I feel no ambition whatsoever at work

A reader writes:

The company I work for strongly encourages establishing a career development plan, and includes career goals and skills as elements to be discussed as part of our annual performance evaluations. Both my direct supervisor and a number of other managers who I do work for have regularly been asking me questions about where I want to go from here, what I want to do, what I like and dislike, do I have a five year plan — and soon, I’ll have to have the formal sit-down with my manager to discuss these goals.

I have no idea how to answer any of these questions. The truth is, I often feel isolated in my workplace because I feel no passion at all for my job. I’m in a STEM industry that is incredibly demanding and, for all the complaints people willingly dole out, all of my coworkers and past classmates (at least those who made it to graduation) express genuine enthusiasm for and dedication to their jobs. I think that’s great, and it’s certainly one of the only ways to survive the academic and industry standards demanded of us. But the most positive thing I can say for it is that since moving into this, my second industry job (the first was horrid), the seething hatred I’ve felt since freshman year of college has cooled into something closer resembling lukewarm ambivalence.

I know my feelings affect my performance — I held other sorts of jobs in college, and I know I can give more dedication and drive to a job that I like. But I’m by no means bad at it. I receive regular positive feedback and have an ever increasing list of responsibilities that testify to it. But if anything, this feels like more pressure to start defining how I want to move within the company and how I intend to expand my skills.

Without genuine interest to guide me, and with very little ambition about my career (I mostly get fulfillment from feeling useful or helpful to others), how would you suggest I navigate these conversations? I don’t think I can say outright to my supervisor, however amiable and cheerfully burnt out he is (and he is), that I feel very little interest in doing any one thing and he should just plop me on a path to … somewhere. Which is what I would like to do. How do you weigh career options and conversations when you have no real interest in them?

Have you ever considered that you might be in the wrong field? Because I think you might be.

I don’t say that because you don’t feel a particular passion for your work. Lots of people don’t feel passionate about their jobs! (More on that in a minute.) And I don’t say it because you don’t have a clear idea of your goals for your career, either; that’s pretty normal too. I say it because you felt “seething hatred” for your field when you first began studying it and since then that’s settled into what you call “ambivalence,” but which sounds like deep unhappiness.

I want to be clear: It’s both okay and normal not to feel any special passion for your work. We’ve sold recent generations the idea that you should do what you love and that work should be a source of fulfillment (or, more accurately, we’ve sold that to a particular socioeconomic slice of the population; it’s generally something only kids from privileged backgrounds get told, which is a whole separate problem), but most of the world works principally for money and there’s no shame in that. In fact, the “work should bring you joy” crowd has done a lot of damage, because when people raised to believe that have trouble finding work that they love, they tend to feel like something’s wrong with them. We’d all be better off if we instead taught people to find work they’re decent at and don’t hate. Finding work you’re passionate about — and which pays you a living wage — is like winning the lottery in a lot of ways. It’s great when it happens, but you’re not a failure if it doesn’t.

But if you actively dislike the way you’re spending 40-plus hours a week, that’s a sign that something is wrong. There are jobs out there that wouldn’t make you miserable. (You know this, in fact, because you mentioned having had different sorts of jobs that you liked in the past.) You have a long career ahead of you! Do you want to feel this same way for the next ten years? Twenty years? You have other options — in fact, having a STEM background gives you a ton of options that don’t involve doing the specific work you’re doing right now. But you’re not locked into STEM-related or STEM-adjacent work either; plenty of people switch professional paths entirely when they’re mid-career (or earlier, or even later). It is very doable, and the payoff in satisfaction and quality of life can be significant.

If I’m misinterpreting your letter and you are in fact perfectly content at work, just without any specific ambitions or interests to guide you, that’s another matter. If that’s the case, that’s actually perfectly appropriate to raise with your manager at your upcoming performance conversation! You could say something like, “I’ve seen that others at my level are developing specific interests that can help guide their next steps. I’m not finding that same sort of clarity; I feel open to a number of directions, and I’d welcome your input on where you think it might make the most sense for me to focus, or on whether I even need to pick a focus to start working toward.” Sometimes people in this situation will also say something like, “Mostly I want to continue growing in the role I’m in and getting better and better at what I do.”

Or, if you want to, you can take a clear-eyed look at what the career options are a few levels above you and decide which of those seems like the one you could live with most happily — which might be about the work itself, or it might be about the kind of hours that are expected, or the amount of travel, or how much schmoozing is required, or any other factor that either speaks to you or repels you. People don’t always pick their career paths based on a deep, innate drive; sometimes they pick based on practical factors like those.

But truly, if the issue is less that you don’t feel passion for your work and more that you feel consistently unhappy at work, there are other paths that could entirely change your day-to-day quality of life. Please consider it!

Read an update to this letter

Originally published at New York Magazine.

{ 148 comments… read them below }

  1. UnhappyInSTEM*

    Hey Allison, thanks for answering my question! Truth is, you’re absolutely right that I’m in the wrong field, and I do feel a lot of unhappiness about my job. I’ve known for a long time this was not the right place for me to be, but the pressures of family and finances (I grew up in an impoverished immigrant family that believes in the Big Three of Law Medicine and Engineering), kept me at it through school. Now that I’m working I often feel lost about how to get out. But I am working on it, including applying for grad school in an adjacent field (I’d like to get a masters at least to be able to teach, which was the work I had in school that I liked). I thought the history of it all was a bit long for the question! Still though I’m here for the time being and it pays the bills, so I have really been floundering with how to navigate these questions for as long as I’m here. Thanks for the advice! It’s really relieving to know that I actually can just say that I don’t know where I want to go from here, and that hedging around all this time with “well I’m happy to keep getting better at this” was actually an okay answer, because it really felt like a cop out haha.

    1. christine*

      Reading your letter, I had a feeling it was family pressure that landed you in this field. In a past job, I helped advise incoming freshmen on their majors and first set of courses, and the number of students who’d say “I don’t really care what I take, I’m in this because my parents say I have to go into Law or Medicine” broke my heart. Your parents supported you through college, and that’s great, but they’re not the ones who have to live your life and work your job! It sounds like you’ve got an idea of what you would enjoy, and that’s awesome. I hope you’re able to find a path forward that you can feel satisfied or content with.

      1. aiya*

        I come from a similar immigrant background as OP, as do many of my peers in my social circle. Although I think it’s lovely to encourage students to pursue careers that they’re genuinely interested in, the reality is that a lot of children of immigrant parents are pressured to take on high-paying careers in order to give back to their parents (both figuratively and literally – in my culture, it’s common and expected that you pay back a portion of your monthly salary to your parents as a way of thanking them for the money and energy they invested in your upbringing.) There are also folks who are simply not in a financially privileged position to choose careers based on their liking, as Allison mentioned in her response.

        1. Person from the Resume*

          I have a STEM degree and I’m in a STEM career and I like it. I like to say I am a scientifically minded person. I started off in college as an aerospace engineering student and switched to computer science. Once of the reasons I switched as a freshman is that the bottom had dropped out of aerospace engineering field at that time and I knew that the job market would be difficult. The other reason is that I came to understand that engineering was basically math problems and I didn’t want to be doing that on a daily basis. I’m not quite sure if that’s true, but it was a factor.

          But my point is that I went to college to get the education needed to get a job I wanted. I really think a kid going into college should have some sort of realistic career goal that their degree supports. It should not be just the next step after high school graduation. It should not be to put off getting a full time job. If the kid doesn’t know what they want to do with their life, maybe get a job to figure out their interests before starting college. I’m not saying you need to know exactly. Who does? I have a computer science degree and have never written code for money and I’m grateful it worked out that way. But I am now a software development project manager so the degree is relevant.

          The LW’s parent’s has something of the right idea. But if someone has seething hatred for their degree, they should be allowed to find a different degree that leads to a different career path as long as there’s a realistic career path there.

          1. Mimi*

            “If the kid doesn’t know what they want to do with their life, maybe get a job to figure out their interests before starting college.”

            That kid was me, and I did kind of wind up wandering around college trying things, and I’ll admit that my career path has not been straightforward. But I’m pretty sure that if I’d gotten a job instead, what I would have learned was that I hated retail and waitressing, and still not been any clearer on what I actually liked doing. Yes, it would have paid me, instead of the price tag of college. But I LOVED college, and I would have been miserable in most of the jobs I would have been likely to wind up in in my area with only a high school diploma.

            There are definitely people who default into going to college because that’s what they’re expected to do next. But I’m very curious to know why you assume that entering the working world will automatically mean that they figure out what they like.

            1. Elliott*

              Yeah, I think it’s tricky because there’s a limit to what type of experience you can get that’s completely entry-level and doesn’t require any specialized training. And a lot of opportunities for young people to learn more about different fields, like internships and research assistant positions, aren’t always available to non-students.

              It took me a few years at my current job to get an idea of what I really like doing, and I probably wouldn’t have gotten this job if I didn’t have a college degree. All I knew prior to that is that I hate retail.

            2. Disenchanted w Capitalism*

              Yeah, that assertion bothered me as well. For many, college is the time/place to figure out what they are good at and what they like. I had “realistic career goals” going into college and became so hyper-focused on achieving them, I didn’t even realize that I didn’t like/wasn’t naturally good at the career I was barreling toward.

