I can love science! I can be a nurse! (Oh God, what was I thinking?)
August 31, 2016 3:06 AM   Subscribe

Am I deluding myself to think that I can suddenly become a science person? Also, small favor, please tell me what to do with my life.

I'm freaking out a bit. My background: Approaching mid-30s. Graduated with a BA in English about 10 years ago. I've had a lot of false starts and have yet to really make any headway on an actual career. I got sidelined with some personal health stuff (some physical, some mental), then a family member developed some health stuff of his own and I stepped in to help out. Years disappeared. My actual resume is very thin and on paper, I have little to show for the years since finishing college outside of a brief flirtation with teaching (mostly just tutoring and subbing). The immediate plan after college was law school. I was admitted, but decided not to go (don't really regret that one). Basically, my 20s slipped away from me, and I'm hoping I can turn things around before much more time passes.

Earlier this year, I started to put together a plan that sounded good at the time. On and off, I had thought about healthcare in general and nursing specifically as a good area to get into. Better-than-decent job prospects, the fact that there are so many directions to go in as a nurse, and I think I'm well-suited to taking care of people. I also liked that my age wouldn't be a huge obstacle, since nursing draws people of all ages. So, I could spend this next year taking prereqs at the local community college, and then apply for an accelerated BSN program for next fall or maybe the following spring. In a mere two and half years I could be an RN and have a satisfying, stable career. Simple, right? Admittedly, a big part of the appeal was that I could see a fairly clear A-to-Z path to make it all happen. I got the ball rolling on all of this and felt proud of myself for finding the motivation to do so. I was feeling good about the direction I was heading for the first time in years.

I took Statistics over the summer, had a great professor, got over the back-to-school hump, did well, and actually kind of enjoyed it (definitely a first for a math class and me). But now, I've had my first week of fall courses (Anatomy & Physiology and Chemistry) and I hate it. There's so much dry memorization and my eyes glaze over the second I open the textbooks (more so with A&P than Chem). I was stressed and miserable fumbling my way through the first labs. It doesn't help that at least one of the professors is a bit of a dud. I feel like I duped myself into heading down a path I had no business going down for all the wrong reasons. Some of my classmates are already working as CNAs or in other health care positions and seem to know exactly what they signed on for. I've heard multiple people say how fascinating they find studying the human body and its processes. I'm not there yet. Not even close. Maybe I never will be. This is scaring me because A&P in particular seems to be so foundational for everything that will be coming later. It definitely seems like it shouldn't be something that I just have to get through. But I'm reading the text and looking through the microscope and thinking, "I don't care."

And this doesn't even get into all the second guessing I'm suddenly tormenting myself with over whether I'm too introverted or too squeamish or too anxious or too whatever to be happy as a nurse. Or whether any of that even matters because -- hey! there are so many different types of nursing and there's something for everyone! Then there's the cost of it all. I don't know.

This isn't what I expected. Honestly, part of what had initially excited me about heading down this path was the prospect of studying something practical and job-oriented. I was always a liberal arts person and I suppose I still am, but I had developed some bitterness by the time I graduated as I found myself wishing I had spent my school years and tuition on something that could have more concretely led to a career (and I could have done a lot more outside of the classroom to strengthen my resume at the time). But maybe I was underestimating the extent to which a lack of interest in the subject matter could drag me down.

Sure, if I could snap my fingers and find myself working in a (semi-realistic) career, nursing would probably not be it, even in my most idealized vision of what it could be. But it certainly promises a better and clearer future than a lot of the other options I see in front of me. This flailing around for direction thing gets a lot scarier the older I get. Safety nets have a higher risk of disappearing. Good medical benefits become far more essential. The window for starting a family isn't as wide open as it used to be.

Yes, it's only the first week of classes. Yes, I'm still only taking prereqs at the community college. But I still have no idea what to do and my head is spinning. I feel awful because I really thought I finally had things figured out. It wasn't until I started having these doubts that I realized how much I had emotionally invested in all of this. I have one more week to decide whether to drop the classes before I can't get a full refund. But even if I decide to suck it up and power through this semester (though I'm not sure I'm even in a state of mind where I can do that anymore), how do I know if I'm on the right path? What if I'm still feeling this way at the end of the semester? The years keep ticking by and I'm getting more and more anxious about establishing at least some minimal level of security and financial independence. I'm scared that I'm on the wrong track, but I might be more scared of returning to square one. No job prospects, no future.
posted by thornhill to Human Relations (19 answers total) 8 users marked this as a favorite
A semester of core classes is never the wrong track, it'll be useful whatever direction you go. For the detail stuff try to add context, on yourself, where the muscles are and in others try googling and reading about say sports injuries to give yourself some sense of how the detail is useful.
posted by sammyo at 4:26 AM on August 31, 2016 [2 favorites]

