Wednesday, 25 September 2013

Letter from India

Every once in a while--er, a day--I think about my job qualifications and panic. Had I known I was going to emigrate to Scotland at the age of 38, I would not have gone to theology school. Women studying for the Anglican ministry used to stop Catholic girls coming out of classrooms and say, "I hope you don't mind my asking, but..."

I frequently kick myself for not having gone to translator's school, or copywriting school, or teacher school instead. But as it is, theological training is what I have, and Scotland is where I live, and so, believe it or not, the best thing I can think of to do right now is learn Polish.

This is not to discourage Catholic women who already are in theology school. If you are in Ireland, the USA or Canada, there are many more Catholics and therefore many more jobs for which M.Div. or a Masters in Theology prepares you. And, of course, when you live in your own countries, you develop contacts over the decades. There's a reason why new immigrants-with-PhDs end up driving cabs; it's because they have not developed networks of acquaintances who hire people. Alas that I cannot drive.

As usual, I was not rooted in reality when I tried to decide, post-divorce, what to do with my life. I kept thinking "academic career", even though I had no clue about the "academic career" job market, not to mention the absolute necessity, in the humanities, of getting along with powerful, neurotic people, which means possessing the abilities to keep your mouth shut and to dissemble your true thoughts--abilities I completely lack.

All this adds up to poor Auntie being one man away from a welfare cheque, as the saying goes. Well, actually, two. Every once in a while my father comes into the kitchen in the morning to find yet another recently unemployed child eating his "Fruit and Fibre" cereal.

These grim thoughts were inspired by this letter from India. Read it and pray for the writer because she certainly does not have my personal social safety nets.

Hello Aunty Seraphic,

I’m a long-time reader from India. Thank you for all the advice you selflessly provide every day for women such as me. It’s a huge comfort to read your positive uplifting posts, which are apt for me, since I really have nowhere else to turn for advice.

I have your book “The Closet’s all Mine,” which I ordered some years back and I loved it too.

I haven’t read the post about being offended by the term “spinster”. However, I do have one very event that occurred last week (actually several have occurred over the course of few years). Now, please keep in mind that I’m now a 34-year old Indian, who has never actually dated. Had no luck with the arranged marriage scenario; it did not help that I had a rare blood disorder and have had several medical complications.... It also didn’t help that I have dark skin, which automatically puts me in the “unattractive” category. Why, my alcoholic father, in one of his drunken rages, lashed out at me when I was 14, telling me I was so ugly that no fellow will want to marry me. Talk about prophecy.

Anyway, back to the spinster talk. I lead a small team of people at work, and my team and my new manager went out for lunch. My manager of course had assumed I was married since no one remains single past 28 in my country. When I told him otherwise, his expression turned to that of shock and the chaps in my team just laughed their head off. I was humiliated but there’s really no point in reacting. Thankfully, the topic was changed. As a woman in India, I have to deal with a lot of openly misogynistic behavior on a daily basis, and I think I’ve learned over the years to ignore such stuff. Very hard at the beginning, but really showing that you’re upset, only gives them more power over you and makes you look bitter and foolish.

Dear Aunty Seraphic, however, if there’s one piece of advice for young singles, which you can take from my life experience and weave it into a nice post, it is that young women should be clever enough to think of a good career option regardless of marriage. This is something I’m bitterly regretting now and is driving me to real depression.

I did not choose a very ambitious line, since I was pretty sure I was going to get married and hopefully have kids some days. Now, my career is a dead-end and I have very limited prospects and I really loathe my job now. Now a at 34, I don’t know if I should go to grad school and spend a whole bunch of money... I feel like I have dug myself into a sink hole, which I can’t seem to come out of and I feel like a real loser. As for marriage, there’s hardly any hope there. Eligible fellows are taken and I really have no opportunity to meet any.

Perhaps my experience can help some intelligent young NCG avoid this same folly. Please pray for me aunt Seraphic. I feel so abandoned.

