Wednesday, March 28, 2007

Working for The Man

Late March and early April is the time of year that students come to me with the most difficult questions they could ever hope to ask. And those are . . .

"Professor Ivers, what do you think I should do with my political science degree? What are my options? I mean, now that the 'end' is here I don't know what I'm doing to do. Do you have any advice for me?"

Let's be real, here. Asking your college professor for job advice has to rank right up there with asking a virgin for help on how to improve your sex life or getting into a conversation with the shopping cart guy near the Bethesda metro who squats with a cardboard sign reading, "Aliens took my brain from me/Please help" and feigning shock that he is, well, nuts.

The last time I "looked" for a job was in April 1989. I had just finished my Ph.D and, for the previous three or four months, had been on the academic job market. Finishing my doctoral program was the day I had not been waiting for. Sure, my friends and relatives would hear the news that I was "finally" finishing my degree and offer hearty handshakes and hugs and air-kisses of congratulations.

"You must be SO happy," some older uncle or aunt or someone would say. "You're done! No longer a professional student! You're going out in the world! Good for you!!"

"Absolutely," I'd respond. "Time to start getting paid to go to school rather than pay to go to school. Enough already!"

"I know what you mean," they'd say. "By the time I was senior I was ready to get the hell out of school. I mean, working isn't always great, but at least you're not stuck in the library when you could be out chasing women and raising hell."

Actually, I couldn't relate at all to my friends or anyone else for that matter who had been working since graduating from college. Since leaving school, I had put together a meticulous scheme to stay in school until I ran out of money or ran out of degrees. I had never held a full-time job for more than three months prior to beginning my Ph.D program. And these were not career-oriented jobs. I had worked in fast-food and prepared sandwiches in delis, packed make-up, lotions and shampoo for my neighbor's start-up cosmetics company, taken odd, in every sense of the word, jobs in college and worked in my father's store. But I had never gone to an office, sat in a cubicle, stared at an empty desk or hung out at a water cooler until I decided to take some time off from my Ph.D program to work at a law firm to decide whether I should bag my prospective career as a distinguished academic and reconsider my decision not to attend law school.

Suffice it to say that I did not find the life of an associate in a large law firm something I was meant to do.

"Pssst," I would hear, walking down the lovely carpeted halls of my firm. "Aren't you the one deciding between a Ph.D in political science and going to law school?"

Turning around, I'd respond, "Uh-yes . . . thinking about it."

"Come here!" and some newly minted lawyer, maybe 27 or 28, would pull me into his office, poke his head out to make sure no one was looking, close the door and start in with a whole routine about how if he wasn't $75,000 in debt he would junk this job in a minute and get his Ph.D in medieval history, or open a used bookstore, or . . . anything other than the life he had chosen. This happened so many times that I decided that I wasn't cut out for a life in organized crime, which, as one associate told me, was no different than working in a law firm.

For a year and a half, I'd get up at roughly the same time every day, get ready for work, walk to the bus stop, catch the 23 bus to the train, and take the train into the office, which was located in downtown Atlanta. Sometimes, if I was particularly flush with cash, I'd stop at Dunkin' Donuts and treat myself to coffee and an apple fritter. Lunch was something I cobbled together from home or a trip to the all-you-could-eat Chinese place a couple of blocks from my office. The firm provided my afternoon pick-me-up coffee for free, something I thought was a great perk. I had never worked anywhere that gave you anything for free. By 5 p.m., I was gone . . . only to return at 8.45 a.m. the next day. Every so often, on the way out the door, I'd hear some particularly ambitious associate say to me, "Hey, professor, take some of this shit to read on the train," handing me some file of his that was utterly incomprehensible. "You can bill the time just by carrying this shit with you! How the fuck do you think I jack up my billables? Of course, I can't leave at five like you do. Nope. I'll be here 'till 10 . . . minimum. So while you're out with the babes or slamming down some brewskis with your buddies, I'll be going through this boring-ass file on some fucking big deal that the partner I'm working for put together. Shit, I might even have to sleep here . . . and it wouldn't be the first time. Are you sure you want to do this? 'cause I'll tell you what . . . if I hadn't just bought a house I would walk away from here in a heartbeat, no shit. I mean, do you like any of the stuff you have to do here? This shit has just got to bore you to tears. Really, if I won the lottery I am so gone. Gone. Out of here. See ya!"

These out-the-door conversations always left me with mixed feelings. My first feeling was simply being pissed off. I had my exit down to an art. Out the door at 5; at the train station by 5.10; on the bus by 5.30 and home by 5.45. Plus, there was some amazingly cool-looking girl who always rode the train home at the same time I did, and getting stuck playing psychologist to some 30 year-old venting about his job meant that I might miss what were then the 15 best minutes of my day. My second feeling was one of indifference. Frankly, I had no idea how this guy "jacked up" his billables because I never thought about it. I didn't think about my job from the moment I left until the minute I walked in the office the next morning. My co-workers, including the attorneys, were certainly nice enough, and went out of their way to make me feel welcome, since they knew I was simply there to get a feel for the life of a lawyer before returning to school. But the most striking part of my time there was that not one single lawyer said to me, "If you do nothing else before you die, go to law school and practice law." The associates, with one exception, the man who hired me, all hated their jobs. And this was a big firm that was considered, by big firm standards, to be one of the more humane places for lawyers wanting that type of career to work.

Me? Not a chance. There were two things working against me in this experience. The first was having to go to the same place and do pretty much the same thing day after day. Some people like routine and structure. Not me. I found it monotonous and suffocating. The second was simply the work itself. It was work; there was nothing fun or interesting about it. As boring as some of the books and articles I had to read my first year in graduate school were, I knew there was light at the end of the tunnel. By the time I started my Ph.D, everything I did was interesting . . . I mean, really, it needed to be since an academic career is fundamentally entrepreneurial in nature. No one hands you a file and says, "Work on this. And don't forget to take something to the bathroom with you to read so you can bill that time to the client." You have to come up with your own ideas and find something interesting to say about them. And teaching is an open book. You are assigned certain classes to teach; beyond that, the rest is a blank canvas. And once you start teaching, you have the opportunity to make a difference in people's lives, to help students figure out how to follow their strengths and to make some sort of positive social contribution to the world. Working in a job that was fundamentally about helping well-to-do people maintain their advantages was not something I found terribly appealing. And the same-place-everyday routine? I can't remember the last time I went to my office five days in a row for nine hours a day. I shudder just thinking about it.

So what CAN you do with a bachelor's degree in political science? You can frame it, hang it on the wall and look at it and think to yourself, "Did I really party that much and still manage to finish? Wow!" And that is really about it. Degrees do not determine anyone's future. At some point, you have to listen to that inner-voice in your head -- not the one telling you to kill a string of 7-11 clerks, sodomize them and leave them for dead on the side of the road -- that encourages you to follow a hope or a dream.

I don't know the first thing about going out and finding a job. But I do know that, if given the choice between spending my working life helping someone else make more money or doing something that is interesting, fun and getting paid for it, the decision isn't even close.


matt said...

That was excellent. My girlfriend just forwarded me a link to your blog, and I have to say that I enjoy it immensely.

It probably doesn't hurt that I'm here in D.C., as well, and can relate to a lot of what you're writing.

Gregg Ivers said...


Thanks for reading. Things sort out over time. The key is to maintain perspective and independence -- something not easy in D.C. when you're first starting out.