Practical career advice needed.
January 13, 2014 7:09 PM   Subscribe

After a depressive episode and changing my major a million times, I'm finally reaching out for help in figuring out what to do for the rest of my life.

So, the depressing fact is I'm heading towards my 5th year at community college and I still don't know what to do with my life. I was pre-med for a bit, but that route kind of fell on its ass when a professor refused to add me to a major pre-requisite class. As a result, UC Berkeley and UCLA rescinded my admission.

Then I had a "fuck everybody" attitude that stemmed from the above misfortune, and decided my sole purpose in life was to make as much money as possible. I changed my major to business and my goal to work at Wall Street.

THEN after a depressive episode, suicide attempt, and tons of medical bills going to collections later, I discovered a passion for cooking to keep my mind occupied. However, I am not fully convinced I need to go to culinary school (nor have the money...or credit to borrow) when I could work my way up at restaurants like Gordon Ramsay did. Eventually I'd like to start a food blog and maybe open a restaurant, but I'd like a career in something practical to fall back on because opening a restaurant is risky and that my chance of being the next Ree Drummond is slim.

Currently I am unemployed and took a break from school to recover from depression. I've been researching about majoring in astronautical engineering, but then I almost always have a panic attack due to the uncertainty of the future. Not having an established goal to work towards is a bit distressing, like life has no meaning. I keep thinking I should go back to my pre-med track because I've already started it and that familiarity is comforting.

Here are some of my traits:
-I like the challenge of my science classes.
-I like to think about how science applies to cooking.
-I'm creative and a perfectionist.
-I have a good work ethic.

Career criteria:
-A Bachelor's Degree is enough to get me a high-paying career.
-Grad school is mostly subsidized by the company.
-Something that gives me fulfillment, like I contributed to the world.

I need personal anecdotes on the day-to-day as well as career advice because I have a tendency to idealize careers and end up disappointed that real life doesn't measure up to my imagination.
posted by squirtle to Education (19 answers total) 6 users marked this as a favorite
Your list of traits (science, food, creativity) made me think "food scientist." Chemistry or engineering would be the most likely inroads to that.

However, it's important to remember that just because you like something, doesn't mean you should major in it. My sister is in love with outer space, has been since she was a little girl. She majored in physics with the goal of becoming an astronomer... but she just didn't have the math skills to get past calc. She was banging her head against the wall, trying to force this dream to come true, but when she finally gave it up for psychology she was so relieved, and so much happier. Because she has actual skills in relating to people and empathizing with them, and now she's able to harness that, rather than struggling to be something she's not. The point being: you don't have to work in food just because you like food. It can be a hobby, like astronomy now is for my sister.

I was pre-med for a bit, but that route kind of fell on its ass when a professor refused to add me to a major pre-requisite class. As a result, UC Berkeley and UCLA rescinded my admission.

Is something preventing you from taking this one class now, and continuing on to med school? Have you decided you don't like medicine, or was it just so frustrating that you changed your mind?
posted by showbiz_liz at 7:40 PM on January 13, 2014 [1 favorite]

Maybe finish your business degree with a focus on accounting, work doing accounting for an organization with a mission you believe in while saving to open your own restaurant, and open a restaurant with a science/nutrition motif that keeps unusually good records, cost projections, etc.?

It's the shortest path I can think of for connecting the dots here. But have you tried So Good They Can't Ignore You as an antidote to the myth that you have to pursue your one true passion in life to be happy? It might help you to settle on something that just works well enough until you're good at it and have lots of options.
posted by Monsieur Caution at 7:46 PM on January 13, 2014 [3 favorites]

I think right now you should try to just get a job, any job. Waiter, kitchen assistant, retail, phone answerer. Doing something you don't want to do forever can have a great way of helping you figuring out what you do want to do.
posted by bleep at 7:47 PM on January 13, 2014

Do you already work in restaurants?

There is nothing stopping you from getting a restaurant job right now. If you dream of someday opening your own place, well, the first step is line cook. Just go do it. You don't have to be a celebrity chef to have a restaurant. There are restaurants everywhere in the world, and somebody has to own them.

Also, word of advice: "but what if I fail" or "who am I kidding, I'm no [whoever]" or "it's difficult to break into this field" are not good reasons to write off a career. If you want to do something, at least try. If you fail, think about alternatives then.