Letter from India

I have replied to "Letter from India"--who, at 34, is most definitely not too old to learn a new trade--but have not yet heard back. What I have to say to you girls is "Learn. A. Trade." That trade may be trading. That trade may be sewing. That trade may be teaching schoolchildren. That trade may be pediatrics or computer programming. That trade may be hairdressing. Or plumbing. Or preparing tax returns. Or robotics. Or translation (for the UK, German is very hot right now). Or pharmacy. Pick something you think you would very much enjoy, that you do relatively easily and well, and that will make you money. Please don't sleep walk through an Arts degree and then go into debt for an Arts M.A. Sometimes I wonder if American academia hasn't turned into a pyramid scheme.

Which reminds me of a speech by the dean of one theology school I admired. He described its student body as a "pyramid": mostly women "on the bottom" and a few male religious "on top".

How I cried.

Update: And all you mothers, move heaven and earth so that your daughters are taught math properly. Girls not being able to do math should send off as many panic signals as boys not being able to read. Being able to do math means being able to do science which means being able to study pharmacy or any of the healing trades or computer science, which is where the highest-earning trades for women are. If your daughter otherwise loves school and does all her homework except math, then maybe the problem is not that she is "lazy." Not that I am bitter or had a psychotic math teacher who blighted the career prospects of two generations of women who still discuss her with loathing.

Update 2: This post is sufficiently negative that I should feel that I should add that great teachers and professors have outnumbered the bumblers. Also theology school led to blogging which led to helping a lot of people and meeting B.A. So I don't really regret going to theology school although, dagnabit, I really wish was earning a decent living, and I'm not because of my own poor risk-taking or not-rooted-in-reality choices.


Lena said...

I have my regrets too. I so wish I was born with a science and math type of brain.

Seraphic said...

The sad thing is that maybe we were.

Anonymous said...

Oh dear. My heart goes out to the letter writer. There is probably no worse feeling than being stuck or complete loss of hope. She is most definitely in my prayers.

With regard to math and science, yes, do make sure girls and young women know it and get exposed to it. But more than knowing how to ace exams, they need to be taught how to enjoy it too. My grades reflected a possible aptitude for it, but I absolutely detested every minute of it. While I now have an arts job I love, I do struggle with the reality that my math and science career girlfriends get paid much much more and are happy.

Seraphic said...

The important things, I think, are to wake up looking forward to work AND making a living wage. Living wage includes not waking up in the middle of the night wondering how horrible old age might be.

Anonymous said...

Oh dear! I just realized just how awful my mail sounds 
Aunty seraphic, I’ve been dreadfully busy and in a terrible funk these last two days. I will write a reply soon.
I promise I did not plan my life around becoming a housewife and therefore took the easiest possible lazy route and now paying the price. Well, I have an undergraduate degree in engineering. Although I was very good in school, I somehow lost focus during my college years. It didn’t help that I had atrocious health during that time. I became really lackadaisical. Anyway, I think it was very foolish of me to embark on a career line, which at that time, looked good enough without further thought. Any wise ladies/gentlemen (eavesdroppers) here who can recommend what I can do going forward. Any tips on hot and upcoming career trends, which a 34-yr old can embark on and not die in penury paying grad student loans (well, that really is my fear).

sympatico said...

I'm sharing my own story to encourage this girl, not to tell her to do what I did. Many of my circumstances are different, not the least of which is that I am an American.
I too believed I would marry & have children, and my family believes that is really the only thing for women to do. I was in a bad dating relationship and new I needed to get out, but lacked the motivation. Thanks be to God, I found an MA program I was really excited about, and after freaking out over the cost/debt, decided I was young enough to earn a decent living from it AND pay back the debt. It led to a job I have found very life giving, where I can exercise spiritual maternity. I will never be rich, but I live a solidly middle class life and save for the future (and the debt is long since paid off).
(For the record, I also had one of those horrible math teachers you mention. My parents thought she was a good teacher and that I was the problem, until my little sister had the same teacher, when the teacher told my mom that she never gave As. Such a rapid change of perspective never happened in a parent as at that moment. But I still have a block when it comes to math.)
I will pray for this girl in India. May the Lord show her a way forward and a way of escape. Most of all, may she know that HE loves her and considers her life of great value...regardless of what the people around her think.

Jackie said...

Letters from India, I am praying for you to see your true worth in God's eyes, which is beyond comprehension. And I am so sorry to hear about the mistreatment you have received and your health issues. Peace be with you.

