To join the Rat Race or Not?
July 22, 2007 11:07 AM   Subscribe

Should my girlfriend join the Rat Race?

My girlfriend needs advice and doesn’t have anyone to turn to other than a few folks who have been unable to help her. She comes from a farm family and is the first to really venture beyond farming, so she doesn’t know many people from home who can help her on this topic.

Her dilemma is this: She recently graduated with an M.A. in history. The summer prior to graduating she had a summer internship at a government agency in D.C. and left with excellent ratings and a job offer.

The only family she really has is me and her elderly, widowed mother. She and her mother have been through some very tough times together and are very close. Her mother lives in the Midwest and has no plans to move.

After graduation, she quickly (perhaps without thinking it through as thoroughly as she should have – as she now puts it) accepted an offer at a state historical society four to five hours away from home. She was told it was going to be one thing, but has turned out to be another. It’s dull, monotonous work that involves helping folks with their genealogy and history questions, but it is a seemingly easy job. There is no opportunity to advance, no chance of getting good pay raises. Her supervisor is a martinet with an attitude.

She still has an offer with the government agency in D.C. and she would have to start on August 6th. Monetarily, there is very little difference between the two jobs, by the time you consider the cost of living in D.C. There is the ability to go up the ladder, it is a more prestigious job that would help her feel like she was doing something “meaningful” (her words), but would take her far from home and her mother. It could also be potentially very stressful as it would first involve rotating shift work at all hours, then progress to a regular desk job.

In three years, we hope to get married and start our life together, after I graduate from law school in the South. Then we plan to live somewhere in the Midwest close to her mother. She intends to leave whatever job she’s working at, once we do get married.

Problem boiled down: Stay at boring job with martinet/somewhat anger issues boss, or accept job in D.C., far from home and the ones she love with initially odd hours, but more stressful, and slightly better pay? Has anyone faced this issue, your experience, opinions? Also, to those in D.C., your opinions on safe and comfortable living?
posted by anonymous to Work & Money (24 answers total) 1 user marked this as a favorite
It’s dull, monotonous work that involves helping folks with their genealogy and history questions, but it is a seemingly easy job.

That job sounds awful. I worked in a historical archive for six months during college, and I suspect --- from what little you've told us --- that your girlfriend would be miserable in the position with a state historical society.

Given that she did well in her internship, got good references, and has an M.A. in history, my guess is that she would be happiest in the D.C. position, even if it is more stressful. She will be challenged.

As to the distance from her elderly mother ... the state historical society job is already five hours away; that's not close enough for regular visits if she wants to maintain her sanity.

I vote for the D.C. job.
posted by jayder at 11:21 AM on July 22, 2007

Are these her only options? Both of those jobs sound awful to me. Could she keep her current job and hunt seriously for something better that would allow her to stay closer to her mother?
posted by craichead at 11:29 AM on July 22, 2007

She will never get anywhere if she stays with the job she has now, that's for sure. She should take the job in D.C. and see what happens. Maybe it'll be great, maybe it won't, but it'll get her somewhere other than where she is now. People from all over the country work in D.C., so it's possible she could meet the kind of people who could get her a job she wants outside of D.C.
posted by ThePinkSuperhero at 11:36 AM on July 22, 2007 [1 favorite]

D.C. job, hands down. here's why:

1. she is starting her career. this is not the time to settle but to build for a secured future. the only question worth asking in this context is which job is the better stepping stone - both in terms of building contacts and how it would look on her resume. she will need that if you guys are bound to go somewhere else.

2. she is not losing contact with her mother completely. this is the time and age of the telephone, of email, of webcams. a four or five hour drive is possible on weekends. you can pop down on friday night and leave sunday afternoon, if she wishes to. my 87 year-old grandfather figured out how to use email just because he "felt left out of this conversation everyone else was having" ... imagine my surprise when he sent me one for the first time.

(thank you for "martinet" ... I just learned a word.)
posted by krautland at 11:42 AM on July 22, 2007

I'm also really close with my mom, and my relationship with her hasn't suffered even though I've spent the last five years away from home - four of those years an eight-hour drive away, and the last one in Indonesia. We actually talked more on the phone and over e-mail when I was on the other side of the world than we did when I was in the same state.