Restaurant work meets all your criteria:

- It doesn't require any degree, but if you got a BA in a related field that would be really valuable.
- No grad school necessary.
- It sounds like you were fulfilled by cooking, or at least you're still really interested in the idea.
- You can absolutely still do all the things you dream of doing with cooking/food/restaurants, and they're all very achievable goals.
posted by Sara C. at 7:53 PM on January 13, 2014 [3 favorites]

My husband is a chef. If you go around to restaurants, coffee shops, bakeries, retail specialty food stores--you can probably get a job. You will be competing with guys from Oaxaca who will take the dishwasher or prep jobs, but you can probably find a foot in the door. You don't need to go to cooking school, but you do have to really sell yourself. I wouldn't start with fancy schmancy places, but you don't need to be stuck with chains either. You can always start with server gigs, too, and express an interest in the kitchen.
posted by Ideefixe at 8:01 PM on January 13, 2014

I don't mean to thread sit, but so far most comments are pointing towards culinary. I still have issues to work out before taking the jump. Mainly I can't shake the fact that it's not practical. (Can you tell I was raised by Chinese immigrants?) My worst fear is working for someone else's restaurant for the entirety of my career, instead of owning my own Michelin star restaurant. Logically, I know I'll never get anywhere if I don't at least try, but I can't shake this feeling that was grounded into me since I was little.
posted by squirtle at 8:09 PM on January 13, 2014

Mainly I can't shake the fact that it's not practical.

What are you talking about?

Thousands of people in the US alone make a living working in restaurants. Restaurant work is a valuable skill that is in demand everywhere, and that you will ALWAYS have once you pay your dues. You don't need any expensive training or equipment. It requires virtually no initial investment. There is a restaurant in almost every town in the country. Any small city will have dozens of them. Any large city will have hundreds, if not thousands. With restaurant skills you could go literally anywhere in the world and be assured of a job.

You watch too much Food Network if you think cooking is some kind of impractical pipe dream superstar thing.

As to Michelin stars, worry about that when you've actually stepped into a kitchen. "But what if I'm never the best chef on the planet" is a ridiculous thing to be concerned about at this stage in the game.
posted by Sara C. at 8:14 PM on January 13, 2014 [9 favorites]

I think a therapist would be a good person to talk to. It’s not clear to me how well you know yourself, at this point. I think it’s important to have a good sense of your current personal strengths, at least as far as you’ve had an opportunity to develop them so far (it’s amazing what qualities situations can bring out in us, for good or ill. I know I’ve been surprised a few times, both ways). Also, of your vulnerabilities. That can change too, absolutely. Still, we also have inclinations that are more or less stable. And it’d be good to have a sense of your motivations.

The reason I’m rehearsing Personality 101 is that I agree, you might be idealizing things a bit – your previous career goals involved very high levels of achievement, and also, big swings in terms of motivations. Doctor, helping people. Wall Street suit, 'make as much money as possible’. Astronautical engineering, go to space (or support it, ok yes that's not an astronaut). Those are all really different, as I’m sure you’ve observed. (On preview, chef at a Michelin star restaurant.) That sounds like black and white thinking to me – where are the other possibilities, the in-between things most people do? If I’m right, this is something a therapist could help with. Or maybe it’s youth, or that you haven’t had enough experience to draw from.

But I do think working towards understanding things a bit more realistically, with a touch more openness, could really help you, as you try, and evaluate, different experiences.

(For some person or other, it might be completely feasible to do something like develop an idea for food to go [or something], get a small business grant or loan (where I am, a range of government and charity organizations* put up e.g. 1-5k a pop, depends on where you live, where you look, how hard you work on applications), and pitch up a tent at a market on the weekends, or do small-scale catering, and see how that goes, while working a part-time job and living cheaply.
I have no idea if that could be you.)

I think a great thing you’ve done is pursued an interest that gives you pleasure. You should keep doing that, with cooking and as many other pleasurable things as possible, as you figure this out.

*some of these organizations also offer mentorship to young or new entrepreneurs. I don't know if something like that exists near you.
posted by cotton dress sock at 8:23 PM on January 13, 2014 [5 favorites]

That head chef at the Michelin star place? Do you think that's the first restaurant job he ever had?
posted by theodolite at 8:28 PM on January 13, 2014 [6 favorites]

You have a history of getting some interest in a career you really don't know much about it. I love baking bread, more than I can explain but I have no interest in doing it professionally because I know the realities of the job are completely different from my life as a home baker.

