When I was a kid, I didn’t really have any illusions of being a famous artist or creative type when I grew up. For some reason I had this unexplained fear of starvation, so I really just wanted a stable, fairly lucrative career that involved a signing bonus and air-conditioned offices. Below are all the jobs I’ve had on my road to functional adulthood.
Filing Clerk, Summer of 2003 The first paying job I ever had, at the tender age of 14. Not sure if it still exists, but in 2003 New York had this program where they pay high school students minimum wage (at the time, a princely $5.15/hr) to work over the summer for nonprofits. I applied and got it. That summer, I filed medical records for eight hours a day at the Visiting Nurse Service of New York. This was before they started digitizing everything, and yes, apparently there are actually that many records that need to be constantly filed, and they had a team of four other teenagers doing the exact same thing. Other duties: light data entry, attempting to communicate with the other summer employees, whose fluency in English could most charitably be described as “middling.”
Lab Technician, Summer of 2004 My dad wasn’t keen on me playing video games the entire summer, so he hooked me up with his friend who happened to run a biology lab at Columbia University. Immigrant parents are pretty good for that kind of nepotism. Duties: transporting 10-gallon jugs of potassium solution to calibrate a body-fat measuring machine, doing literature review, becoming really good at Minesweeper.
Waiter, Summer of 2006: I’m 25 now and I still think this is one of the best jobs I ever had. My dad hooked me up again, through another of his nebulous immigrant contacts, to wait tables at a sushi restaurant in Queens. I was the only one on the staff who could speak English fluently, so even though I came in with no food service experience I turned out to be more useful than they expected. There were a few customer horror stories, but nothing that a few pre-shift glugs of cheap boxed sake couldn’t fix. My proudest achievement, though, was teaching the chef and other staff a few choice bits of profanity that they seemed to deploy with great enthusiasm. I’m of the opinion that everyone should have a food-service job at some point in their lives, because it’ll teach you more about the best and worst of humanity than any book ever will.
Phone Survey Guy at Hospital, 2006-2008: My first year of college I spammed the student employment listings from the university hospital. It was simultaneously a hideous and great job. Hideous in the sense that my task was to conduct quality-of-care phone surveys to recently discharged patients, but also awesome because there was a lot of down time when we ran out of people to bug, so I was free to work on my assignments. There was also zero supervision, so I routinely showed up an hour late for my shift but never reported that. The school forced me to buy their overpriced health insurance plan even though I qualified for Medicaid, so I didn’t feel too guilty about slacking. But I could also just be a terrible person.
Art Museum Intern, Summer of 2007: I ran into an upperclassman friend while waiting at the bus stop one day, and she told me about a paid arts internship program in New York, where we were both from. I actually applied to be a finance intern at a film museum in Queens, but ended up in public relations instead. I rolled with it and ended up editing press releases, creating and maintaining a digital archive, and learning just enough HTML to design their website. Those were the glamorous duties. The non-glamorous duties included stuffing envelopes, filling in for security guards, and manually entering indecipherable email addresses into our mailing list.
Manual Labor, Summer of 2008. Yeah, so the only person who’s ever fired me was my own dad. From an unpaid job I was conscripted into. On the third day. Apparently I lack the upper body strength to properly install drapes and window blinds.
Consulate Intern, Summer of 2009: I worked for the commerce division of the American Consulate in Sydney. Technically this was unpaid, but I applied for and somehow received a grant from my college to live in Australia for a summer. The work was pretty uninspiring; it mostly involved googling economic data and doing market research into things like gas turbines and ball bearings. I occasionally wrote memos and reports that were almost certainly not read by anyone. I didn’t really get along with the other (American) interns and mostly ate lunch by myself. Still, I look back fondly on that time: I was 20, I was in Sydney, and I lived with an eclectic group of foreign roommates, one of whom who used to run a chop shop and dropped fake ecstasy with me, and another who propositioned me for oral sex (granted, something may have been lost in translation).
Freelance Market Research Dude, Summer of 2010: I majored in economics in college because at the time I liked its intellectual framework, but also because it seemed likely to lead to a decent job upon graduation, especially given my university’s track record of churning out class after class of management consultants and investment bankers. Next thing I knew, it’s August, I’m living with my parents, and I’ve been unemployed for two months. One of the full-time jobs I applied to offered me some freelance contract work instead. It was a market research firm based in Chicago, but they had an assignment for me in New York.