              Also, engineering is not “basically math problems”.

              1. Tin Cormorant*

                I was so pressured to finish my degree ASAP the first time around, since it was costing my dad a lot of money every year, that I didn’t have room in my schedule to try things out. Every unit was decided for me years in advance because this thing only offered in the spring is a prerequisite for that thing only offered every other year which is a prerequisite for something else I needed to qualify for five other classes.

                I really wish I could have done it differently. Start out at a cheap community college nearby, take general education classes for transfer while trying out anything in the list of classes that sounded interesting to me. I might have found my current career without wasting ten years of my life on a job I hated, then gone to major in that at a 4-year school later. But my dad went straight to 4-year-college after high school, and wouldn’t let me consider any other path for myself.

                1. mark132*

                  College is a brutally expensive way to find your way, if you aren’t sure, why not do a few community college classes. Life is a journey not a race.

          2. Elliott*

            I had a realization in college that studying engineering probably wasn’t going to lead to a lucrative career if I didn’t like it and kept daydreaming about doing anything *but* engineering. I had so many classmates who were not only better at it but actually seemed interested in it, and those were the people I’d end up competing with for jobs. I could easily see myself feeling like the OP if I’d continued down that path.

            I’m a big believer that almost any degree can lead to a career if you put thought into it and have realistic expectations. There are trade-offs. By getting a humanities degree, I didn’t have a lot of career-specific training. But I feel like I benefitted (in a career sense) in other ways.

          3. Carol*

            Developmentally, a lot of college-age kids don’t really know what they want to do, though, and don’t have reference points for what jobs actually look like beyond what they see in their parents and immediate community. It’s easy to say students should be job-minded at college, and many are, but identifying a career is really the work of college + the early-mid 20s. It’s a long process and doesn’t neatly fit into the college degree, which has a more expansive purpose than vocational preparation. Many, many career options are not known until a graduate gets out on the job market. And many aspects of fit/skill don’t come out until someone’s been in an actual job for a while to discover some things.

        2. AE*

          That’s definitely true–I think there’s also a certain amount of emphasis on certain careers that our society deems “prestigious” due to the social pressures for academic achievement and upward mobility in certain immigrant communities (I’m not a first-generation immigrant, but a child of first/second gen immigrants). For example, there are a lot of non-college requiring skilled trades that can pay really well, but would probably not be “acceptable” in the eyes of certain members of my extended and family or some of my friends’ families. It’s tough because there’s a huge world of occupations between “#1 top cardiologist/law professor/tech entrepreneur” and “artisan miniature cow painter/traveling oboeist who lives for her art and makes $0.03 an hour,” but that can sometimes get lost in the face of huge social/cultural/economic pressure.

          1. AE*

            Also adding that these pressures and expectations exist in a lot of non-immigrant communities, as well.

            1. TardyTardis*

              Yes, if you’re in the first generation of the family that’s going to college at all, it doesn’t matter if you’re an immigrant or not, the pressure is still there to find something that will move you on up out the shabbiest house on the block.

        3. Nanani*

          This is true, and I hear you, however – LW is out of college now and does not appear dependent on parental approval to pay for it.
          If they can find a career they prefer and a job in it that lets them pay off any remaining loans – bank or parental – they absolutely should. They are not in the same situation as a student fresh out of high school who has to take the major parents dictate or else.

      2. Tin Cormorant*

        My husband was one of those. Firstborn son of first-generation immigrants meant medical school. He majored in biology for years in preparation for med school because his parents threatened to disown him, he had no motivation, got terrible grades, ended up dropping out. His parents did not in fact disown him. He got a low-paying job in video game testing, got really good at using Excel to document bugs in software, transferred that skill to an entry-level job in HR, took night classes to finish his 4-year degree as a business major, and fast forward to now in his mid-30s very happy as a senior manager in HR getting paid six figures. His parents are very proud, even if he did take a convoluted route to get here and isn’t where they were originally pushing him to go.

        I myself came from a somewhat affluent family, my dad paid my way through college to get a degree in a field that would earn me a lot of money, ended up in biology to become a scientist because that’s where my aptitude tests pointed me and I do legitimately find the biological sciences interesting. I hated lab reports, had no motivation of my own, got terrible grades, ended up dropping out. Also got a low-paying job in video game testing, realized I was really good at computer 3D modeling but still really loved nature, went back to school to finish as a landscape designer.

        Sometimes you have to live life, figure out where your real skills lie, and try different things to find out what you’d really want to do, and then take steps to reorient yourself in that direction. Very few people actually follow that linear path laid out by their parents and end up successful, and I really wish we as a society made more of an effort to communicate that to young people who think they’re worthless when the one thing they’ve been told to do doesn’t work out.

        1. Retired Prof*

          My sister is a doctor. Her best friend went to med school to please her parents but wrote screenplays at night. As soon as they died she gave up the full-time doctoring. Now she does locums (what the health field calls temp jobs) as her day job while she is still establishing her screenwriting career.

    2. Richard Hershberger*

      It is great that you are working on your exit. In the meantime, when you have that meeting with your supervisor, my advice, meant entirely seriously, is to BS. Honesty here has no upside. “I am working on getting out, and in the meantime I just want to do my job in peace” is unlikely to be an acceptable answer. Come up with an satisfactory answer that won’t require anything in the short term.

      1. joss*

        I second the BS until you are ready for you next step advice. If you need a short term goal look around and try to find something that (i) is a change which would be good for the company and (ii) you are willing to work on while you are preparing for your own your next steps. If you can find something like that it will hopefully make you feel better when you do leave. Kind of like that last bite of chocolate cake that goes straight to your hips (bad) but the lingering taste, mmmmm (good)

        1. pbnj*

          Since the OP is interested in teaching and enjoy helping others, could they could perhaps look for opportunities at their job where they develop training materials or teach lunch n’ learns, or work with interns? Anything that would help you develop good responses to future job interviews. Also with many STEM degrees, there are often opportunities within the company to transition to a different role, such as logistics. Take a look around, and maybe you’ll find something that looks interesting until you can transition to your desired field.

          1. TardyTardis*

            Business training is a *huge* industry–using your current skills and being able to transfer them to others who actually want to do that job could easily be a path towards what you really want to do, while slamming down the big bucks.

      2. Cynical For Good Reasons*

        Absolutely agree with the two answers above – lie through your teeth. Surf the ‘net, tell them what they want to hear, and do so. With gusto. Then get yourself going on finding the teaching gig it sounds like you want. Life is too short to be miserable at work. BTDT, wasted decades doing so. Never again.

        Telling your management the truth has no upside except getting yourself shown the door as soon as it is feasible for them to do so. Don’t feel bad about being untruthful – at the end of the day the company, ANY company, has zero loyalty to you when it comes to their bottom line. If your presence negatively impacts it, they’ll toss you in a heartbeat, so return the favor.

      3. Give give give!*

        1. Agree with the answer to BS as a short-term strategy.
        2. Another short-term strategy that once helped me when I felt stuck in the pointlessness of my corporate job was to deliberately use my paycheck to do good in the world. You reference wanting to help people: use part of every paycheck to fund a cause you love. Be as generous and as focused in your giving as you can.
        For me, at least, giving my money to something meaningful when I couldn’t give my career to it helped reduce feeling powerless at work.

    3. Double A*

      My very first thought as I read this letter was, “I wonder if the LW majored in a STEM field due to some outside pressure?”

      There are so many possibilities for teaching! I’m glad that’s something you’re considering and have enjoyed.

    4. anonymous today*

      Hello, and good luck!

      I went to a STEM school and am now close to 40. I have friends/acquaintances who have gone in many different directions from science: patent law, art, filmmaking, homemaking, activism. For paths that are non-linear, you might enjoy checking out the career of Sonali Kolhatkar, a long-time radio host for KPFK who is now going in different direction; the recent profile of Iram Parveen Bilal in the NY Times (everyone should check out her film I’ll Meet You There); the artist Helena Kauppila; economist and author Ayeh Bandeh-Ahmadi. These are just some folks with an internet presence who might give you some ideas on where you can go with a STEM degree — I’m not including the musicians and homeschoolers and off-the-grid chicken-raising folks who don’t have as much online presence. Me, I’m still in STEM and love it, but I want to just pass on that the skills you gained and have worked on can be repurposed in soooooo many ways even when it’s not obvious how, and it’s precisely the unexpected connections that will allow you to build an amazing life over time.

    5. Chilipepper*

      I wanted to say you might be able to teach while getting a masters in education or even without one. My state has a pathway to teaching without a specific teaching degree and for anyone in a highly desirable area like STEM, they would open the doors to you in a second! It might be worth checking with your state or county.
      Best of luck to you!

      1. Chilipepper*

        Hi send too soon – you might also be able to shift to training in your own company or field if you thought that might work for you.

      2. Lizzo*

        Yes, there are lots of programs like this here and there! OP, I don’t know your current financial situation, but you might want to explore options that will help you transition to teaching with the lowest possible upfront costs. (The burden of student debt = a very real, very heavy thing that can limit your career freedom later.)

        You can always get a Master’s later, and possibly get your employer to pay for some or all of it.

        1. The Rural Juror*

          I wonder if there’s any kind of position within their organization that involves training. That might be a good segue into teaching. And if they really enjoy helping others, it would be a lot more fulfilling for the time being. Good luck, UnhappyInSTEM!

