Career change-social work or nursing?
October 24, 2018 10:56 AM   Subscribe

For a few years now, I've been thinking about pursuing a career change. My background: 6 years experience in digital marketing, with a useless liberal arts degree that I regret getting. I'm hitting a point in my career where I'm struggling to progress any further in my field.

I'm just not very good at my current field. I have zero passion for it. Initially I enjoyed certain aspects of it, but those are not worth putting up with the parts of it I hate, which is most of it.

My actual passion in life is in the unpaid activist work I do on the side for decarceration and ending police brutality. This has put me in a variety of stressful situations, and I've found that I'm good at handling them. I love working with the formerly incarcerated and homeless even if it's challenging at times.

For parts of my "side career" I've essentially been an unpaid case worker. I'm not even joking about that --think making phone calls, driving people to meetings and court dates, getting food and water to people living without either, providing counseling to people escaping abuse (long story, another time, etc), etc.

So for a while, I was considering going into social work or nonprofit work. However, for most jobs I'd be required to put up a lot of money to get a degree that would not pay well. Plus I know enough about the shortcomings of social work and nonprofits that I'd enter the field already jaded to some degree.

Lately I've been thinking about the possibility of nursing. There would still be an expensive degree ahead, even just as an ADN, but at least it seems like I could land a decent-paying job to make up for it. The field also seems a lot more stable than advertising/marketing.... although-- please correct me if I'm wrong about this.

As I said, I'm fine with stressful situations. I'm also okay with long, busy hours. I'm good at doing emotional labor in some circumstances, but I'm bad at "kissing up" and atrocious at office politics. That is something that worries me about nursing-- apparently there is a lot of managing feelings and most of the feelings aren't even patients'. That kind of stuff has made me miserable at previous jobs.

I thought about being an EMT but that doesn't seem particularly sustainable either.

At the risk of sounding like a cliche, I want to help people. And I want to help people in a way that won't burn me out utterly and put my economic well-being at risk, which is what my side work is doing to me currently, as much as I love it.

Has anyone made the switch to one of these fields? Can you talk about how it went and how you did it? As additional info, I am coming up on 30, have some debt, but with no kids, no SO, and relatively few distractions towards making this next phase of my life.
posted by coffeeand to Work & Money (19 answers total) 7 users marked this as a favorite
I was sort of blundering toward academia and switched to social work around your age. It has been a very mixed bag for reasons it sounds like I don't need to explain to you but that generally fall under the heading of "ratio of time spent actually helping to time spent at a desk, wrangling with broken and inadequate systems and doing paperwork about it." There are good social work jobs but there are a LOT of bad social work jobs. There are vanishingly few that will make you feel like an activist. I wonder a little if a public policy might better address your interest in working on systemic problems like mass incarceration.

My only real advice is, if you do decide to get an MSW, spend as little as you possibly can, because school prestige means very little in the field and starting salaries are not conducive to a good pace of getting that debt off your back. Well and go to school where you want to work because one of the good parts about social work school is that you'll make some connections, both people in your class who will go on to get jobs at organizations that may interest you and people you meet through your internships.
posted by Smearcase at 11:08 AM on October 24, 2018 [2 favorites]

As you haven't mentioned it - how are you with body fluids? If you can't deal with large amounts of blood, vomit, or diarrhoea at 3am in the morning when you're already knackered, do not become a nurse. Social work is not guaranteed to be free of any of those things, but it will be in lesser amounts (generally).
posted by Vortisaur at 11:15 AM on October 24, 2018

From where I stand, it looks real hard to live on a social worker's wages and the emotional burden of fighting what frequently looks like a losing battle in which the odds have been stacked against you looks absolutely crushing. Social work is important, but social services in the US are criminally underfunded and crippled by dysfunction at all levels. Burnout rates for social workers are extremely high.

Nursing is equally important to society, but nurses make a living wage. Healthcare is not without major challenges of its own, but at least there's more funding. Nurses seem to generally manage sustainable, long-term careers in their fields.

Become a nurse. You'll have a better quality of life and you can still hold your head up high as someone who's doing good in the world.
posted by Anticipation Of A New Lover's Arrival, The at 11:41 AM on October 24, 2018 [2 favorites]

If I had it to do over again and weren't squeamish, I think I'd go with nurse.
posted by Smearcase at 11:44 AM on October 24, 2018

I am a social worker and I love it. But it was an expensive degree and I work in a nonprofit for not-a-lot-of-money. You will make much more as a nurse, but there are other drawbacks, including the hours. I've worked in healthcare and allied positions, and whether you're a social worker there are still lots of "feelings" to manage, including those of peers with martyr complexes and those of the many other establishments with which you'll interact.

