Wednesday, July 20, 2005

Career Crisis
On the off chance that there's anyone actually reading this blog I thought I'd lay out my particular career dilemma to see if anyone might have some helpful advice. I am at somewhat of a crossroads, and I need to make a decision soon. Decisions are not my strong point. My most noticeable flaw is a tendency to prevaricate, to fail to make plans and follow through on them. This is apparently entirely typical of Third Culture kids. So if there are any of them reading maybe they can commiserate.
Here is my problem. I want to be a writer. Specifically, I want to be a journalist focusing on long op/ed type pieces about culture and politics. In an ideal world, I would really love to write about cultures which the Western mainstream doesn't understand and in which I have a strong interest. I have a long-standing obsession with Russia and with China, and if I were to name my dream job right now it would be being stationed as a foreign correspondent in either Moscow or Shanghai.
Here is the problem with this idea. My undergrad degree is in Psychology. Clearly this has little relevance to journalism. I had hoped that, given that journalism has traditionally been a vocational field in which one can enter without any academic qualification and learn on the job, I would be able to get a basic entry-level reporting job and work my way up. What I have discovered over the past few years is that the profession doesn't seem to work that way any more. Nowadays getting into the field seems to require a journalism degree, preferably an MA, and multiple internships. I am therefore considering going to grad school. There are many problems with this. Firstly, I don't really have the money. I could of course get a student loan, but given how poorly paid most jobs in journalism are I'm worried that I wouldn't be able to pay off the loan once I graduate. Secondly, unless I get into Berkeley I would probably have to move. I'm not sure that I even want to go to Berkeley - I know several people who've gone through their MA program and I don't think that it focuses on the areas I'm interested in. Columbia would be a better fit, but it would also be prohibitively expensive (see the earlier comment about student loans and watch me start to panic). Another option is to apply to grad schools in the UK. This option offers the tantalizing possibility of moving back to London, which is something I want to do anyway. However, London is the third most expensive city in the world. Thus, again we are back to the financial issue.
Honestly, I'm stuck and starting to panic. I'm beginning to think that I should just abandon the whole idea and content myself with becoming an office drone and working in a job that I have no real interest in but which pays the bills. This prospect scares the shit out of me. I don't want to wake up at 50 and wonder what the hell I did with my life. I don't want to lose whatever it is that makes me myself.
There is a second option. I could go get a Masters in Psychology and become a therapist. This option would also involve student loans, but it would also involve ending up in a job in which I would be earning enough money to pay back those loans. Clearly this is a plus. I think I would make a pretty good therapist. I don't hate the idea. I don't love it either. It would be the safe, boring, sensible thing to do. Why can't I bring myself to do it?
There is yet another option that has recently occurred to me. I grew up in the Middle East. I have a pretty decent level of knowledge of the region, and a strong level of cultural competency. Physically I can pass for Persian or Turkish quite easily. Recently I've been thinking about joining the British diplomatic service. This isn't an entirely new idea. When I was in high school a recruiter from MI6 tried to persuade me to follow this very path. The UK lacks people with a background in the Middle East and knowledge of Islam, and right now it needs those people more than it ever has. I went to a very fancy British boarding school, and am thus in the group which the service prefers to recruit from. I might actually be useful and able to do some real good in such a role. If I made the effort to learn Arabic the fact that I can pass as Arab would come in very handy. I've always had the desire to do something with some sort of redeeming social value. Third Culture kids are notorious for the fact that they make excellent diplomats. I like to travel, I adapt easily to new environments, I have unusually good social and interpersonal skills - in other words, I fit the profile. The idea intrigues me.
So, what to do? I need to make a decision soon. Ever since I turned thirty I have an eerie sense that the clock is ticking and I need to take some kind of action. I feel like I'm running out of time. I've been mulling all this over and not getting anywhere. Does anyone else have any useful insights, any brilliant suggestions, or any personal experience with the fields that I'm considering that might help me break through this impasse?
To add to the confusion, my best friend thinks I should be a therapist, my grandmother things I should write novels, and my husband thinks that I should go get a PhD and be a university professor. I think my head may explode.


