As a part of taking stock of what I do and don’t want to do in terms of career, one of the most entertaining activities suggested by an advice book involved describing my “Job From Hell.” What resulted was a composite of the various summer and other temp jobs I held at during and soon after my undergraduate days. A composite look at these jobs says much about what I probably don’t want to do with my life. To wit:
Summer after freshman year, I found a job through a temp agency as a receptionist at a arbitration and mediation firm. It was an eye-opener. I knew nothing about the law other than lawyer jokes, so I enjoyed learning a little about the profession, but knew enough to be pretty certain that the aggressiveness of lawyerhood was not up my alley. I handled all the basic receptionist duties: setting out the coffee and cookies in the waiting room (they were the butter cookies that came in the round blue tin, and those ones with the sugar crystals on top were particularly tasty), calling lawyers when their appointments came in, making confirmation calls the day before.
At the end of the summer, one of the nicer lawyers wrote me a recommendation letter, and showed it to me. He praised me for being on time, organized, and responsible. This was not the sort of recommendation letter I was used to (since I was used to college application-style recommendations praising my smarts and creativity, not such basic things as organization), and it was a strange taste of what was expected in the real business world.
The next summer, I had a lovely job as a intern for a non-profit news program, located in Washington DC. I will save that for a post on jobs I enjoyed, though.
The summer after my junior year, I worked again as a temporary receptionist at a law office, probably the public defender’s office… I don’t quite remember. I do remember having to keep track of which staff members were in the building, which when you are as bad at names as I am, was no easy or pleasant task. I don’t recall much about the job itself. I know I didn’t like being a receptionist, but there I was, back at it again! I think I did something with the police reports that came in every day. The only reason I remember this is because one of them was for a mostly minor act of violence or vandalism right nearby the apartment I’d rented for the summer. I don’t recall if I told my parents about it, or they may have been unduly alarmed. I certainly was more alarmed than I necessarily needed to be.
Quite probably my least favorite job of all was the one I took between my masters’ and my PhD program. I had moved to live with my then-boyfriend (now spouse), and was taking a year off to reapply to PhD programs. While I looked for something more permanent, a temp agency placed me with an insurance office affiliated with Medicaid. Once again, I don’t recall the specifics, but I know the job involved processing paperwork that, if it hadn’t been filled out and submitted the right way, by the right date, resulted in little kids across the state being denied coverage for mental health issues. It was so very depressing. At the top of my list of jobs I don’t want are jobs that involve paperwork that makes a child’s life more difficult and unhappy than it already has to be. Thankfully, I only needed to endure that job for about 6 weeks when I found a job at a university research library (hallelujah, and more on that in another post).
I know that at some point I may need to look into temping again, but these examples make me extremely hesitant of doing so. I don’t want to have to put myself out there on the receptionist, denying-kids-health-care circuit. I really don’t want to. Knowing what you don’t want, I suppose, is half the battle, but why does it have to be the easier half?
I think what I disliked most was obviously the denying kids coverage aspect. Beyond this, though, I can generalize a dislike of full-time receptionist work, being permanently on display, or at least, in view. (I didn’t mind library circulation desk work, which probably differs from receptionist work in some key ways, despite its shared publicness). I didn’t like the doing-things-by-rote nature of the work being done, where rather than build relationships to complete particular projects, I had very fleeting, relatively impersonal tasks to accomplish.
In terms of location, I wasn’t a fan of the insurance company’s suburban boxy office building, requiring a car to get anywhere or do anything (such as get lunch from one of the many establishments that catered to the lunchtime office crowd) other than go into the building. The law office buildings, by contrast, were located in vibrant downtown areas, and I enjoyed walking around at lunchtime, visiting farmers’ markets, stepping into the cool dark of churches, or sitting on a park bench under a tree. The vibrancy of the surrounding environment did much to make up for my otherwise dislike of the by-rote nature of the job I had to do.
When I wrote my “jobs from hell” description, I emphasized the boxy cubicles, repetitive tasks, a lack of windows anywhere, too much pavement, and a lot of bad fast food. But the final lines were probably the most telling, given the way I remember writing them as if they were indeed a true vision of hell:
No books, no books at all! Books and reading (and similar activities like using Kindles and iPads, or reading interesting articles, etc.) are totally forbidden! No no no! Don’t make me go there!
I think that answers one aspect of “what to do with the books.” In my ideal job, there must be books, or similar elements of written-word, idea-conveying media. To be clear, this doesn’t surprise me at all, and I have several ideas of where it all might be headed.