      3. Cascadia*

        Yes! I work at a private school (middle school and high school) on the west coast and we are always hiring for quality teachers in the STEM fields. It is particularly challenging to find computer science teachers – many of our students want to take CS classes, but it’s really hard to find CS people that are willing to take a lower teacher’s salary. This is all to say though, that you don’t need a teaching degree or credential to teach at a private school, and there are lots of opportunities out there. As someone else mentioned, you can always get your master’s later – at my school we even have a tuition assistance program for teachers who are interested in getting advanced degrees. If teaching is something you’re considering, I highly recommend you go for it! Hiring season is from January – April at most places, so it’s not too late to get in there. There are also sometimes later appointments that come up in the spring and summer, but those are less common, and sometimes have shorter contracts. Also, doing leave replacement is a great way to get some classroom experience. Good luck!

    6. Elizabeth*

      Not sure if this is your cup of tea or helpful, but Michelle Obama didn’t actually like being a lawyer, so she was able to use her skills to switch into fields that she did find rewarding. Her autobiography (Becoming) was fascinating, where she talks about her career path. It’s a sort of real-life road map of what Alison mentions.

      1. Grumpy, Sleepy, and Sneezy, LLP*

        Nobody* likes being a lawyer though. :P

        *Obviously exaggerating for comedic effect, but I’m not surprised MO wasn’t a fan.

    7. Kali*

      Just here to give emotional support, OP, since I’m in a similar position (minus the family pressure, in an industry with few exits/transferrable skills). No one should loathe and dread coming to work every day, and every person deserves better than that – maybe not everyone will have sunshine and rainbows, but engagement is a positive! Best of luck to you!

    8. Julia*

      A career counselor may be able to help break your paralysis around actively searching for a new career. A counselor will also arm you with options and reasons for those options, which can be really helpful when dealing with family pressure (as I know firsthand).

      When you don’t have any response to your family’s question of “well, do you have any better ideas?” it can feel really hard to keep from just defaulting into what they want you to do. Arm yourself!

      1. UnhappyInSTEM*

        How do you find a career counselor? My alma mater has a career center but last I visited them, which was admittedly right out of college, they pretty much just told me to rewrite my resume and get on LinkedIn, I don’t think they were ready or willing to help me with the more complex problem of how to turn my education into a job that’s not Exactly That.

        1. OtterB*

          You might look at Career Vision in Glen Ellyn, Illinois. (Full disclosure: I am a former employee, although it’s been 15+ years since I worked there and I have no ongoing investment.) They recently started some digital-only programs. They are good at looking at the mix of your aptitudes, interests, and personality and identifying some directions that might suit you better than your current work.

        2. Julia*

          Yeah, a career counselor is different from your school’s career services department. A counselor has some things in common with a therapist, which is why you can find options on psychologytoday.com, for example. You pay them, and you have weekly or monthly sessions where you talk through what you want. They often have an initial set of questionnaires to help narrow the field.

          Google “career counselors near me”, or search on Yelp to see reviews. You can also go to Psychology Today, as I mentioned. Then conduct interviews, the same way you would if you were searching for a new therapist: set up initial appointments with a couple different counselors, ask them questions about their approach and pay attention to what kinds of questions they ask you. Pick the one that seems most professional and most aligned with your needs (and your cost structure).

          Often just taking SOME kind of step toward solving a life problem can improve your mood and give you confidence. Good luck!

            1. Archaeopteryx*

              School career counselors often have little real-world knowledge of jobs besides “school career counselor.”

              In high school I think our counselor maybe gave people Meyers-Briggs/Enneagram style quizzes, kind of the very basics of getting to know your own strengths and personality. For people who are already highly introspective, that stuff is fun but won’t reveal anything you don’t already know.

              What would’ve been helpful is some kind of guide to what jobs exist that students probably don’t already know about. Like, everyone knows that teachers exist, but not about jobs where you teach other teachers to use new technology while teaching. Or that besides standard “business person” type jobs, there are e.g. continuous process improvement consultants who help departments innovate. A lot of those jobs that aren’t the type you’d list in an elementary school career fair you may not learn are even an option until you’re well out of school.

              1. Aggretsuko*

                Yeah, I doubt anyone has taken one of those tests and found out “Oh hey, you have secret aptitude for accountancy!” I always got “You like writing and art!” which has been completely useless and expendable when it comes to a career.

                1. Forrest*

                  I mean, it’s a bit hard to get much deeper than that with 15/16 year olds! But I meant university careers advisers. Guidance, decision-making and how to explore careers is a huge part of our role in here in the UK, and there isn’t a significant difference between the qualifications that private careers advisers will have and university careers advisers, so I’m surprised to see someone say that they’re so different in the US.

            2. Redbecca*

              I can’t nest below your later comment, but the difference is because in the UK you apply to attend university by applying to study a specific subject at a specific institution; in the US, you apply to attend university by applying to an institution with no reference to what you plan to study, because you are supposed to figure it out there. The US university system is set up so that you can spend a year exploring a broad range of options not available at a high school level before choosing a major (many US universities require students to take several courses that are not a part of your major field of study- at mine, I had to take three STEM classes (in two different departments), three social science classes (in two different departments), and three humanities classes (in two different departments), plus a writing class, although the first two classes in my major field counted towards the requirements). This is why US university bachelors degrees take four years as standard instead of the three at a UK university. This also means that most guidance centers in high school are aimed at determining whether you should go to university, helping you choose which ones to apply to, and ESPECIALLY at helping you figure out how you’re going to be able to pay for it: they don’t really focus on what you should study because you can (and many people do) change your mind once you get there.

          1. TardyTardis*

            In some states, they have to/should be licensed. Talking to the state about who they recommend would help you avoid the amateur ‘life coach’ people (though some of them are amazingly good, trying to find them is not always easy).

        3. Lizzo*

          OP: one thing your alma mater might be able to do is connect you with alums who are 10+ years beyond graduation and have the same degree you have. I bet some of them are working in other fields, having suffered similar disillusionment. :-) Those conversations will be valuable as you chart your own course, and can also potentially translate into job opportunities!

        4. Aspiring Chicken Lady*

          In the US you can get free career counseling from Career OneStops. I’m a master’s level counselor and workforce professional who has lots of experience with adults thinking about career change AND getting an actual job in the new career. College career counseling tends to lean to the entry level placement, just by the nature of their audience. Check your state’s department of labor website for info about your local center.
          In my state our centers aren’t open for in person services yet but we have virtual appointments and workshops.

    9. Nesprin*

      Speaking as someone who works in STEM (and loves it, but has mentored plenty of ppl in and out) there’s plenty of STEM adjacent careers that you may enjoy. It’s worth also noting that depending on whether you like working with people or with things, and whether you like leading efforts or supporting them, your niche may be a bit different.

      I’ve had students go into teaching (high school and community colleges), clinical lab science (multiples, and they seem to love it)/nursing (more mixed bag)/physical therapy, medical transcription, tutoring (one of my best paid former trainees gets high school students thru calculus and gen chem), technical sales/product support (if you like working with people this might be up your alley), project management (though it sounds like that may not quite suit your interests), and general lab factotum (admittedly that’s in STEM, but there is a place for technicians who don’t want to lead labs, just make them work better).

      Shifting between these careers ranges from simple (i.e. tech sales) to complicated (clinical lab scientist/community college prof)- it may be worth trying out a few of the lower cost of entry ones to see what you actually enjoy doing.

      1. Anon Recruiter*

        I did a STEM degree and now work as a recruiter of STEM professionals, which I feel like doesn’t get discussed enough as a possible career pivot! If you like teaching, recruiting uses a lot of the same communication and interpersonal skills, and having a STEM background gives you more credibility with candidates and hiring managers because you know the lingo and have some experience doing the same type of work as them.

    10. Waffle*

      Not much advice I can add but good luck with it all, OP! Fingers crossed that you’ll be writing a good news update to Alison in the future.

    11. Des*

      Try picking up skills in your current job that would be relevant for whatever job you’re studying for in grad school.

      Do not go to grad school without knowing which job you intend to pursue with that degree, that would be a headache you really don’t want for your future self.

    12. Colette*

      If you like teaching, can you do some of that in your current job (e.g. training and mentoring new hires)? Would it be possible to move into a trainer role, or technical writing? Can you give talks on your work to a larger audience?

      1. Sleeping Late Every Day*

        I tthought technical writing or training, too. I was trained as a programmer ages ago in the military and didn’t like it, switched to clerical, and they kind of made a job for me as a liaison between the programmers and clerical staff, including formatting the reports and writing parts of the training manuals and teaching the clerical workers the terminology and layouts for reports. I really liked that kind of work.

    13. RecoveringScientist*

      Hi LW,
      The ‘seething hatred’ means this might not be suitable but please consider working a research funding council. I found doing a PhD / working in the lab hideous. I jumped shipped once my studies were finished and now work in a research council. I get to hear about a wide range of research without the stress of doing it myself! It’s really made me fall back in love with my STEM discipline.

    14. Forrest*

      Is there a training training at your workplace where you could get experience working in early careers /talent development and training new hires? I’m not sure if you want to teach in this field or not, but industry experience + early careers + a teaching qualification is a very desirable skill set in a lot of places.

