I thought I had such a good plan too...
June 12, 2013 2:41 PM   Subscribe

The psychological testing I recently went through as part of my therapy suggests that my would-be career path may not be a great fit after all. Part of me wants to keep trying anyway. Is this a really terrible idea? If it is, how can I make a realistic new plan?

I recently went through a short battery of psychological tests, done through my therapist's office. (WAIS, MMPI, TAT, Rohrschach test). I just got the results back, and we spent the most time talking about the WAIS results. Turns out that I score in the 99th percentile on verbal comprehension and fairly high on working memory, but in the average range on perceptual reasoning and processing speed. The supervisor who scored the tests guessed, correctly, that this means I have trouble reading facial expressions, and that it sometimes takes me a long time to do things that I can explain damn well with words in my head because my muscle memory and spatial skills can't keep up with my internal verbal instructions. She said that I probably don't have Aspergers (suspected in childhood), or ADHD (what I'd often suspected as an adult); just a really frustrating mental disconnect.

As it happens, I've also been working through a lot of issues surrounding work in my therapy sessions. Since last fall, I've been taking prerequisite courses to apply to a new degree program and change fields. New degree would lead directly to a job that pays well within a few years, but in a field that's physically demanding and probably needs a lot of the non-verbal skills I'm less good at. The testing supervisor's exact words were something like "I think you'd find it frustrating and other people would be frustrated with you."

I'm crushed. I started working on new degree prerequisites specifically because I thought the field would be a good fit for me in other ways. (Namely: varied range of tasks, lots of movement/not being at a desk all day, need for complex problem solving, lots of mental stimulation.) I see her points, but a not-insignificant part of me wants to say "screw you therapist, I can do whatever I want!" I get a hell of a lot of pleasure out of defying other people's expectations of what I can do, and the WAIS isn't even a career aptitude test anyway, so why not just say fuck it and keep going?

On the other hand--she's not the first person to question whether new degree is right for me. I've dismissed a bunch of the questioners before--see 'likes defying other people's expectations'--but I admit, I've had some misgivings myself. Maybe it's time to re-evaluate.

The problem is that I have no idea what to do with myself now. The therapist who did the testing unironically told me that, with my verbal abilities, I should be a professor. (My field would be cultural anthropology--a PhD is about the worst thing I could do for my nonexistent career right now.) Entry-level jobs in other writing-heavy areas seem pretty sparse, and few of my applications for generic admin assistant/data entry/file clerk jobs have even gotten me to the interview stage. I have a degree from a prestigious school, but I've been severely underemployed and working menial jobs with no room for advancement for about two years running now and have few networks to draw on. (I've not had good experiences drawing on my school alumni network, friends are mostly in a worse employment place than I am.) I'm only in my mid-20's, but I already feel old and worn out from the recession, like employers would take any perky new graduate of the many universities in my city over me. Comments like this scare the bejesus out of me. I've done my share of temping, volunteering, etc in an attempt to get ahead, but I can't deal with the instability anymore. New degree was my plan, my way to stability, a thing I legitimately thought I could do well--but maybe not.

What do I do in this situation? Keep working toward new degree anyway, or do a complete 180? And how does a millennial burnout case with a rather mixed work history do a complete 180 anyway?

Throwaway email: bestlaidplansfail@gmail.
posted by anonymous to Work & Money (20 answers total) 7 users marked this as a favorite
Could you identify people currently working in the field that interests you, and see if they'll let you shadow them as you work? I think first-hand experience will give you a better feel for how good a fit a job might be than any assessment.
posted by croutonsupafreak at 2:45 PM on June 12, 2013 [5 favorites]

You know how you get better at things you're not very good at?

It's not by abandoning the idea of even trying. Your therapist sounds like they are giving you some truly terrible advice. The world is full of truly broken, flawed people who are somehow still employed at jobs they are uniquely unsuited for.

Therapy, tests. False positives, man. Just ask yourself if I try this and fail, is it worse than where I currently am. In order words, what's the worst that could happen. Is that acceptable than never trying in the first place?

