Help me realize that my boring entry level job is not a reflection of my self-worth.
October 18, 2010 8:30 PM   Subscribe

Help me feel better about my low-low-level position in academia with anecdotes, advice, or pep-talk about how you need to pay your dues in order to reach a bigger and brighter future. Help me realize that my dull entry level job is not a reflection of my self-worth.

This is my first job out of college, and I suppose I still have that misguided notion that I should feel constantly challenged and stimulated. I am currently working as a research assistant, doing simple, boring tasks for other people in the lab. I don't feel challenged at all, and feel like the person there to do the so-call bitch-work (really, someone watching actually asked me how I got stuck doing one of my tasks). The field and the research are job is not. But I do need this position to get research experience and a good recommendation for grad school. I am currently doing very well and people like me, so at least that's fine and I haven't let my sadness and bitterness become visible yet, but I need to stop feeling like I'm dying inside. I know if I continue this line of thinking, I won't be able to do my job well, and I'll be down a path of self-inflicted misery. I was one of those people where most of my life, people treated me like I was intelligent and talented, and suddenly, I am in a position where very little is actually expected of me, and I feel a bit lost.

I need to stop feeling this way! I really do need this position for graduate school, and I would like the next one or two years to not be an existential crisis about my self-worth. Help me stop my negative thoughts about how my life isn't going anywhere. I know many young people take less than ideal positions starting out, but I feel constantly surrounded by people who are getting great starts in actual careers or are already PhD candidates. I need reassurance that this is normal, my low-pay and low-respect position is not a reflection of my self-worth, I need to stick it out, and good things will come of my patience and hard work.

Any stories about how low-level positions have helped you leverage yourself into better things would be great. Also, please be kind...I know I sound like a self-entitled 22-year-old, which I suppose I am, but I really am taking a huge hit in my self-esteem, so telling me I actually AM a worthless research assistant is not going to help. I just want to feel better about myself and my position. I need to know this is NORMAL and not a dead-end.
posted by lacedcoffee to Work & Money (21 answers total) 8 users marked this as a favorite
How many months have you been working? There's a break in process in which your new lab will give you some fairly simple stuff to do to make sure that they can trust you to do more complex stuff. This is pretty normal and you shouldn't feel bad that you're in a probationary period.

Go in tomorrow and ask for some papers to read. Read them and come back with some questions. Go to lab meetings and try to get to know what people in lab are doing. Figure out a project that you like and ask to work on it. When you're not actively doing work, go gently bug people and ask what they're doing - ask to learn a technique.

As a research assistant, you're going to do some boring stuff. There is a lot of "bitch-work" in science. Everyone has to do some.

Some labs are unused to having a research assistant do research. This may be because there is a huge amount of menial work that needs to get done to keep the lab running. This also may be because that's just how they did things in the past. You're going to have to stick your neck out a bit here.
posted by sciencegeek at 8:45 PM on October 18, 2010

Response by poster: Oh yes, sorry, I should add that I know I should try to get involved in more challenging work. I'm on it and will be trying to gain more responsibilities. But I still need to do the things I was hired to do, which is a bunch of bitch-work (I know science as a lot of menial tasks. But I still feel there's a slight difference in doing repetitive, menial tasks for your own research/thesis, as opposed to having other people hand it off to you because that's what you're there for. The latter is a bit soul-crushing, to be honest.) I just need to change my mind-set and be more at peace. I need to know how other young, educated, smart, and talented people take on these assistant positions and be a-ok with it.
posted by lacedcoffee at 8:51 PM on October 18, 2010

Well, before I started at my current employer, I was working full time at a temp job and wasn't making enough to cover the bills. An acquaintance of mine helped me get my foot in the door at my current employer, even though it wasn't really a position I was thrilled to take. It was a 50% hourly pay increase, plus eligible for OT, plus eligible for benefits. I didn't really like that initial position at all.

I kept at it though, kept my mouth shut, tried to keep my chin up, and wound up changing departments here a few times (always because the new department wanted me, not because the old department wanted rid of me). Then, last summer, while in my immediately prior position, my current manager called me and asked if I was interested in coming to work in his department. Given that the department in question was the one I wanted to work in when I first started (and it's what my degree is in), I replied with a polite and business appropriate form of "Hell fuckin' yes I do!!"

A chronology of my departments here:
1. Hated it, hated life
2. Liked it
3. Didn't like it much
4. Meh
5. Hated it with the fiery passion of a thousand suns
6. Love it so much, my days are filled with rainbows, gumdrops, and unicorn farts. In all seriousness though, had I not gotten into this department, I strongly doubt I'd still be working here. This department is the sort of work I want to do for the rest of my working years (barring winning the lottery jackpot or some such).

I suppose that the moral of the story is work hard, keep your chin up, stay positive (even if you have to fake the hell out of it), and good things are somewhat more likely to happen.