    15. Nikki*

      LW, if you know a lot about STEM but also enjoy teaching, have you considered a role like product management or instructional design?

      There are a lot of careers out there that require a strong technical background but don’t involve daily hands-on STEM work. For example, my partner has a degree in engineering but he mainly works in program management, meaning he talks to a bunch of engineers about how to get projects done on time & on budget. I have a STEM background in machine learning / NLP, and I’m pursuing work as an instructional designer at a tech startup (where I’d create courses for the company’s professional development, sales training, and customer support functions). These positions might not pay precisely as well as “hard” STEM positions (think Software Engineer II at a FAANG company), they can easily get into six figures.

      To get more ideas, I would look around for companies you admire and see what kinds of positions they have open. You can also search the “Built In” job listings (e.g., builtinsf.com) to find positions across many tech companies. Read the job descriptions and see if this sounds fun, then search the title to learn more about it & explore the salary range.

      Because many of these positions are in-demand at STEM businesses, you may even be able to get your current company to dedicate resources toward letting you try out or get better at the role. I’m not saying they would make you a product manager with zero experience, just that they might be open to connecting you with the company’s current product managers so you can ask questions, or maybe sending you to a training session to learn the fundamentals.

      Hang in there! It’s normal not to feel 100% confident as you begin your career, and lots of people change their path after college.

    16. A tester, not a developer*

      If you enjoy teaching, would it be possible to incorporate some training or mentoring into your current role? It may make things more bearable until you’re able to get out.

    17. Deborah*

      Wow good on Allison for reading between the lines!

      Good luck, LW, I hope things work out well for you.

    18. EngineerGirl*

      I wanted to say I feel for you. I am a female in STEM and my dad is an immigrant as well. The difference being there wasn’t the financial pressure and pressure to do engineering. However I can understand the internal pressure to not let my parents down when they’ve given up so much for me. I will say that I fell into engineering and love math but have at times had a love hate relationship with engineering as well. I enjoy working with others as well. My only concern for you leaving engineering which I really considered a couple of years ago is the change in income. I know money isn’t everything but … I realized that I was ok not loving my career bc it afforded me the privilege of not worrying about money and being able to travel as much as I wanted. Also as a mom I’m able to work 30 hrs per week as a reduced full time employee. My happiness has majorly increased with these changes. Even at 75% of my salary I’m making more than a full time person in other careers. All this to say there are other ways to look at it but if you are truly unhappy then that’s the most important thing to consider.

    19. The New Wanderer*

      I’m in STEM as well (my degree is STEM-adjacent) but my specific field isn’t very well-known. I give information interviews to (other) engineers and do occasional presentations on how topics in my field apply to the company, the products, whatever. Teaching and mentoring aren’t a big part of my day job but I’ve been making more of an effort in the past few years because I find it rewarding too.

      If your company is large enough, you probably have a lot of STEM-adjacent people around. You might be able to find out more about some of their jobs to see if there’s anything that appeals to you. And you might not – personally I don’t think I would enjoy most, if any, of the other types of jobs here (excluding the fact that I’m not currently qualified for some of them!) because they just aren’t the types of work I’m interested in. But if you otherwise feel you’re marking time, maybe float the idea by your manager that you’d like to learn more about X or Y types of roles or look at training options as a way to grow your skills in a new direction.

      My company also has a rotation program for new engineers. They spend time in up to six different areas of the company that use people with their degrees, and then choose one at the end. From talking to some of them, they very definitely have preferences for and against different areas, so the work context can matter too. For me too, I love my work but I have very little interest in the way it’s applied in other industries. I think if you’ve never liked your subject from the start then it’s the subject, but I wanted to throw out there that people who do love it can still dislike a specific application of it.

    20. Lady Meyneth*

      I’m glad you have an out in sight, and know at least what kind of work you would enjoy more.

      I’m sure you’ve already researched many of the STEM adjacent fields, but I’ll add that if you particularly enjoy a specific industry, it’s often possible for engineers to find work even if it’s not immediately obvious. Food and health industries are particularly good candidates, and maybe it’ll make your days less miserable to be in an industry you like better.

      Also, for your immediate issue. Since you like teaching, you could say that to your supervisor! Maybe ask her to be involved in building training materials for your area, or to help train new hires. It’ll feel like less of a cop out to both of you, and it’s bound to build you good accomplishments for when you’re ready to apply to teaching jobs.

    21. Two Dog Night*

      I’m going to echo a bunch of other people here: How about some kind of technical training or sales support? I did post-sales support for a software company for a while, which included teaching internal classes for our tech support and sales people, teaching customer classes, and working with customers one-on-one. Something like that might be worth trying before taking on a bunch of debt for a master’s.

    22. TechWorker*

      I don’t know if you’ve thought of this option already but it’s totally valid to get your fulfilment from feeling useful or helpful to others! It might also be that there are paths at your company (even if it’s just short term whilst you work on a bigger change) that could build on that – so it’s something worth sharing with your manager! Training, mentoring, tech support – all things required on and off for people in my company that lots of people are just plain bad at and enthusiasm to do it can be really valuable.

    23. I edit everything*

      Does your employer have any kind of tuition reimbursement program? That might be an opening for you to look into your master’s degree or even explore the education/training fields.

      My father-in-law started as a German professor, transitioned to technical writer, and ended up as a patent attorney. Then post-retirement did pro bono immigration law. So there’s never a point past which you cannot choose a different road.

    24. Weasel007*

      I’m curious, have you always felt this way about your job or has it gotten worse during the past year during the Covid19 pandemic? I’m in a field that I love but honestly I’ve begun to loath my specific job over the past year. At this point I’m just trying to keep the lights on and the Pandemic has made it difficult to even consider making longer term plans. Depression doesn’t help at all either. But I do agree with Allison that you might be in the wrong role.

      Sometimes we get so squirreled away in our role that we do not look past our noses. That makes it almost impossible to see how skills are very much transferrable. My brother is in a horrible bad work situation: Underpaid, treated horribly and majorly taken for granted. They have beat him down for so long that he believes that no one else would work with him and that he should take their abuse. I’m not saying that is your situation but thinking that maybe you can’t see the forest because you don’t realize what is past the trees! Your 45 year old self would totally appreciate you finding the right role before you get into a role of apathy.

      I had the BEST career counselor 15 years ago tell me to go out and buy a book called Do What You Are: Discover the Perfect Career for You Through the Secrets of Personality Type. You can get it on Amazon. It takes you through some exercises to identify what you are good at, and what you do like and shows you other industries (not just STEM) that use the same transferrable skills! Your eyes will be opened if you let them. Best of luck on finding that special role for yourself!

      1. Aggretsuko*

        Transferable skills probably depends on your industry. I honestly never made much headway with trying that because my field has become very rigid and wanting you to do more of what you already do. Even the career counselor said you have to have 100% of the qualifications!

        But also, I do feel like your brother does, so….

    25. Sci/Tech Librarian*

      OP, I have a suggestion of a career you might look into. There’s a big demand for people willing and with the background in sci/tech in academic libraries. To be a professional librarian, you would have to get a master’s degree, but it’s a two year program at the most (with many great programs only one year) and many online-only programs are available. Just an idea.

    26. Seeking Second Childhood*

      Just a thought, in case you hadn’t had it already. But maybe you could do what I did, in reverse. I was talked out of engineering and wound up finding my niche in technical writing. You didn’t get to go into teaching, maybe you would be interested in your company’s training department. It’s worth asking your manager for a role that lets you get more people oriented.

    27. Koalafied*

      Do you want to teach at the college level, or grade school? I went to grad school because I wanted to teach at the college level, and two miserable years later I had learned that there’s no such thing as a teaching-only professor. That even at a small liberal arts college not especially known for research, I would be expected to publish research unless I was content to be an adjunct with no benefits or job security for my whole career.

      You may have already figured that out being in an academic field but just in case you hadn’t I thought I’d spare you a few potentially soul-crushing years in that environment.

    28. DJ Pearl*

      This answer helps you in your current situation! Suggest that your goal is to help train and create training for others in the company. That way you can get a taste of the education field before you leave your current job.

    29. Lauren*

      “I mostly get fulfillment from feeling useful or helpful to others”

      THIS! Why not get involved in training new employees in your field / department or the intern program. I love teaching, but having more than 2 people in my discipline just doesn’t work. So I ended up creating an intern program for my office coordinating resumes, interviews, job descriptions by talking to dept heads, getting approvals, and onboarding. I also ended up creating a mentorship program of 85 people across 3 offices. Also a great way to help. Each office had a sponsor and we did 10 min interviews with everyone interested, then we had a matching day. It was great – for me! I felt more connected and met people that I would not have met otherwise.

  2. ArtK*

    I agree with Alison’s response. You may well be in the wrong career. If you hated the subject since you were a freshman, that’s a really strong sign. The questions I have are: Why did you choose this, and why did you stay in it when you found yourself miserable in your first year? Was this something that was expected of you (familial pressure?) Was it the path of least resistance?

    My suggestion is that you take the time to really understand how you got to this place, and probably discard the assumptions and outside pressures that brought you to it. Don’t let the past trap you; the choices we make when we’re 18 don’t have to be permanent.

