What on Earth am I to do with myself?
August 2, 2016 6:40 PM   Subscribe

I am bored and unfulfilled in my job. I am not miserable yet, but I know from experience that if I don't do something soon I will become pretty miserable indeed. I've been through this before, and the endgame is not pretty at all. Help! I need a new career path. The problem is, I don't know what path would work for me, or even whether one exists at all. Can you help me brainstorm? Details inside.

Alright. My goal here is not to talk about my feelings but rather to do something about them, so I'll try to be concise. However I think a little context is necessary, so I guess a brief bit of relevant personal history is in order. Please bear with me.

About a year ago I dropped out of a graduate science program after having spent the previous year and change feeling increasingly directionless, unfulfilled, and unhappy. The whole business culminated with my spending a solid month or so cooped up in my room pretty much full time in a spiral of ever-increasing anxiety and depression, which ended when I made the difficult, humiliating, but in hindsight absolutely correct decision to move back in with my parents at age thirty. This is not the first time in my life that something like this has happened, only the most recent. I've been through some version of that cycle several times, enough that I can now recognize the signs before the situation becomes critical.

I'm in that pre-critical phase right now. Let me explain, as quickly as possible, how I got here.

I got a job in residential construction shortly after moving back home—I like building things and I'd worked in construction and construction-adjacent fields before albeit not extensively—and for a while all was good. I was learning new skills, spending lots of time outside doing physical stuff, and just generally enjoying the novelty of it all. But I had a hard time connecting with my coworkers—I felt like I had to keep my mouth shut and swallow a lot of casually bigoted bullshit, and my skill level relative to my age (this is a trade that most people start in right out of high school if not before) made it hard for me to get much respect with my coworkers. I also didn't like the low pay, lack of benefits, high risk of physical injury, and irregular hours that come with being a carpenter.

Around December, I was offered a management-track position in my company. I took it, despite knowing that there was no real potential for promotion, the pay was the same, and I'd be spending most of my time inside, because I felt like I needed a change and that the job offered me an opportunity to learn another side of the industry. I thought that my analytical skills and my ability to see the big picture of a job would stand me in good stead. The hours were also at least consistent, which in the winter time effectively meant a substantial pay raise even if the hourly rate was the same (though it's still not enough to enable me to move out of my parents' house) and I figured that while I was unlikely to feel passionate about the job I could just do it, do it well, and then go live my real life in my off time.

It's not working. I don't like the culture on the administrative side any better than I did on the field side of things. I find the actual work boring and frustrating at the same time. I find myself watching the clock a lot, procrastinating at tasks that involve lots of input and collaboration, and just generally doing the bare minimum to get by from day to day and hour to hour. I realize that people are counting on me to do my job and I try to use that to motivate myself, but it's hard. I enjoy myself thoroughly in my off-hours, but there aren't enough off-hours to make up for the dullness of the time spent at work. I don't take my work home with me, but I can't fully shed the mindset and I feel myself getting duller, foggier, less energetic, more anxious, and more negative as time goes on. I am rapidly finding it more and more difficult to keep going, and I know that eventually I just won't be able to.

I need to shift gears before things get really bad. I need to find a new path, one that's sustainable for me.

I do have some things going for me. I'm proud of myself for realizing where this is headed before things get so bad that I am incapacitated. I have my family around me, and they're supportive and thoughtful and have a social network in this area that may help me make this transition if I can figure out what direction I want to move in. I have good friends here and I have fulfilling and spiritually-nourishing things that I can do to help sustain myself for as long as possible. And whatever happens, I'm not going to become homeless nor am I going to starve. I also have a sense of what I want and need from a job, as well as what is undesirable or unacceptable, and I have some qualifications albeit they are a bit meager and patchwork.

OK, now I think I can finally get to the nuts and bolts of this question.