For two weeks, I wandered the streets and snooped around parking lots looking for pre-specified models of trucks and vans, whereupon I would walk up, peek into their back and record a list of all the accessories they contained — things like truck beds, equipment racks, and truck chests were all checked off on my clipboard. I had to do this 200 times. This, apparently, is how market research is done in this country. After I delivered the completed data, which they probably turned around and sold to GM for six figures, they offered me another assignment: a complete, fully-annotated 80-page report on rice and rice derivatives. I politely declined, not because I’m Asian and was fairly satisfied with my rice expertise up to that point, but because I had just accepted an offer for my next poorly-paid gig…
AmeriCorps, Fall 2010: I applied not because I was particularly into public service but because I was sick of my dad yelling at me for being shiftless on a daily basis. When the interview (unexpectedly) came, I knew I didn’t have much of a shot compared to candidates with actual track records of volunteerism. I rolled in and somehow decided it would be a good idea to deliver a five minute speech about my passion for economic philosophy and how it somehow benefits low-income communities. I got an offer. During orientation I learned that I would be placed at a nonprofit that runs New York’s second largest “timebanking” system.
For six weeks I received a biweekly stipend of $250 and the use of an unlimited Metrocard, as well as a free T-shirt. In return, I was supposed to supervise the crew of elderly employees we had on our payroll, engage in “community outreach”, and promote the expansion of the time banking system. In reality, the other interns and I spent a lot of time sitting in the office, aimlessly complaining, eating crappy pizza, and talking about what we’d rather be doing than ostensibly saving the world, one poorly-staffed community center at a time.
Economist, 2010-2011: At some point during my time with AmeriCorps I was seriously debating if a) I should learn how to code, and b) I should apply for food stamps (which they actually encourage). Luckily I narrowly avoided confronting those life choices, because out of nowhere I received a call from a federal government organization that I had applied to eight months ago, when I was still in school. USAjobs.gov, like most online job listings, is nothing but a black hole for resumes, but once in a blue moon it works out. I had a phone interview, they determined that I had a pulse and wasn’t lying about my identity, and they extended an offer the next day. Within a week I was off to D.C. Sorry AmeriCorps, it’s not you, it’s me. Well, me, and your pitiful funding, directionless projects, and generally clueless management.
As it turned out, “economist” was a pretty fancy title for what amounted to glorified data entry. The specific place I worked at featured everything that people complain about when they complain about government agencies: gross misallocation of resources, byzantine layers of bureaucracy, petty office ego trips exacerbated by the inherently limited pay scale. Veteran employees who by all rights should’ve been fired for incompetence or replaced by reasonably well-written computer programs. The work was mindless, but there wasn’t even enough of that to go around. I started watching YouTube videos on econometrics and astrophysics to pass the time. Others had serious Hulu habits or took three-hour lunches or picked up entirely new languages at their cubicles. Once the initial excitement of doing eight hours of actual work a week but being paid for 40 wore off, I decided I had to get out. Or risk staying forever.
Research Analyst, 2011-2013: The economist job wasn’t all bad. I did manage to pick up some valuable coding skills that almost certainly got me my next job, which I applied to off of a referral from my undergrad economics department. Turns out no one cares if you got a B in Macro if you can write a mean SAS script. For the next two years I was an RA at another economics-related government organization in D.C. Mostly I handled data cleaning and scripting. Once in a while I ran a regression or two and felt really good about myself. Eventually I realized that while I enjoyed learning various programming tricks in R and Python, I wasn’t going anywhere in the world of data science (which I learned I liked better than straight economics or business) without more high-level experience (which I wasn’t getting) or graduate school of some kind.
Fast forward a year, though, and I’m wrapping up my second semester of a master’s degree, and about to start a summer internship in the exciting world of predictive modeling. One step closer to that signing bonus.
Bottom line: the world is full of demanding jobs that require 24/7 engagement. The world is also full of jobs that seemingly exist just to make sure people aren’t spending their time fomenting revolution. My experience overwhelmingly consists of the latter.
K. Lu is a graduate student in statistics. He is the uniformly minimum variance unbiased estimator.
Photo: US Dept. of Education