So I vote for the DC job, not just because communication is cheaper and easier now than it has ever been before, but because I imagine that her mom (like mine) would want her child to succeed in her field and see the world, even if that's at some distance from home, and even if it's more stressful.

And DC and the Midwest aren't that far apart, really - it's still perfectly possible for your girlfriend to go home for holidays, or for her to host her mom in DC for a weekend of catching up and having brunch and other mother-child stuff.
posted by mdonley at 11:44 AM on July 22, 2007

job that would help her feel like she was doing something “meaningful” (her words)

That's all that matters, IMO. It's the DC job or regret it forever.

Thing is, as krautland put it, it's not going to be her job forever (with any luck). DC is a better place to meet people and make a big contact network in her area of expertise. She's a lot more likely to fall into her ideal job one day there.
posted by ctmf at 11:48 AM on July 22, 2007 [1 favorite]

Does her mother live close to an airport? The choice between a 5 hour drive and a short flight may make this a bit easier for your girlfriend. Also, most parents wouldn't want their child to work a job that's drudgery.

Personal experience - during a period of family crisis I moved to my hometown for 3 years. When things stabilized, I made some decisions to live far from my family. I would hate myself if I hadn't gone home when I was needed. However, I would resent my family if I had stayed forever out of an obligation.

Your girlfriend needs to decide if staying near Mom will be something she treasures or resents.
posted by 26.2 at 11:52 AM on July 22, 2007

I would have said the DC jobs hands down, sounds interesting and a challenge, and everything else other folks have said. The thing that makes me pause is that (the way I'm reading the question) she plans to quit and stay home in three years, so this wouldn't really be the beginning of a career, and maybe not so worth the short term crappiness for long term pay-off.

With that in mind, maybe neither? If she isn't planning to work at all for the rest of her life (and you think you can guarantee that), why not ditch both the current options and find something that's either very fun, or very profitable to do until you get married.
posted by crabintheocean at 12:07 PM on July 22, 2007

Do not take the DC job. I live in DC and know of nobody who doesn't regret staying back in wherever.

Of course, somebody will post to contradict me. Go ahead.
posted by Electrius at 12:19 PM on July 22, 2007

I've also lived in Washington and hated it, but what I *did* like about it, and what seems most relevant here, is that it's exactly the place where people go to work for two or three years as they start their careers, and then they pretty much all move elsewhere. The entire city turns over every couple of years as all the interns, entry-level non-profit workers, and students take off after accumulating shiny new entries on their resumes and a box full of business cards.

I agree that it might also be worthwhile for her to look into other job possibilities, but what you're describing she wants -- a two- to three-year gig that will jump start a career based somewhere else -- is pretty much exactly what Washington specializes in.
posted by occhiblu at 12:26 PM on July 22, 2007

Oh, also meant to add that a huge number of 20-somethings in Washington have those intern-level and entry-level non-profit jobs, which means that most people in her age range there aren't making much money, either. So there would be a cost of living increase if she moved, but she wouldn't be out of step with peers in the new place.
posted by occhiblu at 12:28 PM on July 22, 2007

I have a tiny experience of D.C. --- I lived there for a summer interning for a member of Congress --- and it struck me as a great place to be an ambitious and educated young person. For a certain kind of person in the U.S., having spent some time in D.C. is a rite of passage.

And, given that it's full of young, smart people, there are plenty of reasonably safe and affordable living options.
posted by jayder at 12:29 PM on July 22, 2007

OK - I haven't got a farm background but I am the first member of my family to benefit from higher education and to have a professional career. This has involved moving to a different country and moving a lot in general over the last 9 years, several times to places where I knew nobody. This can be daunting but you gain so much confidence and so many unique experiences in the process that I would do it all again every time. I can empathise with your girlfriend as nobody in my family/back home can relate to the experience or advise me in work matters.

DC job - You spend so much time at work you might as well do something you enjoy. All the downs (distance) can be overcome. And if you have no family and other commitments locally shift work is not all that bad for a period of time. She may well find she enjoys being able to do things during the day etc.

At this point in her life I personally think it would be foolish to commit herself to a dead end job with the intention of giving up work for good a bit further down the line. The simple reason being that you never know what life will throw at you.

