What colour is your parachute when you're free-falling?
August 29, 2015 7:54 PM   Subscribe

I have a short time to decide on going back to school for a career path and I'm looking for advice on how to make the decision. I have a very mixed work and educational history and am in the middle of a divorce, and I can't answer in any way yet "What job do you want?" Ideas are appreciated, but really I want to know how to figure out this decision.

I grew up in an abusive home and being bright was a useless thing as a girl. I graduated high school early and then dropped out of university so started waitressing at 16 and wound up in a string of jobs in programming and publishing, then married early and stopped working full-time to stay with my kids, homeschooling them earlier. I freelanced and helped my ex-husband with his editing and writing, and ended up setting up and running a small charity which employs about 60+ people. This was unpaid work largely - I had a token salary from the charity for legal reasons that was less than what I spent volunteering, and anything I earned working with my ex went to him (prior to the seperation), so I haven't had a real paid job in 16 years.

I did go back to university briefly when the kids were little, and I got As easily with minimal work, so I have a few course credits there.

Now I know there are two jobs I don't want: book buying (I had this offered to me once and thought about it very seriously and turned down the opportunity), and running a charity again - I love the work I do for this one and will continue to serve part-time on the board, but I couldn't simultaneously work for another charity full-time as a result. I'm pretty sure I don't want to be a full-time corporate freelance writer, although I love editing books and book design, because I'd rather have the writing side of my brain for writing I want to do, than paid work only.

Other than that, I haven't got a clue. I have always been "the writer" and I want to write more fiction but not as my sole source, or any source, of income.

The easiest degrees for me to get would be either a social work degree (I already know most of the material from work), or an english literature degree, but I could do most of them because I'm a very fast reader and quick to learn things. I'm good with maths, science, humanities - it's all interesting and possible, which is great except I have no idea which.

I want to work towards a job with structured hours and relatively decent pay, something where I don't have to think about the people and work outside of work hours.

Right now, I have no confidence about making this choice. I spent years helping my ex figure out what his job dreams were, and helping my kids do the same, but I just did what was in front of me and what people asked me to do. I didn't imagine I would get a career because that wasn't my role.

I spent a long time making sure everyone saw my husband and I as happily married and that I was super-fulfilled and happy in my role, so asking people in RL for advice has been very difficult as they are used to seeing me as confident and capable, and are already reeling from the divorce etc. 99% of them went to university and corporate careers.

My therapist has suggested I consider becoming an art therapist which is about 5 years of training, but is a career with a relatively long life then. It's a strong possibility, but how do I know if I'm just following the same "do what other people tell me to do" trajectory?

I have been reading through textbooks for different courses, reading career accounts, and trying to imagine myself in different jobs but I'm 37 and I have no job dreams at all. On a good day, I think sure, I can do anything, and on a bad day, I think a barista gig at Starbucks is pretty much as high as I'll ever get. I don't feel paralysed by choices, I feel like I've got no answer to make. Sure, I'll be an accountant, a lawyer, a barista, a truck driver, an HR manager, an engineer....

How do I figure out what I want, not what other people want me to do?
posted by dorothyisunderwood to Work & Money (10 answers total) 10 users marked this as a favorite
One basic idea would be to try temp work. You might get a sense of various work environments.
posted by salvia at 8:12 PM on August 29, 2015

Spend some time here. It's a great resource.

posted by harrietthespy at 8:25 PM on August 29, 2015 [4 favorites]

I get a strong sense from your post that you like to help people, and are good at counseling others. Would you consider becoming a psychologist or a counselor?

You figure out what you want by trying things (like the temp work), or by self-intuiting things. Are you an introvert/extrovert? Do you prefer to work with machines or people? A lot of us, including me, don't know these things until we try them, but a career counselor might be helpful in sorting it out (and yes, these people exist, though usually in schools).

I got a lot of great answers here about what people's jobs were really like. The book "Gig," though outdated, is a similar resource.
posted by tooloudinhere at 8:30 PM on August 29, 2015 [2 favorites]

I got a lot out of Po Bronson's What Should I do With My Life. It's not a prescriptive self-help book, rather a series of perceptive accounts of how different people found answers to this big question in their lives.
posted by ottereroticist at 10:49 PM on August 29, 2015

Have you thought about project leader training? It's a pretty generic skill set, always in demand, and should allow you to try out a number of fields/industries while you are in your searching phase. It also doesn't demand a huge amount of training. And given what you described about what you did in your family role, most of the tools should be pretty intuitive.
posted by frumiousb at 2:12 AM on August 30, 2015 [2 favorites]

'... ended up setting up and running a small charity which employs about 60+ people.'