Anonymous said...

I don't know why in the world anyone would think becoming a university professor was a good idea. The academic ladder is, from what I've seen, full of very bad people with major issues. Have you read Alley Rat's blog?!

I don't think doing the default job is a great idea either. Like you said, you run the risk of waking at fifty to discover that you've wasted your life.

My respect for journalism as a profession falls every day, as access exacts increasing cost for diminishing revenues, and the business imperatives of the media infringe on the independence of the newsroom.

Writing about the world beyond our Western preserve is not something that requires journalistic credentials. In fact, experience in the field probably beats the hell out of J-school to get a book published, and once the book is published, the talking-head and op-ed page venues open up.

So, foreign service, intelligence or even private industry work (if you can find something you feel good about -- energy companies need not apply) are all open to you because of your background, and they would each give you a platform to say what you want. With the limited understanding I have of you, I think that's going to give you back more than it takes out of you, and get you where you want to go.

Now, how will travelling east mesh with your marriage and life plans?

BTW, with your areas of interest, you must have read all of Hopkirk's books, no? If so, what is your view of him? I've read several of his works, but I have no real-world experience in Central Asia and its environs to measure it by.


FoolishOwl said...

Prevaricate means lie. Did you mean procrastinate?

You could look into the internship programs at KPFA in Berkeley. If you could get in, you'd probably get the chance to produce more interesting content than you'd ever be allowed to in the mainstream media.

I've known a few people who've worked in mainstream media, and they quickly grew to hate it. Simply put, your editors will never allow you to tell the truth about anything important.

I wouldn't look to working in diplomacy. You'd be signing up to be an agent of imperialism, quite literally. I'm sorry, but isn't that obvious?

Have you considered working for an NGO? Writing about your experiences while working with some humanitarian organization would have cachet that they wouldn't if you were just a tourist. And you'd be able to put your cross-cultural knowledge to good use.

FoolishOwl said...

Oh, way off topic, but I noticed your comment on another blog complaining about using Margaret Thatcher as an argument against male privilege. I chickened out about responding there, mostly because it would quickly get very contentious and run off into all sorts of tangents. Short version: it's a stupid expression of an argument I agree with, but that would take some explaining.

Cassandra Says said...

Thomas, I agree that academia has a few issues to say the least. It does offer the satisfaction of teaching and a most congenial schedule and vacation plan, though.
I still have plenty of respect for journalism, probably because I don't read the American papers. I'm really more interested in periodicals anyway. In American terms The Nation would be my ideal employer.
I would love to go the book publishing route, but honestly I have no idea how to even start. I also lack and appropriate contacts. The funny thing is I can see a memoir about a British expat girl growing up in the Middle East and how that influenced her political views selling fairly well. I just don't know who to sell it to, or how. I'm suffering partly from lack of relevant experience in publishing and partly from fear of failure.
Of the last three options foreign service is the most appealing. I think I'm much too Scottish to be any good at intelligence work. Give me a few glasses of vodka and I'd be spilling state secrets in no time.
I'm not sure how travelling east would affect my marriage, which is part of what's holding me back. My husband is very attached to the Bay Area and even getting him to consider a small move takes a lot of effort.
I haven't read Hopkirk. I do have an acquaintance whose beat is Central Asia, funnily enough. He has a very different perspective than me on the region since he's very pro-American and very anti-Russian, and extremely pro-corporation.

adi said...

i kinda wandered in here, so me suggesting something would be like... well something inappropriate.

anyways, impropriety has always been my fatal flaw, so i shall commiserate here without further ado.

