After years of recession-fear blahness, I have decided it's time to take some risks. Help me chart a course!
November 2, 2012 9:06 AM   Subscribe

After years of recession-fear blahness, I have decided it's time to take some risks. Help me chart a course!

This is a lot longer than I had hoped when I started writing it, so thanks for reading.
My current situation: I have a decent job doing programming for a web company. The job itself is okay. I have opportunities to learn new skills although, for reasons that with be explained in more detail, my lack of interest/passion is impairing my ability to take advantage of those opportunities.
The company is okay. Work/life balance is not exactly to my liking, but it's not terrible. There are people in the company who joyfully work 60 hour weeks and whose personal lives and interests outside their careers appear to be non-existent, but I choose not to follow their example. I occasionally feel pressure to work longer hours than I do, and I have a feeling that I am not schmoozing as much as I would need to in order to advance myself politically in the organization, but if I ignore the fact that I'm probably not going to acquire the esteem needed to move up the ladder, my job is okay.
The work? The work is another matter. I feel frequently burned out on the work itself. I've followed a pattern of jumping from one company to the next to keep learning new skills. I get a new job, learn a bunch of new skills, realize I don't like the work anymore, and start looking for a new job. While this has worked out okay as a survival strategy, I think it's time to seriously consider the possibility of changing my direction to get somewhere I *want* to be, so I'm not repeating the mistake of saying "Where can I easily get to from here?"
The problem is that I can get excited about learning a new technology or starting a new project, but the fundamentals don't really change. I need the momentum to keep up my interest level (hence the jumping from company to company) but at the end of the day it's still model, view, controller... model, view, controller... with few variations, over and over and over again. Not very intellectually stimulating. I have little passion for it and I rarely feel challenged.
So I know I have to change something. I have to commit to changing my direction. It's time to spin the wheel and see where I end up.
Pragmatics: I have money saved, enough to help me transition in whatever direction I want to go. Not a million dollars, but a lot. Way more than six months of expenses. I've spent the last few years working and living a Spartan existence in bare-bones apartments. I save most of what I make. I don't have a car, I rent, I don't have any serious financial obligations beyond my rent (which is cheap for where I live) and groceries. I am in a relationship which is probably my single biggest commitment, and I have a whole barrelful of worries about how my relationship with my partner is going to work out when/if I'm in a transition period and not earning much if any income.
Then there's the matter of what direction to go. The biggest problem I have is that I have too many options. There are too many things I'm interested in that have *some* promise or chance of working out, but I have trouble assessing the risk of each option. I feel like I'm stuck at a fork in a road on a very foggy night.
Here are, in no particular order, my ideas for Thing To Do Next:

1. Get a grad degree in mathematics.
Math was my first passion so a return to it seems like a good way to re-envigorate my life. I have a strong interest in the material, but I don't know much about the prospects post-graduation. Are there copious teaching opporunities for math people? Is it like the humanities, where there are a hundred graduates for every job and nobody has insurance? Does math parlay into other careers easily?

2. Get a grad degree in writing (MFA).
Writing is my top passion as far as creative fields. I've been writing short fiction for a few years, published a piece in an obscure journal, and I've taken a stab at a novel. I daydream often about getting accepted into a good MFA program, making some important connections, getting published, and landing a teaching position. Assuming everything works out, of course.
But this is very risky. There are many more wannabe literati out there than there are teaching positions or book contracts. Even if I got into a good program, the odds are pretty good I wouldn't see any extrinsic benefits viz. employment opportunities, and I might end up right back where I started. If there weren't as many risks, if I suddenly inherited tens of millions of dollars from some great uncle, and knew I was set for life, this one be my #1 choice. But getting mired in debt with nothing to show for it is a concern.
What would a "worst case scenario" be? I spend two years in school, and all I can do is become an editor or a copywriter. Both are professions I am interested in, but probably wouldn't pay off the grad degree.

3. Go to a trade school and become a mechanic.
On the opposite end of the employment spectrum, part of me really wants to put all this lofty talk of graduate degrees and teaching positions behind me and go into a trade. I thought about becoming a diesel mechanic, mostly because of the high employment prospects and getting away from a desk job. There's some inherent risk here in terms of the cost of education but assuming I got the proper education, the skills are in demand.

4. Find another programming job that I like better.
I have no shortage of job opportunities so it shouldn't be too hard to experiment and find a company I like. I've only really worked for one kind of company, so I'm sure there are other experiences I'm missing out on. The downside is that I've already almost burned myself out on this kind of work, and adding another year to my resume isn't going to open up any new options, although it may reduce my misery temporarily.
Freelancing or contract work is another option. That might give me enough creative freedom to pick and choose projects that I am more interested in. But I would still run the risk of having to come crawling back to a full-time job if I can't make enough money to stay afloat. Again, mixing up my work style would probably improve my mood, but it wouldn't open up new options for me.

