Discouraged with my job prospects-- how to stop feeling worthless?
September 5, 2014 7:35 PM   Subscribe

I graduated recently with a BA in English, and was set on academia so naturally I pursued a masters. Around the time of submitting my thesis I started work in an entry-level admin type role, which I have been at for the past year. My thesis was recently passed, and I'll graduate this autumn.

I'm no longer interested in academia, and have been looking to find a role more in line with my skills, ie. technical writing, proposal writing/coordination, etc.

My current job only pays 45k, which is basically unliveable in my city, and is host to a toxic environment. My direct supervisor plans on quitting soon, and I have no desire to take on her position, even though I suspect it will be foisted upon me by management, likely with a lower salary than my supervisor currently earns (albeit higher than my current rate).

I'm desperately tying to find a position where I can use my editing/research background. I craft cover letters and resumes for each position, make sure to include key words in my qualifications, and have had multiple peers/superiors involved in HR/hiring comment that my resume looks stellar. Not surprisingly, I've only had a couple of interviews. I go in confident and knowledgable, feeling like I made a great connection and nailed the questions, but as soon as I got back to my job an overwhelming feeling of sadness and despondency overwhelmed me. Now I wish I didn't even bother applying, because if I don't get the position it will make me even more miserable in my current role.

I find myself staying up late at night dreading sleep, knowing I have to wake up in the morning and go to work. I get shit on all day, receive no acknowledgement for going "above and beyond" (not to mention no additional compensation), and am expected to deal with other people's inability to do their job correctly.

At the same time, I know I should be grateful to have any job, let a lone be privileged enough to be having these complaints. I am healthy, fit, have a roof over my head, and access to food, but I can't help but feeling worthless. I just completed a master's for Christ's sake! I'm smart, intelligent, and capable, yet I feel like shit.

Every day is a struggle not to have a mental breakdown on my job, and then when I get home I hate myself for feeling pathetic and resentful all day.

I honestly feel like playing in traffic.
posted by sociology to Work & Money (16 answers total) 13 users marked this as a favorite
Best answer: You could start building a secondary income doing freelance technical editing for non-native English speakers in STEM fields. In my experience, the demand for this is almost infinite, so over time you could develop this into a full time income.

Here are some of my previous AskMe comments on how to do this.
posted by Jacqueline at 7:50 PM on September 5, 2014 [16 favorites]

if you have clips or writing samples submit those with your resume. List your accomplishments on your resume if you haven't already. this is a mistake i was making. you don't need to describe the job, show and tell what you did. check linked in and meet up for groups where you can meet other people in a field you would like to join.
posted by Jewel98 at 8:08 PM on September 5, 2014

The job market for humanities graduates is tough. It would be a big commitment, but have you considered going back to school for something with better job options?

It wouldn't necessarily have to be a full 4-year degree - for example, UBC offers a great 2-year Bachelor's of Computer Science for people who already hold an undergraduate degree. I know people who have gone through that program after a few years of struggling in underpaid jobs and came out with fantastic career prospects.
posted by ripley_ at 8:14 PM on September 5, 2014 [5 favorites]

I don't know very much about the humanities job market, but you sound so stressed and upset and it's clearly affecting your well being. While you are still formally enrolled at your university, take advantage of the (usually free) student counseling at the student health center. Even just one or two venting sessions could be helpful.

Also, I forgot where I saw this-- I think it was somewhere on Metafilter-- but one poster framed getting rejection letters as a positive thing, because they could take pride in that all the effort and courage they put in to putting themselves out there, and that trying was better than not doing anything at all. I know that doesn't ease the sting of being turned down... but I just wanted to say that you're doing a great job by taking the initiative to individually tailor cover letters and resumes to job opportunities. You'll be rewarded eventually! Good luck.
posted by gemutlichkeit at 9:06 PM on September 5, 2014 [5 favorites]

I note the suicide tag. That would seem to be the first thing to address: 1-800-273-8255
posted by Good Brain at 9:31 PM on September 5, 2014 [9 favorites]

It sounds like your job sucks for you, and that can be really discouraging. It also sounds like you are getting depressed and your emotional state is making a tough situation tougher. What can you do to lift your mood while you keep searching for a new job?
posted by feets at 9:43 PM on September 5, 2014

Best answer:
I get shit on all day, receive no acknowledgement for going "above and beyond" (not to mention no additional compensation), and am expected to deal with other people's inability to do their job correctly.
This is approximately the condition that most people live with at work. Most people do not get a lot of acknowledgment from management for doing a good job, yet still catch flak for mistakes. Most people have to deal with incompetent buffoons at their job. That's because work isn't about you, it's about the company/organization trying to meet its goals. This is reality. It isn't fair, but nothing is fair.

