Why am I finding it so difficult to determine my future?
January 7, 2008 2:57 PM   Subscribe

It’s that time - the beginning of the last semester before I graduate from collee. It’s time to find a job or graduate school program and plot out the rest of my life. A renewed interest in charity and decreased interest in psychology, my chosen field of study, have led me to question my planned life course. Open my mind to what I might be able to do with my life.

For 6 or 7 years, I had my mind set. It was going to be great - I was going to go to college and get a degree in psychology with a related minor (which ended up being family studies), go on to graduate school in clinical psychology, and have a fulfilling job in academia (which I now realize tends on the oxymoronic side).

My research interests are/were varied: the role of the family in latent psychology, social justice issues relevant to psychology (availability of low cost mental health care, etc.), the etiology of autism, and most eminently, the role of psychologypathology in the child welfare system. I have six children adopted from the state of Minnesota, all of whom have special needs due to abuse incurred while living with their birth parents. I love them dearly, and would have loved to be behind research that could help children who have been similarly abused.

This past fall, in the midst of one of the busiest semesters in the history of postsecondary education, I was struck with an ulcer. “Trim the fat from your life,” my doctor demanded - and I did, putting grad school on hold for a year. I found a job for the interim year, working for a private social work agency in the southwest as a case manager for a community adoption program. This is set to begin at the end of May, after I graduate.

But I’m beginning to reconsider. I talked to an eminent psychology researcher who specializes in child abuse research, who repeatedly emphasized that if my sole purpose of entering the field was to make a difference that I would be better served working for UNICEF. I’ve also spoken with two social workers, both of whom insisted that I was a very smart person whose talents would be better used elsewhere. I also concluded that I’d struggle

Currently, I’m investigating a few alternative options. I'm currently fixated on the possibility of a career in charity. I have a very, very, very strong interest in NGOs. Careers at Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International are incredibly appealing to me. I’m currently looking at MPP (public policy) and MPA (public administration) graduate school programs. Rutgers has an MPA program that intrigues me; it emphasizes international development and integrates a year in the Peace Corps. I’m also entertaining the idea of spending the next year in the Peace Corps, probably in Sub-Saharan Africa. I’ve also looked at full-time jobs for the Clinton Foundation, Amnesty International, and

Other possibly relevant factoids: I’m very liberal - an avid and well-informed supporter of Barack Obama. The Constant Gardener and Blood Diamond are among my favorite films. Am I a bleeding heart? Probably, but if that’s the case, it’s as much of a component of who I am as my green eyes are, and it’s not going away. I’m a very good student (3.8 GPA, ~1400 GRE). I also have a variety of professional and volunteer experiences that range from directing fundraisers benefitting autism research foundations to research assistantships . I’m a very talented web and graphic designer, and could easily make 50-75k/year doing freelance design work. I’m obsessed with the idea of living in either Africa, England, or Loudoun County, VA (near Washington DC).

In short, I’m confused. I badly want to make a difference on this planet that we call our home, but I’m naive to many of my options and don’t know where to go from here. I’d appreciate any advice, anecdotal or otherwise, that you might be able to provide, Also, any suggestions or recommendations of programs that I might be interested in are also welcome. Thanks everyone, this is a stressful proposition for me, and for the first time in my life I feel like I’m in over my head.
posted by charmston to Work & Money (8 answers total) 3 users marked this as a favorite
This is just general advice for the first few years out of college:
You are a high achiever who likes to make plans. But the difficulty of the transition to post-college life is: there are a lot of great things you could do, but there isn't any one single thing that is best. And there are a lot of different paths you can take to qualify yourself for these great things, and there's no way to enumerate all the paths and rationally decide on the best one. The best thing to do is to just get going, doing something, after graduation, and natural next steps will present themselves as you go.

Don't put pressure on yourself to meet some unspoken expectation that because you're smart and well-meaning, you must always do The Best Thing or you are somehow wasting your time and talent. That's not the case. From here on out, there are very many excellent options for gaining experience that will allow you to help others and still live a life that makes you happy. Your early 20s can feel aimless, but they are hugely important in terms of building up a base of real-world job skills, personal connections, and clearer perspective on your own interests.