5. Working for an education or cultural institution.
My values align more closely with educational/cultural institutions. Every company I have worked for is building some kind of commercial product. I would rather do the same work, but contributing to an institution I respect, even if I get paid less.
This is has the same problem as #4. Even if I like the product of my work better, it still won't open up many new options.

6. Technical writing.
I don't know a lot about what technical writing is like as a job, but my logic here is: I have experience at tech companies; I like writing and have some skill in it. Therefore, I should try to combine the two.

7. Transition to a writing/editing job, somehow.
I think I would like to try a writing or editing job, but I don't know how to get experience.

My biggest problems right now:
1. Fear of failure. What happens if I get into a program or I get a new job and I don't like it? What happens if I run out of money? What happens if I graduate and I can't find a job? The economic climate is still terrifyingly hostile to anyone going slightly off the beaten path. How can I do this in a way that isn't going to burn bridges or make me worse off than I am now?
2. How do I handle being in a relationship while experimenting with my career? I would be fine with taking on these risks by myself, if the worst outcome was that I end up broke and sleeping on a friend's couch. But I split rent and living expenses with my partner, so I feel like scaling back my lifestyle (which I must underscore is pretty minimalistic already.. I don't get out very often) would necessarily impact my partner. How can we talk about this in an adult way?
3. My stress level while worrying about this has forced me to become increasingly irritable and withdrawn, neglecting friends and family. I don't want this to happen, but it seems to occupy a lot of my head space. I get stressed out just thinking about switching directions, so I don't feel like socializing, which makes me more stressed out, ad infinitum. My fear causes a lot of (understandable) frustration from my partner as well.
4. How does a person switch careers anyway? I hear a lot of stories about the lawyer who quit a big corporate job to become a baker, but not a lot about less risky moves. Is there a resource for people who want to safely transition to another type of work without jumping off a cliff?

I would appreciate any advice about how to try out some of these options before commiting fully, or just useful information about the individual career options I've named. I'm keeping this anonymous since it's about leaving my job, but I have set up a temporary email address where you can contact me so I can respond:
Thanks for your help!
posted by anonymous to Work & Money (6 answers total) 4 users marked this as a favorite
I can speak to the tech writing / editing field. In my experience, working at a tech company and knowing how to write will not get you a tech writing job. They want demonstrable experience which could include samples of manuals you've already written. Editing is easier to get into; I got my first entry-level editing job by applying and taking a written test before the interview. However, it's a "soft skill" and most companies outsource it, so you'd probably be a freelancer or a 1099 - no benefits, pay your own taxes, and buy your own health insurance. You'll also only get paid for the work you do, which could be 4 hours one week and 60 the next.

You don't sound like you like desk jobs or the monotony of corporate life. I don't think another programming job will fit your needs. Definitely talk about all of this with your partner since s/he will be affected by you quitting your job. You could wing it on your own but since you're sharing expenses, partner needs to know what you're thinking and why you've been so stressed out all the time.
posted by Angharad at 9:56 AM on November 2, 2012

You may want to consider consulting. It's a job where you get confronted with new problems, get to learn tons about different companies/technologies/industries, and then move on fairly quickly. Sounds like you need a job/career where you get to shift focus and learn pretty consistently. That's not at all impossible! Also, it's not necessarily a bad thing to change jobs and fields throughout your life. I know plenty of people that have taken decades to find a job that they wanted to work forever. All of them have turned out just fine, and I rather envy their career paths.

I'd rephrase your thinking a bit - the economic climate isn't hostile to people off the beaten path. I'd say it's in fact much worse for people on the path. People looking for standard office work seem to be having a rough spot of it. People willing to do things that are totally out there and on their own (run their own business, do small business consulting, help individuals with personal tech support, etc.) seem to be doing just fine. At least from my sample size.

I'd steer away from 1 & 2 - sounds like you're oriented towards knowing Lots of Things instead of just knowing one thing in a great amount of depth. I'd also be cautious of anything having to do with the publishing industry. It's in seriously bad shape, and if you're wanting a change with some economic security that's probably just going to rain stress down on your head.

Good luck!
posted by stoneweaver at 9:59 AM on November 2, 2012 [1 favorite]

My standard pointer for would-be career changers.

But I would be cautious about thinking that changing to a new field is going to change your dynamic of starting new jobs and coming to dislike them after a while.

