How do I decide what to do with my future?
November 13, 2017 10:36 AM   Subscribe

I am floundering in a pool of indecision regarding grad school. I want to pursue both Eurasian studies (Russian, specifically, and Central Asian language / culture) and become a Physician's Assistant. How should I plot this path?

Hi MF,

I've been thinking about grad school since I was about 20 (28 y.o. ATM), but have not been able to decide what I want to do. I am drawn towards medicine and have completed some post-bacc, pre-med coursework in the service of applying for a Physician's Assistant program. But, I also have a strong interest and background in languages, like Russian and Farsi, and area studies programs. In my mind I'm like, 'well you can become a Physician's Assistant and work for the State Department, [assuming this still exists in a few years] and do both!' but I am not sure how to move forward.
I volunteer at the hospital, with a mobile CPR clinic, and an LGBQT center, which has been edifying and supportive of the PA MA degree. I also miss Russian, though- I lived in Central Asia for a year and it was the best year of my life, in part because I love learning Russian so much (and languages, generally). However, I am always on the verge of broke (if not broke) and am exhausted from being stressed about money and my life's direction all the time. I work as a barista RN. I feel like if I am going to be broke, I should at least be doing something the better myself and my education, like going to grad school, since I want to anyway.

Should I apply for Area Studies programs first, and hope that getting a decent job after would enable me to finish up the pre-med postbacc stuff later on? It's just that I am only able to complete the postbacc stuff part time and out of pocket at community college. Or should I somehow leverage my life towards a position of completing the science stuff at community college, as I began to do last year, and worry about Russian later? Or should I just throw one of these dreams/goals out of the window and focus entirely on just one? I am hoping to get decent funding for the Russian stuff because I have a decent CV, prior experience, other awards, decent GPA, great undergraduate bachelor's degree from prestigious university, etc etc. I don't really understand how people get their lives together! I feel like I am crippled with indecision, partly due to anxiety fueled by being in student debt already.

This the most confusing fork in the road for me, and I am hoping that outsiders might be able to give me some clear insight. I am also in therapy to help me figure this sort of thing out.

I am afraid of going into more debt, so would only really do so for a Physician's Assistant MA since those have really high job placement rates.

Appreciate any thoughtful feedback! Thank you.
posted by erattacorrige to Education (28 answers total) 2 users marked this as a favorite
For an MA, there really isn't a whole lot in the way of funding like there would be for a Phd. If you do end up applying to a REEES program, I can really recommend the University of Texas (2003 MA grad). Tuition is more reasonable if you're a Texas resident, of course. Where do you live now?
posted by orrnyereg at 11:00 AM on November 13, 2017

These are two quite different paths in life, such that I would not even expect the same person to be hesitating between them. One of them requires strong academic interests and commitment, while the other focuses more on caregiving, interpersonal, and physical skills. It sounds to me as if you have no very clear idea what kind of job you would get with, say, a Russian area-studies degree, and are mostly thinking of terms of your fondness for the region. (A PA working for the State Dept is not going to be making much, if any, use of a degree.) But if enjoying the subject of study was all that was required to get a degree and make the degree into a career, the world would be a lot easier for grad students. I would suggest sorting out a career plan first. Then you can compare apples to apples, rather than a specific sort of job with specific pluses and minuses versus a nostalgia-laden dream.

(P.S. If you haven't already, visit the Dept. of Education website and see if you are eligible for any income-driven repayment plans that might reduce your monthly student loan payments.)
posted by praemunire at 11:17 AM on November 13, 2017

I live in Pennsylvania. Damn, 'nostalgia-laden dream'- burn. I am already on IDR, by 28 I at least know how to figure out THIS much in life.