I agree with Smearcase that you might consider public policy--or maybe public health. This may scratch your itch for being involved in helping others, though on a macro scale.
posted by assenav at 12:01 PM on October 24, 2018

Is there any possibility of getting hired by a local organization to do the type of work you've been doing as a "side career" without getting a social work degree first? It would be a good way to test whether you actually like doing that work all day every day, and it is a cheaper gamble than getting the degree first.
posted by aka burlap at 12:09 PM on October 24, 2018 [1 favorite]

I switched careers into healthcare (audiology) at your age after wandering aimlessly through desk jobs during my 20s. Totally doable, was a mostly good choice for me.

Nursing is a really good job. I tell everyone to become a nurse. I'm not even joking. Rewarding, good pay, good benefits, and you can live absolutely anywhere you'd like. I work at a major university hospital and at any given time we're hiring 50 nurses. The low end is around $60k. Nursing specialties like nurse anesthetist can make six figures.

Social work, as others have pointed out, is a different ball game. Lower pay, more difficult to find work, often thankless. Totally necessary, rewarding for many, but likely a tougher path.
posted by Lutoslawski at 12:15 PM on October 24, 2018 [3 favorites]

Thank you for these responses. To answer the "how are you with blood/guts/gore" question the answer is.... mediocre. I couldn't stand doing dissection in HS bio class but on the other hand I'm also not 14 anymore. At one job years ago I cleaned up vomit sometimes and that wasn't bad. I'm not psyched about it but not really squeamish either.

I think I'm going to keep looking at nursing schools and think a little bit more.

akaburlap, that's a thought, but I would not want to take those roles from more marginalized people, who would find them more accessible than jobs that require lots of degrees.
posted by coffeeand at 12:54 PM on October 24, 2018 [1 favorite]

Jumping back in on the blood/guts/etc...The etc. isn't always of the gore/dissection kind...consider how you feel about vomit, feces, body/hair odor, infected wounds, potentially entering homes that have infestations of various workers are also not absolved of this; I have helped hundreds of people in the bathroom and seen I don't even know how many wounds, burns, and other injuries.
posted by assenav at 12:58 PM on October 24, 2018

Why not split the difference and become a mental health nurse specialising in Drug and Alcohol addiction.
posted by Lanark at 1:36 PM on October 24, 2018 [2 favorites]

You could do good work through the law angle as well, as a paralegal, or through the government, as a probation officer (that would get you working with your target population in potentially a supportive capacity), or community development or outreach officer - a degree in social work may not be necessary for the latter three; looking at ads for these near me they will take a combination of equivalent education and experience (which you're building and is surely relevant). Pay ranges I'm seeing are 50-110k.
posted by cotton dress sock at 1:37 PM on October 24, 2018

So, I'm a social worker in an ER. There are tons of nurse medical case management positions, and the make more money with less educational cost (and if your get RN without your bachelors, my job will help you finish buuut wont even give. Me 25 dollars for CEUs don't get me started). They have better unions, better work protections, more on site free training.

They are fundamentally different roles, but insurance companies are using in home SW and nurse case managers almost interchangeably. I ultimately want to go into public health but have a small baby. Personally I wish now I'd done nursing first, because clincials. It's way more common for people to get social work masters degrees later in life.

If you'd like to talk more pm me and I'm happy to talk on the phone or memail extensively about the differences in my role versus a nurses role in the ER and some of the pros and cons as I see them.
posted by AlexiaSky at 2:15 PM on October 24, 2018 [3 favorites]

Nursing in the US will have much more flexible hours than social work, which is typically 5 days a week. Full time nursing positions in hospitals, anyway, are typically 3 twelve-hour shifts per week. If you try to schedule them together, you then have 4 days off in which to do lots of social justice work. And you will have a decent salary, health insurance, and vacation. Your pay and benefits will probably be better if you are able to work in a Union hospital. If you choose ED work, you'll have AMPLE ability to interact with poor and disenfranchised people, and can sometimes get social worker assistance for them as part of their encounter, especially if they are very old, young, homeless, or pregnant.

Be aware that without a bachelors degree in nursing, you'll have a much more difficult time finding a good job. Some associate degree nurses are working, but it is no longer seen as "equal" by recruiters, and some hospitals (Magnet status or aspirants) will only hire BSN nurses. This might vary if you are in an area where ADNs are the norm, but this is the trend.

I'd suggest you make an appointment at a college or two in your area and ask for an evaluation of your transcript, as there are surely classes you would not need to repeat. Nursing colleges are full of people who are switching careers, so this is a common request. If they accept classes, this would shorten your education and probably restrict it to nursing and science classes. And you could probably do some of those at community college and have them accepted. I did this with basic chemistry, nutrition, and basic microbiology, which I took in summer school.