Go with your gut, give it a shot, and you might grow as a person. That's what your therapist should be telling you to do. Within reason and with clearly denoted qualifiers, not this hand-wavy business about how you might be frustrated, and gosh, think of the other people.

Life is frustrating. From the first time we fall flat on our ass after taking our first steps, to the day we give up on gluing our dentures to our hard palate because, hey, soup isn't so bad.

That's how we build character. Move forward with your life plans, not backwards.

I can't count the number of times I've had highly qualified, well paid professionals peer over their designer reading glasses and admonish my life choices and professed career paths. Sure, a few times they were right, but I regret none of those decisions. And looking back, every last one made me a better person, ESPECIALLY the ostensible failures.

If you are certain it's what you want, and you can do it, ignore what other people want you to do. They don't have to live with the results. You do.
posted by hobo gitano de queretaro at 2:59 PM on June 12, 2013 [11 favorites]

Every test I've ever taken has that purported to tell me what career I should be in has had absolutely nothing to do with the career I'm currently quite happily and successfully pursuing. I think those sorts of tests should be taken with a generous helping of salt. Your personal interests and motivations (and determination) will have more to do with your success than a checklist of personality traits.

Spend some time thinking about what a typical day will really look like in the career you're considering, and spend some time talking to others in that career, if you can, to make sure your understanding is correct. Once you've done that, I think you should pursue what you think you want, not what someone else tells you you're suited for.

I think your therapist is not giving you great advice here. Perhaps you can instead have them suggest ways to work around things you'll have trouble with, and to reinforce the skills you have. That seems like a productive use of therapy time, and something that will give you a lot of power to determine your own future success.
posted by duien at 3:13 PM on June 12, 2013 [2 favorites]

I agree with the comments above that perhaps your therapist is not giving you great advice. I keyed in on your comments that other people have questioned whether the new gig is a good fit for you.

I went to school for a very long time, and I have a lot of letters after my name. About three times a year, a kindly intended person (often professors, sometimes friends, sometimes family, once a therapist) told me that I was maybe not cut out for the field, or to be a professor, or that the school I was at was not the school for me. I persisted, because like you, nothing motivates me to do something like being told I can't/shouldn't do that something.

But you know what? They were all right. I was not cut out for that field or to be a professor or for that school. But I worked hard at it and I finished and I got all those letters after my name. AND THEN I got a job in an somewhat-related field (one that required advanced degrees, although not necessarily my advanced degrees) doing something very different from what I had planned. I love my job and am really good at it and make great money, and I would never have found it without walking the path I walked.

So my suggestion for you, based on my own experience is this: if the field you are entering is something really specific, where the degree you get would qualify you for just one thing, then maybe spend some time thinking carefully about the test results, and thinking about examples from your life where you've encountered the problems the tests suggest you might, and thinking about whether those situations would be "show-stopper" or "deal-breaker" problems in your new field. But if your new degree would qualify you for a range of things (even if you don't really know what the range is), then maybe just dive in. A test is just a tool. Don't treat it like a legal decree or a commandment from on high.
posted by OrangeDisk at 3:30 PM on June 12, 2013 [1 favorite]

Are you by any chance in the early stages of studying to become a physician, like doing a post-bacc? If so, and if you are worried about your people skills and physical dexterity, keep in mind that there are a world of specialties and subspecialties that aren't orthopedic surgery (dexterity) or pediatrician (people skills). Many patients more or less expect their gastroenterologist to be kind of weird, in fact.
posted by Snarl Furillo at 3:32 PM on June 12, 2013

As an academic working in a very hands-on, nuts-and-bolts sub-discipline, I've encountered quite a few people who are brilliant by most measures but waste years doing terrible lab work with no sign of improvement. In several of those cases, stern advice early on would have served everyone well. So, I'm sympathetic to the idea that not everyone can or should do every job. (I make no claim for the original cause; only that by the time someone is in their mid twenties, mechanical aptitude is really hard to change.)