I don't think that these paths are that different or unrelated; I am a caregiving type person with a gift for languages; these are normal things to be, out of the bajillions of personality types and qualities that exist I feel assured that this is not out of the realm of normal. I also have a talent for drawing and sculpture, but I guess this too is too expansive to fit a cookie cutter definition of what a human can be, right?
The reason I'm thinking about getting a degree in REES related stuff is because I think it would make me a more competitive applicant for a job with the State Dept as a PA, whereas I already know I can get a job if I become a certified PA. I really want to work for the State Dept, and want to be a clinician. Or: work internationally as a clinician, but you can't apply for Doctors W/O Borders as a PA. I have considered starting with an MPH and going from there, which I supposed I could also do; a friend of mine did this and completed her practicum in Central Asia, as she had Russian language skills and was also interested in public health.

I figured that grant funding would be tight for a REES MA but, I don't want to pursue a PhD, and I was thinking I'd apply for lots of language-based grants, in addition to being a qualified applicant for financial aid.
posted by erattacorrige at 11:27 AM on November 13, 2017 [1 favorite]

How about doing an NP program first, practicing a bit in the US to pay down debt/save money/improve language skills, and then volunteering abroad with MSF? Once you're a clinician, you'll have a good salary and a lot more flexibility in your schedule. (e.g., three 12-hour days, four days off per week for language study).
posted by stillmoving at 11:43 AM on November 13, 2017 [7 favorites]

I think the key here would be to identify specific careers/jobs and then find out what path people with those jobs took. For example, if you're interested in being a PA with the State Dept., I would identify some people with that job and do some informational interviews. What training did they do before applying, do they think these jobs are even going to be there by the time you'd graduate given what's going on with Trump, etc. And, are there other ways to pursue medicine or public health in the countries that you're especially interested in? What sort of training do people have who are actually doing these jobs now? Personally I would be sort of skeptical that an area studies MA would lead to these types of careers, but maybe I'm wrong! The key thing though, is to identify the jobs that are really attractive to you, seek out people doing them, and get some real-world information on how they got there.
posted by rainbowbrite at 11:44 AM on November 13, 2017 [5 favorites]

I would pursue the PA first since that the piece that is most likely to create income and can be used in a wide variety of settings. In the meanwhile, don't give up on your dream but be open to thinking flexibly about what you do to move towards it in the long run. It sounds like Russian is important to you - what can you do to maintain and expand your fluency in Russian in the meanwhile. Are there other languages that might lead to interesting job options. For example, in Silicon Valley a fluency in Farsi can lead to more local job opportunities than Russian. Furthermore, establishing an ability to work in your chosen language with real people as a PA might help your eventual application more than a degree in area studies.
posted by metahawk at 11:45 AM on November 13, 2017 [4 favorites]

I am a faculty member that works in that area of the world (well, next to it in the South Caucasus) and I have a secondary affiliation with an area studies MA program at my university. Of course we would love you to apply and I'm happy to talk to you about the program.

*** Relevant -- in general, 90% of students in this particular area get their MAs funded through a set of US government grants for language study. OP, you will want to check the current FLAS rules about both Russian and Farsi. Some years only 3rd year Russian or higher is funded, some years not. Google FLAS and Russian and you'll see it all. Contact the programs and figure out what FLAS grants they are going to support next year. For example, only some universities are authorized for FLAS Uzbek or whatever. You probably won't go into a TON more debt by doing an area studies MA unless you live in a super expensive city. But you will also be spending 2 years of your life on this. ***

Anyway, that being said, I can tell you as someone who primarily identifies with my social science discipline and secondarily identifies as a Eurasianist, the MAs in Russian/Central Asian studies aren't usually the best path to career success. Curriculum-wise, students get a taste of history, anthropology, social sciences, etc., but not enough in any one area in that 2 year program to really be an expert. As far as career prospects, *some* of our students end up working in the broader field related to the geographic area, but there are 2 types - one is when someone combines another interest with area studies - for example, we had a computer scientist get a Russian Studies etc. MA and now they work in a technical position in cyberwarfare. The other group of MA graduates that get jobs in the field end up getting fairly low paying program assistant positions in Washington DC at various organizations that do work with the Former USSR - human rights organizations, educational exchanges, etc. In those cases, I doubt that the investment of 2 years of their lives really paid off financially.