i have over the course of my 4 years in college without a degree switched from electrical engineering to math and really want nothing to do with either. i have no idea really what i want to do and have a very poor idea about my other skills. i do like writing and i think there might be elements of a novel or at least a couple of short stories that are knocking around the old noggin. i would be perfectly cut out for the ol' propaganda machine so long as it was painted a nice communist red. i would also be a pretty decent proofreader/copywriter, though i dont have much training in that... apparently 3 weeks at the campus newspaper dont count as 'real' experience. now all of these fields have diddly to do with applied mathematics, though they could find a use for me. societal pressures include parents who want me to get a job and settle down, one side of the family that wants me to be successful(the cash money kind) so that a whole generation, in their minds can be successful. on the other side of the family there are those for whom i am the model, the eldest one etc so i have to set the bar. i would like to set the bar pretty low, but that is for some reason considered inappropriate.

Cassandra Says said...

Brian, I meant procrastinate. See what happens when I post late at night?
I have to disagree about diplomacy. My feeling is that the British diplomatic service could do with a few members who are actually pro-Arab and not so fond of Israel. And I don't mean anti-Jewish by the way, my issues are specifically with Israel as a state. I actually think that I might be able to do more good on the inside as a diplomat than I can do from the outside. I have a good friend whose Dad is a diplomat and my views are partly influenced by talking to him.
PS Why not post your ideas on the Thatcher example to Twisty's website? The message you sent me was kind of cryptic so I'm not quite sure where you're going with the idea anyway.

TP said...

Hi, first time reader, first time poster - but I have very similar experience so thought a comment mightn't be so bad.

I too graduated in Psychology, love to write, want to do something worthwhile, want to travel, but don't have any languages and have only once been compared to a Tunisian (i.e. am seriously lacking in foreignness).

At the moment I'm going through something of a career crisis as well. I am torn between the secure psychology route and the (poor insecure) writer route.

I would advocate working for an NGO, as this is what I am doing now. I currently work for a conservation charity as a writer, I write appeals etc and it is great seeing the work I do achieve something. Have you ever thought about a public affairs or pr position with a charity. I suggest pr because it combines a lot of journalism, but you don't necessarily have to be a journalist to do it. The main draw back is of course you are putting a spin on everything you write.

Your experience and knowledge would also be good for public affairs jobs, in this kind of role you will do a lot of writing, as well as use your other skills and knowledge to help guide internal policy and other organisations.

Charity jobs do offer a lot of job satisfaction, but in my experience do not pay great (usually at the lower end of the wage for that field) and are still subject to the office bureaucracy.

However you would be able to use this kind of work as a launch pad for freelance writing and/or book deals – by getting some writing credentials, establishing yourself as an expert (this could also apply for psychology, you may like to contact Writer/Editor of the British Psychological society’s Research Digest, Dr. Christian Jarrett
christian at psychologywriter dot org dot uk to see how he worked his way into this role).

I know policy officers from my work who have had their work published through and independently to their job.

I hope at least something here is helpful. Good luck!

Anonymous said...

Cassandra, I think you're probably left of me, but I'm also uncomfortable with the view that the West can't do anything good in the world. If you feel that diplomatic service is an honorable profession and will give you the opportunity to leave the world better at the close of each day then it was when you rose in the morning, then in my view it is a perfectly acceptable way to spend your life.

I wasn't suggesting that you're in a position to sell a book now. However interesting your story, frankly, publishing is about selling books, not writing them. If there's no hook to get people to pick it off the shelf, there will be no book. However, if you do something for several years that gives you a resume as an adult to speak to the area, then a few articles and then a book contract is a realistic goal. If intel isn't your strong suit, great. Whatever gets you east will give you the platform to express a view.

On the subject of the Scots and drinking, I'm a teetotaler. My parents, one a Scottish immigrant and the other an American of Scots descent, both had alcohol problems. I tell my friends, "there are two kinds of Scots: those who know better, and those who don't."