That said, I'd be very skeptical of a test designed to measure such a thing, especially if there isn't extensive published data that shows it can really do so and makes reliable predictions.

I'd take the test as a sign not that you should give up on the idea, but that you need to jump in and give yourself the opportunity to fail as quickly and completely as possible. Don't spend two years getting a credential, find an internship, and then discover that you've wasted your time. Instead, figure out what the bits of the job you're least confident about are and try to find a way to do them now. If possible, in a situation where you can get honest feedback from someone who's used to training new people. Obviously, that's a lot easier to do if you're trying to become an electrician or a cinematographer rather than an airline pilot or a bomb-disposal specialist. In cases like the later, informal shadowing or an official internship sort of position may be your only option.

Remember, you don't have to be the good at every aspect of your dream job. You just have to be good at enough of it to be happy, and good enough at the rest of it to get by. (Just ask the most competent people you know how much of their work they feel they're really good at.)
posted by eotvos at 3:38 PM on June 12, 2013 [6 favorites]

The therapist who did the testing unironically told me that, with my verbal abilities, I should be a professor.

Your therapist doesn't sound very in touch with the realities of how competitive some careers are. You want a career counselor.

Be careful taking advice that hinges on knowing what a career is like from someone who hasn't done that particular career, even if they are a career counselor.

eotvos has it right. Fail fast, if you are going to fail.

And if you are studying to be a physician, there's always pathology and radiology.

I've dismissed a bunch of the questioners before--see 'likes defying other people's expectations'--but I admit, I've had some misgivings myself.

If you are avoiding your own misgivings to defy the expectations of others, you're letting other people control you.

Keep working toward new degree anyway, or do a complete 180?

I take it your personality tests showed a tendency towards all-or-nothing thinking. Look into doing a 90, or a 45.
posted by yohko at 3:50 PM on June 12, 2013 [2 favorites]

The therapist who did the testing unironically told me that, with my verbal abilities, I should be a professor.

I think this tells you all you need to know about how seriously to take the career planning inputs of this person.

You should make career decisions with the input of people in the career you're considering. Ideally, some who are successful at it; and if possible, some who have abandoned it or suck at it. Only they can tell you what activities are part of the day-to-day and what attributes have helped or hindered them in their career. A therapist knows nothing, unless the career you're wondering about is as a personality-test administering therapist who spouts goofy career advice.
posted by fingersandtoes at 4:28 PM on June 12, 2013 [2 favorites]

Your therapist doesn't sound very in touch with the realities of how competitive some careers are. You want a career counselor.

My career counselor, at a major research university, after administering the official, expensive, long version of the MBTI, said that I would be "well-suited" to be a college professor. That, or a career counselor. I obviously became neither. In every case I've seen personally, the advice of a career counselor is a placebo.

As somebody who has a little bit of a professional background in research psychology, I can only offer one piece of advice: performance on tests is a surrogate measure. It is a noisy, blurry, unreliable, poorly behaved, inconsistent measure. Psychologists and cognitive neuroscientists agonize over ways to measure cognitive… processes? formations?… that are diffuse, ineffable, indescribable, undefinable.

We don't know what working memory is, so we replace it with ugly surrogate measures, like how many digits you can keep in mind. If the test was designed to get measurements from a distant star, people would complain and move on, maybe run a bunch of advanced statistics on the output. But the phenomenon that's being measured is you. You are the best, most accurate, and most reliable instrument for measuring how well you're doing. How do you think you're doing in your chosen field? How are you performing on your classwork? What do you know about the field you're planning to go into, and how does it make you feel?

Don't trade a surrogate measure for one that is more accurate. Take other steps to maximize that accuracy. Don't throw away the entire experiment because of one wacky measurement.
posted by Nomyte at 4:30 PM on June 12, 2013 [3 favorites]

A lot of people will tell you that they are gainfully, happily and successfully employed doing things all manner of aptitude tests suggest they should not be good at. That may be the case. But one thing to bear in mind is that these tests are interpreted and that there is a difference between tendencies and a strong indicator. So you really need to understand your results as they are relevant for your current chosen path. And not just the indicators but where you are in the range.