Another thing to know is that our student population has simultaneously gotten older and younger. 10 years ago the students were mostly mid-20s. Now they are younger - quite a few straight out of undergrad, and older - often military people that are being paid to get an area studies degree. Thus the cohorts are a little unusual.

If you do apply to Russian Studies/Central Asian Studies MA programs, apply to all of them and see which gives you the best financial aid package. Here's a 2015 report on all of the programs, and here's a list, but also with details on who provides what kind of classes, etc. - although that first report is very Russian-centric.
If you are really interested in Central Asia, make sure to focus on programs that have a significant Central Asia orientation. This is the academic association that is focused on Central Asia, not Russia, and they have this list of Area Studies centers that are more explicitly oriented to Central Asia.

This article on the state of Russian etc. studies is a must read too.
posted by k8t at 11:47 AM on November 13, 2017 [11 favorites]

Oh, I should also mention that we have a TON of students doing dual degrees with us, many of whom are in the health field. However, they need to get accepted to both programs. I'm not 100% sure how their funding works - if the FLAS funding covers their courses in the other program. However, the staff at the various centers could tell you that. I know that at my university we even have a specific medical Russian language track.
posted by k8t at 11:48 AM on November 13, 2017 [3 favorites]

I am a medical student with broad interests in the humanities. Take care of the PA first because it is very onerous. Then see where you are WRT jobs and pursue further coursework from there.
posted by 8603 at 12:18 PM on November 13, 2017 [2 favorites]

Here in New York City there is a significant demand for Russian-speaking medical practitioners. However, I'm not sure that translates into a lot of jobs offered specifically for Russian skills, since there seems to be a lot of organic capacity as well.
posted by Jahaza at 12:24 PM on November 13, 2017 [1 favorite]

Plot this path by going through the regular process for becoming a PA and reading about Central Asian language/culture in your free time. That way you will be trained and employable in a growing, high-demand field, and you will not burdened by student debt and lost years of opportunity cost getting a Ph.D. in something where there are maybe 3 jobs a year in the whole country.
posted by mccxxiii at 12:26 PM on November 13, 2017 [3 favorites]

I think it would make me a more competitive applicant for a job with the State Dept as a PA

"I hope I can get this one federal job at a highly competitive agency" is not a career plan. Really, it's not. Don't do this to yourself without more information and a more plausible career plan.

I am a caregiving type person with a gift for languages

"Having a gift for languages" is NOT the same as being suited (both temperamentally and intellectually) for graduate study in foreign cultures or for the jobs it can lead to. It's really more of a sine qua non. You sound very much like many an English grad student who wants to get an English Ph.D. because they "love reading." By itself, a fast (but not fast enough to save you lots of money and time) track to heartbreak.

I'm not saying don't do it, I am saying you need a massive additional amount of information so that your expectations are realistic. Without that, sorry, you are comparing "a PA requires me to do this and this and this, and it'll probably pay around this much" with "I really loved living in Moscow for a couple years." That's an impossible comparison.
posted by praemunire at 12:33 PM on November 13, 2017 [4 favorites]

I agree with those who say you should focus on the PA first and keep the Russian/Central Asian dream alive on the side in the meantime (unless, as k8t mentions above, you can find some way to do a dual degree, which would be great). A job in health care, and particularly as a PA, gives you a huge amount of flexibility in terms of location and salary and getting out of debt. You might even do the PA first, then work on an MA in Central Asian/Russian studies part-time. Not ideal, I know, but I did an impractical part-time MA while working full time and it wasn't easy but I have never regretted it. In my case, I worked for the state government at the time, and so my tuition at state universities was waived even though what I was studying had nothing to do with my job, so that's something else to consider.

I am wondering whether it is working with the State Department in particular that interests you, or if you'd be open to working with NGOs and other groups, or organizations such as the UN? With both a useful and in-demand skill like being a PA and a background in the language and culture of the region, I think you could find work in that part of the world if you branch out from only wanting to work for the State Department.

