Wednesday, May 25, 2011

Not My Real Job

Recently, I had a dream about chemistry bachelor #4. I dreamed that we were having drinks at the place where we first met in person, except there was no one else there but us. Well, there was one other customer there: a clown who looked like one of those evil clowns from a scary movie who seem nice and unassuming at first, right before they snap and start chasing people around with knives. Geraldo Rivera was serving us drinks. (Side note: I wish I could say I was making this up. But I'm not. I just have really weird dreams.)

I'm not sure what the dream meant; obviously, I doubt that it meant that bachelor #4 and I are meant to be together. I also kind of have this phobia about clowns, which may explain why the evil clown in my dream kept grinning at me in a sinister way while making balloon animals. (Even in my sleep I'm neurotic.) But I thought that maybe I should face my fears of rejection and go ahead and contact chemistry bachelor #4 rather than wait for him to call me.

I left him a message saying that if he ever wanted to hang out again, he could call me. But he didn't.

It was disappointing, but to be honest, I was more disappointed when NBC cancelled Law and Order (I curse you, NBC! A plague on all your reality shows!). I didn't really feel that strongly about this guy, but I was willing to meet up with him again to see if anything more could develop. Obviously, he didn't feel the same way. But on the other hand, I'm trying to view rejection in dating in a similar way that I view rejection when it comes to writing: I'd rather be able to say that I put myself out there than to say that I was too afraid to try at all.

Anyway, my membership recently expired, and I'm actually kind of relieved. It's nice to be taking a break from online dating, though I think I'm only going to take a break for a few weeks. Once it gets to be fall, I'll be extra busy with teaching again, and I won't have as much time for dating. So I figure I'll try again in June or July. But next time, I'm going to rejoin okcupid (I was a member two years ago) because it's a free dating site, and I can't afford to renew my chemistry membership right now.

In the meantime, I'm going to focus on my work. This summer I'll be working on my dissertation as well as projects for my website job, and I'm going to be tutoring the daughter of one of my parents' friends, since she's taking summer classes. I'm also going to be working yet another retail job; this time it's at a place that I will refer to in this blog as the Tourist Trap.

I didn't really want to work in retail again. I had hoped to get a job as a barista at one of the coffeehouses that I frequent, because then I could get free coffee. I also thought it'd be nice to get a job in an office, because at least then I could sit down rather than stand for eight hours a day. I didn't want to work as a waitress, even though I've heard that the servers at upscale restaurants make a lot of money. I can hardly walk without tripping over myself (again, I wish I could say I was making this up), and so I'm pretty sure that most (if not all) of the customers would end up wearing their food rather than eating it by the end of my first shift. 

But the retail employers were the ones who quickly responded with job offers, since I have years of retail experience as a bookseller and as a clothing store employee. And it's not like I could say to them, "I'm actually waiting to hear back from the employers that I'd rather work for. Could I call you back if they don't hire me?"

When you work in retail, you have to be willing to work nights and weekends, and you have to be willing to work on holidays. That means that if your family lives in a different state like mine does, you have to accept the fact that you can't celebrate Thanksgiving or Christmas with them, at least not until January. You also have to stand for several hours at a time and smile at every single customer, even if on the inside you're thinking, I think my lips are going to fall off my face if I keep smiling.

Working in retail generally means working for low wages, even if the products that you're selling are worth more than what you would earn in a day. Some places offer "competitive wages", but I've steered clear of jobs that pay on commission; I'd still have to work eight or nine hour shifts with no guarantee of making a lot of money. As Barbara Ehrenreich did an excellent job of proving in her book Nickel and Dimed, it's not possible to support yourself on one minimum-wage job; you have to have at least two. The retail employers try to make up for the low wages with "benefits" like employee discounts and "gifts" like free water bottles and the occasional pizza or doughnuts at store meetings. I think it's because ultimately those things cost employers less money than it would to pay their employees higher wages. I'd rather just get paid more. But I digress.

When I first started working in retail, I was also working as an adjunct instructor. I always thought that once I started teaching, I wouldn't have to work minimum-wage jobs anymore. When I was an undergrad, I thought that all I had to do was earn good grades, work hard, and gain experience in my chosen field; I thought that that would be enough to enable me to succeed.  But despite the fact that I was teaching at more than one school, I was barely earning enough to make ends meet. Also, I couldn't get health insurance or benefits as an untenured college instructor, but I could get those things as a part-time retail associate. So I started working in a bookstore; I'd usually teach in the mornings and sell books at night and on the weekends.

At first I was embarrassed to be working a minimum-wage job. I thought that I should only be doing work that my education had geared me for. I also thought it would be embarrassing to be several years older than most of my coworkers and even some of my supervisors.

I was also afraid of what my students would think if they saw me shelving books or operating a cash register. I thought that one of my former high school or college classmates, now rich and successful, would stride into the store in a business suit, take one look at me, and exclaim, "I can't believe you work here!" And then that classmate would laugh and tell all our other former classmates. When I did run into people I knew, I felt like I had to explain to them that this retail job wasn't my real job; I was also working as a teacher.

