I'm unhappy with my career at 32, but I'm lost on where I go from here.
April 7, 2015 7:54 AM   Subscribe

I'm 32, and have been in my current career field for about ten years. I'm frustrated with my current job and I feel like I've lost all enthusiasm for my broader career, but I have no idea what I can change to or what I'm really qualified for.

I work in the IT field, and specifically, I work as a computer hardware tech (even more specifically, a Mac hardware tech). I've been doing it for roughly ten years, and I've been at my current job for nearly seven.

I feel like I sort of "fell into" this work. I went to college as an English major, but I didn't graduate. After bouncing around some random fields, I landed in IT. I have no formal IT training, but I'm highly self-educated and skilled, and I've obviously had success at it. I landed at my current position (at a higher education institution) after an extremely stressful corporate job that nearly broke me. However, I've been having the gradual creeping feeling of growing to hate not only this job, but my entire career.

The amount of computers I've had to support has grown hugely over time, but I am the only person they've ever hired and kept to do this work (I briefly had an assistant for a few months recently, but he already wrangled a better position in another department, and it's back to being solely on me). Due to the steadily-increasing workload from this large expansion, I feel like I'm barely treading water - for every issue I solve, three more arrive, and I never have any help. This is compounded with the machines' increasingly less-repairable designs, and the fact that my employer has no warranty repair certification, which means I can't order parts and fix a lot of issues here. I often take the role of middle man, moving things between us and a local authorized repair facility (and am at the mercy of their turnaround schedules).

It doesn't help that my pay's been fairly stagnant and is on the low side for this field.

It's not just all that, though - I feel frustrated by a job in which I never seem to have anything to show for all my work. Computers break, I fix them, the cycle repeats. I feel like I never accomplish anything more than just pushing the tide back for another week.

I've been feeling increasingly like I just want out of IT, or at least this brand of it. Trouble is, I have no idea what else I'm qualified for.

I have ten years of experience doing this, but not much else. I don't have a degree, and the only other work I ever did was very short and very minor (a brief stint doing phone sales and support for a tax software company, and a couple of years after my college implosion doing car sales, both of which I hated - I hate, hate, hate doing things on the phone, and I hate sales).

Outside of work, I have years of experience in photography, but little of it professional (I've sold photos to magazines and such here and there, but never enough to live off of). I have some years of experience writing and performing music, but again, it's never been anything close to something I can live off of. And I have years of experience writing - I ran a very popular local web site for six years on the subjects of architecture, urban planning, transit, etc., subjects which I had no formal training on but which I self-taught myself out of passion for them - but while it made some money, it was entirely something I did on my own, not so much a "professional" thing. I have no idea if any of that helps me get a job in some sort of field like that - I'll occasionally see a company looking for, say, a product photographer, but the job requirements always include something like "3+ years in professional product photography," which knocks me out, even though I'm perfectly able to do it.

I know it's irrational, but I feel locked-in to this career I'm burning out on and have no idea what to do.
posted by googie to Work & Money (19 answers total) 5 users marked this as a favorite
With your IT experience and interest in urban planning... you might make an amazing electrician or lineman. How are you with heights?
posted by showbiz_liz at 7:59 AM on April 7, 2015

It's not just all that, though - I feel frustrated by a job in which I never seem to have anything to show for all my work. Computers break, I fix them, the cycle repeats. I feel like I never accomplish anything more than just pushing the tide back for another week.

Well damn dude, don't be so hard on yourself. That's just how it is.

Looking back at all the jobs I've had or tasks I've completed: I cut my grass, it grows back. I represent one client and the case ends, some other dumb bastard does the same thing and calls me. I teach one whole class of students about Beowulf, then a year later a whole new lot of ghastly smelling creatures comes in knowing nothing of Anglo-Saxon poetry.
posted by resurrexit at 8:11 AM on April 7, 2015 [11 favorites]

Is there some way you can get into a technology design or materials science trade? You understand hardware, so maybe look at fields where problems, big or little, are being solved by technology. This may require more schooling, but perhaps even a technical certification will suffice in light of your partial B.A. work and years of experience.
posted by resurrexit at 8:13 AM on April 7, 2015

I know HE institutions have their molassesy ways, and a lot often use the oldest computers they can get away with, but I wonder if there's a way you can advocate for more support in your current job while you figure things out - are you a member of a union? Your employer obviously at some point agreed that you could do with help.

I'm thinking that if you have less stress to deal with at work, that might give you some breathing space to think things through, maybe spend more of your leisure time doing things you find rewarding, maybe start a side business and build up your three years of experience. (Although, I think it's highly likely that after 3-5 years of taking photos of products, you'd be sick of that, too. OTOH, continuing to work on meaningful projects with a safety net beneath you might feel better.)