I am not doubting your commitment to your relationship (or future earning prospects) but you may find yourself in circumstances (illness, unemployment, death) which would require her to start to work again. And in that case any experience she gains in the next three years could make all the difference to both of you.
posted by koahiatamadl at 12:34 PM on July 22, 2007

Sorry for the serial posting, but I just realized I may have misread your question.

I took your "She intends to leave whatever job she’s working at, once we do get married" to mean that she'll leave her actual job, but continue her career. If that's the case, then what I said above is what my advice would be.

If you meant that she'd drop her entire career once you marry, then I would probably say: Take the DC job if what's important to her right now is to make as much of a difference in the world as possible in the next few years before settling down with you; in other words, if she's on fire for the cause. (Or, possibly, just if she liked Washington so much during her internship that she wants to try to live there on her own, and get a taste of that, for a while.)

If her priorities, however, are more with her family (including both you and her mother), and the job is more about just doing something interesting with her time before settling down with you and by her mother, then I'd urge her to start looking for other job options close to either you or her mother -- or, best, in whatever area you and she want to settle in -- so that she can start building up that sense of community that's important to her, to already have that in place before the wedding. Because I don't think the low pay and stress of Washington is worth it for anyone's who's not actively working to progress in their career; it's really intense and career-focused.
posted by occhiblu at 12:39 PM on July 22, 2007

And if you have no family and other commitments locally shift work is not all that bad for a period of time.
Shift work isn't so bad, but rotating shift work is kind of brutal. I've only done it in a very modified form: I never had to work a shift before eight in the morning or after midnight. And I still found it pretty difficult. It may be that I just value a regular sleep schedule more than most people.

That would be my primary concern about the D.C. job. I was in D.C. for about a year after college, but I didn't have anything to do with the eager young Hill staffer crowd, which probably colored my experience. I've never met one of those people whom I didn't find deeply, profoundly obnoxious, but they aren't the only young people in D.C., and they can be avoided. I had a good time in D.C., although I wasn't sorry to leave.
posted by craichead at 12:51 PM on July 22, 2007

Seize the day. Job opportunities aren't always there when you want them, so she should give it a try. If she doesn't like it and decides to move back, it doesn't sound like she'd be in any worse position then she is now.
posted by Roger Dodger at 1:02 PM on July 22, 2007

Based on what you wrote, I'd probably advise her to accept the job in D.C.

The only family she really has is me and...

That's a nice sentiment, but boyfriends aren't really family. You mention your "hope" to marry and her "inten[tion]" to subsequently quit, but you didn't mention an engagement and three years is a long time, especially if (?) you're 20-something. Hope for the best but plan for the worst. Since you're asking for advice specifically for her, I'd have to answer that a boyfriend isn't a particularly compelling reason to pass up the opportunity you've described.

As for her mother: Everybody's parental relationships are different. I think I'd encourage my daughter to "seize the day," as it were, in circumstances such as you describe; but that's really a factor that nobody can weigh but your girlfriend and her mother. It's worth pointing out that moving halfway across the country isn't the end of the world; that, presumably, working "four to five hours away from home" will change their relationship in similar ways, anyway; and that technology has made our world quite small (letters, telephone, e-mail, IM, webcam), and there's little reason why she can't remain close with her mother from D.C.

The flip side is that, contrary to popular belief, opportunities are 10¢ a dozen and passing up one doesn't necessarily condemn her to spending the rest of her days in Mayberry (added to which, some folks like Mayberry). Long distances make romance difficult, even with a definite end date; and if she's planning to quit and move home in three years anyway, there's limited value in pursuing a "ladder" job at risk of challenging, damaging, or losing your relationship.

It's ultimately a question of priority — one of those forks in the road with no right or wrong choice. Several bits of your post suggest that maybe she's leaning toward D.C., or wants to; but maybe that's a quirk of phrasing, or my misreading, or simply not true. If it is, I'd suggest that it's almost always best to follow your gut, if for no other reason than because it tends to be the path of least regret. Either way, good luck.
posted by cribcage at 2:14 PM on July 22, 2007

Whether someone loves or hates DC probably depends on what crowd he/she runs around with. I grew up in a big square state in the middle, stayed in the Midwest for college, then moved to DC, and I love this city. Of course, I have no contact whatsoever with Hill rats, and I think that can make all the difference--that type of personality is not to my taste. There's a whole huge world of really awesome young 20- and 30-year-olds working at nonprofits and associations and think-tanks, though, and something new to do every weekend. While I miss the clear air and nice weather of where I grew up, I don't regret moving to DC for a minute.