YMMV, IANAPsychiatrist, LSMFT, etc.
posted by AMSBoethius at 9:02 PM on October 18, 2010

Does your job put you in a position to sit in on lectures / discussions / conferences / meetings / webinars / research expos relevant to your field of interest?
posted by Orinda at 9:03 PM on October 18, 2010

Kiddo, you need to accept the bitch-work. You need to start by not referring to it as bitch-work. It's work that needs to get done, and you were hired to do it. Every time you feel 'I'm not challenged enough. I need more intellectual stimulation. This work is beneath me,' well, yeah, that's entitlement and it's okay learning to handle frustration and finding other outlets for now. You'll also know how to treat technicians--i.e., not as your slaves, but as valuable people who are getting things done.

And at the end of the day, you need to ask yourself, 'am I better than Vivien Thomas?'

[Hint: No. You're not. Because very few people, no matter how much alphabet soup they possess or however many awards they list on their CVs measure up to Vivien Thomas in intellectual capacity, skill and dedication. And he was 'just a tech' for his entire career.]

You probably get union benefits. That's amazing. Look up employee perks and use as many as don't get those as a graduate student employee in most universities. This is also a good time to learn about on-time and off-time. Now, obviously, you are trying to parlay this into a great recommendation, etc. But you need to find something else that fulfills your emotional needs outside of work (a sport or pastime or something you've always wanted to try) and learning to respect people who do hard work at all levels--not just those who you think are doing 'intellectual work.' If you can do that in the next few years, you will be a leg up on your fellow grad students. Believe me, the people who hit the wall the hardest are the people who invest everything of their soul in graduate school and have nothing else. Because they can't step back and take breaks or separate their personhood from their project or their grades. It affects their science because they can't get perspective.

Technicians, administrative assistants, custodians and all of the people who keep things running on the systematic level will be less likely to knock your polite requests and first-year grad floundering to the bottom of the pile, because you'll be taking the time to respect them and what they do. Because you've been there, and know that they are real people with real lives, not people beneath your station.
posted by Uniformitarianism Now! at 9:03 PM on October 18, 2010 [10 favorites]

So you're 22, you literally just finished college. This is your very first job. And you can only have been there for a few months.

Two possibilities here, and I'm not going to mince words on either*:

1. Welcome to real life. This is how careers work. You start out as an entry-level nobody doing menial shit work. If you work hard and are ambitious in the right ways, you will move up. There is a bright side here, though - it is really, really hard to fuck this up. If your field is anything like my field, showing the least bit of diligence and initiative will go a long way towards minimizing your time doing menial shit work. But, yeah, you gotta put in the time.

2. If you are truly miserable, maybe this isn't for you? Maybe there is another career you would be passionate enough about to suffer through the initial office bitch period?

*I will never forget the time I offered a recent college grad friend-of-a-friend a highly sought after PA position, and the response was, "Sorry, but I really don't like menial work." Ooh Kay, then...
posted by Sara C. at 9:04 PM on October 18, 2010 [2 favorites]

Best answer: I'm a big believer in paying dues. You learn so much more in a practical way, with none of the blame when it all goes pear shaped. It's a huge blessing to be doing this at 22 when you have less responsibilities and can use the time to your advantage.

Use the time to really engage with your field, keep up with any developments and take advantage of talking about it with people more experienced than you (when will you ever do that again without them thinking you're competition?). Socialise, go to dinner with people, do everything you'll never get the opportunity to again. Also, volunteer for crappy conventions and talks nobody else wants to do. It's free and the networking is priceless.

If you use this time wisely you're going to be in a much better position than your peers with seemingly better jobs straight out of the gate. Real world experience in research, no matter how lowly, is in my opinion worth several times more than academic theory alone.
posted by shinybaum at 9:04 PM on October 18, 2010

Right now, you're working for a recommendation. When you go into work in the morning, don't think that you have 1000 petri dishes to wash; think that you have 1000 chances to make a good impression on the other people in your lab. These are the people who are either going to start trusting you enough to take on more responsibilities, or else are going to write you good letters of recommendation when you apply grad school. Like you say, when you're doing your own research there's still a lot of bitch work to do -- now's your chance to prove that you can handle it. Keep focused on that, and it might help with your mindset.
posted by auto-correct at 9:06 PM on October 18, 2010 [1 favorite]

Best answer: Believe me, you're not alone, and this IS NORMAL. Being a lab tech on the path to a research career can be psychologically taxing as you aspire to have more responsibility but are invariably stuck doing lots of lab scut.

The thing is, if you do what's asked of you well and efficiently, you will likely gain more responsibilities as you garner more trust from your superiors. And even if that isn't the case and the job stays menial, it's quite unlikely that your hard work will go unnoticed when it comes time to get a strong reference. Assuming the PI you're working with isn't a total jerk, good things WILL come from persistence.