However you might want to think about more math-intensive and intellectually challenging types of programming work, for example machine learning or scientific computing.
posted by philipy at 10:02 AM on November 2, 2012

Could you start a really top-notch blog about math and science? That would give you an outlet for the interim while you figure it out.
posted by jgirl at 11:06 AM on November 2, 2012

I'm going to give this a stab from a few different perspectives: I've changed careers a few times/life-long job hopper, did do the grad school route, and writing/freelance, although we are still from very different fields, but maybe something will be relevant.

Switching careers:

This was what worked for me, but I do believe it is also a roll of the dice, too.

Make your list of a few things you must have in your next job (a certain salary, etc, whatever is important to you). Make a list of the top few deal breakers.

Now do info interviews (these are how I contacted people and how I approached them), but it really was just to find out would field X meet those needs and were there deal breakers? It really helped with the job hunt for the new field, too, because you learned the names of other job titles, where to look for the jobs, how to sharpen your resume/CV for the new field, etc.

Your switching careers does not need to be a monumental change. Have you asked at your current work place if they will let you do a technical writing project? Or apply for those jobs internally?

The fear part. Are you happy where you are now? Are you more unhappy of the unknown? Can you do everything possible to mitigate the risks, such as before quitting, you can do all the other things first, such as research into the new field and get hired, etc. Or pick a program that covers your tuition with research and teaching assistant programs, etc.?

Thoughts on your options (please note that some of these are biased by what worked in my life, but I'm still trying to give you things to think about):

• Grad school (assuming PhD?). If you go this route, I would do it for yourself and not a job at the end. But you may driven to want to know more about a different field, and it is one of the few ways to dive deep, deep into some fields IMO. But here are some thoughts/ideas that helped me make my decision: Have you looked at tuition support? You may find that typically field A provides little to no financial support, and field B may provide full tuition plus a stipend. (This was how I made my decision to select field B, but YMMV). Also, because it sounds like you are just not sure what you want to do next, in my experience you will not only do research in your field, but you will be a teaching assistant and have some, although minimal, experience teaching, so you will explore other careers. I suspect that math may be more financially supported than your other options, but again YMMV.

• Education institution - these jobs often offer tuition benefits, so you can dabble and try out the grad level classes (for free) and assess: Do I want to do this? At least it will not be on your dime. If going back to school/more education is very important for you, perhaps only accept jobs that offer these benefits.

• Writing - this is my experience and I'm not in your desired specialty field, but you can sometimes find niches where someone hires you for your background/specialty and the writing is the secondary part (see the first favorited answer...that was really the requirement to get hired for a full-time job, a background in the field and passing a writing test... a few paragraphs) - that was for my field, but with tons of specialties and areas out there, and if you do the legwork, I would assume you could find something similar.

• Writing - are you sure that you are not seeking a creative outlet rather than a job as technical writer or editor? I ask the question because I see the desire for an MFA. To me, writing is usually just a tool/just like balancing the checkbook is a tool. A copyeditor, for example, will not really be doing creative writing projects. (Could be wrong, ignore if so/just a concern that I had from reading your question). If creativity is part of the list, then you may want to reconsider things like copyeditor - don't compromise with jobs like that.

• Freelance - I think that this varies from field to field and from person to person, but if my assumptions are correct (what you can probably charge hourly and that work is out there for your field), you may find it more rewarding. In my experience (different field/but there is a need and a reasonable rate can be charged), you can pick and select projects and clients - it is not the average 60 hours a week (and you decide - do you want to work less/more (and also earn less/more) /take this project/not take it?) It usually turns into a wider variety of projects and to be honest, at some point (if it is a desired industry), your clients will ask you to consider working for them, so there should not be crawling.
posted by Wolfster at 11:28 AM on November 2, 2012 [1 favorite]

You sound like a very talented person. You would certainly become one of the most overqualified mechanics I've heard of if you go that direction. Seems like you could instead be developing software programs for mechanics to use, or you could be targeting jet engine maintenance and aiming for an eventual position as VP of maintenance for an airline! Seriously though, you do sound like someone who definitely needs to make a change. I presume academic jobs are hard to come by (and don't necessarily pay that well and may require you to move somewhere you have no interest in living), and I presume financial success as a writer is elusive for most people. Have you thought about being an independent software developer and vendor (ISV) on the side to see if you can make a success of it? It seems your math, artistic, and presumable mechanical skills are great resources you could combine in some way. Have you had any interesting ideas for software programs?

By the way, as far as working for someone else, I think age is a factor in how much opportunity there will be. Although it's illegal to age discriminate, I do think doors at companies start closing on people as they get older. Maybe all the more reason to chart your own independent employment course.
posted by Dansaman at 3:41 PM on November 2, 2012

« Older Why did the Soviet military retain the traditional...   |   How to give a male friend advice? Newer »
This thread is closed to new comments.