A directionless 20-something, how original.
August 16, 2013 12:56 PM   Subscribe

I need help figuring out the next step to take in my life.

I graduated in 2010 with a bachelor’s degree in Psychology, with minors in Women’s Studies and Sociology. At the time, I had intended to pursue social work as a career path. I liked the idea of helping people, and the idea of a job as a corporate drone just didn’t seem feasible. Both of my parents owned their own businesses working from home my whole life, so it is hard for me to imagine buttoning up in a suit and sitting in meetings all day. However, I spent some time interning at a domestic violence shelter and social services, and found that social work was too depressing for me. I decided I was more interested in helping people at a higher level, namely through research. I decided I would go to grad school for psychology research. However, I wanted to take a year or so off between undergrad and grad school, to make sure this was the right decision, and prevent burnout.

Upon returning home after graduation, I got a job in a retail position. Fast forward to three years later, I’m still there. I’ve been promoted to a more supervisory administrative position, which I have held for two years. But I’m ready to move on. I have been living with my parents since graduation, as I live in one of the most expensive areas in the country. While I make a very good wage for retail work, it is not enough to move out. I also now have a boyfriend, who also works at the retail store. He is similarly feeling stuck, since he has been unable to complete his BA due to health issues. We are both wanting to move on, leave the area and stop feeling like we are waiting to start our lives.

With respect to jobs, I have become interested in health care policy over the last year or so. I have been applying for research assistant positions in health policy related organizations, but these are understandably competitive, and I have no experience. I think I might be interested in a health policy graduate program, but I want to have some work experience first before committing time and money to this endeavor. I also am not really sure where that path would lead. I don’t see myself as a lobbyist, and while I’m very interested in the subject, I hear horror stories about academia right now (how difficult it is to come by positions, etc.). So I worry about committing to that path as well. I am feeling confused and directionless.

Boyfriend and I are discussing just picking somewhere and moving, to get out of the bubble of Northern Virginia. At the worst case, we could both transfer to another location of our retail company, as they have locations across the country. But I feel like that would serve to keep me stuck in a position that doesn’t have any opportunities for advancement. So any advice you might have about directions to go, jobs to look at, etc. would be so greatly appreciated.
posted by bluloo to Work & Money (10 answers total) 6 users marked this as a favorite
Best answer: I am feeling confused and directionless.

Hey, welcome to your mid-twenties! Ain't it fun and awesome?

Yeah. The first thing I would say is that this is pretty much the story of a lot of people's early 20s these days. Aspirations perhaps to go into some sort of academia, get stuck in an okay but not great job unrelated to degree, worry about going to grad school because will it be worth it etc etc. So you are very much not alone. This is very normal.

Part of the thing here is that the idea of doing public health stuff seems appealing, or the idea of research, but what is the day to day really like? Just like the idea of social work seemed good until you tested the waters, public health or research may present the same problem. One good way to start thinking about this is to sit down and think about your life on a day-to-day level. What do you want to be doing? Working with people? Sitting at a computer with excel? Writing? Numbers? Phone calls? Selling things? Advocating for things?

The general rule about academia is never go into it unless you are so 1000% sure and passionate and don't mind teaching at Your Subject 101 at Buttballs College in Kansas for no money, benefits, or job security so long as you get to study Your Thing. There are no jobs, there is no money.

Research is very cool, but if helping people is your Big Thing, I'm not sure you will find the sort of fulfillment you think you might in research. While research, in the big picture, definitely helps people, it can feel pretty far removed and abstract. Of course, a lot of this depends on what sort of research you're doing. Which also raises the question: what sort of research would you want to do? Is it the subject matter that interests you, or just the idea of doing research? Research can mean a lot of different things. A lot of research these days also involves a good deal of admin and management.

As far as Public Heath goes, there are a number of things you can do with that - yeah, policy and lobbying is definitely one. That's going to be mostly making phone calls. You could be an analyst if you're good with numbers and data. I know a number of folks with MPH degrees that work in various roles in hospital administration. Do you like admin? Do you like making budgets, having meetings, managing, etc?