I'd vote for the DC job, even if she plans on quitting in a few years. Getting that sort of experience is really valuable; plus, regardless of her plans now, none of us have a crystal ball and can say that we'll have the luxury of not needing to work for the rest of our lives (save perhaps Paris Hilton). She may find that not working drives her crazy (particularly if she's not happy at her very slow-paced job right now when she feels like she's not doing anything meaningful); the person who is providing for the family may not be able to forever for whatever reason; or life might deliver one of those inevitable surprises to remind us that we're not in charge nearly as much as we think. It's far better to have the experience and not need it than to suddenly need it and not have it.
posted by iminurmefi at 2:27 PM on July 22, 2007 [1 favorite]

Take the DC job. Its a good opportunity which will open other doors for her down the road. 4 or 5 hours away still isn't close to mom, so take the better job and email/phone/fly home often to see mom. She has the rest of her life ahead of her, so do the interesting job now, while she doesn't have a family that prevents her from doing the shift work.
posted by Joh at 2:45 PM on July 22, 2007

Could she use the DC job as a stepping stone? If she worked there for a couple of years, perhaps the two of you could later return to a place near her mother. Then she could try to get into consulting/freelancing or perhaps teach at a college, even part-time.
posted by acoutu at 2:53 PM on July 22, 2007

As others have said DC is a great pollinator. The people mature there and then go elsewhere. The people she meets there will move to other parts of the country and into other types of jobs. If she can form a network with these people then within a few years she will have many opportunities for other work quite possibly in a much more convenient location.

But the real answer is hers. Although to me and many other the other MeFites responding these jobs both sound like life suckers, which one does -she- want? And hen I mean "she" I mean, without thinking about you or her mother or any other person, which job is closer to her heart?

I grew up and have visited very rural parts of the US. It is virtually impossible to be more than 5 hours away from anywhere in this country. Even when I'm living in on the other side of the Pacific, my mother (who lives on a farm in the middle of BFA) knows I'm not more than 14 hours away.

Don't let her mother be an excuse.

PS: I bet my annual salary that there are more than two jobs in the world that she could find. If she is really that confunded, she should look around more.
posted by Ookseer at 6:59 PM on July 22, 2007

It’s dull, monotonous work. There is no opportunity to advance

That is an unacceptable job description for a recent grad. Period.

Assuming that you want what's best for her, on both a career and personal-growth level, and in the long and short term, then you absolutely should encourage her to take the DC job.

There are few better places in the US for a smart, driven 20-something to start their career, and meet people who 20 years from now, will be able to make a phone call and solve whatever problem you've got at the moment. The District (and by extension, much of the federal system) is _run_ by the 25-35 year olds, and the amount of influence an individual can actually have is surprising -- if "meaningful work" and "making visible changes" are important, and she wants to be among like minded people, it's a not a bad place to be.

And, in another 18 months, 1/4 the population of the city will turn over when the administration changes. So, just about the time that she should be leapfrogging into her next (and much better paid) gig -- so will many of the people who she's worked with and for.

That is, of course, if she likes the place. If she came back from her internship still interested in going back, then I'd take that as a good sign. The District can be a very harsh mistress -- many of those like-minded people I mentioned above will burn out, and both the humidity and the bullshit factor can be very oppressive sometimes. But, some people absolutely thrive there (I know, my parents are two of them).

If she did well with her first stint, she's much more likely to be able to thrive. And that's what a recent grad should be doing as she starts down a career path.

(Also, have you considered that you might want to join her in DC after you finish your Law degree? It's a good place for green attorneys, too )
posted by toxic at 7:13 PM on July 22, 2007 [1 favorite]

The fact she has sustained doubts about her current job is normally a sign that long-term happiness isn't likely. I'd take the DC job, for all the reasons mentioned, and the fact that change is good.
posted by oxford blue at 10:18 PM on July 22, 2007

her current job doesn't seem to have the potential to get better. that's not a small detail
posted by matteo at 11:49 PM on July 22, 2007

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