“And when everything else is gone, you can be rich in loss.”
– Rebecca Solnit, A Field Guide to Getting Lost
About Me, Your Friendly Neighborhood Millennial:
I was your garden-variety smart kid, shuffled through GATE programs of every type from kindergarten onward. In sixth grade, I left the classroom in the afternoons to study Latin roots with our school’s principal for the spelling bee circuit. As you can probably imagine, I was bullied a lot (Apparently, no one likes a first-grader who says “in addition to” instead of “and.”). I went to a competitive high school near Silicon Valley, where– with my AP courses– I had a 4.0 cumulative GPA, but was not in the top 10% of my class.
After getting summarily rejected from the Ivies, I went to a small university in Oregon, where I worked harder than I thought possible to graduate a year early with two degrees. My reasons for adhering to this less-than-brilliant plan were the following: 1) the astronomical cost of college tuition, and 2) the desire to move to New York to be with my high school boyfriend, who ended up ghosting me at the end of my sophomore year in college (s/o to my ex, you heartless used gym sock*). Here comes the controversial part: I got both of my degrees in the humanities. I know, I know. I was young and naive. But I loved writing and reading more than anything else, and I wasn’t sure, especially given my intensifying feelings of loneliness and depression, that I would be able to graduate if I wasn’t doing something loved. I tacked on the Spanish degree because I loved studying the language, and hoped it would make me more marketable later on. Like most ambitious English majors, I hoped I would find work in either teaching or writing after graduation.
Long story short, I ended up graduating magna cum laude, won my department’s award, and learned that no one really wants to talk about E.M. Forster while playing beer pong. Go figure.
Post-graduation, I attended a fully-funded MA program in English with the hope of seeing if academia was a viable field for me. Though my most promising offer was from Boston College, I could not attend the program for financial reasons. Even as a fully-funded candidate, there is no way I could have afforded to live in the Boston metro area as a full-time student, and I already had an undergraduate student loan. I ended up accepting an offer from Oregon State University, where I would get to teach English Composition for a generous stipend.
Another long story short: It was fantastic. I loved it. But as many of my readers know, there are simply no jobs in the humanities, especially in English Lit. Like every baby academic who is just beginning to fall in love with Eve Sedgwick and affect theory, I wanted to continue on to my PhD, but I was also reaching graduation knowing that my future would likely end up like this:
The Job Search:
Before I finished graduate school, I met with a career counselor at OSU and explained that I might like to pursue a career where I could remain part of university life, i.e. as a low-level administrator. For jobs even at that tier, she told me I would likely need another MA in “Higher Education Administration”. Really? Another MA? That I would have to pay in full for? To use the same programs and software that I had already been using as an instructor at OSU? Okay.
I heard her, but I also ended up applying to a lot of entry-level admin jobs, most of which amounted to working as a receptionist. I didn’t get any interviews.
After a summer of job searching, and increasingly desperate for cash, I began working retail at a local bookstore, thinking that I could continue looking for a position while I earned minimum wage. I ended up there for a year. Every few months, I was given tasks that increased in complexity and responsibility– everything from daily bookkeeping to making bank deposits for the store– while being told it wasn’t likely I would ever get a raise beyond a cashier’s minimum wage. At the store, nearly all of us had a college education or more, but we were treated like high schoolers with little to no intelligence. For example, one member of upper management referred to us as “the blind leading the blind.” Another, when I gave my two weeks notice, assumed it was because I was starting college as a freshman in the fall, expressing utter shock after she learned that I was 24 with an MA degree. In addition to those comments, there was the daily drudgery of being condescended to and degraded by everyone’s favorite I-must-speak-to-the-manager-immediately shoppers, who a) routinely berate you for store policies you have no control over and b) treat you like a thoughtless robot.
Some ~special highlights~ from a couple of my favorite customers:
– “Oh, I take everything a woman says with a pound and a half of salt.”
– “I’m looking for books about the USSR. I bet you don’t know what that is, do you?”
– “The fact that you don’t keep track of everything your customers purchase is just ridiculous. You know, it’s because of you that Jeff Bezos is winning. Because. Of. You.”
Later that year, I moved with my partner to a town about 40 minutes away from the bookstore. At that time, the owners of the store were running skeleton crew, and had almost no one to close the store at 9 PM.They were going to “promote me” for 25 cents more an hour to “be in charge” at night. In other words, they were going to ensure that I took mostly closing shifts by trying to inflate my ego with…a quarter (Hang in there fellow retail workers. Solidarity.).
While working at the bookstore, I applied to dozens of positions. But now, with no income, I had to increase the rate and quantity of my job applications. Anyone who has conducted a less-than-casual job search in 2018 will be familiar with the tedious nature of applying to jobs over the internet. You attach a resume and cover letter to whichever portal is associated with that position, then you have to re-insert every item of on your resume, including job experiences, references, demographic information, and educational experiences, into algorithm-friendly online forms, and then answer a variety of supplemental questions. I suppose all that makes a kind of sense. But lately, the process has become even more ridiculous.
For example, Indeed.com, my job search platform of choice, now has its own assessment quizzes according to job type. I’ve applied to a lot of receptionist positions, for example, where the company asks you to take a “Receptionist Quiz” filled with questions like “If this is Steve’s schedule, and this is Sarah’s, what time can they both meet with Client X?” and “How would you label a folder than contains information about Printer Setup?” I have taken this “Receptionist Assessment” about 15 times. None of the companies I took the quiz for ever met me in person, and I doubt a human being even looked at my application materials. I have also taken dozens of in-house corporate assessments, where you are asked to spend about 45 minutes rating your personal attributes on a 7-point Likert scale and then respond to multiple-choice questions about everything from shoplifting to coworker drug abuse. Again, for the ultimate reward of that sweet, sweet minimum wage.