Hopkirk's books, while separately titled, are really a multi-volume work on the same subject: the history of Western interaction with Central Asia. The Great Game, his best known, starts with Peter the Great, and runs through the close of the Great Game proper in 1907. Like Hidden Fire and Setting the East Ablaze extend the story, respectively, to the German attempts to woo Islam in WWI, and the ripples of the Russian revolution and civil war. Then, in Trespassers on the Roof of the World, he extends the scope to Tibet. I find his stuff very readable, but I find that, when I lack a strong background in a subject, it's hard not to accept the point of view of a good writer with some diminished critical faculty, and I don't have much other background in Central Asia.

Anonymous said...

The anonymous comment above was, of course, mine.


Cassandra Says said...

adi, I sympathise with the pressure thing. I am the "transitional generation" in my family, or at least I should be, in that my father was born solidly working class and has worked his way into the upper middle class, and I was sent to boarding school, and so great things are expected of me. Great things that I am currently failing to achieve, and this weighs heavily on me. I have also reached the age where I'm starting to feel the need for more stability and security. hence the crisis.

Cassandra Says said...

Travelling punk - I have indeed considered PR/public affairs in the non-profit world. I'm finding it very hard to get into those jobs in the Bay Area, there many people want to work in jobs with an element of social policy involved. If anyone has any specific leads or idea about a way to get my foot in the door in relation to those jobs in the Bay Area please let me know!

Cassandra Says said...

On another note, I'm curious about where the people who are wandering in are wandering in from. New readers are a very good thing, and I'm wondering where they're coming from. Spill the beans...

Jacquie said...

I can identify, I think, with your indecisiveness... I didn't pick a college until the last possible moment, and changed majors about 5 times depending on my dream career at the moment. You're right, I think it definitely has a lot to do with being raised as a TCK. However I've been lucky enough to find an image of the future that has suited me for a couple years and provided a consistent goal that I never thought I'd find. And mostly, what helped me define my goals was my favorite professor listening to me talk about God (before I became agnostic) and my family and all the different things I _could_ do and told me to do whatever the hell I wanted. I think he knew that being me, I would never take that as an invitation to become a bum or a trophy wife or anything of that sort. So, given my lack of experience in the real world, I'd say find out what you really and truly want to do... if that's more than one thing, then try one for a couple years. I'd encourage you to go with NGO work, potentially in the Middle East or something like that for a couple years. That way you wouldn't have to invest in huge student loans over something that you're not completely committed to, but it would give you a change (of atmostphere, pace, etc.) and let you try something different out for a change. If it wasn't right, or was only right for a couple years, then you could go back to school after that. Just my 2 cents. And I've already emailed you but just so you know, I found your blog by seeing you post comments on other people's blogs, i.e. bitch, phd.

Cassandra Says said...

Thomas, I'm not much of a drinker either, but I am one of the rare Scots who really can have 1 or 2 drinks in an evening and leace it at that. What I was trying to say is that I'd be a lousy spy because I'm essentially too sociable and incapable of "othering" people to the degree I think it would require. I'd be the person who was always being scolded for "fraternising with the locals". I also don't think I could live with having to lie to my friends.
As far as Hopkirk is concerned, I'm honestly much more well read on Russia proper than on Central Asia. I do agree that a great writer can sway one's perceptions very easily if they're the only source you're reading, which is one of the reasons why reading widely is a good idea.

Cassandra Says said...

Jacquie, for some reason I never got your e-mail. What address did you send it to?

FoolishOwl said...

Sorry, that was a late-night posting on my own part.

What I'd have had to say would have taken a long post, not entirely relevant to the immediate subject on Twisty's blog, and even if I was careful, it might have been misunderstood. So I didn't feel up to posting about it.

The short version is, I know what "Margaret Thatcher means there's no male privilege" is supposed to mean, but it's a really stupid way to put it. I've heard comrades use that line, and I wince. But putting it a less stupid way would take a lot of work.

Kiora said...