But as I got to know my coworkers, I started thinking a lot more about the lives and stories of low-wage workers and why they had these jobs. A lot of them were college students who were working their way through school. Others were retired high school teachers or laid-off corporate employees. There were also aspiring novelists, poets, musicians, and actors. Others were like me: people who had liberal arts degrees (and in some cases, advanced degrees) but couldn't find enough (or any) work in their fields that would pay the bills, so they had to moonlight in retail.  What we all had in common was that even though we didn't like the long hours on our feet, the repetitive work, or the low wages, we were still willing to work hard and do what we had to do in order to survive. (Side note: I also learned that it is not unusual for adjunct instructors to work multiple jobs. Most of the adjuncts I knew worked at least two or three jobs.) 

It's definitely humbling to be earning minimum wage at age thirty when other people my age or younger are making millions. But I know that deep down I shouldn't feel embarrassed about working in retail, because it's honest work and I'm doing what I can to support myself. So are all the other people working alongside me.

Side note: Check out this article on people who are "overqualified and underemployed"; it refers to part-time jobs as "survival jobs", which is a term that I really like and that is definitely accurate.

Working these types of jobs makes me appreciate teaching and my graduate work even more. It motivates me to do everything I can to succeed in my field, even though it is difficult to find time to balance multiple jobs and my graduate work. Although teachers don't earn a lot of money either, at least teaching is a job that I am truly passionate about and that I hope to do until I retire, which for me will probably be when I'm no longer physically able to work or when I'm 90, whichever comes first.

What about you? Have you ever been in a situation where you were underemployed and underpaid?


  1. I LOVE Nickel and Dimed! That book is brilliant. I applied to work retail this summer, but because I'm not available to work weekends this summer due to travel plans, I wasn't hired. The manager said I could try again during the holiday season if I still need money.

    One thing I learned during my previous retail work experience is that you should always say on your application that you want a lot of money. I never put minimum wage on the "salary" line. I'm not saying that you should say that you want $100,000/yr, but we do have college degrees and a lot of work experience, and often we will be compensated for it. Even if it means making $0.25 more an hour compared to our coworkers.

  2. I'm happy to read that both you & Anna have read Nickel & Dimed. I've read it twice.

    Yes I've been in the underpaid/underemployed/unemployed situation. I can relate far too well. & thanks for the retail reminder: nights & weekends! You can't escape working those hours whether you're full or part-time.

  3. I have a good job. Monday-Friday I work in an office, 9-5, pretending to be all smart and sh*tz.

    During the weekend, I sit in a 24-hour shop, 8 hours a day, on minimum wage. It's humbling. And it definitely has changed my perception of.. Well, everybody.

    There are the people who come to the shop, popping in from their fancy offices nearby, and I can immediately tell they think they are better than me. And it annoys me. Just because somebody works in a crappy shop, doesn't mean that they're an underachiever.

    The sad thing is that modern-day graduates find themselves in this situation more often than before. They're saddled with huge loans and credit card debt, just from trying to keep themselves afloat during studying. So they're forced to work 2 - 3 jobs just to put some food on the table.

    This isn't what I went to university for. But it is life. :P

  4. Hi Anna,
    At two of my retail jobs, my employers set the same starting pay rate for everyone, so unfortunately I couldn't ask for more money. What would be nice would be if we could get better pay raises each year, especially since I'm willing to bet that the people in the corporate offices of the store's company have raises that are much higher than what the retail workers get.

    Hi notesfromnadir,
    I've always been more of a morning person. That's why it's difficult to work late sometimes, especially if I know that I've got a stack of papers to grade or more research to do for my dissertation when I get home.

    Hi Susie Q,
    Sometimes I also feel like other people are judging me because of my work. At one of my retail jobs, I had to wear a uniform; I felt like all the people in business suits who waited on the train platform alongside me were giving me the once-over. They might not have been, but I couldn't help feeling self-conscious anyway.

  5. It's funny, we're like switching positions because I used OKCupid for about 2 years (on and off though; I'm not very consistent and I do feel relieved when I take breaks!) and I just joined less than 2 weeks ago! I guess you got e-mail replies and stuff? I say I'm "interested" in a guy and he says he's "interested" in me, yet if I send any of those chemistry starters or an e-mail I don't get anything back. I've sent at least like 8 by now and haven't heard back even once. I used to get messages back all the time on OkCupid and I'm wondering if I was stupid to pay money for something when no one seems to be contacting me! Maybe it'll get better though.

    I feel like one of the bad parts about being a young (read: poor) teacher is that you have to find a summer job! I'm trying to apply for special ed programs and camps and stuff because I don't really wanna do retail. I didn't even think about running into people I knew if I worked a minimum wage job for the summer, but I'd definitely feel the need to explain too! Even though we probably shouldn't feel that way, it's hard not to.

    That article you linked to sounds interesting; I'm gonna go read it!

