32 years old... should I go back to school or should I get a job?
March 20, 2012 6:38 PM   Subscribe

another thirty-something with only a bachelor's degree uncertain about what to do career-wise. Also uncertain as to what transferable skill(s) to highlight, if any, were I to apply for a job. What should I do with myself? (longgggggggggggg, slightly snowflake-y post ahead)

Hi all, and thanks in advance for reading this and attempting to help me.

For starters, I'm 32 years old, male, and living in the southeastern US. I had a low point 2 weeks ago and just don't know what to do at this juncture.

1) should I go back to school?

Here's my history:
I feel as though my education has been useless and that all these years after college, I still have nothing to show for my life. My high school record is quite awesome -- I took a lot of AP courses and did well in almost all of them -- but as a starry-eyed undergrad, I believed the lie that "it doesn't matter what you major in; people will see what you have to offer". So, I studied something useless and, after graduating in 2002 and unable to find a job, I started volunteering. This I did for 3 years, until I felt that nowhere in the country could I be useful.

So I did what many idealistic college grads do nowadays: teach English overseas. In my case, I left for China and intended to stay for only one year -- but ended up staying for five. It was just really refreshing to leave my unemployed, friendless, depressing life behind, to escape the American capitalistic culture , to adapt to a new place and make great friends. (Because I had no job, I had no money and few means of making friends stateside, which in turn destroyed my self-esteem.) I had studied a bit of Chinese while in school, but the courses only taught scant material, barely enough to converse. On top of that, my major focused on ethnomusicology and I was / am fascinated by traditional Chinese music. So my goals in going there (and in staying five years!) were to learn more language, study the music, absorb local culture (this was a part of China unfamiliar to most people in the West) and generally escape life for a while.

I returned home in 2010, having accomplished much of what I planned and returning with ideas for the future. Although I enjoyed teaching and engaging, guiding and mentoring, by that point I was tired of it and wanted to try something new. With such a lengthy background in one country overseas, I thought I could head towards an international career and get more schooling in law or business towards that aim. But here is what is holding me back:

*business school - doesn't quite fit my personality: I'm not driven only by profits nor am I good at butt-kissing just to keep my job / get a raise, course topics don't interest me much
*law school - I like working with abstract ideas, so this could be a decent fit, but I don't like how law is taught, and the law field is a mess in the country anyways

I have thought about getting a professional degree, but those are specific to one area, and I like to have flexibility in what I do. For example, I've thought about going into audiology, since as a music lover I care very much about my ears. But as a Gemini I tend to be fickle and indecisive; I worry that I won't enjoy it, that I will grow tired quickly of working only with old deaf people. And 4 years spent working towards that undergrad degree was pain enough -- I can't imagine going through so much more education just to land a job.

Yet I feel that I need more schooling. I worry that having only a bachelor's degree is not enough to get me anywhere. Others my age have already amassed lots of experience or advanced degrees. There's also all the fresh meat straight from the college dorm. I suppose I fit somewhere in between them on the "experience ladder". One good reason for me to go back to school are my test scores: my GMAT is decent and my GRE kicked butt! (Since the law industry is a mess I have opted not to take the LSAT yet.)

(I would like to mention that I would rather not do anything related to my "field", ie my major. No music teacher, no music lessons. Also, I have taught Chinese stateside and would like to try something else.)

But preferably I would not yet return to school -- I'd rather get some experience stateside and hopefully save up enough money to pay my way through a program, if need be.

Which leads me to this question:

2) Do I have any skills that would be useful / might be impressive? How do I highlight these on my resume? Would they be enough to get me a job reasonably quickly, in this job environment?

I would think that I have something I could bring to the table, but what? They are all soft skills associated with teaching, ie communication, can explain well, yada yada. And they are things done without quantifiable or even qualifiable results, so they look rather meh on paper. How can I make them "pop" or seem better than they are?

I currently live with the fam in a relatively small city (I'm very lucky to have very patient and caring parents who have fed and housed me all these years), and I understand that job opportunities might be better for me if I were to move away. But that is another issue altogether, one that I will have to ask about later.

It might also help to talk about what kind of job I would like to have, but again, that might be better for another question.

I realize this post is very long and perhaps unclear. If anything doesn't make sense, just ask and I will clarify. You're helping me, after all, so it's only fair that I help you do that! lol

Thank you from the bottom of my heart for reading this and giving advice. I really need some suggestions.
posted by ditto75 to Work & Money (16 answers total) 6 users marked this as a favorite
It might also help to talk about what kind of job I would like to have, but again, that might be better for another question.