If you're interested in helping people, have you considered clinical psych? It'd be a way to get your academia rocks off while leading you down a path where you will have work and make decent money. If the PhD seemed to big a commitment, you could even go for a lesser counseling degree. I don't know if that sort of thing would set off the same depression, not helping people at a high enough level sorts of buttons as the MSW stuff did, however.

So, something that helped me was informational interviews. Go talk to people. Professional people love to nerd out over their work. Go find some public health policy folks or analysts or administrators, go find some psych researchers, go talk to some clinical psychologists, and ask them about everything - what they do, what path they took, what they like, what they don't like. It will help you get a better feel for all of these things, help you focus in on what you want, and help you network a little that might open a door or two.
posted by Lutoslawski at 1:33 PM on August 16, 2013 [3 favorites]

Boyfriend and I are discussing just picking somewhere and moving, to get out of the bubble of Northern Virginia.

This is a terrible idea. The only place where you will have an opportunity to do health care policy is IN the bubble of northern Virginia/DC/MD, and it is where the economy is best right now. You live at home, so you have a good opportunity to get an internship with a health care policy NGO or even just work as a staff assistant for a congressman interested in health care and work your way from there to a more legislative job function and then to an NGO.
posted by deanc at 1:36 PM on August 16, 2013 [2 favorites]

Best answer: One more note on "helping people."

I work in the NPO world, where we have lots and lots of people, including myself, that want to "help people." Almost everyone who goes into a "helping people" field has to drastically downsize their expectations of what that means.

"Helping people" starts as a big abstract idea, some broad desire for your life to make a difference. Once you get in the trenches though, you realize that helping people really means helping THIS person on THIS day and doing that day in and day out. Even in research working on solving problems that could make Huge Differences, a lot of it is working your whole career to solve this one small aspect of the big picture, contributing one small bit.

Helping People is actually a hard, pedantic, and often dirty daily grind.
posted by Lutoslawski at 1:41 PM on August 16, 2013 [13 favorites]

You're going to have to find a job before you pick up and move. If you're interested in health care or mental health policy, your best choices are almost certainly the Federal government in the DC area and various state capitals around the country. Just make sure you pick a well funded state.

I'm talking out of my ass here, but I'd also encourage you to pick a state that votes Democratic, because social services don't tend to be a priority in Republican-voting states. I know hiring is going on health care in Sacramento, especially due to ACA, but I don't know about other state capitals.

Also understand that you'll start at the very bottom and have to work your way up. This is generally not difficult in government if you put in the extra effort. Assuming agencies are hiring, it's also generally not difficult to actually get a bottom-level job if you have a degree, can write a cover letter and interview well.
posted by cnc at 1:55 PM on August 16, 2013

Before you totally give up on social work...could you see yourself as an administrator at a social services agency? Head of a DV program, head of an agency? You get to address questions on a fairly big-picture level, especially in a major metropolitan area where you have lots of institutional peers, while still actually being able to make a list of persons you have helped. (Which one can't say for most, maybe not all, policy jobs.) Think about an MBA with a nonprofit management concentration or an MPA.
posted by skbw at 2:22 PM on August 16, 2013

I would recommend if you haven't done this already that you volunteer for someone doing something related to the research you think you might want to get into. First, because it will expose you to the mechanics of research, second because it may earn you a publishing credit if you're really on it, and third because they will be good references for any kind of program you want to get into when you are applying for funding/scholarships (from my North American experience). To put it in perspective, when I was first looking at lifelong (social sciences/policy) academia I was active in three research labs for a total of about twenty hours per week... unpaid. This mostly involved running research trials or coding results. I later moved on to TA/other badly paid gigs where I helped write and edit, now I have a real non-academic job that uses my academic skills. All of the people I worked for have been terrific references in my professional life and have helped me on to other opportunities. Academia can be pretty quid pro quo.

As far as policy (which is not academia per se), a friend of mine went the straight policy route and actually started by writing a blogger blog (!) about the policy he was interested in and news developments in that area, he ended up picked up by a prominent political group on contract (volunteer or low paid) and made a name for himself and then did a random Masters and now is paid to do policy full time in the area he started in for fun. He basically digitally networked himself into position but threw in enough original thought that people started to listen and quote him.