A year of living in Central Asia will have given you a taste of some of the practical realities of living and working abroad. It will take a lot of work and some time, but I do think you can find a way to combine these passions. I'd look further into the options of a dual degree k8t mentions first, I think.
posted by tiger tiger at 12:42 PM on November 13, 2017

Well, I didn't live in Moscow for a few years. I understand your comparison for the English PhD thing, which is why I have not pursued grad school yet- I agree that "loving to read!!" does not translate to academia and a career. It's not that; it's that I want to be able to use my language skills in a professional capacity (as I have already--) and marry that to my clinician practice. I am already moving forward with the PA pre-requisites, and am learning that I indeed am well-suited to working in a hospital environment and am interested in contributing a significant part of my life to studying to work in this field, and then to actually working in this field. I would agree that massive amounts of additional info is required! Which is why I am inquiring about this, reaching out to grad programs, pursuing this volunteer work and extra coursework, etc. I met someone who works for the State Dept in Central Asia while I was there, and told her about my Pashto/ Urdu/ Russian language skills / aptitude and she was like HEY APPLY! WE HAVE JOBS FOR YOU! -- and this from a woman who had spent years working for the SD. A good friend of mine went to Princeton for a MA to learn Turkish and immediately got hired by the SD. It seems unfair to assume that I have not evaluated this from as many angles; as stated at the outset, I have been thinking about this for eight years without making any concise choice due to these exact reasons; uncertainty about what to do at the end of the day with a MA in an area studies program, etc.

I think it makes sense to forge ahead with the PA stuff as people are suggesting and fiddle with the language stuff in my 'spare time' (ha what is that even), but not to take it off the table completely as an applicable and useful skill for some point further down the road.
posted by erattacorrige at 12:45 PM on November 13, 2017

I'm confused about where you're getting your info about working as a PA for state. It's true that such jobs do exist --- but the whole Bureau of Medical Services is about 200 people. They're there mostly to provide care for the staff at the embassies.

If working for State is truly your dream, go for it. But I wouldn't rely on it, as a realistic thing-you-can-definitely-do if you choose this path. Even if you have great language skills, the process is extremely competitive and difficult, subject to really tough background checks, and the whims of Congress. Even if you make it to the top of the hire list, you may well languish there for years regardless of your skills and enthusiasm --- some years Congress cuts funding and nobody gets hired.
posted by Diablevert at 1:50 PM on November 13, 2017 [4 favorites]

I think you should go solely in the direction of being a PA and keep language studies on the side for now. I work at a major hospital in Phila and our Russian language needs are filled with either native speaking clinicians or farmed out to a phone interpretation service where the speakers need to have some sort of certification for medical translation, but do not need to be clinicians. What I'm trying to say is the whole language thing is sort of a flooded market already in phila. PAs on the other hand have promising job prospects, which would help with your financial situation.

There's language schools for Russian native speakers in the NE. MAybe volunteering to be a teacher at one of them would scratch your language / helping people itch for a bit? People also advertise in the russian papers for language tutors.
posted by WeekendJen at 1:51 PM on November 13, 2017

I met someone who works for the State Dept in Central Asia while I was there, and told her about my Pashto/ Urdu/ Russian language skills / aptitude and she was like HEY APPLY! WE HAVE JOBS FOR YOU! -- and this from a woman who had spent years working for the SD.

If you would be happy with absolutely any job in the State Department that used your language skills, then apply to them now if you meet the criteria for anything, or look up that woman and ask her exactly what you should study/do for the next two years to get you one of those jobs she mentioned. If you specifically want a PA job at the State Department that uses your language skills, then make a really solid plan B.
posted by the agents of KAOS at 2:29 PM on November 13, 2017 [1 favorite]

