or critical theory; the eggheads in those fields are known for being weighty intellectuals just as much as the anthropologists out there.

I am an INFP too, and I completely wasted my undergrad years studying something I didn't really connect with in an effort to prove myself as a smart person and a non-quitter. Don't be me. You still have two years left, do something you love. You can worry about the practicalities and being taken seriously afterwards.
posted by lemur at 9:31 PM on April 28, 2010

Response by poster: I suppose it's worth noting that I go to The University of Chicago--a school which has virtually no practical fields of study. We are, in essence, a professor factory. Coming into my undergraduate education, I loved this about the university. In fact, it's a lot of why I chose to come here. Now, I'm not so sure. That said, I do not want to transfer. It's an excellent school and I have learned a great deal here; I doubt I could do better elsewhere.

Also, because I am not currently enrolled, I am not eligible to take advantage of the student counseling services...unfortunately.
posted by faeuboulanger at 9:42 PM on April 28, 2010

Best answer: Lots of good advice here. My two cents are this: pursue what you love, and the money will follow. Mirroring what Nattie said - you always have the option to quit any job you take after school. It may be difficult financially and emotionally, but you could walk away from any job and say, go wait tables or wash dishes or something like that. Difficult but not impossible.

Like others, I'll also voice the opinion that your major doesn't lock you in to anything. People lock themselves into things, but the choice to change is always there. When I was a Freshman in college, I studied Literature but had a mini freak out after 1 semester. I worried about finding work and making money, and went to a college advisor and wanted to become a business major. The guy thankfully talked me down (I took just one business course and got a D- in it), and I'm happy to say that I continued to study Lit and pursued an MFA in grad school.

What I'm saying is I had the same fears: that my major would decide a tremendous portion of my future, and set me on unalterable path. I'm telling you that's bullshit, and you can rest a bit easier. College, in my opinion, is about expending your point of view. Sure, you learn some core skills - but it's more about improving your critical thinking, increasing your perspective.

I will disagree with Nattie about the MFA though, just a little. You can go into serious debt for an MFA, and I don't think the degree is worth that. But there are also a ton of programs that will allow you to get an MFA free, more or less. I found getting my MFA to be a fantastic time, and some of the best three years of my life: I was surrounded by writers and people who were serious about writing (and drinking).

There's a reference book in the library published by the AWP (Associated Writing Programs), listing every creative writing MFA and MA degree granting institution in the US. That book will tell you how many years each program offers, along with whether or not each school will waive tuition. Some schools (like the one I attended at Ohio State University) will waive tuition fees and even paid a stipend for graduate students to teach English Composition 101 courses. I essentially worked my way through my MFA degree without spending money for it, and got three years to write and be around others who were passionate about writing.

Fair warning: an MFA degree, post school, gives you zilch. Everyone in the program knew it, but wanted to spend time becoming better writers anyway. It almost made things better, in a way.

I'll repeat what I opened with: pursue what you love. The money will follow. Good luck!
posted by avoision at 7:40 AM on April 29, 2010 [2 favorites]

Best answer: I think your interests sound very interesting; you mention a wide range of concepts, and passions... have you ever considered teaching?
I can think of one person at least who would have enjoyed, and greatly appreciated a teacher with the interests you mentioned having. (me)
Seems like your school has a program called the urban teacher education program...
Teachers are allowed to have a variety of interests; and if you choose something like highschool teacher, there is actually some opportunity to actually be teaching anthro related topics, also, there is always a need for good english and creative writing teachers in schools.
The Urban Teacher Education Program

The University of Chicago Urban Teacher Education Program (Chicago UTEP) recruits and prepares candidates with strong undergraduate backgrounds and a commitment to social justice to teach in underserved urban public schools. Our particular emphasis is preparing elementary teachers and secondary math and biology teachers for the Chicago Public Schools.

Teaching is intensely intellectual work. Our distinctive program design prepares students for the rigors of the profession through:

• Two full years of guided, in-school training

• Academic and methods coursework that is integrated with in-school experiences

• Extensive fieldwork

• An additional three years of personalized coaching and teacher leadership training

Students completing the program receive a Master of Arts in Teaching (MAT) from the University of Chicago and an Illinois Teaching Certificate.