You need to get a job, any job. Pull your head out of the clouds and see what you'd really be good at. It wasn't until I started working despite having a bachelor's that I could honestly tell myself,"this is what I want to do and am good at."

You need direction and you aren't going to find it in your current situation. Don't spend more money changing majors until you understand what your future career may be like. Just six months working full-time could give you a better sense of who you are and how to achieve your goals, because you might know what it is you really want instead of bouncing from idea to idea.
posted by Aranquis at 8:38 PM on January 13, 2014 [2 favorites]

A few thoughts:

The realities of many day to day jobs are different than 'interest' and different than school. It's okay to have a day job. I was reading the class descriptions for a degree in Jurispudence and Ethics and it sounded fascinating...but I don't want to study again, don't want the debt, and don't want to actually *be* a lawyer.

There's a discrepency between what you want to do and what you'd potentially be great at and what jobs are actually available. Focus on the last part: the skills you have and what jobs are available that use them. Get any ol' job and start experimenting!

It's okay to have a day job - it doesn't have to be 'A Career'. Lots and lots of great jobs are not anything you'd read about in a career book. I love my current job, and I got it by having other jobs, trying stuff out, and focusing my resume on the parts I either really like or was really good at (and enjoyed doing). My job is a great fit for me, but I'm not anything specific, and the path wasn't clear.

You tend to be looking at lots of careers that involve an awful lot of school and an awful lot of stress; you will need mental and emotional fortitude to do them. I would assume you've seen a therapist; this might be a good question for a reputable career counselor or life coach (working in tandem with your therapist).

Many bachelors degrees don't lead to 'A Career'. My degree is totally unrelated. TOTALLY.

I agree getting out into the world and having a job or two. Then, when you know what you want to do, you'll know what classes to take (if any).

Anecdata: I have a friend in NYC who started out as a barback and now manages an expensive trendy little Italian place in ParkSlope. He has a long-term girlfriend, works hard, writes fiction (some published) in his spare time, and has travelled around the world.... I gather he's doing a-ok! Work hard.
posted by jrobin276 at 9:21 PM on January 13, 2014 [3 favorites]

I think you should read this excellent blog post (on The Art of Manliness, which I think is pretty excellent even though I'm not a man), "Good News! Your Life Isn't Limitless!" You may also get something out of the book the post is based on, Meg Jay's "The Defining Decade." There's a lot of things I want to tell you, but that post covers it much better than I could.

I currently have a job that appears to meet some of your criteria. MeMail me if you want to know more about it, but I work in a major scientific laboratory, the scene of several Nobel Prize-winning discoveries. The particular work that I do is directly and vitally necessary for fundamental scientific discovery and understanding. My friends readily admit I have the coolest job of anyone they know. The job isn't super high-paying but it's pretty comfortable for only having a Bachelor's at the moment. It is pretty nonstandard in a lot of ways, including schedule and scope. My point isn't that you should or necessarily can do what I do; it's more that weird jobs can meet your criteria in ways you might not expect. (And even I'm trying to figure out what to do next; there's always a next step.)

Keep your mind open, and don't focus on how hard it's going to be to deal with things when you have your award-winning restaurant (or whatever). Focus on what you can do today. I don't know if anybody told you this, but you don't have to figure out what you're going to do for the rest of your life. Five years or so is enough for now. Heck, tomorrow is fine, within reason. And you can change your mind if really want to. You don't know enough how you'll change (and you will change, at least if you're doing it right) to be sure.

You say you have a good work ethic, and I'm willing to believe you. But it doesn't sound like you follow through very well, or respond well when things aren't going according to plan. That is a very, very important part. Maybe the most important part. Because things won't go according to plan, and you have to be able to move forward anyway. That's the challenge. The normal parts, the boring parts, the responsible parts. The parts that are nothing special. That's where the special people shine.

