Q: I am a 28-year-old government employe and a college graduate. And I hate my job.
I found the work very stimulating when I took this position five years ago -- as a GS-5 -- but now I am a GS-9 and I can't go any further. Although I enjoy my colleagues and still meet every challenge, I would like to work for a different agency.
I apply for other positions advertised in the federal register, but I'm always turned down for "lack of specialized experience" -- even when I'm really qualified.
I've talked with specialists at our personnel office but that doesn't do any good. They process employes after they're hired, but do little to help them find compatible work.
And I attend fitness classes to relieve the stress but the feeling only lasts a few days and then it's Monday morning -- the start of another boring day.
Sadly, I see myself becoming like other federal employes. They spend 30 years at the same agency, in the same job, retire, and start a part-time job that really interests them. I want an interesting career while I am still young enough to enjoy it.
I'm particularly interested in photography and want to learn to develop photographs and take better ones.
Can a hobby become a vocation? I think, with the right training, anyone with good work habits can learn any task. Am I too optimistic?
A: It's time to quit a job when you think you can't learn anything new about your work or about life and people -- or if you feel you have nothing left to give.
If you don't quit, your unhappiness will infect every aspect of your personal life. You may marry the wrong person just to get your mind away from work, or divorce the right one because your job has turned you sour.
There are two ways to look at work -- as a job or as a career.
In the first case, you work to fulfill your responsibilities -- to support an aging parent, buy a house, take care of the family, put someone through college. This work can be very satisfying if you don't begrudge the reason for it.
A career is different because it's an end in itself. Until the past few decades only the rich, the talented or the totally committed could consider working for the satisfaction at least as much as the money. This still requires dedication, and it can bring grief as well as joy.
If you choose a career that is wrong for you, you'll never make enough money to be happy. If it's right for you, however, you'll always make enough, either because you enjoy it so much that you work hard and earn more than you expected or because the work is so important to you that you instinctively expect -- and need -- less money.
The work you do now is clearly a job, not a career. You can keep your sanity and your self-respect if you continue to do your job well while learning to be a photographer in your off-hours.
Take night classes at a museum, an art school or a community college and get experience by taking all kinds of pictures -- animals in the zoo; a budding flower; a portrait of a friend. If you keep a record of special frames, to help you remember the kind of sunshine you had and the film, the lens and the shutter speed you used, you can compare the pictures with your notes, to see what you did right -- and wrong.
It's also wise to test yourself by entering contests, because the scrutiny you'll give your work, and the effort you'll take to dry mount it, will make you try harder.
After six intense months you should know how much you really like photography and if you have a talent for it. While you can train yourself to be proficient in this and in most work, you want to have that special ability that lifts you above the others, for that's where satisfaction really lies.
If your photography is good -- but not as good as you'd hoped -- get into a related field, perhaps becoming a picture researcher or picture editor. Or you can keep looking for the right niche by taking an aptitude test, or doing some volunteer work in other fields.
Forget about career applications, however. It's pointless to file re'sume's for jobs in the open register until you know what you want to do and that you can do it. Or unless you have a good contact.
Department heads advertise in the register, as required by law, but their office space is so limited that they usually hire people they know or who are recommended by someone they trust, so the personalities in the office will mesh. It's only when jobs get into a specialized area, like a librarian or a teacher, that the register is pried open a little more.
In the interim, keep taking fitness classes, but take them for an hour, three times a week, because exercise only boosts your energy for a day or two.
And if your job gets too dreadful, quit and work at something part-time until you're ready for the big switch.
When you do apply for a new career, don't limit yourself to a government job. This would cut your options unnecessarily.
All of this comes down to courage. If you have the nerve to take risks in your job, you'll be able to take them in your personal life -- and that's where your real happiness lies, whether you have a job or a career.
Questions may be sent to P.O. Box 15310, Washington, D.C. 20003.