Why can't I be Sherlock, Indiana and Marie Curie all at once?
February 6, 2012 3:26 PM   Subscribe

Dear Mefites: help me decide what to do with my life. I know I want adventure, travel, intellectual stimulation and to be of service to others... but what does that mean for my career?

I'm a recent graduate who's now contemplating what to do with my life. I've browsed previous questions on this, and many of them hit close to home, but none are quite on the mark. Can you help me brainstorm careers that meet this list of requirements?

I need a career that...

- Contains an element of adventure.
- Provides me with a lot of mental stimulation. I am a very intellectual person who really enjoys learning new things and rigorous brainwork. I like the idea of doing scientific research for this reason, but am not sure it meets the other criteria. I am happiest when given tricky problems to solve or puzzles to crack.
- Has at least a somewhat practical component. I love literature and the arts, but I would like a job with a more immediate impact on people: something that "makes a difference", to use a cliche, and is of service to others. I'm not interested in becoming a doctor per se, but the utility to others aspect of the medical field appeals to me.
- Requires or at least allows for extensive travel. Traveling is one of my passions; I would really love for this to be a strong part of my career. Travel gets at those concepts of mind-expansion and challenge and being-out-of-my-depth moments that I live for.
- Lets me achieve flow state. I like moments of high-stake excellence and absolute concentration. Elsewhere I've seen EMT and firefighter recommended as being excellent sources for flow state, but I'm not sure that these jobs would give me the intellectual learning curve I'm looking for.
- It's not a requirement, but I am open to things with an element of physical labor or intensity as well.
- Lastly, I deal very well with frustration, stress, and pressure, but I do not do well in environments that are too relaxed-- if not driven, I won't get anything done! I'm a challenge-oriented person.

Basically, I'm looking for a job that will help me walk away from work every day feeling like the biggest badass on the planet: a freakish combo of Sherlock Holmes, Indiana Jones and Marie Curie.
I like to work, and I like to work hard, and achievement is one of the primary defining features of my life: certainly moreso than the desire to settle down, raise a family, etc. I would be happy to dedicate the vast majority of my life to my career.

A little more background: I graduated in May with a stellar GPA and a BS in Sociology from a fairly respected state university, and am now doing a stint in Americorps. My interests are fairly broad, but I tend to like intersectionality in my pursuits: things that incorporate both science and social skills, for instance. I have considered pursuing graduate degrees in either Forensic or Physical Anthropology, but I have no idea if these fields lead to the kind of work environment I'm interested in or not! So, Mefites, do you love your job? Does it provide you with some of these things? Do you think I'd like it too?
posted by WidgetAlley to Work & Money (17 answers total) 19 users marked this as a favorite
In many ways academia sounds great for you -- if you can pick an area of study that a) you have passion for, and b (optional): has some need for research involving travel. Academics are the most-traveled people I know, some because it's in their research (the Archaeologist who studies daily life in prehistoric Guatemala, the Geneticist who studies diseases in Africa), and others because of conferences and collaborations, and talks around the world -- it might take a while for them to work up to that (a first-year grad student probably won't get to go to the awesome conference in China or be invited to speak in Vienna), but the more senior faculty travel basically as much as they want (especially those in fields that are well-funded).
posted by brainmouse at 3:33 PM on February 6, 2012 [1 favorite]

I think you may have to choose some of the parts of this dream over others, and it's up to you to prioritize.

For instance, my cousin is a nurse who collects organs for donation. High-stress, emotionally challenging (relatives always say organ donation is a wonderful thing until they have to let the team in to take the organs), lots of travel, but not a whole lot of problem-solving, other than the human aspect.
posted by xingcat at 3:34 PM on February 6, 2012

I hit go before I was done ---

In other respects, academia seems like an obvious fit: the right projects have obvious "making a difference" implications (perhaps not direct, but eventual). It's incredibly mentally stimulating, and all about "asking the question". The physical part is dependent on your research project, and will at best alternate with desk work, but it's there. And the existence of pressure is an understatement, especially early on.
posted by brainmouse at 3:37 PM on February 6, 2012

The facts are that being "the biggest badass on the planet" is mostly in your head. So you find something you like doing, and you convince yourself that you're a worldchanging, swashbuckling badass while doing it.

