Monday, September 06, 2004

To Pray is to Work, to Work is to Pray.

Orare est laborare, laborare est orare.
(To pray is to work, to work is to pray.)
- Benedictine Order Motto.

What would you do for a living if you could do anything at all? Do you like your work? What does your job mean to you? A clean and dry place to live? Food on the table? A car? Cable TV, a new couch, books, high-tech gadgets, travel, Yankees game tickets, weekends at the beach, concerts, movies with popcorn? Or maybe your work is a vital part of your identity?

I have been wrestling with these questions and more during the past few months as I face unemployment in a few weeks. Unless one of the many potential employers whom I've applied to decide to hire me or fund my research very soon, this will be the first time in my life that I've ever been unemployed -- truly unemployed. And I am scared: I have nowhere to go, no one to "crash" with if I am still jobless in six months when my unemployment insurance benefits run out. Because I have been aggressively searching for a job for 13 months and 6 days without any luck, I have no faith that my "luck" will change anytime soon. The only scenario I can think of is that I will end up in a homeless shelter or on a park bench.

Throughout my life, I've always managed to scrounge some sort of "survival job", although the search has often been daunting and I've sometimes had to be creative about what consititutes a job. I was on my own from the age of 15 onward, so I have worked many low-wage blue-collar jobs to support myself and to pay my way through school, but regardless of how awful the position (and many were truly awful), I always accepted the job and worked hard because, I reminded myself, doing so would get me closer to my dream career that I had pursued my entire life -- a profession that gave my life purpose, dignity and respect, where I would never again have to beg for a job or risk being unemployed.

But now that I have achieved my educational goals and supposedly am well on my way career-wise, I find myself trapped in a blind alley, without any real employment possibilities. After two wonderful years working on a research project of my own design as a postdoctoral fellow, my funding stops at the end of this month. Now, I am routinely rejected for employment by blue-collar and managerial jobs, many that I have worked in the past, because I am "overqualified" or "not qualified", two terms that apparently do not mean the same things. On the rare occasions when someone even speaks to me, I find myself being lectured by cranky managers who claim I am wasting their valuable time with my application because they cannot believe I am serious about working for them.

As if I am not seriously trying to avoid unemployment and impeding homelessness.

Mid-level jobs in my field that I have applied for, such as lab managers, also reject me for many of the same reasons. For example, I answered the telephone about four months ago and spoke with a scientist calling from a major university in London, England. I applied a month or so earlier to his DNA sequencing facility for his advertized lab manager position. After a brief "interview", he suddenly demanded in an accusing voice, "Don't you think this job is beneath you?"

"I think unemployment is beneath me." I replied quietly, surprised and hurt by the vehemence of his question. Obviously, this was the wrong response because I did not get the job. Even though these rejections sting, being hired for some of these positions, particularly the blue-collar jobs, would pose big problems because the wages are low enough or the hours irregular enough that I would barely be able afford my rent if I accepted the job. So if I was hired, I would have to (somehow) find a second job to cover my other living expenses, such as food, power and cell phone.

But with every day that passes, I am still astonished that I cannot find a job in my field! What happened? I work very hard at the research that I love, I have devoted myself completely to its demands, willingly made huge personal and financial sacrifices, yet this apparently is not good enough. I am loathe to switch scientific fields, but this is what I am being forced to consider if I wish to avoid eating out of public garbage cans in the not-too-distant future. Unfortunately, I have discovered that I cannot easily switch fields either because I am competing for the same limited job pool against people with more experience in these other fields.

So I don't know what to do. The only advice I can give myself right now is don't panic! Sometimes I repeat this under my breath like a mantra. But it is becoming increasingly difficult to remain calm as my time here slips through my fingers ever more quickly. I have not been able to get a good night's sleep for months, I have trouble eating, I am tense and easily aggravated, and I just cannot deal with any more pressure.

In addition to the practical worries of how to support myself, I have other worries: My profession is a huge part of my self identity. Perhaps this wrong, as some people tell me (although I think it's fortunate) but the simple truth is that I genuinely like and admire who I am because of my work. Without the guiding purpose of my work and my birds in my life, I would not be the person I am now. The brilliant Vincent van Gogh movingly described his own work, also capturing my devotion to mine, when he observed so long ago, "Your profession is not what brings home your paycheck. Your profession is what you were put on earth to do, with such passion and such intensity that it becomes spiritual in calling."

So I worry incessantly about how I will survive this loss. I already know I will be devastated because I nearly immobilized by despair when I do ponder, however briefly, the loss of my profession. I try to prevent myself from becoming overwhelmed by downplaying the importance of this event in my life, but my spirit is not fooled. Life without my profession feels like a cheap consolation prize, a shadow existence, a marking of time's passage. I am neither emotionally nor financially nor socially equipped to deal with this loss. It's simply beyond my comprehension. So what will I do? How will I survive the loss of all that I've loved and dreamed of achieving, can I survive the loss of this dazzling hope that got me through so many dark and terrible days throughout my life? What sort of person will I transform into after I've been stripped of all that I cherish? Will I become hollow and defeated for the remainder of my days?