    Anecdote: My elder son put a tremendous amount of pressure on himself in school to get through a particular degree (that he wanted in the first place — no family pressure), and stayed far longer than he should have. He just wasn’t happy with it. He dropped out and has found something much more to his liking. He had to get rid of the idea that he *HAD* to complete this particular degree.

    1. ArtK*

      Ah, you responded while I was typing mine. Good luck in finding something that works for *you* and not for other people.

  3. WellRed*

    You had a “seething hatred” your freshman year of college. Since it’s too late to go back and listen to what your gut was telling you, I really think you need to research a new career path before you become to entrenched (and demoralized) working in the industry you are in now. What are your strengths? What do you enjoy? What is your “dream job”? For that matter, what made you pursue your degree/current path? Parental pressure? Lack of interest or ambition even then (which is totally normal! I think we ask a lot of high schoolers to chart their life path. Assuming traditional age student). Can you take a class in something? talk to people in roles you find interesting?

    1. UnhappyInSTEM*

      Parental pressure mostly is what landed me here, though also on a larger scale the expectations of my community. I was more interested in the arts in high school, I was a member of the performing choir, took art classes, spent most of my time reading or writing or listening to or making music. I was really into color theory and wanted to go into interior design. I was told by my parents as well as my community at large (neighbors, parents’ friends, mentors, athletic coaches, teachers) that pursuing a career in the arts would be “a waste of my brain”. I was a high achieving student, and my skills were/are broad in both STEM and liberal arts fields (not to brag, but you asked). From interior design I expressed a mild interest in architecture and from architecture they all pushed me to engineering. I could go on forever but I’ve already worked on a lot of this with a therapist. I no longer feel like I know what my dream job would be, and a lot of my performing and creative arts skills now are too rusty to get me into an art school. But I was a tutor and a K-12 afterschool instructor through highschool and most of college, and I liked that work, so I have been thinking of pursuing at least a masters so that I could teach, or even a PhD (not in this same field, but in my second degree field of History) to teach and research at the university level. Haven’t even gotten into grad school yet, much less been able to decide if I like it, so it’s all a work in progress.

      1. Karen*

        hi, interior designer here! i work with lots of architects with engineering backgrounds, the three things definitely have some overlap – if you’re still interested in architecture/design, there’s definitely a path there from engineering (especially if you were in a building science). if you like to help people and feel useful, that works too – the bigger architecture and design firms are generally always looking for technically proficient people who can support the rest of the office. if there’s an architect or two in your network, it would be worth talking to them about their work, and what your path might look like.

      2. Archaeopteryx*

        If not pursuing STEM is a “waste of your brain”, is not pursuing the arts not a waste of your talent? I know I can’t relate to family pressure to do a specific thing, but at a certain point you can get more and more control over your choices.

        The best time to switch fields/ majors was Freshman year when you knew you didn’t like it; the second best is today- or at least to work out an escape plan. You won’t ultimately be very successful anyway long-term if you dislike your field, so don’t look at it as a choice between disappearing yourself or disappointing your parents- they presumably want you to do well in your career, not just stagnate in misery but it’s fine as long as it’s in STEM. You’re competing against people who really do love what they do, so you’ll never beat those people in stamina.

        There have to be plenty of options between “drop everything for the arts” and “waste the majority of your adult life locked into something you don’t like.” I’m wishing you luck in finding out all your options and in getting into something more sustainable.

        1. Jaydee*

          I can’t speak for the LW, but in my family “brains” were absolutely prioritized over “talents.” Talents were for fun. Talents helped make you a well-rounded person and looked good on college applications. Music, art, sports, theater – those were fine hobbies and extracurriculars, with the key being ‘extra.’ If they seemed to be distracting from schoolwork though, they could be cut at any time. Brains were what would translate into a prestigious, high-paying, important career.

          You could date “talents,” but when it was time to settle down, you married “brains.”

      3. Nesprin*

        Visual arts+ Engineering mix seems an awful lot like user interface design, medical illustrating, scientific advertising or technical sales.

        Speaking as someone with a PhD, don’t go into a PhD program unless you can’t imagine doing anything else: getting a history doctorate and hoping to teach at a university is going to be exceptionally competitive. More generally, grad school is a rough way to try out other careers: expensive and inflexible. I’d highly suggest that you try out other careers before you commit to multiple years of training to find out whether you’d enjoy them.

        1. Diahann Carroll*

          Visual arts+ Engineering mix seems an awful lot like user interface design

          THIS. OP, UX design as a career field is exploding right now. There are opportunities across various industries for designers, including the arts and interior design. Look for jobs in this vein, and I think you’d be able to find something that uses your engineering skills and your creativity beautifully.

          And as for your performance skills being rusty, if you have the money to make this work, why not get a private voice instructor? You could possibly even see if someone will give you lessons virtually if you don’t feel comfortable going to in-person classes right now. Having a hobby after work that you enjoy in the performing arts will probably help you to feel less stuck in your day job because you can always reason that the mediocre day job is giving you the means to do what you actually love on your own time.

          And who knows – if you do start lessons up again, you could possibly get good enough to join any local/regional music groups in your area that could lead to paying gigs. It may not pay the big bucks, but it’s a way to build a performance resume for potential future use.

        2. Des*

          I second this advice. Please speak with actual grad students who have graduated recently with the degree you want to see what their options are, look for jobs with the degree you want before you commit to grad school. It is NOT something to take on unless you’re 110% sure you want to do it.

      4. kt*

        I’m going to be a jerk (just a rando on the internet here!) and say think carefully about going for a masters or PhD unless you’re sure you love it or have the cash to throw at a hobby. There’s a lot of opportunity cost there. Can you pick up an adjuncting gig at your local college or community college related to the work you do now? Can you go to art school in your area, a non-competitive one? Can you start working on software UX? Can you set up a course on something you love on Teachable and market it to folks who might enjoy it?

        I have a PhD. It’s great, other than the seven years of making $18k/year.

        Also, especially if you’re female, I just want to challenge the idea that you need more credentials to do what you want to do. It’s a very immigrant-family good-student mindset (that’s me! which is how I know!), and it’s not true. You could be an artist right now. You could start teaching right now. You can join archeological digs right now as a volunteer! You do not need more credentials to do what you want to do unless you want to be a neurosurgeon, a certified financial planner, or a pilot.

        1. UnhappyInSTEM*

          I do really genuinely love history, and I want to put everyone’s minds at rest (or at least those that read this comment) by saying that the master’s program I’ve applied for as a way to figure out if further schooling/a PhD is what I want, is intended for exactly that purpose. It’s a program at a University that wants to improve retention in its PhD programs by adding a master’s program that develops doctorate level skills for people who may be interested but aren’t sure or aren’t prepared – and it’s fully funded. I don’t know if it’s my end all be all passion to teach and research history at a university level, but I can use this to find out, and if I do not like it, then I have a master’s in history and a bachelors in STEM and that sets me up well to take my state’s teaching certificate program. If it’s all a bust then I’ve lost some time but lost no money (except potential wages from this job, I guess). I am first gen but I’ve picked up a thing or to about how or when to apply to schools! I won’t be taking on any debt to pursue further education, it’s just the first concrete step that I knew I could try to try to get out. It’s true there are other paths I could pursue, but working out how to start those has been harder. Some others have recommended career counseling, and I intend to look for a service in my area to see how else I could switch fields!

          1. Reba*

            Oh, I added my comment below before refreshing.

            I think the way you are thinking about the MA program is great (I did somewhat the same, looked for programs with an out at the Masters level). And funded, wow!

            Good luck with your decisions.

          2. 40 Years in the Nonprofit Trenches*

            This comment shows some real passion and purpose, which is the spark that will get you through every day of your life. One of the things I read into your posts was clinical depression — not just the fog of unclearness and purposeless about your current job/field, but no idea of what your “ideal job” might be. This post is the opposite — hang on to it.

            Also: as a recovering grad school addict (3 masters degrees, part of a PhD) — start from a *very concrete* career goal and work backward. If the job postings for specific jobs you want to be qualified for are requiring a specific degree, then get that degree. I actually loathe teaching, and realized not far into a PhD in a field that I loved, that all I’d qualify to do at the end of it was to compete like hell with people 20 years younger than me for extravagantly underpaid and insecure jobs to teach that field at the 100-level to indifferent undergrads, probably living somewhere that would not otherwise occur to me. I dropped out, did a clear-eyed assessment of options, worked backwards from the job, and got an MBA instead.

            It sounds from this post like you are doing that — getting yourself lined up with the creds you need for a job you may want, moving in a direction that brings you life and hope. I wish you joy.

        2. Reba*

          Yes, I want to underline this part about credentialing! I agree that there are things you are already qualified to do or at least try. You don’t need to go into a long new degree program to get another diploma to be ready to try other careers. And you definitely don’t have to do that in order to nourish the creative parts of yourself *outside* the context of work and “success.”

          (Also I have a humanities PhD, and while I don’t regret doing it at all, you really cannot look at university teaching as a viable career path; it’s a lottery at best.)

      5. sacados*

        I think that’s a place where you can really take to heart Alison’s advice about the false promise of “dream jobs” and Doing What You Love.
        Remind yourself that it doesn’t matter if your skills are too rusty to go to art school, or if it would be financially prohibitive to suddenly try and become an interior designer. Focus on finding a job (that you don’t hate) that supports you enough to be able to pursue those arty things in your free time, for your own enjoyment!