The tangible things are that you want something that involves travelling, problem-solving, and thinking on your feet. Sounds like you might want to sign up with a high-powered management consulting company that will put a team of people in a foreign country on a project, and then move them to the next place, and so on. Sales? You jet off to various places to make a presentation and hope that the client gives you the account.

The point is that you tell yourself in your mind that you're a world-changing badass. Other people might not understand that you are, but you will, if you're convinced of the importance of the work.

One badass job I heard of? Trauma nurse-- the one that travels in the trauma helicopter to pick up critically ill and wounded patients. Once she got off the helicopter, with the patient on the gurney on the way to the ER, apparently everyone in the hospital would part like the red sea in as she advanced, because everyone knew, "this is a badass person on a serious mission."
posted by deanc at 3:41 PM on February 6, 2012 [4 favorites]

Come join the not-so-dark side of international development. Charities, government agencies, churches, and foundations all over the world fund work to help developing countries. This work ranges from things like mapping rains in the Horn of Africa to predict famine (FEWS-NET, a USAID funded project) to researching drug-resistant tuberculosis treatment for people in the mountains of Peru (Partners in Health, out of Boston) to the Clinton Foundation funding internships for rural agriculture in India.

Though you'll probably toil for a few years at a desk, there are some travel opportunities available at the lower levels (Peace Corps, for one, though some US-based non-profits and USAID contractors get you out to the field as well) and many of my 30- and 40-something colleagues travel extensively all over the world.

The work isn't glamorous; it's often frustrating and mind-boggling and full of AUGH, but it really makes a difference. There are a million different ways to enter; nominally, I work in global public health, but though I work with doctors and nurses, I work with tons of public health people and monitoring people and lawyers and architects and lab technicians and accountants and project managers and pretty much anything. I did my degree in IR and sociocultural anthropology; no one cares, though. I have learned a ton in all of my i-dev jobs.
posted by quadrilaterals at 3:45 PM on February 6, 2012 [4 favorites]

Posted too soon - meant to add that:
-Tricky problems are pretty much the name of the game, even when you are entry-level. Try convincing Nigerian customs to let in a shipment of HIV test kits, or liaise with three government agencies to set up a workshop in Kinshasa, or...you get the idea.
posted by quadrilaterals at 3:47 PM on February 6, 2012

You could join the military.

But when people say something that "makes a difference", I think what they really mean is "big important well-known thing that cures cancer/acne/suffering".
Because, frankly, being really good and humble and courteous at any job makes a difference. You can serve coffee in a way that makes people feel better. You can make change, sell tickets, answer phones--it's not the job, it's the way you do it.
posted by Ideefixe at 4:06 PM on February 6, 2012 [5 favorites]

I'm going to agree that this is mostly in your head. I've seen tons of non-profit types burn out because they realize the problem is bigger than any NGO, while it's easy to realize why any given cog is important. I worked for a cosmetics company whose mission statement talked about how their brand empowered women through enhanced confidence.

Being someone who hates morning rituals, especially make-up, I was pretty cynical about it. But many people aren't.

I would say that what you want is the job you get after a year or two of learning the ropes. If you're lucky enough to get a boss that isn't into micro-managing. The actual subject matter is less important.
posted by politikitty at 5:06 PM on February 6, 2012 [1 favorite]

If you're a US citizen, I understand the foreign service is looking for smart people. I don't know much about the culture, but the work itself might fit your requirements.
posted by maxim0512 at 6:24 PM on February 6, 2012 [1 favorite]

Some of what you are attracted to makes me think you'd like to be a conservator or collections care manager in a museum. These are people who work with objects and keep them in good condition. There's a lot of travel, for two reasons: one, research and training, and two, courier-ing objects going on loan to other museums. It's arty and intellectual, and there is always a new project around the corner to help you avoid boredom. Conservation in particular invoves physical labor - things like lifting and moving and packing - but also fine-motor labor sometimes, depending on what kind of conservation you specialize in. It can be sort of adventurous in a new-discovery sort of way, though it tends to fall a little short of Indiana Jones there's a bit of that flavor.

