Wednesday, February 19, 2014

How not to say what kind of job you're looking for


What I've been up to

No luck in the job hunt over here.  I've gotten pretty used to unemployment.  In Germany I was just screwed because almost all of the sort of jobs I could have done really needed someone fluent in German to perform them.  We survived fine on one income, so, spoiled, I never felt pressured to take a job outside my field in order to keep afloat.  We've been surviving fine here so far, too, although I've been looking because I'm still telling myself I might have a chance at a job in my field here, now that I speak the language well enough.  Also, we haven't been surviving quite as well as in Germany. I don't know where the extra money is going but there have been more expenses somehow.  We are still fine but I'd like a bigger cushion.

Anyway, a friend of mine helped me get a temporary (aka casual) job as an administrative assistant where she works.  As an extra bonus, the place has lots of jobs relevant to my field, some of which I've unsuccessfully applied for.  We thought that if I just took this temporary position and met a few of the right people, they'd remember my name the next time I applied for something there and I might have a better shot.  Plus hey, income.

The temporary position is meant to a fill the gap someone left until they hire a permanent new someone to take it. I could have applied to be the permanent new someone.  The deadline for it was yesterday.  I hemmed and hawed a bit, but I didn't apply.  It's not what I'm looking for and I'm still being optimistic - I don't want to take that job and have them fully train me up, only to bail on them quickly thereafter when I find what I'm looking for.  Maybe that was an ignorant decision, I don't know, but it's too late now.

This morning as I was pouring everyone's tea, one of the other administrative staff asked me if I'd applied for the position.  I felt straight away I might be in trouble, and that the only good answer might be yes, but somehow I still managed to find the worst thing to say.

Prepare to cringe.

Fellow Staff Member: "So, did you apply for the position?"

Me: "No, I didn't."

Fellow Staff Member: "Why not?"

Me: "Well, it's not really what I'm looking for, and if I were to get the position I wouldn't want to have you guys train me and everything only to run off and leave you hanging when I found something else."

Fellow Staff Member: "Oh, all this time we've never even asked you about what you do or your hopes and dreams! What kind of job are you looking for?"

Me: "Well, I have a master's degree in epidemiology..." (Trailing off because the answer in my brain - explained below - is so long I'm not sure where to go with it next.)

Fellow Staff Member: "OH, MY GOODNESS! YOU MUST BE SO BORED SITTING DOWN HERE IN ADMIN!!  THIS MUST BE SO BORING FOR YOU!" etc and etc onward.  Followed by overhearing snarky cracks later in the day about people with degrees being too good and all that.  Now, the British will keep you from taking yourself too seriously every second, and thank goodness for that, but there are times when it crosses the line from a bit of ribbing to some genuine chip-on-shoulder action, and I felt I drove this person to go to that level with my hideously poor answer.

What my answer meant to me

"Well, let's see, I don't know what the hell I'm looking for. I am afraid that if I leave my field I'll never get back into it.  But I don't know what is possible to get in my field in this country, given that I have only a master's degree in epidemiology, on which I spent time and money. Although I could get a research job in Germany with this degree or a public health job in the US with it, here I can't figure it out. I can't find public health jobs listed at all.  All the research jobs require a PhD, which I don't have.  And if I say I'm an epidemiologist in answer to this question, people will think I'm a researcher, but I don't think I can be a researcher here, so I don't want to give them false ideas.  That's what happened when I first came and everyone thought I was going to be this awesome useful biostatistician that would come work with this guy they know who really needs one. I don't want to go into a detailed job history although I guess that would explain pretty well the kind of jobs I'd like.  Well maybe if I just say what I studied and to what level - so they won't mistake me for a PhD - someone here will know what you can do with that, like their niece or neighbour or someone has that and does something particular I could try, this is one of those countries where job possibilities are really narrow based on degree, right? Help??"

What my answer meant to her

"I have a master's degree so I am too good to work with you."

That totally didn't occur to me at the time and to make this whole thing even cringe-ier I've been using that answer ever since the early days when "I'm an epidemiologist" raised people's expectations too high.  So who knows how many people think I'm some pompous jackass trying to flash a degree around?  Because of D's work, a master's usually identifies me as a regular old person, a non-academic in a sea of PhDs.  And now it's identified me as an insufferable snob.


What I should have said

"Something more data-y."   Any other good ideas?


  1. Aw, man! Look what you get for being spontaneous and honest in your response! That sucks!

    1. The best thing to do would have been to just apply so no one would be offended. This is a land of not offending. The worst that happens is I have to think of stuff to write on the app to explain why I am suddenly interested in administratively assisting when I've never really done it before.

    2. Yeah, but if you apply for it just to be polite, and then they award you the job because they feel bad not giving it to you after you've been temping at it for awhile, and you think it's awkward to not accept a job that they were considerate enough for which to hire you...

      That's a minefield.

    3. It sounds straight out of Very British Problems!

  2. Good for you on not applying. I very nearly almost got a job in (admittedly, something in my industry) but it just wasn't what I wanted to do long term, and after 6-12months I would have got bored and quit.

    PS. I had no idea you were an epidemiologist either. Have you seen the Birmingham based New Optimists blog? It might interest you! I met (and am now working on a different freelance project for) Kate Cooper who runs it.


    1. Thanks for the link, that's a really cool site! I know a couple of those people!

  3. I feel your pain! There is no way for me to express "working artist with an MBA looking for some kind of interesting opportunity" without coming off all wrong.

    1. It's an "I'll know it when I see it!" situation!

  4. At least you are in an English-speaking country where this level of nuance is possible. That is a real qualitative difference from what I practice here in Germany which is the bulldozer approach to communication. Speaking of which, you are such a good writer and communicator, it would seem to me that the field of science writing would just be a natural for you. Maybe something you could play with on a free-lance level. Money-wise, I've only ever spent 2 weeks in 2012 in London, but I certainly remember the breath-taking expense of the whole shebang, compared here to Heidelberg. How much is a liter of milk there? (It's .45 here at Aldi.)

    1. So true about the nuance. I was just thinking a couple days before you wrote this about something I was going to say, and how if I'd had to say it in German it would have lost all but the most basic meaning. Definite bulldozer.
      I get a liter of milk for about 80 pence usually. It's probably cheaper at Aldi but that's pretty out of my way. Up here it's cheaper than London, but it's still not cheap.


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