It sounds like what you really love (in terms of Area Studies grad school question) is actually learning Russian and Farsi -- not area studies per se as much as just really enjoying mastering fluency in the language. You don't need to go to an interdisciplinary program to do the language, and I think it sounds like the best of both worlds would be to become a P.A. and study Russian or Farsi intensely during the summers. Then you would have a wonderful career advantage in hospitals with strong Russian or Iranian immigrant populations. Getting an area studies MA is not a great idea if you're going into debt.
posted by flourpot at 3:07 PM on November 13, 2017 [6 favorites]

I am a physician with a degree in Comparative Literature, and a fantastic job where I get to do/use both every day. Feel free to PM me. I am traveling a lot this week so may take me a while to respond.
posted by basalganglia at 3:27 PM on November 13, 2017

I was curious about State Department PA jobs and found this site. According to one post on there you need 5 years of PA experience before they will consider you. So, go earn the PA degree and work. While you're doing that study the languages. And maybe could get a job at the clinic of a university that offers those languages and take courses for free?

I think there is a hiring freeze at the State Department now, but maybe by the time you're ready to do this we'll have a new administration with more hiring.
posted by mareli at 3:36 PM on November 13, 2017

Another factor to consider - only bigger posts have medical staff. The only former Soviet republic U.S
embassies that I know of with its own medical staff are Russia and Ukraine. It wasn't like they were interacting with locals very much anyway. (I formerly worked at State.)
posted by k8t at 3:40 PM on November 13, 2017

What was your undergrad degree? You day you're a barista RN...does that mean a Registered Nurse currently working as a barista? Or a barista Right Now?
I'm guessing the latter because if you already had a nursing degree you would have a lot of good career options at present. Anyhow, my recommendation is that you get the PA degree and continue studying language in your free time as a hobby/personal interest, and visit central Asia every year or two. Network and look into employment opportunities while you're there. Not just state department (where you'd mainly be interacting with expats) - hospitals and universities typically are open to hiring internationals, or some companies, or non-profit medical organization. in short, get the PA qualification as it's a great career move, then if you still want to move to central Asia, find a job there. In what capacity did you spend a year there previously? Is that something you can tap into? You don't need a master's degree in central Asian studies to live in central Asia. And as it's been alluded to above, it is very difficult to get hired into the state department.
Good luck!
posted by emd3737 at 4:22 PM on November 13, 2017 [1 favorite]

Hi, 30 year old person interested in various things and intersections here. Currently taking prerequisites to go back to school for a PhD after having changed directions many times in my attempt to figure out a way to stitch together interests into a career. The PhD is one such twist. Still figuring out what that path needs to look like, but for whatever it's worth, somebody recently gave me good advice that you have to pick one thing as your primary area of expertise to build the skill set and credibility to branch out into interdisciplinary space.

That said, I wanted to share my favorite Ted talk because I have found it helpful in thinking about this -- it is something I reference frequently when trying to put one foot in front of the other in career planning and trying to stitch interests together:

I hope you find it as helpful and encouraging as I do! Good luck!

PS: On a more practical note -- may be worth trying to network and do some job shadowing on the PA thing. Spending some time in the medical setting may give you more information on what it might be like to work as a PA--the clinical setting is not for everyone, though some people love it.
posted by dubhemerak3000 at 8:36 PM on November 13, 2017 [1 favorite]

PPS: have you considered public health? Global health, perhaps? Could be one thing to think about -- though I would strongly advise finding a way to not pay for said MPH (i.e., get a job at a university where you could get MPH working part time, applying to schools but only going if you get substantial funding -- can be hard to come by these days, but some people somehow manage it).
posted by dubhemerak3000 at 8:41 PM on November 13, 2017

Hi, I'm not an expert, but I grew up in the state department bubble and am familiar with some state/embassy things. The only physicians I can think of who are employed by state provide medical services to US diplomats and their families. Because the patient volume is so low, many physicians are regional and spend a lot of their time traveling around to different embassies. The services they can provide are fairly limited, and a lot of their job involves coordinating with local health providers, finding and vetting providers so that Americans can navigate the local health system (but I was not in war zones or very rural areas and the places I lived had pretty solid healthcare, so this could be very different depending on where you are). If you think you will enjoy being a PA (not in the foreign service), then I think you should go for it! It's a really rewarding career path. But if you think the only position that will make you happy is being a PA in the foreign service, then I think you might be setting yourself up for failure and a lot of anxiety as far as black or white/all or nothing thinking. What about the 5+ years of experience they require? Will you be unhappy until you can work for state?