Could you get any work experience- volunteering, or an internship- in a hospital or another healthcare context? Having some experience will give you more data in the decision making process of whether this is the right career path for you, and also might give some context to your dry coursework and make it more bearable. If you find you love the role as a volunteer, that could give you more motivation and confidence in pursuing this career choice. Work experience will also obviously be a bonus in your future applications for further qualifications.
posted by mymbleth at 4:32 AM on August 31, 2016 [3 favorites]

Lots of careers have a pretty big disconnect between the actual work you would be paid to do and the course work required for the degree. I do not work in healthcare, but I would bet that the day to day work of a nurse is quite different than an A&P course at the local community college. So just because you dislike that particular course doesn't necessarily mean you won't like nursing. Perhaps some nurses here can comment on that point of view. The thing to keep in mind as you evaluate your options is that the stakes will get higher the deeper you go down this path. My friend (30 yo, two kids, liberal arts degree originally) just finished what you are starting. A number of years ago she started with stats and A&P and this spring she received her nursing degree. And now she has a job. One thing she told me was that the attrition rate for students in the nursing program was very high. The program was very rigorous and if you screwed up (especially in the clinical courses) you were kicked out with no 2nd chances. There was also lots of memorization in the 1st year nursing program courses. So you could use the A&P course as a way to assess if you can succeed in that type of learning environment, and by succeed I mean getting an A or B in the course.
posted by Seymour Zamboni at 4:38 AM on August 31, 2016 [6 favorites]

Call the hr departments at your local hospitals and ask if you can shadow a nurse for a day. Ideally, do this a few times, at different places, with some time in between to give you a chance to process it.
posted by notquitemaryann at 4:57 AM on August 31, 2016 [1 favorite]

I know several nurses. I would describe zero of them as "loving science". The coursework is just coursework. It's good to know about statistics, but it's even better that you get my IV in on the first try. :)

(I *am* an actual scientist and I don't use a lot of the stuff from college courses on a day to day basis. )
posted by Green Eyed Monster at 5:28 AM on August 31, 2016 [4 favorites]

For context, I grew up thinking I wanted to be a doctor. My entire life, as far back as I can remember, I was aiming at that. I had focus and interest. I made it as far as medical school before I started questioning my interest--I loved science, but I didn't love the practice of medicine so much. It felt like training to become a technician, a mechanic, that sort of thing. So after medical school, I switched gears and went into research science. I went to grad school for toxicology and epidemiology. It felt better than medicine, but I was still spending more time than I wanted being a technician. White coat, windowless lab, hours and hours and hours without social engagement. So, again, I ditched the lab and went into regulatory toxicology and policy. And ding ding ding! It fits so much better!

I imagine I'll spend the next 25 years continuing on this process, something like: have vague ideas about my interests -> study -> get job -> feel out the field until I learn which parts I don't like -> get ideas about what kind of work eliminates those parts I don't like -> develop vague ideas about switching to different lane -> study / network / etc. -> get job -> repeat.

From this vantage point, I locked on to this bit of what you wrote:

I have one more week to decide whether to drop the classes before I can't get a full refund. But even if I decide to suck it up and power through this semester (though I'm not sure I'm even in a state of mind where I can do that anymore), how do I know if I'm on the right path? What if I'm still feeling this way at the end of the semester?

If you feel this way at the end of the semester, then you'll know. But honestly, no career comes with an instantaneous insight that the nuts and bolts of it are a pleasant and natural sea breeze. A semester isn't an unreasonable amount of time to expect your interest to either grow or dissipate, ebb and flow, while you stuff your mind with a bunch of new material. I feel very paternal saying things like this, but if you've gone through the trouble of starting these classes--even if you think you'll not take them further--is there any reason not to see them through?

Maybe if you're not thinking about these classes (or any other classes) in terms of MUST ACCOMPLISH ESSENTIAL FOR CAREER then you'll find you can sit back and absorb a little more. I wish I could redo a lot of my education with a sense of relaxed engagement, instead of forced earnestness, but I didn't learn that skill until late in the game. I get more out of things I approach calmly, almost passively, with no expectations. And at the very least, there's no downside to taking courses like chemistry and A&P, no matter what you do next. It's knowledge. It's helpful. You'll surprise yourself some time, like in a doctor visit, when you say something to the doc like "yeah I know it looks like the bruise is over my tibial collateral ligament, but it really feels more like it's hurting when I flex the patellar." Then you'll think, damn, yo, A&P!