  6. Hi perfumeandpromises,
    It's possible that some of the guys you've contacted aren't paying members. I think that people can sign up for free and click on "I'm interested" (which is the equivalent of sending a "wink" on okcupid), but I think they actually have to pay for a membership in order to send e-mails. So that happened to me several times too; I would contact a guy or he would contact me by clicking on "I'm interested", but then I'd never hear from him again. Also, you have to click on "I'm interested" just to be able to open the e-mail that other people send you. That's one of the things I didn't like about; you couldn't read other people's e-mails unless you clicked on "I'm interested" first.
    I say give more time. I think I was on it for about two or three weeks before I finally started exchanging e-mails with chemistry bachelor #1. But if you still aren't satisfied with it by the end of your membership, just make sure you close your account before it expires; otherwise they'll automatically renew it and charge you again. Good luck!

  7. I forgot that not all the guys showing up in my matches are members. That's a good point. And it makes me feel a little better about myself, haha. I'm definitely canceling my membership before they re-charge me even if I end up liking it. Althouhg, I guess if I end up liking it then maybe I should stick with it for a while? Uusally I take a break or try another way of dating like another site or trying to meet guys in RL or something. I'll have to see how it goes. Thanks for the advice! :)

  8. Hi Lauren,
    That was one of the reasons I was sometimes frustrated with this site, though it wasn't necessarily chemistry's fault; there were several guys who would sign up for one of the "free communication weekends" and try to land a date without paying for anything. One guy e-mailed me back and asked me to give him my contact info right away because the free weekend was ending and he didn't want to pay for a regular membership. But I only gave him my e-mail address, since I don't give out my contact info right away; I never heard from him again after that. I don't see why guys like that don't just sign up for one of the free dating sites.
    It can be good to try a new site, especially since after a few months on one site it often feels like you're looking at the same profiles again and again. The good thing about is that you don't have to go through a bunch of profiles; they'll send you the matches every day.

  9. "Working in retail generally means working for low wages, even if the products that you're selling are worth more than what you would earn in a day" --

    I used to work at the drive-thru of a McDonalds (I know, what a cliche!) and I was shocked when people would order meals that cost more than what I'd earn in an entire shift. You know you're not earning much when the pricetags at McDonalds shock you!

  10. Hi Paula,
    That is shocking and unfair that McDonald's doesn't pay its employees very much, especially when you consider how much money the business earns in a year. I really don't understand why retail employers can't (or won't) pay their employees more if the business is making a lot of money.

  11. You have a wonderful outlook on all of this. I remember walking into a coffee shop and seeing my English professor waiting tables. I was shocked. Remember in grade-school how it felt to see your teacher outside of the classroom? It feels fake--like they're not supposed to be there. I felt the same way at the coffee shop. I said hi to my professor, but I was really, really hoping I wouldn't have her for a waitress. It would just feel weird. However, as I sat down at my table I started watching her; the customers all knew her (this is a very small, quaint coffee shop), she was laughing, joking, talking to everyone. I remember thinking that it was cool that a "professor" (who we undergrads often deem as Gods) could also do this coffee shop job on the weekends, and seem to have fun doing it. She had a confidence about her that was admirable. She even came up to me later and explained that she was in the midst of juggling her dissertation, adjunct positions, and in this job, but sometimes serving coffee was a great relief and diversion from all those really intense, stressful activities. I thought that was so neat.

    Also, even though you are not making millions, remember that you ARE in a prestigious position. Many people would could never DREAM of being able to get this close to their PHD, and adjunct or not, holding any sort of job as a professor really is admirable.

  12. P.S. I agree about Tina Fey. I have a poster of her in my room--it has her sitting on a couch reading a book and it says, "SMART: Who knew it could be so sexy?" :-)

  13. Hi Teddi,
    I am grateful for my teaching opportunities, and I do want to keep teaching for as long as possible. But I think it's unfair that adjuncts teach too many (or too few) classes for too little money. It's because of that they have no choice but to work additional jobs. It's the big scandal of academia: untenured faculty at many universities and colleges are underpaid and overworked.
    I think it's great that your teacher found a good weekend job that she liked. I have been fortunate in that I've been able to find retail jobs to supplement my teaching income, because they're better than no jobs at all. But I don't really like them very much, and to be honest they're more stressful than stress-relieving.

  14. Keep in mind that this is temporary. Though at age 30, I'm sure it doesn't feel temporary. I've had terrible jobs, but then realized I'm working with people that are doing them until they retire. That's actually happened with subbing. If I knew I was going to sub until I hit my 60s... I can't even go there.

    Good luck in your new job. I hope it's not as bad as you fear.

  15. Hi Theresa,
    I'm willing to bet that you won't have to sub until you're in your 60s, because it's a good sign that the same schools keep asking you back; it's also a good sign that you became a sub at that one school for several months.
    My retail job doesn't have to last forever, but sometimes it feels like it does. I seriously think that the clock moves more slowly when I'm working at the store.