On the other hand, there are plenty of other ways to end up overseas if you're open to them, and pursing a PA degree doesn't mean you have to give up on your other dreams forever. Many foreign countries accept US medical degrees in some form or another, and many will have paths to citizenship. You could also look into NGOs that might provide more hands-on medical treatment overseas, or get a dual MPH degree that would open more global health positions. I have a friend who lived in the middle of nowhere, USA, and learned Russian in her spare time while working at a grocery store - she's now in Moscow married to a Russian citizen.

I met someone who works for the State Dept in Central Asia while I was there, and told her about my Pashto/ Urdu/ Russian language skills / aptitude and she was like HEY APPLY! WE HAVE JOBS FOR YOU! -- and this from a woman who had spent years working for the SD.

I'm pretty sure that literally everyone says this about literally every field, and it's meant in a warm "you could definitely do the thing I do! Join us! You'll love it!" way, but the people saying these things are rarely involved in hiring decisions or have up-to-date information on hiring needs. It's true that you could probably get a job in the foreign service with strong language skills, but foreign service officers do a lot of things that are not language-learning related and you should look into whether you're interested in the standard foreign service roles (consular, public affairs, management, econ, political). Many roles, for example, do not require/are not given language training because they aren't public-facing enough for state to justify spending the money to teach them.
posted by autolykos at 7:57 AM on November 14, 2017 [2 favorites]

On a personal note... I feel a lot of anxiety coming from your question, and I apologize if I'm projecting too much but I feel like I used to think the same way - there were a lot of different directions I was pulled in, and I really resisted committing to one thing. It felt like I would be limiting myself to just being a PA or whatever, and that I had too many interests and that I was too interesting to "just" be a PA. I would have a job, but I would always have one foot out the door, reading about what I really wanted to do, like I couldn't limit my identity to just the thing I was doing. I don't know exactly what the cure is, but I found the thing I really wanted to do and I've been pursing it for the past few years. I occasionally feel a pang that I won't ever also get a PhD in philosophy or become a high school teacher, but I'm ok with reading in my spare time.
posted by autolykos at 8:28 AM on November 14, 2017

A lot of very good insights here, thank you all.

I had already known about PAs in the SD treating embassy/consulate people specifically already, as well as the relatively few people who have that position. But it's good to have the data confirmed!

@autolykos: The anxiety of boxing self in by making a specific, deliberate choice that closes many other doors is one that I am ready to make at this point in my life. I have thought about this for so long, and ultimately, being wishy washy about a professional degree is a.) due to my perfectionism; for so long I wanted to do something that I'd be great in, without acknowledging that I can be good and functioning and healthy doing many things that I am not perfect for and b.) having to take accountability for my life; if I wallow around half-committed to everything and anything, I am not really taking a risk that I could fail, because how can you fail at something you aren't really trying at? But I am over those psychological hurdles, in part due to the hurdles I have already overcome and the skills I have learned from prior challenges. I think I necessarily have to bank on myself and risk failure, in order to ever fully succeed at something the way I wish to.

I have already spent a lot of time researching the MPH option,a and it is a degree I assume I will probably pursue at some point in the future- after becoming a PA. As mentioned, I am already volunteering at the hospital, engaging with patients and health professionals, and learning about the everyday realities of this sort of work. I have also worked for or volunteered with like, 6 public health non-profits, and by far I prefer hands on work with patients, as I've come to understand that role through volunteering. (Many PA programs have a 2K hour patient contact hour stipulation before applying at all, which is sort of annoying but also very practical.)

I am looking at military options, too...
posted by erattacorrige at 5:11 PM on November 14, 2017

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