This shocked me when I got my first "real" job. I was still very much of the mindset that my personal comfort was pivotal to my success at work. I wanted somebody to just let me know I was doing okay. I think this is a sort of phantom-limb response to being in school for most of my life. I wanted a grade! Give me an A! Or an F! Anything! Just judge me, dammit! Eventually I realized that my own sense of satisfaction at work was really completely orthogonal to the work itself. My value as a human being, my own perspicacity and diligence, never really entered into the equation except insofar as my skills could help achieve the company objectives, which, in retrospect, were really obviously spelled out for everyone to see.

Now I lead a relatively happy work life. What changed? Well, I still get almost zero acknowledgment for any of my accomplishments at work. Same as everyone else. The main difference is that I have enough experience now that I know when I did a good job. I also know how to recognize my own mistakes and how to talk about them with my boss/teammates/whoever. I am sort of an expert on my little tiny territory of work. I also know that my coworkers will respect me for doing something right and help the team out of a jam, even if they never take the time to say it.

That isn't to say that you aren't possibly in a toxic work environment. Such places exist. But it's also possible that you just haven't quite adjusted to the reality of what work really is yet. It might take a while to get over your vestigial desire to be graded, but trust me, it will pass. The best thing you can do is focus on what the company/org wants, not what you want out of the job. It sounds to me like you're putting a lot more stress on yourself than is necessary.
posted by deathpanels at 9:49 PM on September 5, 2014 [19 favorites]

Best answer: Hey, you sound like you're in a lot of pain. Your whole post is very dark and you put suicide as a tag even. There's normal struggling with the transition from school life to working life and all the parallel transitions that accompany that, and then there's the kind of thing you're talking about here, which is despondency, shame, worthlessness, breakdowns, sadness, self-hatred. You sound really depressed. In fact you pretty much dropped every single major symptom of depression right there in your post. You sound like you really need help. Reaching out here was a great start. If you're really in as bad a place as you make it sound like, then please you need to use whatever connections and resources you may have, to find a therapist and/or a psychiatrist. If you don't know how to go about that, logistically and/or financially, then say so in a comment here and people who can help you will be more than glad to help you. You sound like you've been doing a great job at work and at your job search. I think for the time being you need to reduce your stress to a minimal amount, and use your available energy on getting yourself the help you need. If you can live with your job for the time being, just hang with it and don't worry about looking for a new one right now. You've got to get yourself to a better place where you can manage the tough stressors in your life in a more healthy way. And (I say this very gently) stop with this talk about food, clothing, shelter, physical health...being privileges. They're not privileges -- they're necessities, they're bare minimums. So is mental health. Do not feel guilty for getting what you need and deserve. You'll be okay. Hang in there, and try to be kind to yourself. You're gonna get through this.
posted by early one morning at 10:22 PM on September 5, 2014 [1 favorite]

I was going to suggest there's ample postings with engineering firms doing proposals, you could get into that via admin/project support work... but from your previous autocad question I get the impression you're already in a similar line of work. A friend of mine did that job... same complaints as yours... so t(-.-t) that. And I'm very sorry to say, as a person with a masters in engineering, I know all too well that a masters is hardly ever the golden ticket it was supposed to be in industry. That disillusionment is maddening.

After much consideration, Jacqueline's suggestion is actually practical. The non-english natives who will be requiring your services in technical editing will definitely consider your advanced degree a premium too, I know from related experience. Give it a try.
posted by lizbunny at 10:39 PM on September 5, 2014 [1 favorite]

Best answer: My advice here is related to your state of mind.

I've left my PhD program twice, once at the end of my Masters and once two chapters into my dissertation. Even though I had good reasons to do so both times, I felt terrified when I left school. I thrive on regular schedules, clear goals, predictable rhythms, and - most importantly for me - clear defined and finite tasks. As a student, I would go to classes, do the assignments, get the grades, and then I'd get to level up. As a teacher, I teach my classes, grade the assignments, try to keep the animal sacrifice to a minimum, and then get to start again with a fresh group after a short break. Any problems I have usually don't last past the semester. Then they go away.

The corporate/administration world was too open-ended for me. I didn't automatically know what I needed to do to get their version of an A. I didn't often know what our end goal was, if our goal even had an end, or if we were all in consensus on that goal's definition. I didn't know if my job would end with little notice. I didn't know if I was excelling enough to advance in this new environment.

