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Careers Café

What lies beneath that seemingly “crappy” job?


If you’re reading this blog, chances are excellent that you have invested years, blood, sweat and tears in graduate level education. And you may have concerns about “wasting” your education on unrelated jobs or those that seem beneath your level of training. On the other hand, if you’re also about to enter the job market as a new grad or in a new field, you’re quite likely looking at entry-level positions.

So, how do you know whether you’re gracefully accepting the reality of early professional life, or foolishly throwing your masters or PhD before a “crappy” job?

The distinction may actually be pretty simple, if you ask yourself a few questions.

  1. Is the job primarily about crappy tasks, or does it give you opportunities for one or more interesting tasks as well? In my early career, one of my jobs involved such glorious duties as addressing envelopes, stuffing said envelopes, and posting signs directing people to the correct rooms. Happily, it also involved curriculum design, finding out more about different learning disabilities, and getting to work with phenomenally intelligent and dedicated people. And, frankly, as the most junior person on the team, I was the logical choice for envelope stuffing and sign posting. My PhD (sadly) didn’t mean that other people could be saddled with the dull stuff that related to my job.
  2. If the job doesn’t involve at least one interesting task, is it a way into an otherwise closed system? Is it with an employer for whom you really want to work, who consistently hires from within, and whose employees have told you that the best thing to do is just to get in, and then to work towards a job that fits your level? Mind you, in workplaces like this, there’s no guarantee of job mobility much less instant mobility. Be ready to spend time in the job you’ve applied for, and be careful in how you approach the interview.
  3. Is your idea of the typical challenging-to-mind-numbing task ratio informed by reliable information? The “follow your passion” approach to career planning puts an incredible amount of pressure on job seekers to find something that they love! Every! Single! Second! If you think it may have shaped your expectations of work, find out what the happily employed people around you have to say about their own work. Ask your profs what percentage of their time they spend on administrative tasks. Read Dr. Heather Zwicker’s post on her one weekly day of research. Talk with people who like their jobs and are willing to be candid about the amount of time spent on grunt work either now or in their early jobs. Take it a step further, and write out a list of the tasks that feel like grunt work – then see if you can figure out how far along in your career you’d need to be to avoid those tasks, or whether it is realistic to avoid them, ever.

The elephant in the basement room of jobs that are “beneath” you is, of course, status. So, if my suggested questions aren’t helping clarify the boundaries of your job search, or if your uneasy feeling about some tasks or jobs would go away if only their status was different, give Alain de Botton’s Status Anxiety a read. It can be a huge relief to point to the elephant, and to read about what makes it so irritatingly difficult to ignore.

Liz Koblyk
Liz Koblyk is the associate director of the Wilson Leadership Scholar Award at McMaster University.
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