Seraphic, I find your post re: academia and trades extremely timely. My sister is one of the people who have actually done everything "right" -- right school, right credentials, right awards, right publishing -- and a tenure track position. Only to have the university she is teaching at just fall into financial insolvency resulting in the loss of her (and her colleagues') employment.

(She is really stressing out right now. I think there is a bit of the Stockholm syndrome that comes with academia where you are SO invested, despite the dysfunctional system, that you can't just leave.)

Sometimes you can do everything right and it goes pear-shaped anyway. Sometimes you make every mistake in the world and still come out of it alright.

I, too, started on the right path and finished my doctorate in my 20s. And started a position in academia only to realize it TOTALLY STUNK. And after a year I cut my losses, hauled stakes to a happier climate and started my own business.

You know what? I don't regret any part of it. At every part of my experience I learned invaluable things, even if they were things that were "what NOT to do." In fact, some times I learned the most that way!

Something that helps me is focusing on gratitude for what I do have. Even though our culture measures worth materially, faith and peace of heart are beyond price. Some of my clients are very wealthy and, while they have material abundance, they carry burdens that would stagger me.

This got very long, eep! Thanks for the thought-provoking post, Seraphic.

Ellie said...

Let me add some practical advise here...

First, I will pray for you. Second, 34 is so young still. One day you will be 44, then 54 and think back that you had plenty of time to make changes. Careers are a marathon, not a sprint. With each job accumulate more skills so you can use them to get the next job you really want.

Here's an area you may not have thought about and that is the sales or marketing side of whatever job you are in. Companies and bosses respect those that are on the front lines bringing in the revenue. You can use your technical skills to explain and sell your product. If you can transition to this side of the company you can increase your salary, meet new people and clients, and become a respected resource. In the non-profit world, look at the development/fundraising side of the business.

Sure there are downsides; you are asking for money or business, but you have greater control over your successes and failures. I have seen the lowest of salespeople gain the attention of bosses because the top people want to know what the customers/donors are saying.

Age is also not a factor. A company can't send a 22 year old out and expect that the 50 something manager will relate. However a 34 year old is knowledgeable and has youthful enthusiasm and this is a balance they are looking for.

Don't let your dark beauty be a drawback, rather embrace who you are and use it to your advantage. Wear something bright, smile, pay attention when people speak and tell stories, ask questions, be a resource of information. Of course I live in a very multi-cultural American city where being dark or different is ok. I have seen many people succeed that come from a variety of backgrounds. The key is to fit in enough to play the game while using the differences God gave you to stand out.

I hope this helps you and makes you think that there is more to your life and career than just what you can see today. God Bless.

Anonymous said...

Oh yes, I am very grateful to look forward to work and make a living wage, but it does keep me up at night to think I might have to still live with a roommate at 42 or rely on even a modicum of assistance from my parents.

Dear letter writer, I second the recommendations of looking into affiliated positions with your work experience. Are there career coaches or counselors you could meet with to help the transition? And don't dwell on the choices made in college. At that age, very few people really know the fullness of the trajectory they've set out on. And I believe at 34, it is entirely possible to change course. As for the romance department, as another Stateside gal, I can't really recommend specific things that might not work in your country/family situation. But know you are beautiful and loved in the eyes of God. Praying for you, especially for an attitude of hope.

Anonymous said...

Another reader from India here. (It's good to know there are others :) ) Have you considered writing as an option? The usual content writing type thing, but there are some interesting lines you could consider. And no grad school required.

Woodbine said...

Thoughts and prayers to the letter writer. I hope that you are able to find some support and direction, and I'm grateful that you brought your story to this far-flung community. I'm also wondering what on earth I'm qualified for and considering where to go next (with more than a little panick some days). Many aspects of my situation are different from yours, but it's reassuring to know that others are grappling with these challenges too.

Great post Seraphic! Ive spent so much time thinking about what's wrong with the current job market and the disconnect between universities and the workforce, so it's refreshing to hear some simple, straight-forward advice. It will definitely be on my mind as I consider going back to school.

Renee said...