It is a two-year master’s degree program that has two routes: Chicago UTEP Elementary, which leads to teaching certification for grades K–9; and Chicago UTEP Secondary, which leads to teaching certification for either mathematics or biology in grades 6–12.

This particular masters program seems to favor "math or biology" majors or minors (I am not sure how much of your Anthro was cultural vs. physical, but you may already have some of the bio requirements... but there are also many other avenues and pathways for becoming a teacher, and many other schools that can get you there... so don't be turned off of "teaching" in general, if this program isn't directed at your knowledge base... there definitely is a program out there for you!

Another option that I would put in the bucket of "this might interest you as a person interested in anthropology and the other interests that you mention" is "education research" -finding better methods and practices for our education systems, and planning ways of making the education system better for tomorrow. (this is a very exciting field... education has stagnated for hundreds of years, with very little change... there is a lot of extremely exciting research going on currently in this area... the area of "studying" education... and working to make it work for the students, and to find the best ways of reaching everyone , and bringing about a more level playing field, education can be the starting point to a lot of interesting careers. PLEASE do this! ;))

Even better than "being" a respected intellectual... you can then "study!" intellectuals and break down learning methods, and examine the ways we share, exchange, and interact with knowledge, information and culture. Surely someone 'Meta-studying' professors, scientists and intellectual people is just as prestigious as getting a name amongst 200 on some article in 'science' (people "studying" education are also definitely intellectuals).

Teachers have a nicely distributed work year, holidays, unions, decent pay starting right away out of school, potential for advancement, free time to pursue further education and also those interests, like are which you mentioned (for example, you could spend time in the summer writing, and being creative). It doesn't stop you from pursuing further goals... but it gives you a pretty good job to provide stability, and allows you time to look around at what interests you, and allows you to possibly pursue further education, while providing an amazing service to society at the same time.

If you do do this... please pass on the interest that you have for anthropology, art, and culture... this is important, and the ideas of these fields are important to share with the people of the future.

All my idle suggestions to the contrary, seriously, don't feel bad if you don't do this... I mean, museum preservation, artifact restoration, art preservation... and everything you describe as your interests sound pretty amazing, and useful, and worthwhile, so whatever you do, just don't give up on things that draw your interest, people with WAY LESS INTERESTING passions reach their dreams every day. (and don't be afraid to follow flabdablets suggestion from way up there, and continually re-adjust your sights, and re-evaluate your goals and dreams)... what really is most important? Is it the stability? Prestige? Opportunity? Excitement? Creative work? The opportunities? And then remember that there are many pathways to various end-points and goals. There is not 'one' way to get where you want to be.

Just remember what others here mentioned; being happy is better than being a respected "intellectual" (hehe, I know plenty of mefites who are "intellectual", and I highly respect... but are not "masters" or posses degrees in their particular areas interest).
Keep going... and always remember; 'You're getting better'!
Any choice you make; good luck, and best wishes.
It may not be 'depression' as some have mentioned, merely uncertainty, and fear of the big choices to make... but very much I would suggest that if you find therapy, or counseling help, and if you do receive any kind of 'diagnosis' that you don't let "labels" make you feel worse... "depression" can sound like something that is 'scary', or bad, or like something that stigmatizes you, remember that labels are there to help YOU; to help YOU understand YOU... They are not simply for people to be able to put you in a "category"... take help where available, and don't feel bad for accepting assistance.

Modern life can provide serious struggles and up-hill battles... but it can make summiting the peaks that much more exhilarating, and fulfilling.

Words to live with;
Summer days more likely that you notice breeze
Winter days more likely that you notice heat
When I'm warm more likely that you notice me
In the dark it's more likely that you notice light
In the light more likely that you notice night
Hungry more appreciation for that meal

I will repeat what avoision opened and closed with for emphasis and to denote accuracy.
"I'll repeat what I opened with: pursue what you love. The money will follow. Good luck!"
Uh-oh, I may have opened up a strangeloop!halp! Good luck!
posted by infinite intimation at 7:29 PM on May 2, 2010

Response by poster: Thanks everyone! This has been really helpful--certainly renewed my hope a bit.
posted by faeuboulanger at 8:03 AM on May 4, 2010

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