From a fellow TCK (military brat then diplomat kid - mum remarried so I got a taste of both!), having worked for the American Embassy in a war-torn third world African country, British to boot and also currently living in America (boring midwest ugh!), divorced from an abusive Persian, multilingual and very much an 'oddball', I totally undertand - or so I feel - where you are coming from. So much to weigh up. Pros and cons to it all.

I truly do not think the diplomatic corps would be a wise idea if you truly think you'd be able to make a difference. You certainly wouldn't be your own man so to speak, you wouldn't have the luxury of acting as an independent entity, I can guarantee that. Think about it...

I do however think that you might be able to write 'on the side' and have your work published via (watch the Publishing Demo). It is not a bad idea to begin with that, I'd say. I'm actually thinking about it myself and, although I have no talent per se, I DO have a story to tell! ;-)

Working for an NGO would provide invaluable experience, feed that wanderlust and provide intense life altering experiences. I had many NGO friends in Burundi. How about checking out the UNHCR for example? Oh but then your other half doesn't want to travel really ...

But there IS no pressure to become 'someone''s all about how you perceive your life. How you choose to live it is very personal...should not conform to another's expectations, should it?

I haven't even read your blog yet so I might be talking outta me backside here...apologies for landing like a hair in your soup! :-P

Arwen said...

Funny. I just posted similarly on my blog and I hadn't read your dilemma yet: only I'm just starting to ask these questions, rather than being a couple years into it. The lack of willingness to relocate is also something going on in my family. There are some corrospondence based schools...

Anyway, at least in Vancouver, there are a few community papers that act as feeders to the larger papers. It's just such a long haul, though: writing for free at first, until you have a tear sheet, and so on and so on.

My dad was a freelance writer for many years, and my uncle is actually successful as a screenwriter. The writing either of them do to put food on the table is different than the writing they do for themselves, in general. My grandmother - a novelist - wrote for herself, but didn't need to make a living: she was a stay at home mom. She ended up being successful.

My dad has a BA in Psych, my uncle and grandmother both only highschool. I have friends who are also scraping livings together, but they're refusing to "sell out", which means they've got other jobs too. It's possible, even today, to make it - but from what I've seen it's a total grind: you have to write, usually, about things you could care less about and therefore "sell out", in styles you dislike, if you're trying to make a living. Then, in your spare time, you write what you love, just in case it breaks someday.

On the other hand, if writing makes you happy, then maybe writing is better than not-writing, even if it IS a grind. Does that make sense?

Cassandra Says said...

The thing is, if work is going to be a grind anyway (and for most people it is), wouldn't it be better to be grinding away at something you actually like doing? I don't know. In my darker moments I'm prone to thinking "clearly I have no talent or someone would have discovered me by now, so I should just give up". But then, who ever accomplished anything by giving up?

Cassandra Says said...

Also...several people have made comments suggesting that working for an NGO might be a possibility. Does anyone have any specific suggestions as to which NGOs might be a good fit for my interests? I'm in the Bay Area now but would be willing to relocate to another major metropolitan area (my wish list of cities would include London, New York, Tokyo, Moscow, Shanghai, Hong Kong, Berlin, and Toronto).

TP said...

There are a lot of good humanitarian charities based in London, though I don't have much knowledge of anywhere else.

Try looking on the Third Sector website as there are lots of Charity jobs posted there, many of which are in London (as well as Non-UK).

TP said...

p.s. I think I came from our favourite spinsert aunt's patriachy blaming blog

FoolishOwl said...

I just read an article on Lefthook, by the editor, M. Junaid Alam, who is a journalism student and who makes a few comments on his profession.

Why I Am No Longer A Radical

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Visualization is a tool that has been used for thousands of years by initiates of all the metaphysical schools. Today, it is incorporated into top athlete's daily routines and is used in business affairs frequently. It's use is wide-spread among highly successful people, either consciously or unconsciously, aware of its create power. So if it has stood the test of time and is still being used by high achievers we must come to the conclusion that it works! But has it ever worked for you?