Another thought - your assistant finagled his way into a different job at the same place; maybe that's something you could also try?
posted by cotton dress sock at 8:20 AM on April 7, 2015

Would tech writing appeal to you? Possibly content creation for the sites at your academic setting?
posted by xingcat at 8:23 AM on April 7, 2015

I know that's often "just how it is," but there's at least some things in life where one can look at the end result of their work and say "I made that" or "I helped make that a reality" or something of that nature. Even if the cycle repeats, at least you can point to something real. In this field, it's a lot more nebulous and unfulfilling to me.
posted by googie at 8:25 AM on April 7, 2015 [2 favorites]

showbiz_liz - Alas, I am not good at all with heights. :/
posted by googie at 8:28 AM on April 7, 2015

It's not just all that, though - I feel frustrated by a job in which I never seem to have anything to show for all my work. Computers break, I fix them, the cycle repeats. I feel like I never accomplish anything more than just pushing the tide back for another week.

Yeah, I feel you here…but this is just the plight of the 'day job.' I have a production job that isn't as glamorous as some folks think. I come into work, and do the exact same thing on a schedule every. single. week. I'm quite interested in the field I work in, which helps a bit…but in my spare time I do things that are wildly unrelated to my day job.

In the short term, I would try to find a lateral move somewhere that pays better. This will allow you two things; time and money to pursue personal projects, and give you some breathing room to figure out the next step (which other posters are focusing on a bit more).

I've worked my current job position in the past, but gotten paid way less…basically, getting paid more allowed me to utilize my free time more productively, and feel better about everything. Money doesn't buy happiness, but it buys the ability to get shit done in your free time…which for some personalities leads to happiness. Right now, for the next few years at least, I'm kind of bound to this current job because it allows me a flexible schedule to split time taking care of my kid with my wife rather equitably….but having that extra cash from a better paying but identical job allows me to pursue private projects waaaaay quicker and with less risk.

I'm very much like you, in the sense of I don't like "how it is" with jobs like that. Thats why all of my hobbies revolve around building physical objects that I get to use almost everyday. Most recently, I built a bicycle from the ground up. Every piece. Next time I've got a chunk of time I'll be designing and building a frame from the ground up. Having hobbies that produce usable goods isn't anything to dismiss.
posted by furnace.heart at 8:28 AM on April 7, 2015 [1 favorite]

It seems like you have two separate but interrelated issues here. One is your current job is kind of frustrating (lack of support, higher ups don't want to do things you think would make sense), the other is the general existential career angst. I think the latter might be holding you back from trying to improve the former. Ideally, this could be an opportunity to reflect on your goals and hopefully improve both situations.
Take the advice from this thread and presumably everything else you're doing to try and rethink your career and make some plans for how you might move on to something more fulfilling. Then, use that as leverage to advocate for change in your current job. If you have a plan for how you might leave then what have you got to lose by forcefully advocating for things like an assistant or a raise? You're obviously providing value to the institution, and presumably placating you would be cheaper or at least easier than finding someone new who's reliable. After 7 years you must have some idea of who the important decision makers are above you. Any allies there? You could put together a proposal for why getting warranty support is a more cost-efficient business decision for your institution.

Again, if you have an exit plan what have you got to lose by stirring things up and trying to improve your current job satisfaction?
posted by Wretch729 at 8:33 AM on April 7, 2015 [1 favorite]

In this field, it's a lot more nebulous and unfulfilling to me.

I get that and was just being wry above; but understand that you're going to feel that way viewing the exchange from only your perspective. For people whose machines you've patched up, though, you are the man/woman. Their computer works because "you made that." I realize you think that sucks, and I totally empathize with you on a very personal level. I've had a lot of different careers--two of which would be Family Feud best answers for "fields people get into because they want to feel like they're making a difference or changing the world"--and they are all bullshit.

I realized that the problem is with me and the way I'm built. furnace.heart's advice above is excellent for people built like me, and probably you, and I can't recommend it highly enough. Things I've been into lately: woodworking, D-I-Y home repairs and renovation, letterpress printing, home-brewing, gardening, and on and on. I look forward to doing those things all day while at my real job. And if you're still stuck money-wise after finding something you enjoy, you'd be surprised how many hobbies you can actually turn into paying gigs once you're experienced.
posted by resurrexit at 8:38 AM on April 7, 2015

It might be helpful to get some academic credentials. At some universities staff members can take a course a semester for free. Can you do this? If so, take some courses that appeal to you. Or you can enroll in a (totally legitimate public) online university like Empire State College that will give you credit for many of those things you've learned on your own.
posted by mareli at 8:50 AM on April 7, 2015 [3 favorites]

Being able to say "this thing was broken but because of me it is now fixed" is a pretty tangible outcome, so far as those things go. But it may be worth taking concrete steps to beef up your photography and perhaps turn that into a stand-alone hobby/income stream. Overall though, I don't think there's any problem with the evening/weekend warrior mindset. If you're job is "fine" and you don't hate going to work every day, but you don't feel entirely fulfilled by it, that's not the end of the world.
posted by craven_morhead at 8:51 AM on April 7, 2015

there's at least some things in life where one can look at the end result of their work and say "I made that" or "I helped make that a reality" or something of that nature


I work as a computer hardware tech


lab tech for a technology development company.