No, I think it's pretty critical to this question. Without knowing what you are interested in, would enjoy doing, or would be good at doing, other than the extremely vague "international work," we can't give you meaningful advice.
posted by shivohum at 6:51 PM on March 20, 2012 [1 favorite]

Do you speak a dialect of Chinese that is spoken by any sizable immigrant group in the US? Bilingual speech language pathologists make crazy bank. It's a graduate school degree, but iyou would be ridiculously employable, although I suppose it doesn't have much international glitz!
posted by Snarl Furillo at 6:57 PM on March 20, 2012 [2 favorites]

You lived in China for 5 years and speak Chinese?
That seems like hugely desirable experience for any number of businessy jobs - would you want to be a cultural liaison or something like that for a big company that wants to do business in China?
posted by LobsterMitten at 7:02 PM on March 20, 2012 [1 favorite]

Have you considered taking the foreign service exam? You sound like a good fit for the foreign service.

Check out this website on how to become a Foreign Service Officer.
posted by jchaw at 7:06 PM on March 20, 2012 [2 favorites]

It seems a real waste NOT to use your Chinese experiences somehow. Could you be interested in doing something related to promoting traditional Chinese music in the States? I don't have any specific job in mind; rather finding people who do something related to it and seeing whether you can help them somehow.
posted by Ender's Friend at 7:06 PM on March 20, 2012 [1 favorite]

The first thing that comes to mind when reading your post is that you've done tons of interesting things, have lots of life experiences that many people your age don't, and have a foreign language skill that is not all that common for the typical monolingual American. These are things to be proud of! You may not have taken the most linear path, but still, your resume will look very appealing for lots of jobs.

Have you considered teaching ESL here? You might even be able to fill a specific niche like teaching business English to Chinese businessmen/women. How about trying a job as an international student advisor at a college or a placement coordinator for something like the Peace Corps or some NGO? You may need more advanced degrees, but these are some ideas to consider. You sound like you really want a job that is meaningful to you, and business and law don't strike me as things that you seem that passionate about. Perhaps look into non-profit management?

You may want to sort some of this out with a career counselor if you able to do so. But when it comes to job searching, there are lots of jobs out there that look for people with "overseas experience". That's you!
posted by Sal and Richard at 7:19 PM on March 20, 2012

What about teaching whatever Chinese traditional music you are interested in? Do you play the instruments?

I know obscure music courses at my small liberal arts college are INSANELY popular, including Chinese Music Ensemble. I'm not sure what colleges want from you in terms of teaching something like this, but considering your past in teaching, this is possibly doable.

Teaching something you love to college aged students would be quite a different experience than teaching English overseas. I wouldn't discredit it simply because it is teaching.
posted by fuzzysoft at 7:57 PM on March 20, 2012 [1 favorite]

Your main hypothetical skill is chinese language skills, but as you never state what level of skill you obtained with Chinese (Spoken? Written? Can use an IME on a computer?) it is impossible to judge.

Law school is a bad idea.

Business school is right now shaping up to be similar to law school.
posted by rr at 8:18 PM on March 20, 2012 [1 favorite]

Don't go to grad school until you figure out what you want to do with your career. Law school, especially, is an expensive, anxiety-laden, and almost wholly-ineffective path to professional self-discovery.
posted by dixiecupdrinking at 9:12 PM on March 20, 2012 [2 favorites]

Try to sign up with any Chinese-language oriented translation services -- anything from court witnesses, to prisoner's requests, to hospital patients, etc....You'd be surprised how many truly bilingual, good communicator types ARE NOT doing this type of work due to its unpredictability and need to be flexible....but until something solid pans out...you could try that......

You indicate law school or business school but, and you know yourself, you can't be completely profit minded or too corporate about stuff......

Still, I'd see you as a someone who WANTS to be managerial, perhaps with the international focus you mention....I've often recommended people learn computer science or programming to adapt a "hard" skill in an American employment market dominated by soft skill types BUT, you could sort of blend the two by looking into "alternate" master's that would separate you from the hoards of law school and business school types.... degrees to be a project management professional or something like or SIPA at Columbia

Some of such Masters programs can be a crock....but look at where grads are going and look if such programs have good career monitoring and networking and even on campus recruiting opportunities also.

posted by skepticallypleased at 9:42 PM on March 20, 2012 [1 favorite]

Why not go back to China?
posted by KokuRyu at 10:28 PM on March 20, 2012

I came back to share two other alternatives.

a) There are many Chinese companies starting their first US office. They will require people who are local, bilingual, and have experience living and staying in China. A good friend of mine who has a similar background to yours actually found a job facilitating HR practices for a very big Chinese telecom company in Dallas. It is a good job and exercised his training well.