I hope I don't sound self-satisfied; I'm not, at all. I'm very humbled and lucky, I know. I'm not where I want to be, either, and it's a great source of unhappiness and self-doubt. But I'm the most normal and boring and not special and failure-iffic that I think I've ever been, despite the interesting job and all the advice I'm spouting, and I think this is sort of what it's all about--this is the challenge, this is what it's really about; making something special of yourself even when it turns out you're no longer a special child who gets prizes for being so precocious. Figuring out how to succeed at Step C even though you fumbled Step B and Step A wasn't super-perfect. I guess what success I'd had before had been though doing everything perfectly, and you know, you can't rely on doing that forever. Even, or rather especially, if you're a perfectionist.

If you're having panic attacks and suicide attempts, please please get (more) help for that. It's not helping you reach your goals, for one thing.

Oh, and I am the child of Chinese immigrants, too. I grew up working in our restaurant (a hole-in-the-wall that doesn't even have Michelin tires) and it was a ton of really hard work but supported the family, you know? There's something valuable in a job that does that. You're not a failure if you don't win every prize ever. You're not a failure even if you don't win any prizes at all.
posted by spelunkingplato at 9:42 PM on January 13, 2014 [5 favorites]

Food Science is definitely a thing, and there are undergraduate programs for it like this one at UMass. I knew a UMass food science grad who worked for Frito Lay. She worked on a team that reformulated the dough for Fritos so that it would extrude more cleanly.
posted by Wordwoman at 9:57 PM on January 13, 2014

You haven't said whether you've ever worked in a restaurant, in any capacity, before. It ain't like tv, let me tell you.

I see a lot of fear-of-failure in your post, like this:

My worst fear is working for someone else's restaurant for the entirety of my career, instead of owning my own Michelin star restaurant.

Okay, buddy,

1) you are not gonna own your own michelin starred restaurant.
2) Of all the chefs who are happy cheffing, >99% don't own their owned michelin starred restaurants.
3) Failure to own a Michelin starred restaurant does not equal failure.

My advice to you is to stop looking at what people at the very apex of their fields do - it's great to daydream, but it can lead to an awful lot of disappointment. Look at what people a) just starting out, and b) mid-career are doing - cause that is what you are going to be doing for the forseeable future.

Also, stop worrying about life career etc etc. Most people change careers several times during the course of their working life. I feel that you are worried about what's gonna happen ten years down the track, when you have no idea what's happening 1, 2, 5 years down the track. Work on the short and medium term, and the long term will take care of itself. I know this because when I was an anxiety-filled, rudderless young person, that's what I did. I had a career in short order because I kept taking small steps that added up to a lot of progress over the years.

Incidentally, I changed that career after about five years and am now ensconced in a new one. The transition was made with minimum pain and disruption.

Play the percentages, mate: look at careers where the average worker does things you might enjoy, not what the superstars do. And, where you can (like in restaurants), get some practical experience - you might be surprised by what you respond to. It doesn't matter if you're not working in the industry in the exact job you want - you will still get a good sense of what the industry is like.

A lot of what you've spoken about isn't the jobs so much, but the idea of getting heaps of adulation and respect and being best in the field. This sounds like a poor self-esteem talking. Who gives a shit what reputation you have, if you are happy. I have less celebrity now than any time in my life, and I certainly am not a leader in my field. Arguably, middle of the pack, if not laggard. But I don't give a shit: I'm happy. Any field can give you recognition if you want, but as people get older, most are not prepared to make the sacrifices it takes to get that, long before "talent" comes into the equation. - you probably won't either.

Best of luck, pick something - doesn't really matter what - and stick to it for two years minimum.
posted by smoke at 2:05 AM on January 14, 2014 [7 favorites]

doing something for money that doesn't relate to what you studied at a very young age or in college doesn't mean you're a failure/you made a stupid decision/you made an impractical decision.

do what works for you. do what you're good at. doesn't need to be the best in the world at.

do whatever enables you to have a healthy, enjoyable, balanced life. that's what MATTERS. it matters more than michelin stars, or degrees, or fancy awards, or whatever other status symbol.

say that in a mirror to yourself every morning. i'm serious. i was raised by a strict immigrant parent too. i studied one thing and i am doing something else, even though i was doing well in school. she gives me shit about it, but i don't let her anymore, because i like my life and i like how my roundabout wandering path has turned out so far.

the feeling that you've failed because of that dynamic (or *will* fail, if you take any kind of slightly unusual risk or roundabout path) is crippling and shitty; and you have to get out from under it in order to find your own career and your own happiness in life in general. changing your mind is not failure. lifelong internal consistency is a meaningless goal, if what you are spending your time doing doesn't make you happy and calm.