I'd also urge you to use your time at school wisely. Talk to your professors. See if they can connect you with any nursing student groups, or nursing faculty who have office hours. Talk to these people. Tell them your interests, your concerns. They can help you understand all the kinds of nursing and nursing-proximate jobs that are out there. Heck, you might even find interest (like I did) on the policy side of things--you'll do much more writing and much less clinical stuff, which might be right up your alley. Or even discover some amazing niche of nursing that fires you up (my friend hated being an ER nurse, which she did for more than a decade, before she found a position at a non-profit nursing home, which she adores).

Lastly, remind yourself that none of us has it all figured out. I've taken so many turns down career and education blind alleys that I just stopped counting. They're all experiences, and I can value them that way, but that doesn't mean I want to dwell on them. Some of them sucked, and that's a fact. But hey, there's always tomorrow. Don't get down on yourself for not knowing exactly what it holds.
posted by late afternoon dreaming hotel at 6:11 AM on August 31, 2016 [7 favorites]

I am a nurse. I'm less concerned about you not liking A&P and more concerned about you saying that if you could snap your fingers and find yourself in a new career, nursing wouldn't be it.

If you've never worked in healthcare, I would follow the upthread advice to get some experience there, even if it's just shadowing/talking to nurses. Even better would be for you to get a job as a CNA. Yes, there are a variety of areas nurses can work in...eventually. However, most new grads wind up working in an acute care setting, usually a hospital. Getting a realistic idea about what that entails is going to help you figure out if nursing is a good fit for you.
posted by little mouth at 6:36 AM on August 31, 2016 [11 favorites]

Humanities person here who got into an anatomy-related profession long after college. I highly recommend Job's Body by Deane Juhan. It is about therapeutic touch but more than that it is a love letter to the human body and it will make you fall in love with anatomy.
posted by headnsouth at 6:58 AM on August 31, 2016 [1 favorite]

I agree about getting some actual healthcare experience--I love science and would be the world's worst nurse; I know nurses who succeed in their career and just scraped by in some of the physical science prereqs. I think you are putting too much emphasis on a 101-level class being boring, and a whole lot of weight on the only value of these classes being in their path to a career in nursing. Even if you decide that nursing, specifically, is not for you, those two classes are good prereqs for a lot of other related fields that may be a better fit--medical technicians, EMT/paramedics, lab techs, pharmacy.

As far as the classes themselves, I think there is a huge value to everyone having some basic science literacy. The rote memorization at the beginning--the periodic table symbols, how to balance a chemical equation, knowing which direction is "distal", going through the 8000 anatomy mnemonics--those are the grammar of science. On their own, they're not any more fun than learning verb conjugation. But without knowing them, you can't play with concepts, or ask understandable questions, or talk about the interesting stuff. I'd really encourage you to stick with it through the semester and see if there are any topics that interest you by the end of the semester. One week's not enough.
posted by tchemgrrl at 7:04 AM on August 31, 2016

I am a new nurse who graduated from an accelerated BSN a few months ago. (My previous degree is in anthropology.) If you look through my question history here you'll get some sense of the questions I asked myself along the way, which sound not unlike some of yours.

I wouldn't worry too much about your reservations about being too [insert adjective here] to be a nurse. Lord knows I had them, I still have them, everyone in my program probably had one or another at one point. You should know, though, that the BSN is one long grind of memorizing. My program involved eight hours or so of class per week, plus twenty four hours per week of clinical. BSN classes are a little more applied than your current anatomy--less about overall structures, more about how specific disease processes target the specific structures, how to manage those processes, and how to treat individual disease processes with drugs. But the coursework is intense. You don't necessarily have to love it--most nurses I know will confess to hating actual nursing school coursework--but you have to be prepared to power through it.

That said, as you've figured out, nursing practice is completely different from the coursework. To that end, I nth the suggestions for getting a CNA certification; that should only take you a month or so, the coursework will be dead easy since you already have a BA, and it is very applied; you'll be doing hands in skills training in the classroom from the get go. I did this route, and I felt that it gave me a good foundation for my first days of practical skills classes in the BSN. I did work in a nursing home for a bit after getting the cert, but I quickly switched to bring a home health aide, which I enjoyed much more. You might look into trying to pick up a home health job too; you don't need your CNA to get one, though it can help.

