Where do I want to be in five years?
April 21, 2015 7:53 PM   Subscribe

I'm in my mid-30s, and still don't know what I want to be when I grow up. I feel like I need a career trajectory, if not a plan, but I have no idea. How do I figure this out? What kinds of careers should I be considering?

To make a long story short, I did a PhD in English with every intention of becoming a professor. I loved academia. I loved the stuff I was researching, I loved conferences, and liked teaching okay, most of the time. That didn't work out, though, for all the usual reasons.

After a couple of years as an adjunct, I got a job as a research analyst for an IT firm. At first, I really enjoyed myself, I think largely because for the first time I had a steady, reliable paycheque, but eventually left for another, more communications-oriented job. But I don't know that it's something I want to do for the rest of my life, either.

From my first gig, I liked the people I worked with--all smart, creative people, many of whom also had academic backgrounds originally. I liked some aspects of the work I did. I liked problem solving, and I liked doing the research and learning new things all the time. We got to do some (very basic) document design, too, which I enjoyed as well, though I have no formal training of any kind. I wasn't so into the corporate-style mentality, though, nor was I keen on the travel that was becoming part of the job, or the increasing management involvement in every aspect of my work life. I also never felt all that excited about the area most of my work was in (IT infrastructure).

In my current job, I find it a bit harder to articulate what I like. I generally like writing, but not the writing I'm doing. Much of it is content curation, so I write a lot of summaries. The idea of writing press releases all the time does not appeal. I do like working with our marketing team on content strategy and that kind of stuff, but I think it's the big-picture strategizing and planning that appeals, not marketing or PR per se. In general, though, I don't feel like I'm being challenged, nor do I feel like I am being used effectively by the organization. It's also very repetitive: 3/4 of any given day is exactly the same.

Recently, though, a guy I used to work with at my previous job got in touch about a possible opportunity to return, this time as an IT business analyst rather than a research analyst. He says he thinks I'd be a good fit, based on the work we did together before.

But this got me thinking. I feel like now, in my mid-30s, I should be building a career of some sort. I don't necessarily need a year-by-year breakdown, but I'd love just some kind of a trajectory. How do I determine that? I missed the years of my life where I probably could have more easily gotten away with changing jobs very often, and so I feel that it is more urgent that I find something where I can build a career rather than flit from job to job.

I've read What Color is Your Parachute and The Pathfinder and just about every other book along those lines. I think, though, with those, I end up reinforcing my preexisting notions of who I am and what I like to do, which all go back to being in academia. I think I have a lot of strong soft skills, but I don't have any formal training in business or anything like that. I'm... okay with numbers, but I don't have a stats background or anything like that. Going back to school isn't realistic for me, either.

Anybody come from a similar background? How did you figure out what you wanted to be? What kind of careers do people like me find fulfilling?
posted by synecdoche to Work & Money (5 answers total) 23 users marked this as a favorite
UX research (and possibly design) for a medium-size startup or agency.

You'll probably have the best luck doing a 6-12 month training and use that to build up a portfolio.

You'll need to live in city with a tech scene or be willing to move for a job.
posted by the jam at 8:47 PM on April 21, 2015 [2 favorites]

Caveat: I have never had a real job in my life.

My trajectory was similar, if shorter: I left halfway through a Ph.D. in English due to all the usual reasons. I loved academia but hated the very wide gulf between the secure, reasonably sheltered world of grad school and the realities of the job market. I wound up deeply invested in something that I wasn't willing to do in partial way, and so left. It sounds like you are maybe a more balanced personality than I was, or am, and subsequently have a healthier approach to it - it took me a long time to get over academia, and I can't imagine integrating the stuff I did there into another job.

Long story short, I now run and organize a kid's hackerspace, in spite of having basically no background (or really prior interest) in technology, building stuff, kids, or education. I was lucky enough to stumble into a cool project at the right time -- and to be in the right mental state to recognize it as something that was worth putting time into. Anyway, here's my short-list of what worked for me:

Step 1: Get some perspective

1. Make a 2-year-plan. Easier than a 5-year-plan and if it doesn't work out, you can chuck it without having lost much time! and as an added bonus, if it does work out, it'll turn into a five-year-plan ithout you having to think about it at all.