© 2004, 2005, 2006 by GrrlScientist

10 Peer Reviews:

Anonymous Anonymous said...

Unemployment is a scary thing. I am grappling with similar prospects. I just have not been given a timeline. But before you pick out your refrigerator box and bridge to sleep under, stop by my place. I might make you get a temp job to help pay the rent, maybe clean too, but there are no cockroaches here and high spped internet access. Perhaps some TV too if you remember what that was.


10:05 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

One option you may want to consider is teaching. Supply teaching at the elementary or high school level or University Teaching Assistant positions can provide a flexible source of income and help you meet people and network. Find out about what is involved in getting a bachelor of education degree or equivalent in your area and see what the opportunities are opening up. A lot of teachers are reaching retirement age, so you may find there are some openings coming up in that field.

10:33 AM  
Blogger GrrlScientist said...

Thanks for the suggestions. I actually have TAd as a graduate student (this is part of how we pay for our graduate degrees), but universities only hire their own grad students for TA positions. Regarding your related teaching idea, I have investigated the K-12 system and also taught a science class for high school kids last year for a private organization. Unfortunately, my talents do not extend to K-12 teaching, nor do I wish to return to grad school to pursue the required MA.

7:01 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Have you checked ?

11:07 AM  
Blogger GrrlScientist said...

Yes, I check this site (along with 22 others) weekly.

2:53 PM  
Blogger yogi said...

A nice read on a first-hand experience of unemployment.I'm still studying,so still in a dream world of a IDEAL JOB etc..But,i guess when u'r jobless for a few months,any job is accepted.I can't remember a better way to portray the travails of unemployment than u'r reply to"DO U THINK THE JOB IS BENEATH YOU?".I truly second it.

10:14 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I just found your site, so I'm not sure how old this post is. Perhaps you are already busy working at your dream job. I hope so. If not, though, I do have a piece of advice from a vantage point many years down the road.

When interviewing, put yourself in the employer's shoes. Remember that for even low-level jobs, training a new hire entails costs. If given a choice, your future employer simply cannot afford to hire someone who is obviously just passing through.

I'll bet you could find some cause for enthusiasm about almost any situation. If you could communicate that to your interviewer it would go a long way.
(I just love lab work for these reasons xxxxx; I think your organization is terrific because xxxxx; at this stage in my career, this seems a logical step since xxxxx; my education brings this unique perspective to the job you need filled xxxxx; I've worked hard since a teenager, and I've learned that each new turn in the road pushes me in a new and exciting direction - I feel this opportunity offers the same, because xxxx.)

Downplaying "overqualifications", leaving them aside, or presenting them in a way that makes them seem useful your prospective employer might help, too.

9:55 AM  
Blogger GrrlScientist said...

Hello anonymous. I finally found your comment.

To answer your question, I am not currently working at anything that even vaguely resembles a "dream job" and I am in fact, barely keeping my rent paid right now. I have taken to lying about my education on my resume for various positions, but I still have not landed anything (except a bunch of cat sitting jobs! thank the gods for cats and their owners!). The competition is just very intense right now and I am still trying to figure out how to make myself stand out from the crowd in a good way. This isn't as easy as most people think when competing against 200 or so other equally talented and noticeable people for the same position.

7:13 PM  
Blogger Melee said...

I just found this Blog via the Smithsonian controversy. I can't tell you how amazingly familiar all of this sounds. I finished my PhD in the middle of last year in Australia, and, after a brief grant from my university to publish parts of my thesis, found myself out on my ear with no further hope of funding, and, despite a three years of searching throughout the PhD., no offers at all on the job or postdoc front. I was rejected for an NSF grant, and with no job offers at all in Australia, and never having been out of school in my life, I started working as an admin assistant at a furniture company.

Eventually, I made the decision to move here, to NYC. I got here in March. Amazingly, and through some sheer stroke of luck, I landed a full-time faculty teaching job at Uni here in NYC, that starts next fall. I still have the next few months to get through in yet another admin job at a vet's out in Brooklyn (incidentally, whilst its a shit and annoying job, they are always short people, and with cat-sitting experience, I daresay they'd be happy to have you, so if things do get desperate, let me know). I'm impressed that you got far enough along the research track to be a postdoc, but disheartened that even this didn't save you the experience of being unemployed. Hang in there, and don't be too proud to take the teaching jobs. Jesus, I know how it feels, I really do, and I wish I could make it better for you, no one should have to go through this - but all i can say is that I've been there, and I get it. Sometimes it does have a happy ending - even if, as many graduate students here have said, whilst peering down their noses, its 'only' a teaching job.

9:13 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

If you don't wanna teach students you can always grow a load of marijuana and sell it to them. Then youre only problem will be laundering that money (hehehe) Nah but anyways, good luck to you, alot of us are going through the same thing.

4:28 PM  

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