      6. Generic Name*

        What about taking up artistic hobbies? It’s very difficult to make a living in most artistic endeavors, sadly. Having a day job that pays the bills and pursuing your artistic passion in your off hours is what millions of people do. For example my best friend’s mom was a school teacher by day and weekends and evenings was an opera singer. She didn’t do traveling shows or headline events, but she reliably landed chorus or small roles for our town’s opera house. Sure your performing/creative skills may be too rusty for people to pay you to do it, but doing it for fun is a great way to keep yourself sane when you hate your day job. :)

        1. UnhappyInSTEM*

          Oh, I do for sure! My partner despairs of the ever increasing stash of crochet yarn and cross stitch embroidery thread we house, and I have a drawing tablet and create digital art when the time strikes. The thing about my current day job is that it’s very draining and also very long hours (50+ hours a week is far more standard than 40), so I rarely have the time or energy to devote. But I did hear and agree with Alison’s comments about not needing to do a job in your passion, in fact I’m not even sure anymore I would want to (why I said I’m not sure anymore what my dream job would be), but it would be better to find something else, so that I had more of myself left after work to do other things with. Which is why the career changes I’m considering are in the direction of teaching/training/mentoring instead of jumping ship into the arts.

      7. not owen wilson*

        Hi OP! I…. genuinely think you might be my clone. I was also pushed into STEM by my family (but into chem, not engineering) and hated it my freshman year. I was also very broadly skilled in the arts and in STEM, and even minored in history (would have double majored if I had added it sooner!) So we’re pretty similar. What changed for me is finding a niche in science I really liked. I think we’re a little different in that it sounds like you loathed engineering, while I liked chem okay enough but couldn’t figure out which branch I wanted to go into because they all sounded vaguely boring. I’m working in nuclear energy research now, which for me combines my love of history (so much of nuclear is rooted in history! it’s fascinating!) and my skills as a chemist. Plus, science is always cooler the more mad scientist-esque it gets. If you want to stay in STEM, my advice would be to look around at other disciplines, see if a different type of work (ex. industry vs. government lab vs. academia) may be a better fit, and to see if there are related fields that would combine your interests, such as science museums. I know engineering can be a little more rigid when it comes to switching disciplines, but depending where you end up that may not be an issue. My team at work right now has a geologist, a radiochemist, two chemical engineers, a materials scientist, and two nuclear engineers. There’s room to move if you can explain how your skills transfer. Good luck!

      8. STEM & Art Lover*

        I’m a woman in STEM and was also very interested and involved in the arts back in school, even though college. I’ve been feeling a similar way about my career and I’ve been looking into industrial design as an option moving forward (I work in mechanical design engineering already so it doesn’t seem that far of a stretch for some jobs).

        Another thing is, you could still go into architecture or architectural engineering. Don’t think because you’re in STEM that you can’t! I’ve also looked into getting a masters in architecture, and there are programs out there that accept non-architecture bachelor’s degrees. You might have to take a slightly longer program, but it could be totally worth it if that’s what interests you. Good luck!!

      9. TardyTardis*

        Are your skills transferable to the gaming industry? Designing an exact replica of Notre Dame (as was done for Assassin’s Creed, which turned out be a very good idea, since some of their work is actually helpful with the current restoration) in pixels. Though the gaming industry has its perils, low pay and long hours; but interior design can be done on screen.

        Although I hear you on history, I always took it for the easy A…

      10. Sisyphus*

        I found the book, _I could Do Anything If I Only Knew What It Was_ super helpful for when I was stuck on a “not this, but what else is there?” Career path. If you want to stay in the science side of things, there are many managing/admin type positions in science education that are not teaching as well.

        Also, I found it helpful to really meditate on the statement, “my ideal work day would primarily focus on wrangling frustrating ________” a. People, b. Objects, c. Words, d. Numbers.

    2. Sola Lingua Bona Lingua Mortua Est*

      I really think you need to research a new career path before you become to entrenched

      Absolutely. Get out before you have long-term debt like a mortgage, or even a new car payment. Starting over professionally is much easier when it doesn’t mean tearing your private life down and starting over there as well.

  4. AndersonDarling*

    I wonder if the OP could ask for cross training in other departments. They can say that they want a more complete understanding of the business operations as a whole, but they can really be looking at potential transfers. Maybe there is something in analytics that is interesting, or maybe the OP will click with recruiting? Maybe logistics? There could be another position in their own company that their current experience plus intense training/ focused education could make them a real asset!
    It would be a safe way to shop around for a future career.

    1. CCSF*

      This is in line with what I was thinking.

      Is there another role where your current knowledge would be valuable? For example, my sister is an RN and works as a manager for other nurses rather than with patients. A friend who is also a RN works in publicity for a local hospital and before that she was a patient advocate.

  5. TWW*

    The “five year plan” question used strike me as odd because it pre-supposes you’ll still be at that company in five years.

    I’ve found the easiest way to answer is to pick a more senior coworker and tell the boss you’d like to do the same thing that person is doing. You’re just giving your boss some sense of the direction you’d like to head in; you’re not actually committing to achieve that goal.

    1. Dan*

      I kind of see the “five year plan” question as a means to weed out the “borderline” candidates and nothing more. A bad answer is going to get someone rejected, but a great answer (if there is such a thing) isn’t going to move someone from the “borderline” pile into a front runner.

    2. irene adler*

      True that!

      I go with: man plans, God laughs.

      So, for me, no real point in having a 5 year plan. It will not come to fruition.

    3. James*

      My company does something similar to what the LW’s does. You have long-term (5-year) plans, mid-term (3-year) plans, and short-term (this year) plans. The idea is to figure out where you want to go, then build a path to get there, and focus on short-term decisions that help you get to that long-term goal.

      Sounds good on paper. In reality, half the time junior staff have the short-term goal of having enough work to keep busy, and learning some of the roles takes several years (which looks bad on a plan). And of course if someone hands you an opportunity that doesn’t necessarily fit your goal, but which is really cool or in a fantastic location, you take it. I know a guy that spent a few years in Hawaii, another who went to Eastern Europe, and a few that did work on forward operating basis (I turned that down at the point where they told me I wasn’t allowed to shoot back but was allowed to be shot at, but the folks who went enjoyed it). At other times you’re on a three-year project. Hard to put that into a five-year plan!

      What I’ve learned is that the best approach is to discuss it with your manager and work out something that sounds good. If the manager isn’t helpful, it becomes an exercise in creative writing. On the plus side, it’s not like the reviewers don’t know it’s going on. Half of them just want to see that you’ve done it.

    4. TechWorker*

      I don’t think you’re ever committing to that goal really, obviously managers are aware that plans can change.

      We sometimes use the question in hiring because we hire grads without much experience and it’s 1-2 years before we get much value back compared to training time. So if someone says ‘I see myself running my own company’ or ‘I’m planning to move countries in 3 years time’, we probably won’t hire them.

  6. Nicki Name*

    Is there a way you can move toward a job where your STEM knowledge is useful but you do a different core thing?

    For instance, I’m in software, and there are jobs where people translate “we need the software to support such-and-such processes” into “we need to change it in this specific way”. The person doing that is typically a business analyst who doesn’t write any code themself, but it’s very useful for them to understand the capabilities and limitations of software in general and the particular product being changed.

    1. Detective Amy Santiago*

      This is what I was thinking. Technical writing, process engineering, purchasing for a lab, subject matter expert for a related industry, there are a ton of positions where STEM knowledge would be a huge asset.

    2. Isabel*

      I agree with this advice as well. I work in Marketing and there are many opportunities for STEM majors to do in the realm of product marketing, marketing communications, product management etc. for biotech, life sciences or engineering/software companies.

    3. Venture capital*

      Is there a way you can move toward a job where your STEM knowledge is useful but you do a different core thing?

      Venture capital in hard-core science-based investment firms.

  7. Emilitron*

    I’d like to suggest that maybe management sees that you’re a pretty good employee, and knows they’d like to keep you around for a while, and yet they can tell that you’re not very happy but they don’t know why. Maybe they’ve floated some test balloons of “do you think you’d prefer Project X or Y next year?” “Jane is looking for someone to handle test Z for her team, is that something you’d like to learn?” and they have sensed that there’s nothing they’ve offered that you’re excited about. This would put them squarely in the camp of well-intentioned-but-slightly-ineffectual managers, who want to know how they can help but aren’t saying what they mean. Assume that they’d help if they could, so while I agree with advice to get out into something you’s like better, if you can think of anything that would make your job more pleasant/interesting/bearable in the meantime, you should absolutely ask for it.

    1. UnhappyInSTEM*

      I’ve had the same thought as well. I do try to keep it under wraps, I’m certainly not volubly unhappy or disparaging, but I can see how it might be obvious that I lack the enthusiasm of my peers. Part of my problem has been figuring out what to ask for – I’m so new in the industry (<3 years), and it’s so varied, and I have no idea what might make this better until I maybe go elsewhere. Alison’s advice (and that of others) to look at some positions above me is helpful, though so far all I’ve found is good examples of things I definitely don’t want (like the full time field manager working 70-80 hours a week, no thank you).