Feel free to memail me with any questions about accelerated BSNs, preqs, life after nursing school, etc.
posted by ActionPopulated at 7:36 AM on August 31, 2016 [2 favorites]

I don't have terribly specific advice for you, but my mom is a nurse, and my stepmother is the dean of the nursing department at our local community college. So I meet a lot of nurses, overhear a lot of nursing chatter, and know more than the average civilian about who becomes a nurse, what the training is like, etc.

This is really, really hard. Nursing is a super demanding field, educationally speaking. You have to know a LOT of stuff. And yet it's treated as a quick & easy "backup plan" type of job, or a career for people who aren't naturally gifted students. All of this means that you're probably surrounded -- and will be surrounded once you're actually in a nursing program -- by people who are a lot like you. Not naturally attracted to the sciences or math, or not terribly academically inclined, but determined to get through it and come out the other side. You can do this! And when you're actually in nursing school, you will have likeminded people to talk to who'll help you do this.

Re not being sure if you actually want to do the day to day work of nursing, I agree with folks upthread who've suggested volunteering or some kind of work experience that will let you try out whether being a healthcare provider is for you.
posted by Sara C. at 10:12 AM on August 31, 2016 [1 favorite]

Do you feel like you need to forgive yourself for your school and job history? The one thing I suggest for you is self compassion. You have had a journey- that is good!
posted by SyraCarol at 11:13 AM on August 31, 2016 [3 favorites]

Just dropping in to give my one official piece of advice. Whatever you decide, do not, I repeat, do NOT borrow money to go to a private nursing school. Even if it's a "well-regarded" program. Either go to your local public university, or don't go to nursing school at all. Best of luck, whatever you decide!

(And, yes, I think the suggestions to get more hands-on healthcare experience are good. But my advice stands.)
posted by 8603 at 11:36 AM on August 31, 2016 [4 favorites]

Full disclosure: I work at a community college. It is NEVER too late to change careers or get back on track. Heck, I'd say that's the number one best thing about community colleges. I've been to commencement ceremonies with 18-year old wunderkinds and 80-year old great-grandmothers walking on the same stage to get their diplomas and it is AWESOME to watch.

You've had a difficult road--please try not to think of your 20s as wasted time so much as part of the necessary cost to get you where you're ultimately going. (Sorry for how new age-y that sounds, but that advice really did help me out during a bad breakup.)

I know it's easy to feel overwhelmed with possibilities, especially when everything is starting to feel so urgent. But the easiest way to try to sort it all out is to write down everything you're worried about, everything you want, and everything that's got your head spinning and try to come up with a game plan that addresses your concerns.

To get the healthcare, one must get the job, and to get the job, one must get the job training. It sounds like there's probably not a lot of openings in fields that might lean on your English degree (avoiding law school was probably a good call) so right now, it seems like going ahead with this degree is a fairly safe bet in terms of future employability.

If, however, your experience with science classes has you a little shaken, maybe try to stick to more general healthcare credits at first rather than explicitly nursing credits. That way if you have a lightning bolt moment in the middle of a clinical that THIS IS NOT FOR ME OMG, it will be easier to transfer your credits to a different healthcare major that isn't quite as physically or emotionally grueling.

CCs usually have a lot of two-year healthcare degree offerings, and finishing up in two years versus transferring to a four-year nursing program will get you out and working all that much quicker anyway. Rad Techs, Anesthesia Techs, Surgical Techs, Occupational Therapy Assistants, and Physical Therapy Assistants are all two-year degrees most CCs have, and they're all pretty heavily in demand.

DEFINITELY meet up with an academic advisor at your campus when you have time to try to get a game plan going. For transfer programs, sometimes you have to take VERY specific credits in order to have them be accepted at other schools.

Try not to get too ahead of yourself here. I know you're worried about wasting more time, but think of it as a necessary gamble. Give yourself a time limit, maybe. Like, if you REALLY don't feel it by the end of your first year, switch majors or figure out a new plan. That way you have a hard deadline where you can cut your losses and not sink any more time into something you can't see yourself doing.

Good luck! You can do it!
posted by helloimjennsco at 11:38 AM on August 31, 2016 [4 favorites]

Sure, if I could snap my fingers and find myself working in a (semi-realistic) career, nursing would probably not be it,

OK, what would that career be?
posted by Rock 'em Sock 'em at 12:02 PM on August 31, 2016 [3 favorites]

I earned a degree in Anthro in my twenties and now I am back in school for the sciences and I am now 40. I am not in a nursing program but I have taken a lot of the same classes you have and here is my advice:

1. Keep yourself as general as you can for as long as you can. If there are five careers you are interested in that require class #1 and one that requires class #2, take class #1. Don't decide until you have to decide! Explore what you want in a career and allow yourself to meander just a tad. If you decide too early, you are more likely to choose something you end up hating. I should know, I did it the first time around.