If you're anything like me, your emotions could partly result from a sort of vertigo caused from moving from one professional culture to a vastly different one, where the expectations and rewards you've internalized since kindergarten are replaced with an alien system.

Also, many humanities professors undervalue life outside of the academy, especially where teaching and publishing are the only job they will admit to preparing us. I saw professors who treated me like an eventual equal when I was a doctoral candidate, consider me a servant when I was a librarian. Leaving graduate school can make you feel like you washed out of special forces training instead of that you decided your interests or job prospects didn't warrant more schooling. It can take away the identity you have built for yourself and demolish it.

We've been taught that anything less than a PhD and a tenure track job is failure, bleak job market be damned. But I've know several people who dropped out of their PhD program after getting the Masters, discovered a good workplace environment - often by chance after several wrong fits - and have gone on to have amazingly rewarding lives, even if they had to make it up as they went along. One is a tech millionaire who decided he wanted to telecommute to San Francisco from this amazing house on a lake in Vermont. One wrote for a famous magazine and now divides her time working as a copy editor for the Maine legislator and building her own house. One works an office job, referees Roller Derby, and works in a female positive sex shop, and draws comics. One is happily running his favorite restaurant from his undergraduate years. None of them had the clear checklist to success (or so we were promised) of application/admission/grades/comps/PhD admission/quals/orals/dissertation/defense/job/tenure/retirement/death. None of them said: "I am going to do X" and set about right away doing it. But they found a way to a satisfying career.

What I'm saying is that the panic is going to go away. But you'll have to find a new path, or several, and it won't necessarily be one that you can predict from the start. Your depression isn't based on failure because you didn't fail. You just moved away from a system that rewarded you regularly, and it's hard to adjust to one that is not so predictable. But you'll be ok.
posted by bibliowench at 10:44 PM on September 5, 2014 [7 favorites]

Best answer: Dude, this sucks but you WILL get through it. I remember very well crying at the thought of having to go into work and dreading it and the horrible pit I'd get in my stomach anytime I needed to speak to anyone at work. I got out, in my case because I was laid off (best case scenario) and am in a job I feel very happy with, and you will too.

I would work hard on networking. Sending resumes is good, but honestly every job I've gotten had been something I was recommended for, I heard about through someone, or I got someone to put in a good word, or something. It might also help take your mind off work if you can re-connect with some contacts and go out for drinks/dinner. But even if it's emailing someone you haven't spoken to in a while. Mention you're looking. Ask how they are doing. Etc.

You might want to consider stop trying so hard at work. They don't appreciate it and if you had a lower output, would they even notice? If they do, are they really going to fire you? If you did get fired, would you be OK? In your state, could you qualify for unemployment benefits? I say this because it sounds like you're putting a lot of energy into this job and you should be putting your energy into applying for job, interviewing, networking and perhaps finding potential freelance/consulting gigs to build up your portfolio/contacts/income.

Please don't panic. This happens to most people. I had a friend who has never suffered from any sort of mental health issues, is the most upbeat guy I know, etc. and his soul-sucking job gave him horrible anxiety and started to depress him. He found a new job he loves, quit his crappy one immediately, and is back to his normal self. You will be too. It may take some time, but eventually you'll get there. This is NOT a permanent or immutable situation.
posted by AppleTurnover at 11:12 PM on September 5, 2014 [4 favorites]

Best answer: This might be anecdata, but I've noticed that people who transition from academic track in the humanities have more trouble adjusting to life outside the university compared to non-humanities people. Not sure why this is.

At many jobs, there is no long-term "goal" for your department. Much of the time, your job is just to help keep things from completely collapsing in the next two weeks by pushing back on other departments and churning through a growing mountain of work and tasks that somebody has to do or the whole thing will fall apart. This could be hard if you're coming from an environment where your career is very explicitly building up to a personal accomplishment (publishing in your field, for instance). There are no heroes in the work world. Even if you're the most brilliant analyst/representative/support staff member in the history of the company, the odds of your creativity and resolve being acknowledged in an official capacity are vanishingly small.