      1. Archaeopteryx*

        Ever if you can’t find positions in (or adjacent to) your field where you like the job itself, you can look for ones that will have (or lead to later jobs that have) other quality-of-life boosts: short/flexible hours, low stress, autonomy, generous vacation, etc.

        1. Archaeopteryx*

          Another factor to consider in determining how far “away” from your current field you practically feel like you can look into is- what’s the worst-case scenario as far as your family/ community’s reaction? What were you trying to avoid by staying in STEM?

          Not knowing your particular situation, “family pressure” in general might be anything from “They’ll chide me for a while, but get used to it, and come around on it if I’m successful in my new career” to “They’ll never get over it/disown me/disinherit me.” Wherever you’re situation is on that spectrum can help inform how far afield you are willing to look for something that suits you better.

          1. UnhappyInSTEM*

            Definitely somewhere in between, along the lines of “lifelong disapproval and consistent criticism and disparagement, as well as regular despairing cries that life would be so much better for us all if you just did what I told you to! But you can stick around in the family so you can hear me complain, forever.” Unfortunately (fortunately?) circumstances since and the general dynamic of a family like that has led to a situation where I’ve already worked really hard to put boundaries between us and the threat of this is less upsetting to me now than it was to my college-aged self. If I were to quit and become a free lance underwater basket weaver, to borrow my mom’s favourite field to make fun of, well, her head might explode but I’d work through it with my therapist. I’m working really hard not to let their opinions color where I go from here, just practicality. Unfortunately I lack a lot of practical knowledge on how to get out! Neither of my parents work in professional trades and both of them have worked in the same field all my life so I have no model for how to do this. But I’ve gotten lots of good help here from everyone (thanks all!)

            1. Redacted for now*

              Honestly, this calls for networking with people a little older/more experienced than you. Find some groups related to your current work and/or the types of work you think you want to do. Meet people. Find out how they got where they are. It’s rarely a clear, linear path that’s apparent from the start. So seeing where they ended up and how they got there will help you figure out your next move.

              I’m unsure about STEM fields, but I know there are a ton of responses on a Google search of “alternative careers for lawyers,” and I would guess the same would be true for engineers and other STEM fields.

      2. Prof-Elsie*

        Identifying exactly what you don’t want is a great way to narrow down what you do want. For instance, I would absolutely hate having to spend all day in a car driving. So make a list of the things that would make you miserable, and then start looking for things that don’t include those elements.

      3. Zephy*

        Well, hey, it’s good to prune the branches of possibility as well. I did a semester abroad in undergrad, earned a foreign-language minor for my trouble, and mostly that experience taught me that I don’t really want to pursue a career in (e.g.) foreign relations/politics, international business, academia or teaching…which is valuable, in its own way.

  8. Waffle*

    Ahh, I’m really glad LW wrote in and Alison answered. I’ve been wondering some similar things (less ‘I hate the field’ and more ‘I don’t know what I want to aim for’) since my manager seems to be trying to develop me + push me into a more senior role very quickly. I’m only a few years out of college and have been at this job a little over six months, so I guess it’s flattering (?) that they think I’m worth supporting, but it’s stressful answering questions about what I want to do (particularly since this whole year has been stressful itself). I think I’ll use some of the suggested language when it comes up again next.

  9. Loredena Frisealach*

    Does your employer have a training department? Perhaps you could ask to do some work with them if so – that helps test the waters with training while working on an education degree, while leveraging your STEM knowledge. It’s the rare company that doesn’t need technical training of some sort!

  10. No Job Is Forever*

    Speaking here as a manager who wants people who work for me to at least like their jobs and wants to help them make the shifts they need to achieve that, and as a parent who spends a LOT of time telling my kids not to follow the path of $$ into a soul-crushing wall of misery.

    My recommendation is to steer the conversation in the direction of the *types of outcomes* you find fulfilling, because every company and every industry needs people who can do a wide variety of “things”. For example, you mentioned that you enjoyed teaching – you could tell your manager that you find it really fulfilling to help other people understand the intricacies of what your (company/product/whatever) does. You could talk about occasions where you’ve done X activity (helping a new employee or customer? worked on launching a new program?) and you particularly appreciated the satisfaction you got from Y part of it (found a way to get customers on board more quickly / helped streamline a process to make it more easily understandable / created order out of chaos / etc.).

    When you’re neck-deep in hating what you do, it can be hard to see how the role you’re in now can transfer to doing something completely different, but it’s nearly always possible – corporate trainers benefit a lot from experience doing the jobs of the people they train; solution architects benefit from having development experience; etc.

    You may hate the industry entirely and hate your company, but you may also feel more stuck than you really are.

    1. UnhappyInSTEM*

      Thanks for this! Yeah I have noticed having those blinders, of wanting out so badly I don’t know how to work with what I have. That’s part of why I wrote in. One of my supers was wanting to have me lead a training exercise I was excited about back before COVID times, but that got cancelled as most things did. I haven’t thought to bring it up again, and my manager would probably still want me to accrue more field experience before moving too far into a training role, but I’ll note it down to mention as something I would like to do more of.

      1. No Job Is Forever*

        Saw your comment above about some of the other things you’ve enjoyed, and I think your skills and interests are more transferable than you may fear. My dad was an engineering major, realized a decade or so in that he didn’t love it and wanted to work with people instead of just machines, and shifted to the marketing/sales side of the fence where he spent the rest of his career and loved it. I know a ton of arts/theater type people who work on the sales side of STEM fields (industry secret: sales is 90%+ a performance). Lots more who work in the training and education side. Think instructional design, post-sales training, sales engineer, solution design, customer experience, etc. Different pieces of the STEM world likely use various names and roles, but one thing that’s often not super-visible to people early in their careers is how broad the work world really is, even within any individual company.

      2. Des*

        A lot of ‘field experience’ can be gotten on the job. Don’t take yourself out of consideration for an opportunity that sounds like something you’re enthusiastic about because you’re not sure you’re qualified. Try and see if maybe you in fact are, and can pick up some skills on the job. Maybe there’s training for the training role that your manager can sign you up for?

    2. Lizzo*

      This reminds me of a great quote I heard several years ago, attributed to Jaime Casap (Google):

      “Don’t ask kids what they want to be when they grow up, but what problems do they want to solve. This changes the conversation from ‘who do I want to work for’, to ‘what do I need to learn to be able to do that’.”

      OP, try considering your career/life within this framing, and see what pops up in terms of your interests and curiosities.

  11. If you're happpy and you know it*

    On the work side of things rather than the school side…
    I have always loathed the idea that you HAD to WANT to … do something other than what you are doing. Why? Why can’t a five year plan be “I want to continue what I am doing.” Realistically, the work world is a pyramid anyway, so why do you have to want the promotion/managerial role/C suite dream if you are happy where you are? I understand that has implications for earnings and responsibilities, etc, but it seems it’s just anathema to be happy where you are. That is so incredibly depressing, especially if you are good at your job. I’m not saying you don’t have to keep up with your industry or keep your training fresh or whatever, but why why why can’t you just stick with a job without people giving you the side-eye? Not every job is entry level, sometimes it just… a job. If you’re doing it and doing it well, where does the pressure come from to move on from it?

    1. Dan*

      In my field, the five year plan is a joke anyway, at least in terms of how one would answer an interview question. If you are hired straight out of college with no experience or domain background, you’re going to get slotted in a position where lots of oversight will be provided. Once you learn the ropes and can work with less supervision, you’ll get promoted up a level, but you still should be in a position where your boss or your peers know how to do your job and can help when needed. Your paycheck will increase, but day-to-day, the only real difference is that your boss checks in with you less. The big stuff starts to happen when you develop a reputation for being the go-to person for X… and you’ve developed that reputation because you’ve racked up a series of accomplishments where people give you personal credit for the successes, (as in, “Dan was a key part of the team’s success” on multiple projects.)

      Where are you going to be in five years? Same office, same chair, same work, same boss… but bigger paycheck and less oversight. Any answer with grander plans than that is going to look out of touch or otherwise clueless.

    2. irene adler*

      Very good point. Well put, too.

      I think society needs to redefine what “success” means. It is so narrow right now.

      It’s akin to the mindset of “everybody needs to go to college after high school”. NO, they do not. And, guess what? Folks who don’t ‘lemming along’ to college end up in good places too. Real good places.

      I’m not one for the corporate ladder climb. Just today I received a response to a job I applied to. The hiring manager wants to interview me for the next level up-not the position I specifically applied for. And guess what? The ‘next level up’ position is supervisory. The position I prefer is an individual contributor role.

      Any bets as to whether they will let me interview for the individual contributor position?


      1. 1234*

        Can you say something like “Wow, I really appreciate you considering me for Supervisory Role. I’d love to learn more more about IC Role instead as I originally applied for that one and would be happy there. Are you open to telling me more about it?”

    3. Nanani*

      Hard agree – there isn’t enough room at the top of the pyramid for everyone anway. It’s not a reasonable path to put literally everyone on.

      When I was growing up there was a lot of emphasis on “leadership qualities” that I think a lot of us saw through to some degree even then. You can’t have a group that’s entirely made up of leaders. That’s just not how anything works.