2. On that note, explore many careers LIKE nursing. Nurse is just the title everybody recognizes. There are sooo many health and science careers that are good, solid careers, like x-ray technician. Maybe one will give you the salary you need with work you find interesting and classwork you can handle with ease.

3. Keep it as cheap as you can for as long as you can. Find a reputable community college and take as many pre-reqs there as you can. I am currently enrolled in San Diego's community college system and I'm essentially earning a high-quality chemistry minor at 1/4 the cost. We test on par with national averages, transfers are easy, we get top-notch facilities, and I'm paying next to nothing. They also offer a ton of sciency certificates in the healthcare, biotech, and science industries.

4. To get through your boring-ass classes, try to think of the short-term. When I start to think of my degree as a whole, I find it really hard to get through the totally boring and probably useless lecture I am attending at the moment. Take it week by week. I know that may seem counter-productive but it's the only thing that keeps me chugging through analytical chemistry and Newtonian physics because fuck that shit I want to do food science. If I take it week by week, pretty soon I am at the end of the semester and I can send back my rented books and never think about it again.

5. Try to get some experience in your industry. It will help you understand if it's for you and will help you land a job after all the school is done. This is easier said that done but talk to a counselor or a favorite professor.

6. Those other people who make you feel inadequate are probably just as lost as you. I call it the Facebook Effect. When you are uncertain, other people always look like they have their shit together but it's all a facade. They are wandering around in the dark, too. Don' let the bastards get you down.

7. You can do this. I am doing this and I'm an academic lost-cause.
posted by Foam Pants at 2:35 PM on August 31, 2016 [2 favorites]

Hi. I became a nurse at 32. I think the most important thing, as others have mentioned, is to get some experience in the world of healthcare. A CNA or tech job will help you decide if this is the right path for you. A&P is a grind, but I truly don't know many nurses who absolutely loved that type of stuff. Most just saw it as a means to an end. If you take a healthcare job, you'll know if this is right for you and, if so, you'll be able to get through the grind. I will say that things like A&P and pharmacology become increasingly more important as you get into higher education. If you have any ambitions to become an advanced practice nurse (NP, Nurse Midwife, CRNA), you're going to want have a good foundation for that stuff.
posted by brevator at 3:20 PM on August 31, 2016 [1 favorite]

I am a few years ahead of you on a similar path; in my third and last year of a direct-entry MSc Nursing program. I also started with an English degree, and also spent some hard time in pre-reqs before starting Actual Nursing School. This phase of nursing studies will pass; if you were feeling great about nursing until this week, don't get deterred yet. It's going to be very different on the other side of those pre-reqs. Memorization will continue, but as clinical work becomes part of the deal, the way that memorization feels can totally change. It certainly did for me.

You mention that you spent some time caring for a family member with health issues. What kind of care did you provide? Did you spend time with your relative in hospital? It sounds like you're basing the decision to study nursing partly on this experience; and I think that could be really reasonable. Maybe you aren't giving yourself quite enough credit for knowing what you're getting into? Just something to think about. And of course, some additional volunteer work or other health care adjacent experience still can't hurt; when you get into clinical, any background working with patients helps.

About the A&P. I have to say I really enjoyed that prerequisite... but I liked the A a whoooole lot more than the P. I think most courses start out from the little P stuff (cells, etc) and you don't hit the real meat of the anatomy (pun intended) until a bit later in the semester. There is going to be a LOT of information in this course, and the bad news is that it'll be hard, but the good news is that it'll be varied and you might get interested in some other parts, even if this past week hasn't been your thing.

If your course schedule isn't too heavy, maybe look for some non-fiction reading on the side that could help you generate some enthusiasm by linking up what you're doing in school with how you might eventually use it: understanding the body, pharmacology, pathology, and medicine. Reading books aimed at the general population, but with a fair level of medical/scientific detail (one great example is The Emperor of All Maladies by Siddhartha Mukherjee) helped me to feel the practicality of those pre-reqs; I was able to recognize bits of what I was learning and see how I'd use that in a clinical context.

Feel free to memail me if you want more info about being in nursing school or more health non-fiction recommendations.
posted by snorkmaiden at 4:37 PM on August 31, 2016

Response by poster: Too many great responses to choose a best answer, but thanks to everyone who took the time respond and offer advice. I've been feeling more positive about everything since my initial posting. I'll take things one step at a time, but I'm now at least committed to seeing out this semester. And we'll see where things go from there!
posted by thornhill at 7:44 AM on September 3, 2016 [1 favorite]

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