I know another friend who does internal government policy with some research. She started doing data entry for a company we'd worked for as students who loved her, then worked into data analysis, and got her break when she was headhunted but an acquaintance for a big firm. She actually got fired from that job during the recession and then managed to get the job she's in now. It's been a bumpy road, her job now is sweet.

I'm setting this out for you because I don't think any of the three of us had any idea to get where we were going, in some cases we didn't know where we were going, and I didn't actually have many people give me an explanation of Where Careers Come From. The above is where they actually come from, as far as I can tell.

You can do this while having your current job, or a temporary job, if anything when you go to be hired you will be respected for supporting yourself while pursuing what you want to do. If the above (volunteer work, periods of unanticipated unemployment, networking) do not appeal to you, you may want to just look for another stable job that will expand on the skills you like using and give you more responsibility, whatever it is.

Read as many employment ads as you can, there are jobs out there you may not know exist, use your alma mater's career center. Not all social sciences work is as bleak as the things you've dabbled in, there is a lot of work with kids or elderly people or in special needs - it depends who you relate to. That your current job has given you more responsibility is a good sign -- why is that? What are you bringing to the table that has convinced them to move you up the ladder? Use that.
posted by skermunkil at 3:21 PM on August 16, 2013 [2 favorites]

You might look into Americorps. It doesn't pay well, but it can provide the experience in health care policy that you're lacking and provide you with a network when you leave it.
posted by vegartanipla at 6:45 PM on August 16, 2013

Side note: as a fifty-year-old I can say that I wish somebody had emphasized the importance of developing your own personal old-age safety net early enough for interest effects to have time to snowball.

In other words, your first career move should be starting a plan for your post career. The earlier the better.
posted by Camofrog at 11:25 PM on August 16, 2013 [1 favorite]

You are at the age where you realize that the life you planned out as a teenager isn't the life you want to live as an adult.

So, whatta ya want to do? Just because you want to do a job, it doesn't mean that the job will pay enough or not be crazy-making in other ways.

Often the jobs we take "until something better comes along" turn into our careers. I didn't start out thinking I would be in telecom for 25 years, it just worked out that way.

A good friend of mine became a retail manager and was transferred from the town she wanted to get out of, to a place she loves.

My cousin has a great job with a retailer known for being ethical and community minded. She's been moved a lot.

We can't all be firemen and princesses, someone has to know how to put together a data network.

What if your job turns out to be the way you earn money, as opposed to being a way of defining your worth?

What if you work for money, and volunteer to do the "helping" stuff in your spare time?

Being an adult means that at some point you accept your life, as it is, in this moment.

Stop waiting around for "job charming".
posted by Ruthless Bunny at 4:11 AM on August 17, 2013 [1 favorite]

I am also a directionless twentysomething.

I work for a health policy non-profit in DC. There are tons of different directions people can take in the field, and if you are relatively close to DC you will have a TON of opportunities to talk to people in the field, get an internship, or land a job. You might want to just show up to some of the professionals groups and chat with people. Here's one in DC for health policy.

As other people have mentioned, a lot of policy work means being good at "office-y" things, like using spreadsheets, doing research, writing reports, budgeting, going to meetings. My office employs people with backgrounds ranging from MDs and MPHs who read and analyze complex laws and reports, communications staff, attorneys, fundraising/development staff, and event organizers.

Sounds like on the larger scale of things you might want to focus a little more on what kinds of tasks you enjoy (or utterly hate) rather than the particular field you're in. For example, doing development at a health policy non-profit is pretty similar day-to-day in what tasks I would work on (spreadsheets, graphs, reports, conference calls) for a more corporate job.

I know quite a few people with BAs in psychology or sociology who got jobs doing research for policy groups in the DC area. If you have solid skills with things like Excel or SPSS, that certainly helps if you are going the research route. For the more wonk-y jobs, you pretty much have to either know someone or have sort of internship or volunteering in the field on your resume to show that you have some familiarity with the field before someone will hire you.
posted by forkisbetter at 10:20 AM on August 19, 2013 [1 favorite]

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