Here are some of the things that I know I need or strongly desire in a job:
  • Lots of time spent outside or at least doing physical stuff, ideally in a natural setting—forests, lakes, mountains, oceans, islands, that sort of thing.
  • A sense that I am doing something worthwhile, which has a net positive impact on human society and the environment.
  • A degree of personal autonomy and independence.
  • The ability to live within an hour or two's drive of Massachusetts' South Shore, where my family and friends live. I don't have to be home every night, though.
  • Coworkers with whom I am simpatico, or no coworkers. For reference, I see myself as a quiet, intellectual, introverted, introspective person with a deep love of the outdoors and who considers himself strongly socially progressive. I feel like I would get on well with most MeFites.
  • Being self-employed would also be fine by me, as long as I was doing something that had a reasonable chance of allowing me to support myself.
  • The opportunity to make enough money that I could move out on my own again.
Here are some of the things that I have a really hard time dealing with:
  • Work that makes me feel morally conflicted or that challenges my sense of personal integrity. I need to feel like I'm helping or at least not harming the world, rather than hastening its demise.
  • Being stuck indoors all the time, especially sitting in a chair in front of a screen.
  • Being required to put up with large amounts of bureaucracy, or having my every move micromanaged and scrutinized.
  • Working in an industry that has a pervasive socially conservative culture such that they regularly feel safe to say casually misogynistic, racist, transphobic, etc. things to or in front of me.
  • Exploitative working conditions. Not making enough money to support myself.
  • Law enforcement.
Here are some of the things that I've done and that I have going for me:
  • I have a bachelor's in biology. I was partway through a graduate program as well, but the manner of my departure means that that is possibly a net negative in terms of employability.
  • I have wilderness medicine qualifications (up to the WEMT level) that are expired but which I'd be happy to get reinstated if it would make a difference.
  • I spent two summers as a seasonal park ranger in my early twenties, managing an island in Boston harbor.
  • I spent a year rebuilding houses in New Orleans post-Katrina, running volunteer crews, mostly through Americorps.
  • I spent two summers as a field researcher in central Africa during graduate school.
  • I am, overall, a pretty experienced outdoorsperson. I am comfortable and in fact thoroughly enjoy spending extended periods away from the comforts and conveniences of civilization.
  • I have a fair amount of basic construction skills and a full set of basic carpentry tools (including some of the bigger ones like a table saw and miter saw).
  • People say that I have a lot of natural aptitude for teaching and writing, though I'm not so sure that's true. I think I'm a good explainer (which is only one part of being a good teacher) and a workmanlike writer, but that's probably better than most people.
  • I know a tiny bit of statistics and programming, and enough copy-editing, photography, design, and general computer skills to get by. Not enough to make this a core part of my job (though I love photography and would be interested in developing that skillset further) but enough that it's given me an edge more than once in jobs where those kinds of skills aren't standard.
What is out there for me? What are some directions that I might start looking in? I know that what I've just written above looks very picky and that my qualifications aren't super compelling, but what are some possibilities that I might consider and start working toward? I'm looking for ideas more than solutions, here. I'm OK with the idea that I might have to go back to school for a while, or that I might have to pay some dues before getting into a position or an occupation that I really like. This is about finding a direction, not about landing a dream job. Any ideas or suggestions that you have will be welcome, and if you're getting the sense that I have some blind spots in my thinking (I'm feeling pretty befuddled and closed-in and brain-fogged these days, so it wouldn't surprise me) then I would appreciate your pointing them out to me.

Thank you very, very much for your thoughtfulness and your help.
posted by Anticipation Of A New Lover's Arrival, The to Work & Money (12 answers total) 9 users marked this as a favorite
Is Woods Hole too remote?