Nursing is an incredibly flexible platform for doing good. You can focus on public health (poor salary compared with hospitals, another inequality) or go on to get a MSN and do direct primary care. You could work for a pharmaceutical company (probably would not appeal to you) or a drug and alcohol rehab. It's a remarkably wide-open career.
posted by citygirl at 3:52 PM on October 24, 2018 [1 favorite]

I became a nurse at 42. I had a BA and no science background when I decided to change careers (from libraries). Spent a couple of years doing pre-reqs at community college while working full-time, then went through a one-year, 57-credit accelerated 2nd career/2nd degree BSN program. I came out of that program with about $22K in student loans, which covered tuition/fees, my living expenses came from savings that year.

It took a while to get my first nursing job, but now I have a nice solid resume and I'm making twice as much as I did when I left the library world. I help people every day. Most days I do have to work at maintaining my boundaries to not get sucked in to patients'/families' emotions and situations, or into the drama that is part of hospital work life.

Feel free to MeMail me if you have questions.
posted by shiny blue object at 5:57 PM on October 24, 2018 [1 favorite]

Nurses get hired for all kinds of things that don’t involve body fluids. Lots of public health workers are nurses, often with an added “Public Health Nursing” certification but no master’s in public health.

Outside of nursing, our state health dept has people who embed in communities where there are higher rates of sexually transmitted infections to target education and resources where needed and be a trusted connection. I don’t know if those people have any required qualifications but it sounds like work you would like.

A sort of similar position is Community Health Worker - very much a direct service kind of job but you don’t have to be a nurse. I don’t think they get paid very much though.
posted by lakeroon at 7:37 PM on October 24, 2018 [1 favorite]

I was a nurses aid forever, then became an LPN in 2012, worked in skilled nursing and hospice until 2016, and have worked in an ER as an RN since then. I have my bachelors in an unrelated field and an ADN in nursing. As do most of my coworkers. Eventually I may need a BSN but at that point I will probably go for my NP. I’ve worked in Maine and Vermont only.

There are certainly nursing jobs were you won’t have to deal as often with body fluids, but it is very unlikely that you will be able to get those jobs as a new graduate. If you want to go in to case management it is very helpful to spend time as a floor nurse where you are sometimes literally elbows deep in urine, feces, blood, vomit, etc. If you immediately go into mental health nursing in the inpatient setting, they generally have to deal with this stuff less often, especially if they limit patients to those who are independent with ADLS.

Honestly nobody LIKES cleaning up body fluids.. However, if you are going into nursing because you want to help people, you might find that it gets pretty easy pretty quick to do this dirty work because it is in the context of doing a very caring job.

I hear what you are saying about politics. There is always certainly a dynamic between the floor nurses and the management. However, I don’t think it is any better or worse than other jobs.

Also the schedule is so flexible. I can work any time of day, for as long as I want.

There is a lot of advancement and not just into management. Some of ADN nurses I work with teach ACLS, PALS, TNCC, ENPC.

As far as social workers go - In my limited experience, they have an enormous role in the healthcare setting. it seems like an inpatient psych units they basically run the show. In our ER they facilitate the dispositions of all psych patients. When I’m saying is they are so so underpaid for the amount of work they do.

If you have any other questions, feel free to me mail me.
posted by pintapicasso at 5:07 AM on October 25, 2018 [2 favorites]

Oh one thing I forgot to say. Nursing really is physically demanding. Yesterday I worked 12 hours and I’ve probably spent a total of two of those hours sitting down. I’m a small person and I had to hold a 200 pound person up on her side while the doctor digitally disimpacted her for 30 minutes. Even doing chest compressions for two minutes can be so hard and exhausting especially if I code lasts a long time. Leaning over the bed to start IVs, insert catheters, do all of the staff that it takes to help people can take a real physical toll on your body.
posted by pintapicasso at 5:15 AM on October 25, 2018 [1 favorite]

Thanks for all the info! I really appreciate hearing from people in the field. It sounds like an accelerated BSN would be the best bet. To start with I'd have to take some pre-reqs but I think I could do that and it would be a good way to get my feet wet.

If school prestige doesn't mean a lot in the field then that's good to know too. Because I think I would want to go the community college route.

Thanks again! You all have been amazingly helpful.
posted by coffeeand at 7:49 AM on October 25, 2018 [1 favorite]

School prestige means next to nothing. Everyone winds up with an RN next to their name.
posted by pintapicasso at 10:38 AM on October 25, 2018

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