Some people respond to this reality by not going above and beyond. There is certainly something to be said for that. Personally, though, I find that I cannot stand doing the minimal effort all the time. Sometimes I spin up projects for myself to do just because I know it will help out my coworkers or because I think it will be an interesting learning experience. Your mileage may vary, of course, but my point is that you have to be fairly self-directed in today's workplace. Employee training is a thing of the past. Career development programs and mentoring are uncommon. I find it helps to think of yourself as a permanent freelancer, a gun for hire, a mercenary. Advancing your skills will help you get your next job, or it will help you keep your current one.
posted by deathpanels at 5:40 AM on September 6, 2014 [1 favorite]

Best answer: First of all, you're in crisis mentally. Your company most likely has a program with a number you can call for help. Reach out and get that help.

I have a BA in English, I thought I'd be a teacher, but I got side-tracked into a career in Telecom and then got an MBA. I too used to be frustrated with the fact that I worked super-hard to go above and beyond, and wasn't recognized for it. Then I got wise.

I realized that no one expected me to save the corporation, and in fact, I was posing problems for them by uncovering problems. So I scaled back. I did the job I was hired to do, and I noticed something funny, that's when I became beloved. I went from pain in the ass, to sweetheart of the department. Who knew?

For now, don't beat your brains in, just do the bare minimum of your job. Don't fuck up, just don't go overboard.

Your new job is applying to as many jobs as you can. When I got laid off I put out 100 applications in a two week period. I had 10 legit replies, and I landed a great job, with great pay and started work three weeks after my last day at my old job.

Widen your search. Look for the same Admin-type job, just for more money and in a place that gives you an opportunity to learn new skills. Perhaps it's more Excel, or Salesforce or Ariba or SAP. Whatever it is, it means more money.

Save the editing and writing for your free time or save it for after you've had a chance to establish your new Admin career. It'll keep.

When looking, leave the Master's off of your resume. See if that helps you get more and better interviews. Admins aren't expected to have Master's degrees and a lot of folks will assume that you're looking for something until that awesome English Master's Job comes along. (Joke's on them, that job doesn't exist!)

Just know that there are so many folks out there trying to get that Job Charming, and as great as we are, there are other folks who are better for that particular job. Interviewing is a two-way street, we determine if it's right for us, and they determine if we're right for them.

But right now you're in NO position to interview, you're depressed and suicidal. Please get help first. Then, when you're feeling less upset and vulnerable, tackle the job market again.

I'm rooting for you!
posted by Ruthless Bunny at 7:24 AM on September 6, 2014 [2 favorites]

Response by poster: Thank you all for the responses.

I was in a very dark place yesterday, and couldn't even get out of bed, let alone go on the computer. Today is a bit better, and reading your replies does give me some glimmer of hope. I wanted to reply to each of you individually, though I apologize if it's incoherent; I'm still a bit of a mess.

@Jacequline: Thank you for the pragmatic response. I will give the freelance editing thing some thought, and look into some of the logistics.

@Jewel98: Thanks. I do include writing samples when requested, and will work on incorporating more of my accomplishments into the language of my resumes and cover letters.

@ripley_: That program looks great, but I'm afraid I cannot handle any more schooling. I already have student loans weighing me down, and really cannot afford it.

@gemutlichkeit: Yes, I know it is better than doing nothing, but at least if I did nothing I wouldn't end up failing and going over my failures again and again in my head. What's the point of putting myself out there, trying to find a better job, etc., just to be rejected and having to return to my current state of shittyness, which seems worse and worse each time.

@deathpanels: That does seem like the case. Thank you for your perspective.

@early one morning: Thank you for the kind words. It's just very hard to hang with my current job. Applying for other positions at least gives me a glimmer of hope, hope that things might get better in the future. I have quite a bit of down time, so it was a good fit while I was still working on my thesis, but now that that part of my life is over, it just gets harder and harder. Unfortunately I do not have access to school-provided medical help, though I do have health insurance through my employer. I just don't see how speaking to a therapist will help me. Just the thought of it makes me resentful and bitter-- having to go pay money to someone who has obviously fulfilled their professional goals, someone who has an established career. How can I open up about my own failures when pragmatically there's nothing a therapist can do? They can't make me a different person, they can't send me back in time to get a useful degree, they can't give me personal connections that I see so many of my friends and peers cash in on....

@bibliowench: Thank you so much. I broke down and cried reading your response. So much of my identity was tied up in academia. I was looked up to, I was approached for advice, I was a "bright young scholar" with the whole world in front of me. I had a community of scholarship, a community of like-minded people. I had a purpose. Now I have nothing. Nobody really cares. I guess that's actually the case in academia as well, but at least there's the veil of collegiality and research to keep the illusion up. It just all seems so hopeless. I wasted so much time on this path, and for what? I can't even look at my books anymore. I can't even find joy in the poems I used to love. I wish I could just go back and be someone else. Someone who didn't think critically, who didn't question the means and ends in life, someone who could just be happy. It seems like I picked the worst possible "career path" and the worst possible time. The only positive is at least I'm realizing this now, not in 4-5 years when I have a PhD and am no better off.