If you answered 'yes' to the above question then you know how powerful this technique can be. If, on the other hand, you gave the more likely answer 'no' then take heart for I am about to reveal to you a sure fire way of reaching your objectives through this mostly misunderstood art.

The trouble with visualization is simple - its in its name!

When studying and contemplating the art of visualization most people have the impression that they must create visual images and make them real or life-like. Many people, in fact the majority, find this almost impossible to do. Even if they can formulate a solid picture of their objective they find it extremely difficult to sustain the image for any length of time. Either the image fades, changes or other intruding thoughts intervene.

This type of visualization is almost impossible to sustain and luckily it is not at all necessary. Why? Because it is in the subconscious mind that your visualization needs to be placed and there is good news. The subconscious mind does not know the difference between an imaginary event and a real one. Your visual image only needs to be a strong visually as any other imagined event. However, that is only half the story.

If all you had to do was just imagine stuff and your world automatically changed to reflect your imaginings this world would be full of chaos (not to mention all those creepy crawly bug-eyed monsters!). Therefore, there are a few more steps to complete before the visualization is passed to the subconscious for manifestation.

Let's try a little experiment. Remember a scene from your past that has a lot of good feelings around it. Any good memory will do, like the first time you heard the words "I love you" from your partner, an amazingly spectacular sunset, a great holiday event or your last birthday. Pick one and remember it. How clear is the image? Can you remember any sounds? What way did you feel? Is there any sense of touch, taste or smell? Identify how your memory works. Is it mostly visual, auditory, kinaesthetic or of a feeling nature?

Now we are going to create an imagined event in our lives that has the same strength and potency as that image. So relax and let's go.

Imagine something that you do everyday, something that you did yesterday, today and will do tomorrow. Let us take the example of waking up tomorrow morning. Don't try to add or take anything away, just think about it and analyse the scene. Is it dark or light? Are you lying next to someone in bed? Do you still feel tired? Has the alarm clock sounded? Are you irritable that you have to get up or full of joy at the dawn of a new day?

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Imagine you are sitting somewhere familiar which is extremely comfortable and relaxing to you. Now imagine that a person you know well comes up to where you are and says "hello". Imagine them telling you that they want to show you a new trick. All of a sudden they have three juggling balls. They throw them in the air and begin to juggle with ease. Then they begin to whistle one of your favourite tunes. You suddenly realize that there is a strong smell of flowers in the room and notice a vase of them just behind the juggler. Imagine laughing loudly at the scene and feeling joyful at the experience. Then the person juggling leans forward stands on leg and puts the other leg outstretched behind them. All the while still juggling and whistling. Then they begin to hop on their leg as a small bird flies over to perch on their head. Once you have the imagined event and stayed with it a few moments just let it fade.

Ok open your eyes. What was the difference between the two images? Can you spot any? Did you use more, less or roughly the same senses in your fantasy event as you did in the future one? Did you see them from different angles? Was the picture bigger in one than the other? Was the sound clearer, the feelings more acute or the smell stronger? Take some time and go back to each scene in your mind. How does the future event differ from the fantasy one? Are you looking at both from a different vantage point? Do you see yourself in the image of one but not the other? Analyse the scenes and see where they differ.

Have you identified how the future event differs from the fantasy one? If you have then its time to make visualization work for you! Take a goal that you have been working on or would like to achieve. Nothing too far-fetched at this point please! Pick something that is possible but at the moment seems a little impractical. Once you have it form a mental image of what it would be like to have, be or do that thing or be in that experience. Remember to form it the same way you do a memory. Give it the same strength visually, in sound, feeling, taste and touch - use your mind in its natural state. All you have to do is imagine the scene.

Ok how does it differ from the scene of waking in the morning? Can you identify the differences in perspective, sound, taste, touch, feelings and what you hear?

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Once you know what the differences are in each image begin to change the goal image so that it is seen the same way as the future event in your imagination. Place the visualized scene in exactly the same position with the same perspective as your future event.

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