In interviews, I am rarely asked anything about myself or my experiences, but instead given a list of corporate-sounding and depersonalized questions. I understand that for large businesses and universities, some of this is designed to eliminate bias in the interview process. That’s good. But more often than not, the result is an interview where you walk away feeling like your interviewers still don’t know a single thing about you or what you can offer them. Which is…kind of the point of an interview.
Another example: In the past year, the majority of my interviews have lasted around 15-25 minutes, and have consisted of an average of 10 questions that almost exclusively provide sample scenarios that you could probably solve a lot more efficiently after receiving training for the position you are applying for. The other questions are always enormously vague, and don’t provide a lot of opportunities to sell yourself. Here’s a great one I got a few weeks ago:
“Name a time where you were given technology that you had never used before, and explain how you overcame that challenge in detail.” Um, I don’t know, I used Google? I figured it out? This is seriously one of ten questions you are going to ask me before you send me out the door?
Some ~special highlights~ from interviews I have been on:
- While interviewing at a local law firm for a receptionist position, I was told in the first portion of the interview that it was clear that I had an introverted and submissive personality, and that it would be in my best interest to alter myself a bit before the lawyers came in to meet me because “they don’t really like people with the kind of personality that I have,” or something to that effect. No call or email back after the interview, even for a rejection.
- At an interview for a classroom assistant position, I was led into an empty room, asked maybe three questions (while awkwardly standing across from my interviewer– we never even sat down), then thanked and sent on my way. I drove 45 minutes to that interview. For similar interviews that I have been on, I had to miss shifts at work. No call or email back after that interview, either.
- At a nonprofit nursery for low-income families, I was told after the interview that I needed to apply to the Oregon Registry** as part of the job application process, and that the organization prefers employees to have about a Step 8 on the registry. It was a process that took nearly two months and tons of paperwork. When my registration was approved, I was given a Step 3 on the registry because “it wasn’t clear that I took AP Psychology in high school on my college transcript.” When I emailed the hiring manager about it, she never replied, not even to say that my step was too low for them to hire me, or that they would be pursuing other candidates. This, like most of the positions I have applied to, was a job that did not pay much more than minimum wage.
Throughout the year, I applied to positions in several different fields, but most were related to education, nonprofit work, child care, retail, and writing/editing, all of which I have at least some experience in. But it seemed like so many companies were looking for (random) qualifications and (expensive) certificates that I did not possess, like the Oregon Registry requirement. One of the most common qualifications for receptionist positions is an “AA or certificate in Office Occupations.” Okay, fam, I know how to use Excel. I can answer a multi-line phone. I can greet customers. Please. Just put me to work.***
At some point during this mess of a job search, I discerned from the “Applied” section of my Indeed account, my email inbox, and my calendar that I’ve applied to over 150 jobs in just one year. As I write, that number has continued to grow to about 200.
To cope with feelings of sadness, worthlessness, and regret that I ever attended college in the first place (when I clearly should have gotten a certificate in Office Occupations instead!), I have eaten a lot of tacos al pastor**** and gone to a lot of therapy. I have also started substitute teaching to make some extra cash while I figure out what I’m doing. Fun fact: they don’t interview you at all, nor do they make you take assessment quizzes, to be in charge of a room full of children. We live in a strange world, my friends.
This humble/ self-indulgent essay will not end in a success story, but it will end on a positive note that recalls Rebecca Solnit’s words in the introduction. As empty and washed out as I sometimes feel, I still believe that there are tangible ways I can contribute to the world around me, even if I do so outside of the workforce. In dark times of my life, I have discovered many ways to experience and share moments of beauty, and I am looking forward to sharing similar moments with you in this blog. At the risk of sounding like a tired cliche, we can be rich in loss together.
https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/therapists This is the website that my mom, an MFT, recommends for finding a mental health professional that suits your needs. It is also the place where I found the therapist I currently work with. I have been seeing her for three years now, and she has helped me endure the trash fire that is 2018.
https://www.selloutyoursoul.com/2010/11/21/phd-in-english-and-life-after-grad-school/ This blog was influential in my decision not to pursue a PhD. The author tries to get you to buy stuff now, which I’m not a fan of, but that method makes sense given the blog’s premise. Especially if you have grad degrees in the humanities, I would recommend checking out some of the blog’s resources and guest articles.
firstname.lastname@example.org If you are struggling with feelings of loneliness, or even if you just feel like you have become a failure in the eyes of the great machine of capitalism, feel free to shoot me an email. Though I’m obviously no expert on anything except the local taqueria scene, I have learned a few things that might be helpful to you.
* classy insult also courtesy of Rebecca Solnit, my eternal muse
** The registry looks at your work experiences, education, and other skills, and then assigns you a “step” based on how well your experiences align with the goals of Early Childhood Education. My understanding is that some workplaces need to know your step in order to decide what to pay you, but frankly, I still find the whole thing confusing and bureaucratic.
*** I have sincere respect for people doing administrative jobs and working in all kinds of entry-level and service positions in this country. I do not mean to disparage their skills or hard work. But I do believe I have demonstrated that I am capable of doing basic administrative work. If my education does not speak for itself, then I just wish that these businesses would give me a chance to prove that I’m willing to put a lot of effort and care into any task that I’m given.
**** s/o to Carniceria Mi Casita: gracias por todo