You also need to go out there and find people in your chosen field and do informational interviews with them. Find out about what they really do, what parts of their jobs they enjoy and what they hate. And then you can try to assess fit for you. Use the results to allow you to do more targeted research into that career. They are useless in isolation.
posted by koahiatamadl at 5:08 PM on June 12, 2013

in the average range on perceptual reasoning and processing speed

Most people are average. I don't think being average should necessarily dissuade you from your career path. As you're particularly good in other areas, you can probably compensate.
posted by kjs4 at 5:48 PM on June 12, 2013 [2 favorites]

If she were the only one giving this advice...but she's not.

If you haven't been admitted anywhere, maybe keep taking the prereqs, and also work your ass off finding someone in that new field to shadow or intern for or get actual paid to do admin work for. If you have been admitted to a program, consider deferring for a year.

This is a big decision, and you're right to treat it seriously. Gather as much first-hand data as you can before you make it.
posted by rtha at 6:18 PM on June 12, 2013

Numerical hurricane modeling never shows up on those tests, yet here I am in grad school doing it.

Life has more choices than any standardized test could ever handle.
posted by oceanjesse at 8:41 PM on June 12, 2013 [1 favorite]

It's good to know your weaknesses. That way you won't be surprised by them while you go ahead and do whatever you want to do anyway.

In any case you're way ahead of the game by even realizing that it's possible you might be less than perfectly suited for your field. That never even occurs to the truly incompetent.
posted by Tell Me No Lies at 9:53 PM on June 12, 2013

The WAIS is an IQ test, not a personality test or a career placement test. That means it has been shown to correlate overall with educational achievement and general 'life success' in the populations it was standardised on. However, it was not designed to tell you what real life skills you are good at.

In my profession, there are some key skills. I have certainly met therapists without strengths in some of those key skills. As long as they are aware of those weaknesses and compensate for them, they are still good therapists, just different ones. I am much more analytical than most speech therapists, which means I am very good at working with clients who want more detail and reasoning, and I have to work harder to deal with those that want metaphors and analogies - that's OK.

It would help if you had said that the potential career is - some jobs need certain skills more than others, but most hurdles are climbable.
posted by kadia_a at 11:12 PM on June 12, 2013

While I agree with others that said "average" is not bad, it IS a poor match for a job that's "demanding." Average aptitude at something would match well with job phrases like, "involves some...." as in, it is not the primary area of your work.

As said above, there are lots of people ill-suited for their jobs that are still employed, but, to support your therapist, they piss off the actually qualified individuals ROYALLY.

People will want to tell you to "shoot for your dreams" or "learn on the job!" but following your dreams is rewarding when you achieve them, but unstable until the time you reach that point (if you ever do). You sound like you are at the point where you want stability. Hey, I've been there. My passion is in one field, but my major was something else entirely. Why? Because while I only LIKED, not loved, my major, I was much, much more employable with it.

I would say shift gears. Keep the program in the back of your mind, and maybe take a course in it here or there, but keep the train to employment on track. You already have a degree. Think about what you would like to work in, and how. Your therapist said, "professor", and people are mocking them for that, but that could have been a shorthand form of them saying, "conveyor of information." One of my earliest, and best, jobs was as a field trip instructor. It was phenomenal pay (like, even compared to what I'm making in my new job) and I did not even have a degree at the time. A friend of mine spent her late twenties working as a museum guide, and she loved it. Will it be the last job you have? Probably not, but it will be steady work that will allow you to take classes.

And classes don't necessarily need to lead to a degree. There are certificate programs offered by some colleges for doing a semester or two of work. So if I were thinking, at this point, of switching gears into my passion, I don't think I would get a degree in it, I might, instead, get a certificate in the field. It will let you put something field-related on your resume sooner, and credits can usually be applied to the degree.

Again, I know I'm disagreeing with the majority here, but I would say that every person needs to balance their wants with their needs, and most importantly realize that we can't always do what we want. I mean, literally, we cannot do it.