2. Sanity check yourself: "Am I having fun right now?" For me, this was spending a week at my friend's weird punky little camp and building a marshmallow gun with a 10-year-old. VERY CLEARLY FUN. Also instantly clarified the lack of fun I was having elsewhere.

3. If the answer to 2. is "no," go on vacation for a long time (at least a month). Go somewhere new and take yourself out of yourself for a little bit. Then cross-reference your state of mind with the "am i having fun right now?" question -- and if still no, figure out the minimal amount of money you need to make to survive the next eight months and quit your job.

OK, so now you've done all that. Awesome!

4. Get your finances in order This means doing what you need to do to pay the rent and meet your obligations. Maybe you've kept your current job but given yourself a timeline. Maybe you've moved to a new city and are temping. Maybe you're living off savings. Budget in six to eight months of "figuring shit out" and do what you need to do to decompress without panicking about money.

5. Critical Mass Pattern (or, find a friend and do a project) Pick a project, find a friend you like enough to hang out with for more than two hours at a time, and try to make something happen. Start a blog. Host a reading group! Launch a bike sharing club. Build a circulating library. 2+2 -- two people to start, two more people to get real work done. If it's just you, the failures feel a lot bigger than they really are.

6. Say yes to things. There is no better way to find out whether you might like that business analyst job than to take it and find out. Or get a statistics book and carve out an hour a day to work on it. Take a class, or find an interesting project to put some time into outside of work. Put yourself around cool people who are doing worthwhile things. Involve yourself in their projects.

7. Get rid of your backup plan Quit your job and get rid of the landing pad -- there is no faster way to push yourself to stick with something than to make it the thing you're dependent on. I can't count the number of times I would have quit my current job if I had an immediate easier option lined up. I didn't, and it forced me to stick with it.

This may not be remotely applicable to the question of "what professional advice do you have for someone in my field?" (I jumped ship on that a long time ago) --- more of a wholly deprofessionalized "start right now" answer.

2, 5, and 7 are really the big ones -- every person I know who has now turned their weird project into a successful career has followed this same basic design pattern.
posted by puckish at 9:55 PM on April 21, 2015 [29 favorites]

I'm 47 and I still don't know what I want to do with my life. I fell into a tech sales career, and it pays the bills and affords us a nice middle class (or better) lifestyle. I think the idea that we all need a career plan with 5 year goals is something sold by people who charge you to figure out your career plan. The idea that we should all love our jobs is downright dangerous. It's called work for a reason.

It's ok to not love your job. You don't want to spend all day miserable, but if your job is just ok and enables a life that you love, you are probably actually well ahead of most people. If you want to change jobs and try something different go for it. But don't feel like you have to just because your current job doesn't have you rushing to work every morning anxious for the glorious work day to begin.
posted by COD at 4:47 AM on April 22, 2015 [4 favorites]

I feel like now, in my mid-30s, I should be building a career of some sort.

Should or want to? Because if it's out of some notion that need a career because general wisdom says you need a career, that's bunk. If you want to pursue a career for Reasons of your own, that's cool. But this internet stranger absolves you (and anyone else) of having a career.

(caveat: I'm a young person with no desire for a career and think the whole damn thing's a scam)
posted by carrioncomfort at 5:10 AM on April 22, 2015 [1 favorite]

Have you considered Higher Ed admin of some kind? I think you'd be good at it and have both a Ph.D. and communications experience. Deans offices, humanities centers, student administration offices, admissions, alumni, finances/giving/networking, the list goes on. It might take some time to figure out the right position but it can be a really nice environment. Probably doesn't pay as much as the private sector, but there are often good opportunities for growth, education credits and other good benefits.
posted by barnone at 8:48 AM on April 22, 2015 [1 favorite]

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