What about working for DCR, which handles maintenance of Massachusetts state parks?
posted by praemunire at 6:58 PM on August 2, 2016 [1 favorite]

Response by poster: Actually a friend of my mother's works for Wood's Hole and a couple of friends of mine work for the DCR. I intend to talk to both of them; I need to know what opportunities, if any, exist for someone like me and what that life would actually be like as a career as opposed to what it sounds like in my mind. So those are things I'm already considering (though I need more specifics) but your suggestions are definitely in the right direction, or at least a right direction, at least potentially.
posted by Anticipation Of A New Lover's Arrival, The at 7:01 PM on August 2, 2016

Ok, this is going to be a very off-the-wall suggestion, but what about being a Thoreau impersonator at Walden? You're going to get a lot better suggestions from other people, but when I think smart guy, outdoorsy, Massachusetts, a little impatient with bureaucracy, what comes to mind but Thoreau? Add in that people think you're a good teacher (even if you disagree, it still counts for something), and you might have a shot at bringing him to life for other people. I have no idea what the demand for that is, or how it would pay, (or hell, if you even like Thoreau) but it came to mind.

You might also want to look into the concept of passive income. Easier said than done, but there are increasingly fewer jobs that song involving staring at a computer.

Another idea that just popped into my head is to get your real estate license. It might not be perfect for you, but it'd get you outside, and you'd have some degree of independence.

In the meantime, while you're still at this crappy job, I would recommend "The Artist in the Office" by Summer Pierre. It's a book that has helped me deal with suboptimal job situations before.

I've noticed your comments here on Metafilter, and you come across as very intelligent. You've got a lot of potential, and I'm sorry I don't have better suggestions for you.
posted by kevinbelt at 7:24 PM on August 2, 2016 [3 favorites]

You probably will have to change jobs, but this:

This is not the first time in my life that something like this has happened, only the most recent. I've been through some version of that cycle several times, enough that I can now recognize the signs before the situation becomes critical.

along with your description of staying holed in your room, sounds like it's about a lot more than ennui. Have you/are you talking to anyone professional about this cycle? You sound anxious and depressed. If you are not addressing that issue, the best job in the world will still be hard to do because of how you feel.

I also wanted to tell you that I've been there. I accepted some time back that the work I want to do doesn't pay enough for me to live on (thus my strong support of UBI). So I do work adjacent to that, and make it as satisfying as possible, and also do other things that make me happy. Doesn't sound like you can do that at this job, but it does sound like the job is only part of the issue.
posted by emjaybee at 7:26 PM on August 2, 2016 [1 favorite]

Have you considered environmental health, or more specifically the position of EH specialist/ health inspector? I think your biology education plus your wide variety of environmental related experience might make you particularly well suited to the job. My husband has worked as an EH specialist in Florida and now in WA state, and the kinds of things he does is soil evaluation for septic system installation, certain restaurant inspections (depending on the state, a different agency does bars and restaurants), inspection of food booths at temporary events, and managing a wide variety of complaints. In Florida, he also inspected community pools and dealt a lot with rabies education.

Here is a link to a job posting on MA's EH website so you can get a bit more of an idea of what they are looking for. In my husband's experience, he spends a lot of time in the field and some time at his desk doing paperwork. He loves the autonomy.

Good luck!
posted by danabanana at 7:35 PM on August 2, 2016 [3 favorites]

Response by poster: Have you/are you talking to anyone professional about this cycle? You sound anxious and depressed.

I have been treated for both in the past (and ADHD as well, not always all at the same time) but am not currently being treated. As I was beginning my recovery from my most recent cycle, I decided that my medication cocktail (for lack of a better term) was a contributing factor in my collapse. I still suspect that it may have been. When I came home, so to speak, one of the first things I did was taper and stop my medications. I was without a doctor up here anyway (my dad is a doctor, very luckily for me, but be won't/can't prescribe psychiatric medications to family) and it just seemed best. It seemed to go well.