Here's the Federal Bureau of Labor job outlook for conservators and museum technicians with info on training and stuff, and here's a basic outline of a collections manager's job description, and here's some info on where you can get training. Either requires a master's.
posted by Miko at 7:33 PM on February 6, 2012 [1 favorite]

If I were in your shoes, I would check out the international Red Cross and Partners in Health. What you describe sounds like the stories of my friends who work or have worked for both organizations.
posted by Sidhedevil at 8:11 PM on February 6, 2012

I work in international development and I do like my job. I have been a long term volunteer (similar to Peace Corps, which is what started me in this area), worked for aid contractors, worked for a university, in government, and non-profits. I have travelled to many countries in Asia, Africa and the Pacific as part of my job (this year will also go to the Middle East and Latin America).

I have managed or worked on projects in a whole range of sectors in these countries - expanding university education in Africa, HIV program for Tibet, legal reform against trafficking in persons across Asia, corporate social responsibility partnerships, road engineering, elementary school education, government capacity building, anti-corruption, health system development, regulation reform, and special economic zones

Having said that, there have been times when it has been boring and desk-based and with little in the way of challenges. I am now in a management position where I get a lot of intellectual stimulation and challenges, but it is also balanced with operations, which is a good mix for me. I manage a major relationship for my organisation, but also am responsible for a lot of people out in the field - so in the last month, I have had to coordinate responses to a cycle threat, an earthquake, a case of dengue fever.

People often say 'oh it must be rewarding to help others'. I like that my job and my organisation reflect my values, and some of that is around helping others. But honestly, I would not undertake many of these projects on a purely domestic basis because there is so much challenge in working internationally and cross culturally.

I have predominantly had a 'head office' career, but you might prefer a field-based career. Also, I am more generally skilled in strategy and program management, rather than having a technical specialty. If you have a sociology background, you might get interested in program evaluation and effectiveness. Check out the American Evaluation Association. It is challenging to demonstrate whether a program has made any difference, and also evaluation usually involves lots of field work.
posted by AnnaRat at 1:58 AM on February 7, 2012 [1 favorite]

Come join the not-so-dark side of international development. (and others)...

Another voice to the chorus that international development work certainly can hit all of these. I love my job, I often work under intense deadlines, and almost every day I have to become an expert in something new. However, with your particular focus on high-pressure work, and an inclination toward enjoying some physicality, I wonder if you wouldn't prefer relief work, which AnnaRat alludes to above - people doing relief work are the first responders to immediate crises, like wars, or earthquakes, or floods. It's a job that provides intellectual stimulation - every problem is unique, and while for instance all refugee camps face many of the same or similar problems, when you're designing one there will be problems unique to that camp - sociological problems specific to the cultures involved, ecological/environmental problems specific to the terrain, who knows what. You'll need to know a lot and to constantly be learning more. The pressure tends to be more immediate than in development, and the contracts shorter - so more travel.

And when you're describing your job to others, the word "badass" will indeed probably be on their minds.
posted by solotoro at 5:04 AM on February 7, 2012

You could check out the CIA if your politics permit.
posted by fivesavagepalms at 7:20 AM on February 7, 2012

I haven't read all the responses but here's what went through my mind:

Some kind of emergency/ crisis response team, maybe disaster relief or humanitarian aid?
Maybe something in the police or the military for being thrown in the deep end / state of flow, adventure and maybe travel??
Mental health nursing/psychiatry or related research for being of service to society and solving tricky problems (and emergencies if you deal with suicides/addicts or are on call for a hospital)

Not sure any one of these careers would fit all of your requirements. But could you fill any of your needs through a hobby?
posted by EatMyHat at 2:08 PM on February 7, 2012

How about one of the UN agencies?
Whatever you pick, please accept it might take a few years of less stimulating work before you get to the exciting stuff. Don't be discouraged, and be realistic. Good luck.
posted by bystander at 8:21 PM on February 7, 2012

While I think development work might be a good fit, I just wanted to suggest the Foreign Service (particularly as a consular officer) as another option. Basically, as a consular officer, you are looking at complex, high-stakes puzzles on the visa line, with only a very limited time to solve them. You can certainly enter a flow-like state. If you work on the American Citizen Services side, you are helping out fellow citizens who need your help abroad. Often, they really have no other place to turn, and you can make a meaningful difference for them. Best of luck in figuring out your path!
posted by eulily at 7:59 AM on February 8, 2012

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