b) Another alternative is to go into Finance. Why? Well, the US equities market (relative to others) is huge in size, immersed in liquidity, highly efficiency, with acclaimed transparency. Aside from mega-chinese firms who list on NYSE/AMEX/NASDAQ, there are countless other small-cap(shady) companies who want a US listing. The problem is that the traditional route to get a listing requires deep scrutiny which small-cap(shady) Chinese firms have trouble complying. Very frequently, small-cap(shady) Chinese firms get listed in the US is via backdoor listings, i.e., they buy a shell company that is already listed on the US market and then merged their Chinese business into the shell company. This is not good from a governance perspective. BUT it creates an opportunity for people with YOUR skillset. Many investment firms who deal with small-cap listings or play the Chinese angle will want to hire you to read, follow, and investigate these small-caps, e.g., via Chinese news reports or their periodic filings(in Chinese) with the Chinese securities agency. They will want you to tell them what is real and what is bullshit. Your insight will help people avoid bad investments and uncover true gems.

Don't be disheartened. You have an interesting background and skillset that is uncommon among your peers. Don't pigeonhole or knock yourself back into becoming the neighbor's kid.

There are very, very few people with your skillset and experience. Continue exploring and make full use of your unique background.
posted by jchaw at 3:30 PM on March 21, 2012

Response by poster: Hi everyone, and thanks for the replies so far! I'm surprised I got so many already.

It's hard to say but I can narrow it down somewhat:
* I'd rather work with data / information or people than with things, and I'd rather the people come to me for guidance or help. I tend to be analytical, almost always critiquing or analyzing something I come across. And I do like to use my head, though I will use my hands when necessary.
* A job with flexibility time-wise would be good. One without a boss breathing on my neck is also good. Never liked feeling stuck to a desk; never liked being told what to do. I have an independent streak, very obvious when you consider that I studied Chinese on my own while in-country.
* Optimally, it'd be a job with meaning / usefulness to the world or civilization / purpose / [your synomym or choice] and one that is unique or original. All my life I have been different from the people around me, so it's no surprise that my preferred career path would be the same.

I was going to write out my interests, but that would be much too long.

Snarl Furillo--
I have thought about going into SLP but you're right, there's no glamour in it. Also, I imagine that if I were to work with Chinese-speaking clients, I'd have to move to Big City, USA. And I don't like Big City, USA.

Not sure if that was a question or not, but if it is then your answer is yes for both.
I probably would be a good cog in the ol' international business wheel, but I don't have the experience they would want (ie investments / finance or marketing or retail et al). Also, I just don't see myself as the business school type. (I haven't sold my soul...yet.)

Yes I have considered the Dept of State and think it would be a good match, but what I can't see is committing 20 years of my life to it. Also, I want to stay stateside for a while, to see if I can manage here.
(side note: I applied to be a Consular Adjudicator last year and didn't even make it into the first round. I really do think my skills are just too soft and don't look good on paper, in essay form or on a resume.)

I like your suggestion of working with a Chinese company starting up on this side. My concern would be: Is my background strong enough to land me a position, without an advanced degree? And there's the Big City issue once again.

Finance, banking or investments are all very likely a no. I didn't need to hear from Greg Smith how soul-crushing such companies can be nowadays. Besides, going into those areas again would require business school....

Ender's Friend--
Promoting traditional Chinese music *is* something I would enjoy doing, but would it pay the bills? Is there any demand for it out there, outside of Big City USA? I think this would be better as something to do on my "off time", ie as a hobby or side venture, because I can't see that being very lucrative or stable.

Sal and Richard--
Thanks for the encouragement! Looking back, I see that you're right, I have done some VERY interesting (random? odd?) stuff in my life. But again, it's due to my inclination to be unique and different, because by my very nature I am unique.

Teaching ESL: yes thought about it but want to try something new. Been teaching some 7 years now, 10+ if you count the volunteering and tutoring I did in school. Can't see it being as much fun in-country than out-, what with the paperwork and bureaucracy. If anything, it seems more stressful.
International student advisor: This I have definitely thought about and could possibly enjoy. There's the mentoring aspect of it and there's the international aspect of it. The problem would be getting a graduate degree and having to pay my dues at an (educational) institution (including the struggles of living hand-to-mouth as an adjunct) so that they might shift me laterally into such a position -- and that all means a whole lot of stress and opportunity cost for just a job.

There are no career counselors in the area, sadly to say.

Yes, I do play instruments and YES, this is something I would enjoy doing. The problem here would be that I would need an advanced degree in an otherwise utterly useless area, so iI'd be very difficult to transition into another field. And I'd be earning pennies for that work, much like adjuncts do nowadays. Not much reward for 2-5 years of more schooling.