I recently got a new PCP and may pursue treatment again soon (either medication, therapy, or both) but right now I'm focusing on recovering from a back injury that's been giving me a lot of pain and which had me briefly hospitalized about a month ago, and my new doctor (and physical therapist, and pain specialist, sigh) and I are concentrating on that for the moment. Medication at any rate has historically been part of my cycle and while I am sure it can buy me time I don't think it can ultimately fix my problem. The best way for me to manage this in the long term, I am sure, is through careful and deliberate lifestyle choices.
posted by Anticipation Of A New Lover's Arrival, The at 8:02 PM on August 2, 2016 [1 favorite]

Response by poster: To make it even more clear, I am definitely not looking at this as merely ennui. I am looking this as an incipient mental health emergency that I am trying to head off at the pass.
posted by Anticipation Of A New Lover's Arrival, The at 8:05 PM on August 2, 2016

Have you considered Surveying, inspection, or locating utilities perhaps? The right surveying firm might do more remote construction work and layout.
posted by nickggully at 8:23 PM on August 2, 2016 [1 favorite]

Best answer: Ha! I'm you. I have a degree in biochemistry and related majors, research experience, wilderness medicine credentials, teach rock and glacier climbing as a volunteer, ADD diagnosis for decades, and dropped out of graduate school to become a union carpenter apprentice. I'm almost three years into my apprenticeship, work mostly, but not entirely regular hours (and can take three week vacations at a time since I get paid hourly), will make about $80k as an apprentice this year with almost seven weeks off, and I love, love, love my job: I do exclusively layout and survey work for a medium-sized local construction company.

I'm on a definite career track -- many of our superintendents started out doing layout. Have you considered that option? Tons of opportunities to shine, room to innovate and have your voice heard, and it never fails to challenge me intellectually (which is what I need to thrive). While it can be super stressful due to the huge burden of responsibility that falls on me, it's not dangerous or hard on my body. The people I work with are great. Perhaps it's your company that doesn't make a point to hire the best people available (low pay was a hint; we all get paid well), but I can assure you that it's not industry-wide. They also help pay for graduate school in construction management and cover the cost of all kinds of other advanced training. And there's nothing quite like looking at a city's skyline and all the new skyscrapers, and thinking to yourself "Yeah, I built that."
posted by halogen at 8:46 PM on August 2, 2016 [9 favorites]

This isn't outdoors but it fits a lot of your other qualifications and wants: have you thought of going into medicine? Perhaps as a Physicians Assistant. The PAs I know work in an ER and their work is incredibly varied and busy, hour by hour. Even in a clinic or medical office, the work is varied and busy The salary is great, and my PA friend actually spends a lot of her time off hiking or camping. The jobs are in demand so you could live somewhere where wilderness is easily accessible. And of course, you'd be doing good in the world.
posted by flourpot at 3:39 AM on August 3, 2016

There are a few jobs listed at the Massachusetts Association of Conservation Commissions - it seems like you'd be perfect for a job like the conservation agent being advertised in Kingston, MA. The Appalachian Mountain Club has some jobs posted, the Maine Land Trust ...

I would start looking up state and local conservation organizations. Land trusts, birding groups, city and state parks, estuary protection societies, etc. Even if they're not hiring full-time positions, many of them seem to have 20 hour/week positions for slightly more than menial pay. And a lot of them will look to hire from the inside, so if you can get your foot in the door - maybe while still working part time in construction - you'd be in good shape when they decide they need a conservation education director, or a supervisor of outreach, or GIS coordinator, or something like that.
posted by ChuraChura at 4:45 AM on August 3, 2016

I'm also a college-educated person (B.A. in Statistics) working in the construction trades. I make good money as a union plumbing apprentice, but the ambient homophobia/misogyny/racism/transphobia can be difficult to cope with. I also struggle with working on projects that I find morally questionable (big luxury hotels, etc.) -- but as a tradesworker you're a bit of a mercenary, especially during apprenticeship. If you just want someone to talk to about construction industry nonsense, feel free to PM me.

Have you looked into GIS and remote sensing at all? I'm not entirely sure how much outdoors work jobs in those fields generally entail, but my impression is that while some jobs are mostly indoors and desk-based, others involve outdoor hiking and rough field conditions.

You might also want to look into surveying, though I can't vouch for whether it offers a better work environmental socially than the construction industry.
posted by cnidaria at 8:06 PM on August 8, 2016

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