    4. 1234*

      I agree so much with your comment. Old Job was all about “getting you out of that coordinator role” and “grooming you to be a manager someday” Except that the “coordinator role” wasn’t really straight out of college entry level – everyone was at least mid 20s if not older in that role and had at least some other experience in the industry.

      I had no desire to manage (and still don’t) but somehow “I like the coordinator role, filling out paperwork, and doing administrative things like making sure the team’s expense reports are correct” wasn’t what they would’ve wanted to hear, even if the higher ups said “1234 is really good at the admin stuff and understands the company process of How Things Work and How To Get Things Done.” But why not keep people around who are happy to do the grunt work and don’t find it boring? *shrugs*

  12. Charlotte Lucas*

    I always think that it’s referencing economic growth in the USSR, but I went to high school in the 80s. (Where my fellow students referred to someone being in the Five-Year Plan when they failed enough classes to repeat their senior year.)

  13. Loopy*

    I have never been in quite the same place but I want to second that if you have a manager who is willing, they may be totally able to help you pivot directions. I’ve been at a lot of companies that are only interested in you doing the job you were initially hired to do, maybe with increasing responsibilities. However, I’m now at a company that cares a lot about retaining good talent and they are super open to people saying I’m interested in X, and I’d like to learn more about it if I can assist or get involved to see if I like it. They are willing to shift people in really unexpected directions.

    I’ve been surprised at how people move around in this company and do very varied roles. If your boss and company culture seems open to this, I would really think about asking about opportunities that involve some aspect of training and teaching and coaching that you may not know about. Maybe you’ll be surprised at how some roles have parts of pieces of things you like that weren’t apparent. I’d try and use the session to really get a sense of opportunities to do things you like that you may be completely unaware of because they simply aren’t obvious or visible.

  14. nnn*

    In terms of navigating these conversations, are there any specific aspects of your work, or of other work done in your organization, that you like or dislike, or that add to or take away from your quality of life?

    For example, working from home vs working in the office vs working in the field?
    Writing reports vs making presentations?
    People work vs solo computer work?

    You could take that and pair it with Alison’s suggestion of “I’d welcome your input on where you think it might make the most sense for me to focus”, and then you have a perfectly reasonable opening for a collaborative conversation where you seem like an engaged employee who doesn’t hate their job at all.

    Example: “I’m coming to realize that I get the most fulfillment from being useful or helpful to others. Do you have any insight on where it would make the most sense for me to focus to work towards that kind of role?”

  15. YallAdopter*

    Let me join the chorus of folks encouraging you to look for opportunities to branch out at your workplace! I’m also a STEM advanced degree holder with ennui about my work – until I volunteered to take on a big project management job. I had to talk my boss into it, but it helped that it was something he didn’t want to do himself and he delegated it to me. And it turns out that I was good at it – and now I’m able to leverage what I learned, use my STEM credentials as one tool in my toolbox, and explore a lot of different opportunities. Are there any pernicious problems calling out to you that you’d love to solve?

  16. MaureenSmith*

    I’ve never had to do a 5-year plan, can’t help there.

    As a female who did STEM in school, it gives you some core marketable skills that are applicable to many careers. Problem Solving is the big one. As with most of my class-mates, I’m NOT working in my STEM field. We scatter and do management, consulting, teaching, government, support for different industries, etc.

    It sounds like you would enjoy a more people-facing position instead of pure design or research. Being an educator is one option, although don’t limit it to acedemia. Also consider project management, consulting, and the non-profit world. Non-profit doesn’t always mean no pay, but it can involve you in complex problem solving for a goal that you support on a deep, personal level.

    Dealing with family expectations is a whole different nightmare. The community here and at Captain Awkward are both excellent supports to encourage you to be yourself.

  17. Nanani*

    Am I the only one who sees this “5 year plan” thing as a covert way to sniff out who to fire before they go on maternity leave/extended holiday for honeymoon/ get expensive medical care on the company insurance?

    Asking about career plans as an interview question makes sense because in that context, it’s about where the job being applied for fits the person’s larger goals.
    For an existing employee? A bit sus.

    1. Spearmint*

      Maybe at some toxic employers, but I suspect it’s more often a clumsy way of asking what professional development opportunities they should give an employee. In other cases it may be an outdated policy from the era when it was more common for employees to spend decades at a single job.

      1. Diahann Carroll*

        This. It’s a very common question to ask – I’be been asked this many times by people who had no intention of ever firing me (and were mad when I either transferred off their teams or left the company entirely).

  18. Bananaphone*

    Read “I could do anything if only I knew what it was” by Barbara Sher. Seriously best book about career picking EVER

    1. Anax*

      In the same vein, OP, you might enjoy “Ask for It”, by Linda Babcock and Sara Laschever. Briefly, ‘what changes would make your work/home more pleasant, and how can you make those changes happen, without being a jerk to anyone?’

    2. BubbleTea*

      I also quite like The Renaissance Soul but Margaret Lobenstine, which talks about how to choose a path when you enjoy lots of things.

  19. Purt's Peas*

    I think that the advice in the column is useful, but wouldn’t have worked for me when I was kind of in your position–straight from school to a STEM job, tired out, feeling zero ambition, and not particularly invested in 5 years out. This isn’t to compress your experience into my own–especially because I didn’t have the overt parental pressure–but it really rings a bell.

    What worked for me was to find a chill, low-pressure job, that was still a STEM position but in a less prestigious company, that paid a little less but still enough, and rest there. I’ve been in the same company for about four years now, and it’s literally just been in the past year that I’ve felt like I have any ambition coming back to me at all.

    You probably are in the wrong field, yeah. But I think that your thoughts don’t have to center on: “what’s my _real_ 5 year plan?” It can be, “what’s my next step that will give me room to breathe?”

    I also want to push back on this: “I mostly get fulfillment from feeling useful or helpful to others.” I think it’s important to attach the phrase “right now” to this statement. “Right now, I mostly get fulfillment from feeling useful or helpful to others.”

    The reason is, in your other comments you talk about having found fulfillment from art and creation in the past, and I suspect you still have the capacity to find joy and satisfaction in these things. But they require energy and (unless you’re wildly resilient) some level of external validation and support, which it sounds like you don’t have right now. Feeling useful and helpful is great, and helping others is even greater; deciding on a helping profession because it’s the one thing that motivates you to drag a little extra energy out of the well when you’ve got little to spare is a recipe for a tough career. (I’m talking out of my ass here and hope there’s something helpful even if I’m way, way off-base.)

    1. UnhappyInSTEM*

      No you sound like you get it pretty well honestly. I think the biggest thing I feel is burned out most of the time, and room to breathe would definitely be good. Neither of my industry jobs have offered me that, though the one I’m in now is better. Engineers put a high priority on being busy (gotta keep up those billable hours!) so I can’t even imagine a position that’d be lower pressure, but I’ll keep that in mind as a short term goal.

      I’ve definitely had the fear that I’m only clinging on to teaching as the closest thing I’ve known to fulfillment in a long time, but I can also say that even long before I was in this situation, it was something I liked. It wasn’t a passion for sure, I would have put several other things ahead of it, but I volunteered as a summer math camp assistant, math and reading tutor, and everything else under the sun from the time I was about twelve on. So I think I can say it’s something I’d still get something from even if it wasn’t being juxtaposed against my current burn out! At the very least I’ve found myself more and more often feeling like, I at least know THIS doesn’t work, so I might as well try something else. It doesn’t seem realistic to hope that I might get to parlay my arts skills into the kind of career I would have asked for before, and I’m not even sure I would still want to, but I do appreciate the ideas that have been offered here of moving into technical writing, design, marketing, and training as a way to sort of… mesh together all of these things. It at least gives me a better sense of what might be possible even if I don’t know what I want.

      I’m really glad you got the chance to catch your breath and I hope you continue to move forward in a positive direction!

      1. Not So NewReader*

        Not in STEM so really can’t speak to that.

        I will say something I wish someone had said to younger me. “TRY. Try very hard not to take it so seriously and so heavily. We have to launch somehow. Even a poor launch is STILL a launch. We have to launch our adult lives, not optional.”

        It’s perfectly fine to wobble and falter. If we never try anything then we never have let downs. Don’t stay where you are too long, it’s sucking the life out of you. I can hear it in your post, as you answer people here I can almost sense a spark coming back. Move to something else soon, while you still remember having “life” in you.

        I know of a person who started out engineering med devices. They are now a vet-chiro. In my opinion, they went from extremely difficult field to an impossible field. What vet-chiros need to know would fill entire libraries. And if they screw up they get bit, literally. This person is happy as all get out with the change. And they are really good at it. Maybe being on a better track gave them a higher appreciation? I dunno. And I don’t think they have been bit even once.

        Assuming we sleep 8 hours a day, this gives us 112 waking hours per week to do Life. You are spending half that time (+/-) at something this job. And probably too worn out to do much of any thing once you get home. I can almost promise you that the next thing you do will NOT be as bad as this.

  20. Liu1845*

    It sounds like you have a solid grasp on your field from the feedback you receive. Wanting to be helpful could point you to teaching and training in your field. Good teachers/trainers are gold and it’s very satisfying. I spent 25 years in Supply Chain working with SAP, the last 10 of which I became a trainer. Many of my trainees have since advanced through the company to upper management. I’m very proud of the part I had in getting them off to a good start.

Comments are closed.