If you don't want to go back to school (for engineering), then go to a community college and get a diploma in electronics technology. Then you can test products in the lab, help debug application problems etc., and then at the end of the day say "I made that [phone,tablet, chip]." It is especially satisfying when you see the product launch details online, or even better, see a teardown online with your chips in it :)
posted by St. Peepsburg at 9:13 AM on April 7, 2015

It's a relatively short/easy move and it may well not be "enough" but if you want create rather than maintain try going to the development side of IT. Some days I feel like you, other days it honestly feels great to be building something (depending on the project) worthwhile. I have a similar background to you, FWIW - dropped out of a non tech degree.
posted by dickasso at 9:19 AM on April 7, 2015

In addition to the suggestions above, I'm going to make a suggestion that may disappoint, because it is more about surviving where you are for now, than how to change careers:

You can proactively prepare a report that documents current needs for personnel and new equipment and keep putting it in people's hands. You should research other institutions' policies for newness of computers, for example, and summarize it into a report. (My department in an academic medical center just requested that IT come in and do an assessment of all of our computers and determine, based on IT best practices, which computers should be replaced, based on age and capabilities. My new computer comes on Friday, and I am going to name the IT person who arrives to make the switch my "Hero of the Quarter Hour.")

You could likely just make some phone calls to other institutions' IT department and collegially ask what their standards, staff ratios, and best practices are. If you tell them why you're doing it, they'll likely tell you. Bam! You are now networking professionally! Those people might hire you for your next job. (Or you might one day hire them!) choose some institutions that are held in high regard by your institution. You can also look for recommendations by professional associations of IT professionals.

Summarize your findings and make specific recommendations. Even if they don't hire extra help, you've now appeared to be the kind of person who can pull together a report (ie. management material?)
posted by vitabellosi at 9:31 AM on April 7, 2015

10 years of experience is a pretty great asset.

Here is my really slow solution to this problem. Several co workers of mine have done this. You will not be taking risks, and just knowing there is a potential change will make your situation now more bearable. Besides, you won't be desperate at job interviews.

1. Keep your job for now, but make a list of employers you like (I would start with local governments, federal and state systems, any large companies near you).

2. Check their job postings at least once a week. Check them religiously.

3. Apply for the jobs you qualify for (and like) and the jobs you almost qualify for. Even if you don't get them, you are exercising your job search skills for when you find the golden job

4. Pay attention to the jobs you almost - almost qualify for: what are you missing? A certificate? An Associate's? Some sort of license?

5. After a few weeks of studying your local job market, start working on those missing qualifications that you see most repeated in the almost-almost category. Perhaps you can complete an associate's in computer science (many jobs require a certain amount of study or a combination of study and experience, and you have a ton of experience). since you have some college classes, you should be able to complete an associate's in not a long amount of time.

6. Repeat 2. and 3. until success!

This is the only way I have seen co-workers improve their employment conditions. Only you know your complete skill set, and researching the job market for tendencies will give you a better idea of what you need than any of us can tell you here.
posted by Tarumba at 10:04 AM on April 7, 2015 [11 favorites]

I came in to say pretty much what Tarumba said. You can definitely make a change!
posted by harrietthespy at 10:59 AM on April 7, 2015

I ran a very popular local web site for six years on the subjects of architecture, urban planning, transit, etc.

I'm not sure if you're living in the same place now as when you were running this site, but if so, that's a great starting point for local public office. Think zoning/planning commissions, city council, etc. You've got ideas and opinions about urban planning that other people have demonstrated interest in -- put them to work!

That can be a good starting point for other jobs that involve working with municipal governments, plus it's not a huge time commitment and doesn't require that you quit your current job to pursue it. Even if it doesn't get you out of your day job rut it's something engaging to do a night or two a month, and it's definitely good resume fodder.
posted by asperity at 3:53 PM on April 7, 2015 [1 favorite]

It may be worth checking out the other parts of corporate IT - e.g. network admin - and see whether you can spend some time shadowing any colleagues who currently do that work.

If you can develop/maintain a website, support IT hardware and manage a small network, that feels like a good skillset for a small company/startup IT generalist. While that's not a huge step up the ladder, it would at least give you some variety and more opportunity to move laterally.

Depending on your familiarity with Mac software as well as hardware, learning to do forensics work on Apple kit might be an interesting career change.
posted by dvrmmr at 11:29 PM on April 7, 2015

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