Having recently graduated with my Bachelor of Liberal Arts degree/Concentration in Literature, and having a hard time finding a job because the promising ones I've been (phone) interviewed so far for have fallen through...

This post absolutely terrifies me.

I am praying for this letter writer, and for you, Seraphic.

Rosemary said...

I'm saying a prayer for the writer of this letter. I was fortunate to.go to a good college and studied accounting after a little dithering as to my choice of a major. I knew that all businesses need accountants, and it has been a good choice for me. I'm not rich ny any means, but comfortable. Instead of college, I would urge young people to apprentice to a trade like plumbing or electrical work, or car repair. You will end up spending much less money in school!

Jackie said...

LW, I have been thinking about you a lot today, and I hope it is okay to post a few concrete suggestions?

*While you prepare for improving your employment prospects, it may be helpful to consider putting your skills to use for side projects.

*A friend of mine cleans houses for a VERY good wage
*Another friend does nannying and au pair work (again, for great people and really nice money)
*One girl I know taught herself coding for free ( to do side projects and get ahead at work
*My "skill" was actually finding vintage clothes (including my dad's 70s shirts--eeeeek! They were then re-born as "vintage hipster" wear, ha ha!) and re-selling them on eBay. I actually loved my side project and had so much fun with it, while it financed international airfare tickets.

You probably have TONS of gifts, LW! If you are less than confident in your appearance at present, the internet opens up a plethora of possibilities.

*Does Catholic Charities have any offices in your area in India? They have been GREAT for counseling (sliding scale, btw) and putting me in touch with a support network. They call it "Caritas" here-- is there something similar where you are?

If you have suffered abuse or learned unhealthy relationship patterns-- or are dealing with depression-- I highly recommend seeking their counseling out. It has been some of the best money I've ever spent.

*This may be difficult, but telling people what you are looking for. People really do like helping when they can. I've had friends who have received everything from jobs to set-ups (they are now married and having baby number 3!) this way.

*Lastly, and this may sound counterintuitive but it has helped me: practicing gratitude has really helped.

When buying groceries, setting aside some for the food bank; helping someone in need; donating the stuff you no longer use; if money is insanely tight, a smile is still free. :-)

Peace be with you, LW!

Hagra6 said...

Auntie, would you really have wanted a copywriting job? I ask because I like writing and I am going back to school. I want to do something I'm good at, that I will probably enjoy, and that will allow me to support myself. I hear people say it's a meaningless job and that it doesn't pay much. What do you think of those critiques?

Julia said...

Letter from India, I'm so sorry to hear about the tough time you are going through and I hope things improve for you.

I worry about the future of my career sometimes too. I did a four-year undergraduate degree at a well-reputed university, and I went straight on to a Masters in the same field. I'm a third of the way through the Masters. Luckily for me, my undergrad debt is minimal and my Masters degree is free, and since I worked very hard in my undergrad degree and did quite well, I've received a large merit-based scholarship for the duration of my Masters. Since I live with my family, I'm able to save that money. Letter from India, if you do decide to go into postgrad study, I'd definitely recommend looking into scholarships and bursaries.

I have a reasonable expectation that I'll be able to provide well for myself once I graduate with my Masters (which, annoyingly, will probably not be as soon as I initially hoped). I already work in the field that I expect to continue working in, and I enjoy it. I do, however, have my fears about the future. I think I just have to remind myself that I've chosen a field of study I enjoy and that I'm good at, and that I had a really good work ethic throughout my studies, so I shouldn't look back with any regrets.

I used to have these ideas of doing doctoral study, but that looks less and less appealing to me now for quite a few reasons. Firstly, a Masters equips me well for what I think I'm best suited to doing in my career. Secondly, I don't expect to get MORE free postgrad education, and I don't want to go into debt if I can't get more education for free. Thirdly, I just don't think I have the mettle for a doctoral programme, and I'm okay with that. Fourthly, I don't really want to delay my entry into full-time work and 'real' adulthood any longer. People who have doctoral degrees in my field are NOT automatically assured of Dream Academic Post, and since I don't think I really want Dream Academic Post, I don't think I could ever be bothered putting myself through a doctoral programme.