@AppleTurnover: I have already started scaling back my efforts at work. I go in in the morning and my only goal is to not get fired. I just try to keep my head down, do what is necessary, and try not to freak out on myself or anyone else. But, it's hard. Every day at the job just seems like one less day at a place where I could be growing, learning valuable skills, giving a company value based on the skills and abilities I spent so many years studying and developing. But that doesn't really matter. I'm also not dumb enough just to up and quit: I need the money. That keeps me going. I'm a lot more financially knowledgable than I was a year ago; I have an emergency fund, I budget, I'm building up savings, but it's just so slow and minimal in comparison to what people around me in my city make.

@deathpanels: Indeed, there are no heroes. That is incredibly depressing to me. Like bibliowench mentioned, it is a symptom of moving to a different professional culture, but I just don't see how I can continue to function like this. Is that what the rest of life will be? Putting no passion or individuality into work? Showing up for a paycheque? Doing the bare minimum to not get fired?

@Ruthless Bunny: Thank you. I just feel like such an idiot for getting these degrees. I went through so much just to leave it off my resume and apply for jobs I could have gotten straight out of high school? Growing up I was told to do what I loved, do what I was good at, and look what it got me. Jack shit. Sure, I'm good at something, but it's of no real value. And the value that it does have is diminished in comparison to the skills I could have learned in university: engineering, accounting, programming, IT, etc.

Sorry if this was hard to follow, it just felt good to reply. I know I didn't accurately respond to every point raised, but I do feel a bit better... for now.
posted by sociology at 5:50 PM on September 7, 2014

This is getting a little specific, but many computer science programs facilitate paid co-ops/internships during the program. Not sure if that changes your calculations.

Good luck!
posted by ripley_ at 7:02 PM on September 8, 2014

I'm late to this thread, but it struck a chord with me, and I wanted to add my two cents.

Adjusted for inflation, I was making the same as you in the 90's, for most of my 20's (less, in fact, in my first few years out of school), with very incremental salary increases. This was in Boston, where the cost of living has always been high. It was very hard. I just wanted to pop in here and say that I was also a humanities grad (BA and MA) with similar frustrations and sense of worthlessness. Others have addressed the fact that you are clearly depressed and you should seek help for that. I wanted to offer some perspective and just say, it gets better!

Your degrees will add more value to your career as time goes on. Humanities prepares you for critical and creative thinking and problem solving that tends to become more valued as you become more experienced and move up the employment food chain. I can't tell you what industry to get into or what jobs to apply for, but there area many, many ways to forge a path. Part of what you are experiencing is that entry-level jobs just kind of suck, and I don't think anything will ever change this. I hate to be one of those old folks who talks about having to pay your dues, but I do know that different kinds of opportunities start opening up once you have 4-5 years of work experience—any kind of work experience.

My advice is to just keep at it. In my twenties I averaged 2 years at each job, moving to *slightly* better roles each time, as I learned what to look for in an employment environment and gradually started to build a network. And while you should always be looking for your next job, and you should always be looking to acquire a range of different experiences to expand your repertoire, there may come a time when you need to train for something more specific.

I answered this related question the other day. I went back to school and got a second masters degree at age 30. At that point I had reached the limits of my frustration with my "career" progress. But the point I wanted to make is that I could not have known what that other career might be until I had some experience slugging it out in a tough job market. It took some time—and several years of evening classes at a local community college—to work out what the right path was for me. If you studied humanities, you were probably following your gut about what inspired you and what you found interesting and intellectually challenging. There's nothing wrong with that. But it does take some time to discover how your talents and skills might be applied in the job market, and to discover the right opportunities. What I am doing now, professionally, in my late 40's (and loving), is not something I could have ever imagined doing in my 20's. But my indirect path of humanities studies, a range of ill-paid jobs, a retrenchment in a new area of study, and more trial and error in the job market have led me to a pretty great place.

It takes time. The challenge is that a humanities background doesn't equip you for any obvious career choices, the way a degree in marketing or engineering does. It takes some time and effort to put those skills to use and begin to get recognised for their value. Hang in there and keep working at it. You are not worthless. You just haven't yet found the place where you can really add value.
posted by amusebuche at 7:39 AM on September 22, 2014 [1 favorite]

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