Burned out social worker: what's my next career?
November 28, 2016 10:48 AM   Subscribe

I guess “what should I do next?” is a pretty common question here and carries a high risk of snowflakes, if I’m understanding the local usage of that term, but here goes.

The background: I grew up assuming I’d be an academic, and then spent a year in a PhD program in the humanities which I enthusiastically fled. I got an MSW instead and spent a dozen years in social work; first a couple of not great clinical jobs (therapy and case management) and then a decade in sentencing advocacy, which is good, interesting, maybe even important work that I burned out on, but hard. The skill set for that job was most importantly interviewing and writing. A certain amount of my self-concept is wrapped up in being good at those. The thing I burned out on was working within inadequate and thoroughly broken systems.

Last year I sent out an APB to the effect of “let me know if your company is hiring for anything.” A college friend said his company, a fairly corporate nonprofit, was hiring a writer. Because I am one of the billions of people who has always thought of himself as a writer, I suppressed my understanding that entry-level marketing jobs are not, in any interesting way, writing. I was there nine months and lost any illusion that the job was going to be interesting or challenging after about one month. In the end I was laid off, which was fine in a way because I got unemployment, though it’s not enough to live on where I live. Also my college friend turned out to be an incompetent manager and sort of nuts and not great to work for, so that was best left behind.

In any case, I am currently unemployed. I’m working on writing some nonfiction that may or may not go anywhere. I’m applying for county jobs in social work that are not wildly appealing but pay relatively well, and occasionally for marketing jobs through a haze of misgiving. I suspect there is not a perfect job out there for me, but I thought it could still be interesting to get ideas from a bunch of strangers!

Here is my unrealistic wish list: I remain interested in writing. I like an element of human interaction. I prize having interesting coworkers, but that is always a crap shoot. I am fairly committed to working for a company that does some good in the world. Those are the big ones.

My negatives: Like everyone else who’s written one of these, I hate bureaucracy (the things I’ve historically been most resistant to in a job have been billing hours and writing Medicaid-compliant notes for client charts) and like everyone else here I realize that this is mostly inescapable. I am not interested in a job that involves travel. I’m too old and debt-averse to go back to school.

If I could go back 25 years, I'd try something creative/artistic--I have no particularly concentrated creative talents, but it would have been nice to try. I've considered freelance writing but can't figure out how to make it happen. I've considered teaching but have no idea if I'm any good at it. I've considered a lot of things, and have bored my friends with the subject a fair amount.

I’m sure I’ve left out pertinent info but that’s the nature of this kind of thing. Thanks in advance for interesting ideas!
posted by Smearcase to Work & Money (7 answers total) 5 users marked this as a favorite
Are you still in San Francisco?
posted by greta simone at 11:04 AM on November 28, 2016

Maybe you can open a private therapy practice? That way you wouldn't be working "within a broken system" (or at least, not mostly) and you could arrange your time to have more time for creative pursuits.
posted by bearette at 11:06 AM on November 28, 2016 [2 favorites]

As a good writer with empathy and an advanced degree, you sound like a natural fit for a communications role that's less entry-level and much better managed.

If you're open to remote work (i.e. telecommuting), you might find something interesting on the remote side of Idealist.
posted by Tiny Bungalow at 11:07 AM on November 28, 2016 [2 favorites]

Best answer: You sound like you could be a great grant writer/grant manager. Some of them freelance, and some (like me) are employees of a single nonprofit. In addition to applying for grants, you will write reports to donors on the activities under those grants and also often have direct contact with the funders. There may also be interviewing involved if your NGO provides services to clients whose stories are important for fundraising purposes.

For you in particular, I'd recommend a short online course (free is fine) to familiarize yourself with the work, and then apply to NGOs which are related to your previous specializations, playing up your specialized knowledge and writing ability. There are a lot of criminal justice reform nonprofits you could check out.

(As an aside - I am also a Writing Person, and I discovered that modern marketing and communications jobs are really really not focused on producing quality writing anymore. It's not like they don't care about it at all, but knowing about online marketing tools and SEO and social media and all that crap are more important, and for me it was the exact opposite of what I wanted to do. Grant management is a way better fit.)

a decade in sentencing advocacy, which is good, interesting, maybe even important work that I burned out on, but hard. The skill set for that job was most importantly interviewing and writing. A certain amount of my self-concept is wrapped up in being good at those. The thing I burned out on was working within inadequate and thoroughly broken systems.

This may be too close to the career you burned out on, but I immediately thought of legal aid investigators. I know that the New York Legal Aid Society employs a bunch of them. They assist defense lawyers by gathering information about the cases before they go to trial. It involves a lot of interviewing (eye witnesses, character witnesses, expert witnesses, police, etc), and may be less crushing than sentencing advocacy because you're entering into the process before the trial stage.
posted by showbiz_liz at 11:46 AM on November 28, 2016 [6 favorites]

Have you considered working in (health) policy? I've come across a few social workers who have made the transition. Some bureaucracy, but in my experience good co-workers. Writing and human interaction (your team+consulting with stakeholders) are two of the main activities of most policy jobs.
posted by escapepod at 1:48 PM on November 28, 2016 [4 favorites]

Response by poster: Thanks for the suggestions, folks. Private Practice is unfortunately out, bearette, because social work licensure is one of those broken systems. I spent 12 years in the field but never jumped through the right hoops so I can't bill insurance.
posted by Smearcase at 6:36 PM on November 28, 2016

Program evaluation, for a small consulting firm?

UX research (for example)? Maybe more of a leap, to get the tech skills, not sure if it's doable without more education. But it might be less than one would imagine. (Also might not necessarily get a job with a company doing work you could care about, immediately. But people in this field seem to be excited about their work and tend to get paid well.)
posted by cotton dress sock at 8:01 PM on November 28, 2016

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