And I don't think there's any shame in that. I get people coming into my classes that want to be nurses. One person, hoping to enter the nursing program, failed anatomy I 3 times before passing with the C needed to move on. They then failed anatomy II 4 times before finally earning the C. Now, did they reach their goal of getting into the program? They sure did! But the program's classes are much harder than the prereqs, and there are no retakes allowed. So in trying to reach their goal, they futilely wasted around 4 years of worth of tuition and time. This person was SUPER sweet and would have had a great bedside manner. However, I would rather my nurse be super mean but be able to know how to work the life saving equipment than the reverse. And this is the worst example, but only one of the stories I see.

When you enter a program, you should have the aptitude for that program. Especially if you already had a degree - you're not new to college. The only things you should really be learning are the mechanics and the details.

So as much as I would love to tell you to pursue this, from what I read, it seems like you are pursuing this because you don't know what else to do to obtain employment, and also to prove the naysayers wrong. I don't get even get a hint that you are actually passionate about this program. And this is a fast way to accumulate colllege debt without an actual job.

Although you do seem fond of aspects of the program, some of the aspects you list don't fit well with how you describe yourself. In my experience, "complex problem solving" does not mesh well with someone who believes they have ADHD (note, I'm not saying it CAN'T be done, but I had to watch the dramatic deterioration of several ADHD's students' works when there was the Ritalin shortage last year) - ESPECIALLY when the method of delivery is already in a style you don't do well with it.

I'm all for self-improvement, but I'm more for finding a job that works well with the skills you already possess.
posted by Lt. Bunny Wigglesworth at 11:44 PM on June 12, 2013 [2 favorites]

I think it's always a good idea to find out as much as possible about a new career path and whether you actually enjoy and be good at doing the nitty gritty day to day before making the jump. Especially if you're paying for another degree.

That said, I don't know, who knows if these psychological tests really mean anything that concrete?

Why did you pick this particular field? Do you have any insight about whether you actually like this job and have good prospects for success? I don't think I'd let such abstract test results weigh more heavily than actual lived experience of doing a particular job.
posted by Sara C. at 12:29 AM on June 13, 2013

Think really hard about how much the skills you need can be learned and worked around. For example, my career requires attention to detail, really good organisation, focus, and physical dexterity, all things which do not come naturally to me. For the first few years of University I was a total mess in the lab and it was clear I lacked these things. But I practised and made a big effort and got better, and I now have people compliment me on my amazing organisational skills and I actively enjoy the physical aspects of my job. I've even had people not believe me when I tell them I'm totally faking and I have to think really hard about all of this all the time. And over time even that has become less true as it becomes second nature to do these things just simply because I've spent so many years doing them. Repetition works for brain patterns too.

So yeah, it might take time to get over your perceived weaknesses. And it's going to involve hard work and doing things that don't feel good or come easy. But none of us are perfect and you can lean on the things you're good at while working on those you aren't. If you have a passion for what you're learning and if you know what you need to do to succeed, then you'll get there. And if you don't, then you're screwed no matter how great your other skills are anyway.
posted by shelleycat at 2:21 AM on June 13, 2013

Oh, I also agree with the advice to talk with people in the actual career you're aiming for. As I said up there, you need to know what you will need to do to succeed. Not just generally or what people think should be the things, but actual concrete specific advice about what that career is like and how you get there.

Then you can think really hard about what you do well already, what things you can learn with time and effort, and what you just can't. Also, I guess, think about what you *want* to learn how to do better too because there were several exhausting years where I worked really hard on training myself in the skills I need, and it wasn't actually a lot of fun.
posted by shelleycat at 2:33 AM on June 13, 2013

Yeah, the WAIS wasn't designed or normed to give career advice. And 'average' can be a pretty big span, and does not mean mediocre. You have no identified weaknesses - I think your motivation and a consideration of the job market will be the most important things here in choosing a career path.
posted by whalebreath at 5:02 AM on June 14, 2013

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