I'm a bit of a perfectionist, so I never claim to be fluent with anything. But I will say that I grew up in a Cantonese-speaking family, learned Mandarin (of course) while in the mainland and learned a little of the local dialect. Took the HSK in 2008 and scored a 5, which is decent (especially considering I was studying on my own). I have little problem with conversational topics and understand a lot, but not all, from the TV, newspapers, and other media. Read and write both simplified and traditional characters too. I have no idea what IME is but assume it has something to do with inputting characters into a computer?

Thanks for vouching that law school is a terrible idea. Even if biz school wasn't heading in the same direction, I most likely still wouldn't go. Just doesn't seem my cup of tea.

Yeah, I'm pretty sure grad school is a terrible idea. I've been thinking about getting a professional degree, though. I just don't like how specialized they are; what if I grow tired of doing the same thing day after day (which most likely I will) and want to do something else? It'd be a big jump and I'd be back where I started from, clueless as to where to go from that point. Still, my GRE scores are pretty good and I don't want to waste them.

Translation is a possiblity only because I like languages and like communicating. But I can't be at a computer translating documents all day long; it'd drive me nuts!

I think your "alternate degree" is the same as my "professional degree" ie a degree that is less amorphous and more tailored to a certain field or even occupation. I think if I were to be able to devote myself to just one field, my language skills would certainly help to single me out.

I don't want to go back to China just quite yet for the following reasons:
1) I've never had a real, bona fide job in the US. I'd only done part-time work until I left for China, and even now I just have part-time work. I know I can do more, so I'd like to try it.
2) I'm in my early 30s; it's the best time to get an advanced degree, no? And if my GRE / GMAT scores are pretty good (which they are), why not see if they can help me with advanced schooling admissions / tuition before they expire?
3) My parents are getting older and will need more in the not-too-distant future. My dad's already in his 70s; my mom is in her 60s and in a wheelchair.

You mention some pretty good ideas. Here come the buts...
Civil service just doesn't sound terribly appealing, and (this will sound shallow) not very glamorous. Also, it can be stressful, and I'd prefer to have a stress-less work environment.
Serving the immigrant community is definitely doable -- but then I'd have to move to Big City USA.
Multinational business companies = business school = no.

Thanks again everybody for your help! Much appreciated!
posted by ditto75 at 11:08 AM on March 22, 2012

Have you considered taking the foreign service exam? You sound like a good fit for the foreign service.

Check out this website on how to become a Foreign Service Officer.

I think this would be a good thing to pursue...however, being realistic, it should never be plan A. You have to take an exam, then write some essays, then take an oral assessment, then get a security clearance and go through a final review, and then get put on a list...and maybe get called. If you don't pass any of these you go back to square 1. I've gone back to square 1 twice and am thinking about taking the written test again just because it encourages me to keep up with current events.

It's all free so there is no reason not to pursue it - other than traveling if you don't live in an area where there oral assessment is administered - but don't put all your eggs in this basket.

A friend of mine who speaks Chinese applied for a Consular Adjudicator position with the Foreign Service and that position has a bit different of a process but it is similar to the regular Foreign Service track. Here is a forum for people going through the process.
posted by fromageball at 11:19 AM on March 24, 2012

Response by poster: Hi fromageball, thanks for the reply!

I definitely know about the CA position -- I applied for it last year and woefully was rejected in the first round. One factor is the economy, I know; people with only college degrees (me) were competing with those with super-advanced degrees and experience with large, UN-esque institutions (those rejected later). Then there's the application itself: how do I explain my "soft skills" in 200-word paragraphs?

I might reapply again this year, if my ego can handle it. As to the actual FSO process ... no, I probably won't ever apply. Even if I might be a quite good fit for the State Dept (I am truly a world person, having studied in India; watched African films; read French literature in college; even participated in a Japanese drama workshop), I just can't stomach so many forms, paperwork, testing and rushing to and fro DC just to get on a roster to wait for the possibility of a job.
posted by ditto75 at 7:09 PM on March 24, 2012

Response by poster: Follow-up:

I'm pretty confident to rule out law school and business school, the former from talking with practicing lawyers and researching online, the latter from doing a lot of reflection.

Still, though, part of me wonders if I could get a business-related job, because -- let's face it -- business is where the money is, and I worry about my finances. Although debt-free, I don't have much in the bank.

I have not ruled out postgrad education just yet. If I could use my international experience and my GRE scores to be admitted into a good program with a low debt load (or none at all), that would be great!

Just this past month I stumbled into a job "serving the immigrant community" as Sockowocky mentioned, doing medical interpretation. Very interesting stuff, and I didn't even need to move to Big City USA! I may go into medicine, but I don't know if I can suffer all those years of med school. (Is there another way?)

It would be really cool to be a cultural liaison as LobsterMitten suggested, but I have yet to find a way to do that.

Thanks everyone for the suggestions!
posted by ditto75 at 7:21 PM on April 22, 2012

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