You don't say where you are, but setting up a charity is quite a difficult thing to do where I am (in the UK). Certainly setting up one which employs 60+ people. I'm a charity trustee myself (one of the founding trustees, no paid staff, so your charity is much bigger than ours) and this is impressive.

So, it sounds like you might be qualified to find all kinds of third sector roles - this is a good place to start in the UK, for example. Certainly in running the charity you must have picked up all kinds of skills. These might include :
Writing, blogging etc.
People management
Project management
Supporting the people your charity helps (?)

It also seems to me that you seem to like helping people. And I think that the nail on the head may be you've spent a lot of time helping people without necessarily considering your own needs. Good luck.
posted by plep at 2:55 AM on August 30, 2015 [2 favorites]

Sorry to add - one other skill you may have picked up is how to navigate different kinds of people and political situations - my own experience of running a charity is that a lot of it is to do with understanding different power relationships, whether they involve 'real' politicians, public servants in a position of power, etc. That might be an area you might want to think about - what you enjoy and what skills you can apply.

Also running a charity is a bit like running a small business, in terms of financial management and 'bottom line' responsibilities. That's an entire skillset as well.

You may also want to reach out to contacts you've made through charity or other work, or indeed the people you've helped who are now in professional situations, and get their feedback. I'm sure some of your contacts would be delighted to repay the help you gave them.

It sounds like you're highly qualified, at least in terms of your experience and ability. The question is what direction to go in - which is one only you can answer. :) However it may be worth taking 'small bets' in different directions and seeing what seems to work out. (I'm going through something similar myself right now, so you have my best wishes!).
posted by plep at 3:03 AM on August 30, 2015

I would try to focus less on what you choose than the life you want to live. So if you want structured hours and decent pay -- which jobs fit that? Do you want to be in front of a computer all day or do you want to be with people? Do you want something that will be really employable pretty quickly (speech-language therapist comes to mind) or something that gets you writing every day (grant writer?) How much money do you need to make? Consider envisioning the lifestyle first, and then working backwards to what might suit that. Good luck!
posted by caoimhe at 6:23 AM on August 30, 2015 [1 favorite]

So as an update although I won't mark this as resolved just yet as I'm still working through the question, I did end up taking the Strong Inventory ($35, I think it's free if you go through university centers, memail me if you want the link to the place I took it online, it was pretty standard and came with a brief Skype explanation call that was helpful) and that was super helpful because as part of the reply, it essentially came up with a list of about 30 job areas I'd probably be happy in, at least five of which I'd worked/volunteered in previously in some capacity, and I can work through this shortlist and say yes-no based on caoimhe's suggestion of thinking about lifestyle - which rules out for example technical writing and anything attorney-related.

All this thinking about work meant that I woke up early this morning and remembered suddenly that there was a job I had wanted when I was a little kid desperately passionately that has only just been invented, and I'm not quite ready to even think about it because it's sort of ridiculous to think that I would ever be able to work in that field, but it's still kinda awesome to actually want something of my own.
posted by dorothyisunderwood at 5:00 PM on August 31, 2015 [4 favorites]

So just to resolve this - it turns out that I can go back to the university I was very briefly enrolled in as a teenager, which also has the best-ranked department for the course I want out of all the schools I could in practical terms apply for. It means that in 18 months, I would be starting the BA, and then three years later, I'd be able to decide between either going the clinical or research route with another two years training, for about two decades of employment. And I can qualify for full student loans at a rate that compared to what I thought I'd have to pay is just staggeringly generous.

So I have less than 18 months to get back into school and move two kids immediately, another two slightly later and work outgoing back to the weird frozen little town I loved living in once, and in that time, to set up part-time editorial work to keep us in biscuits and warm jumpers.

Thank you - if I'd thought of doing this a few months ago, I would've just laughed at myself for even the very notion that I could dare for or deserve anything so happy for myself.
posted by dorothyisunderwood at 7:58 AM on September 12, 2015 [3 favorites]

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