It's funny - I was sorting through a bunch of paperwork just before and I came across some certificates I earned in national science competitions in high school (N.B. I am not studying anything scientific). So apparently I had some aptitude for that. Maths? I did pretty well, but I hated it because I found it soul-destroyingly boring. Can't fault my teachers for that though.

Seraphic, please excuse the long and tedious comment, but your post about this has come at a very appropriate time for me. Recently I've been adjusting what I think my goals are and reflecting on what I value and what I think my real strengths are. Thankfully, I've concluded that I'm on the right path.

Seraphic said...

@Hagra6. I looked online for copywriting salaries and saw figures like 38,000/a to 45,000/a. Here's one link.

The best thing to do, I think, is to call up copywriters and ask about the average salary in your area. Explain that you're a student, and maternal/paternal-hearted people might give you advice.

Always go to the source, and never listen to vague talk. When I was doing my B.A., I was very disheartened by other students who kept saying who worthless it was. Well, actually, a B.A. in Literature or Classics, if you get good grades, could mean acceptance to law school, because the skills you develop as a Literature or languages student are skills you need for law school. But I was left with the sense that the only careers open for someone with an English B.A. were English Prof or soul-sucking joe-jobs (i.e. all or nothing.) This was simply not rooted in reality.

Seraphic said...

These are great ideas for alternative jobs to make money, but Letter from India may be hampered by India's strict (and harsh) caste system. Although she can go to school and train for a better job, cleaning houses is probably just not an option. There are so many poor people in India that middle-class people have servants, just like British and American middle-class people before WW2. In one office where I worked, a recent immigrant from India was absolutely horrified when our department was assigned the task of transporting boxes from one floor to another. She had never carried boxes in her life, and found it incredibly demeaning. The poor woman kept telling us about the servants back in India, and indeed I think she managed not to have to carry a box.

Anonymous said...

Dear readers,
Thank you all so much for your prayer and support. Each and every one of your reply and prayer has provided me with much confidence and hope. I do have this very strong calling to working in a medical-related field (medical-engineering type of field) But, I'm quite clueless as to which one I should choose. I pray that I have the courage to make decisions and not be paralyzed by fear. Please continue to keep me in your prayers.
----From India

Jackie said...

Seraphic, that's a really great point-- thanks for mentioning the cultural situation. It truly does seem like the internet is a great leveler for these kind of situations, while people continue schooling and education. As the saying goes, no one knows if you're a puppy on the internet. ;-)

From India-- I will continue praying for you. Much peace :-)

Urszula said...

From India, I will also pray for you that you get clarity for your future path and the courage necessary to follow it!

Seraphic, thank you for writing on this topic, as always you have a knack for hitting the nail on the head, this time in your observations when it comes to how girls are brought and what we are taught to believe about ourselves. I think it is often mistakenly paraded as conservatism or enlightened spirituality - unfortunately ever the more common, as evidenced by the article "8 reasons why girls shouldn't go to college" which has been making such an uproar the past few days on the internet.

In general I have always been terrified at the complete dearth of information for young Catholic women on how to make practical life choices. Yes, it is nice to be romantic and "float back and forth in the clouds" as we say in Polish and think only of the 'best-case' scenario, where we girls get swept away by a knight in shining armor straight after college, who supports us all through life and we manage to all get by on one salary and have a large Catholic family. I grew up somehow believing this would happen, and the past 5 years post-graduation have a painful but very enlightening discovery of what skills I have beyond my knowledge of 19th century English literature and languages and how I can apply those skills to interesting, creative, and paying work to support myself, allow myself for some comforts and start saving away for retirement until that shining knight comes.

It's enormously important to think of such things earlier. I don't think it means you necessarily have to let go of your passion, or your interest, even if it is something abstract and 'not-practical', it just means developing some sort of plan of what you will do on the side/in the evenings/ to support yourself and feel secure. In my case, in spite of my seemingly unpractical degree, I had apparently great organizational skills that I must have honed as the oldest girl in a large family which I could put to use organizing international conferences. So sometimes you don't have to look back at a job, or a specific skill, but just think of something you did successfully and well as a kid.

It's hard, though, figuring out what you want to/should/shouldn't/must do to support yourself, and my encouragement goes out to all those who are figuring it out (as I still am!)