What you should do next is: gain real-world experience. You know you're good at school; you may be tempted to just go to grad school ASAP for many reasons, but don't succumb to that temptation. Wait at least 2 years. You're capable of doing the work in grad school, but you need a few years of real world experience and figuring out who you are and what you like outside of the setting of school. Don't go to grad school until you're sure that the program you've chosen is a good qualification for some work you want to do.

Pay dues in a few different entry-level jobs in varying fields for a couple of years (or more). You will find that when you're 25 you are in a much better position to think clearly about what you like, and you'll be better able to get and do the jobs that you'd like.
posted by LobsterMitten at 3:32 PM on January 7, 2008 [3 favorites]

An unspoken corollary of what I just said: you're not in a position right now to choose a career. You're in a position only to choose a next step. It's very likely that you will jump around in jobs, training programs, etc -- this is good, it means you will get a mix of experience that suits you for interesting and useful work. Most interesting jobs do not have a single clear-cut path to get them; the way to get them is to gain a good mix of skills and personal connections, and the way to do those is to get lower-level jobs that start you in roughly the right direction. The point is: Don't let this give you an ulcer. Choose a good next step, without worrying whether it's the very best possible next step.
posted by LobsterMitten at 3:39 PM on January 7, 2008

I think we need more information.

How old are you? Are you single? You have six special needs children and are considering spending a year in the Peace Corps? Are they grown-up now?
posted by Jahaza at 4:34 PM on January 7, 2008

Wow I missed the "I have six children" angle when first replying; I assumed you were single, childless, 21. Jahaza is right to say we need more info to give suitable advice.
posted by LobsterMitten at 7:05 PM on January 7, 2008

Dear Lobster Mitten:

Thank you for empowering me. I am an aimless, underachieving, good-at-school, wasting-my-two-degrees kind of person, and I wish someone had said something similar to me after graduating from undergrad. Thanks for making ok to not know what I'm doing with my life.

posted by santojulieta at 7:32 PM on January 7, 2008

santojulieta: Most of the people I know who went back to grad school immediately after college are now facing the "but what can I do with my life?" question in their 30s -- with no work experience, no connections, no savings. Whereas the people who tried out a few different low-level real-world jobs, and felt worried about being "directionless" in their 20s (while people in grad school could say "I'm in grad school"), are now hugely well-qualified and well-connected to get great, interesting jobs that really matter. Very smart people these days get conditioned to go for the established-path, quantifiable prestigious degree, when it seems to me in many cases they end up happier and better able to contribute if they can resist that temptation and do un-prestigious, "directionless", entry-level work for a while.
(This isn't to say that college is worthless - I think it's hugely worthwhile. But it's only a first step, and needs to be followed by gaining experience, connections etc in the real world, to get the best benefit from it.)
posted by LobsterMitten at 7:52 PM on January 7, 2008 [4 favorites]

Response by poster: Wow, I don't know I managed to mess that up. Six special needs SIBLINGS, not children. My huge, huge mistake.

I'm 22 and single, not tied down to any particular person or location. Another useless factoid: I read and loved Bill Clinton's Giving. I'm also a fan of Kiva.
posted by charmston at 12:52 AM on January 8, 2008

It's always a good idea to take a break (if you can afford it financially) if you are feeling physically/mentally worn out (I know I did immediately after college).
You could "take a break" by pursuing the website work for a while or a contract job in another country (a year teaching English in the country of your choice, for instance) I can't recommend a specific program and/or agency but I know there is at least one organization which arranges jobs and/or internships in European countries and it does offer placements in publishing and the like, so you might want to google that.
After that, if you want to return to the field of psychology, consider: why not take the clinical rather than the academic career path if you want to put your expensive education to use and want to try to make a difference...true, you won't be "saving the world" but you might like the idea that you're (theoretically) making a difference in individual lives, which would be why you chose this as a career path in the first place? See if you can find out if there are jobs/internships working for a non-profit agency that deals with child psychology/counseling or a program that deals with family therapy, parenting classes, etc. It couldn't hurt to actually meet with someone from AI or Human Rights Watch and ask if they or perhaps Doctors Without Borders, etc. might need someone with a background in psychology too.
And don't forget the prison system, the school system and your friendly neighborhood mental institution. A lot of abused children or adults who were abused as children or adults who may go on in the future to abuse children, are in any of these three places at any given time.
posted by bunky at 7:32 PM on January 8, 2008 [2 favorites]

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