your parents likely had/have these success expectations because they are concerned for your well being, and they want to see you live a more comfortable adult life than they may have had. but even good intentions can cause stress! you have the right to your own life, where your parents' expectations and theories about success no longer apply, because your OWN do now.

you can change your career. you can change your mind. you can do something you didn't train for. you can do something that "doesn't make sense." you can get sick and take time off to get better and get help, without having to justify or explain or fend off other peoples' judgment, etc.

nthing therapy to think about all this stuff and get your own hold on it.
posted by zdravo at 5:53 AM on January 14, 2014 [1 favorite]

Come down to earth there dude.

If you like cooking, instead of buying into the mythos of the "Star Chefs" how about you just get a job as a line cook somewhere and see if that's a thing you actually would like to do on the regular?

Anthony Bourdain never owned his own restaurant. Joe the Pizza guy does. Both are successful in their own ways.

Stop thinking that you have to be the bestest, most awesome snowflake. How about joining the rest of us in the drift here, and just concentrate on being a productive member of socieity.

You have the rest of your life to change it up, start over and do other things, if that's what you want.

So far in my career I've been a Telecommunications Sales Engineer (after years of customer service, etc) a high school teacher and I'm now an analyst. Technology dictates career changes, life circumstances dictate career changes, companies doing fraudulent things dictates career changes.

Stop thinking that every little thing you do is a HUGE FUCKING DEAL. It's not.

So get off your ass, get a job and after a while, either it's a thing you enjoy, in which case, great, or it's not, in which case, try something else.
posted by Ruthless Bunny at 5:59 AM on January 14, 2014 [2 favorites]

Whoa, you need to scale your dreams back into reality. You can work in healthcare without being a superstar surgeon, you can major in business and be successful without being some Wall Street superman and you can have a successful culinary career without once ever appearing on television of selling your own line of bakeware at AC Moore. Do you want a solid foundation to live your life or do you want recognition as the utmost ______ at whatever cost?

That said, with your interests I would go get a line cook job part time and go to school part time pursuing chemical engineering. You can work up through both and drop whatever one you want when the other gets you into comfortable territory.
posted by WeekendJen at 10:27 AM on January 14, 2014

I'm hoping folks can back off a little on the OP for wanting to be a superstar at whatever he does. If you didn't grow up with immigrant parents, you just don't understand what the pressure is like.

I came to offer another vote for talking this through with a therapist. I'm a child of immigrants, too, so I understand the whole, "I fought to come to this country so you can be president of the United States, an astronaut, doctor and lawyer!!" pressure.

Let it go.

Once more: Let it go.

You have to live YOUR life and having already struggled with depression, forcing yourself to look at only what's practical (and you know that's practical only in your parents' eyes) is just not going to work for you.

Cooking and being able to do it well? It's a beautiful thing. Food is beautiful and life-sustaining and yes, you can make big bucks, be at the top of your profession AND make your parents' proud.

P.S. I did not became president-astronaut-doctor-lawyer. My parents are alive and still speaking to me (though, trust me, I wouldn't miss it much if they didnt.)
posted by nubianinthedesert at 12:44 PM on January 14, 2014 [1 favorite]

I just want to thank everybody who took time off their day to give me advice. It really means the world to me. I admit I still struggle with the perceived notion that anything short of being an engineer, doctor, or lawyer, etc. is impractical because my parents drilled into me that being anything "less" means that I've failed. That is why I want to major in something practical in case culinary arts doesn't work out for me.

I don't speak to my parents anymore. Unfortunately, I internalized some of their values which (ironically) cause me to become paralyzed under the heavy expectations I place upon myself. I already feel self-conscious about not following the traditional route of high school, college, to job in a timely manner. I mean, I've been bumming out at a community college for 5 years while my childhood friend is working on her masters in chemical engineering... I'll bring this up to my therapist in my next appointment.

However, your comments have not gone to waste. Getting my butt out the door to figure out what I want to do will give me a better idea of my own interests than Google. For now, I am going to take a break from school to focus on that. I'll go find a entry level-job at a restaurant and volunteer at a hospital to see whether I'm totally ready to give up my pre-med track. Thanks everybody!
posted by squirtle at 3:00 PM on January 14, 2014 [2 favorites]

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