Last year, we had a research assistant in our lab who essentially spent all day every day purifying mRNA from patient samples, and otherwise had a tiny niche of their own on a particularly bench project. This was 95% chore work, but he performed it correctly and in a timely manner. Though his responsibilities in the lab were limited, everyone appreciated his work ethic and ultimately came to realize that he was not only competent at performing the tasks but he understood the science behind the methodology and could ultimately troubleshoot problems with purification, and the downstream assays that were run (qPCR and such). He was applying for medical school and unfortunately he botched the verbal section of the MCAT (though fully fluent, English was his 4th language) costing him interviews at almost every school right off the bat. Ultimately he got his foot in the door at a few decent schools after our PI made a phone call on his behalf. He's enjoying his coursework at Johns Hopkins as we speak.

I know tons of people who have gone through what you're going through now, myself included. So I can safely say that their is a light at the end of tunnel. What I would suggest you do (besides your job well) is to interact with your PI as often as possible, and make sure that people in the lab are aware of your ultimate goals and ambitions. When new tasks come along, volunteer to help out with them, particularly if it means you might pick up some new techniques. Ask for feedback on how you're doing and if there's anything else you can do around the lab. If you're doing a good job, your role will most likely expand. Remember, it takes time for a researcher to develop trust in a kid fresh out of college. Most of them turn out to be flakes, and that's exactly what you don't want to come off as.

In terms of how to psychologically handle this job, the first step is again to realize that you are banking mileage with this sort of work. If you aspire for more, focus on proving yourself with what you have and being open for new opportunities. In the meantime, I'd show some initiative and read up on all the research that has been and is currently going on in the lab. Ask questions about the publications from the lab if you come across something you don't understand. People will invariably pickup on the interest you show and your initiative.
posted by drpynchon at 9:09 PM on October 18, 2010 [2 favorites]

Here's another person whom you are not better than, although the wiki is pretty weak on the amount of physical labor and slogging at the bottom of the bottom he did for almost a decade--not counting being a battlefield surgeon.

The Knife Man, by Wendy Moore, covers his time at the bottom quite well.
posted by Uniformitarianism Now! at 9:12 PM on October 18, 2010

Seconding what sciencegeek said. Getting more involved in the field and engaging your PIs will go a long way in their estimation of you. It might also help to develop a skillset oriented towards higher-level tasks. These include:
  • Web Design & Associated Languages: PHP, SQL, Java
  • Scripting languages: Python, Pearl
  • Stats languages: R, and whatever your lab uses
  • Building shit, you know, with tools
These are all skills that most graduate students lack and many labs begrudgingly contract out to other departments. Someone who develops the above skills will find themselves quickly relieved of their glassware-cleaning duties and promoted to more substantial (though often equally tedious and frustrating) work.
posted by The White Hat at 9:18 PM on October 18, 2010 [2 favorites]

Best answer: If you continue in academia, you'll be a much better researcher and a much better mentor for having spent a lot of time on low-level tasks. Ever heard the expression, never assign a subordinate a task you couldn't or wouldn't do yourself?
posted by synchronia at 9:29 PM on October 18, 2010

Best answer: "I need reassurance that this is normal"

This is normal. Everyone starts out doing the bitch work, it's part of the apprenticeship system in research.
posted by Jacqueline at 9:47 PM on October 18, 2010

I recently started a job doing clerical tasks for an attorney. My second day at court, he introduced me to one of the judges. She asked if I was a paralegal. "No," I replied, "just doing filing and computer work..." She interrupted me and pointed her finger at me. "Never say "just" about your job." That was all.

Your current job is earning you experience. If nothing else, there is value in showing up to work every day and being a good employee, because then your current bosses will be happy to recommend you to your future bosses.

Everyone starts out doing bitch-work. When I was a student nurse doing my clinicals (later dropped out), the floor nurses were more than happy to make the students literally wipe asses.
posted by IndigoRain at 11:42 PM on October 18, 2010

Two thoughts: does the menial work that you're doing right now lend itself to optimization in any way? If so, this can be a good way to make the problem more interesting. In particular, if there's any kind of computer-based / data handling work, however minor, then it's a perfect opportunity to experiment with learning a programming language (as suggested by The White Hat above).

Secondly, all the extremely high-up academics I know absolutely relish the rare chances they get to take a break from administration and get back in the lab to pick a few thousand bacterial colonies or pour some gels.
posted by primer_dimer at 11:50 PM on October 18, 2010

Volunteer somewhere - help someone outside of work; this is normal, but at no point are you your job.
posted by filmgeek at 2:24 AM on October 19, 2010

I think this is pretty normal in all fields. I've certainly spent my time doing it. Shit, I have a "real" professional job now, with an office and supervisory duties and everything, and I still get stuck doing a bunch of repetitive and boring scut work -- the only difference is that I'm getting paid decently to do it.

When we hire entry level positions, or interns, there's a really fast weeding-out process. Within the first couple of days they realize that we didn't lie in the interview, and indeed the job is going to be repetitive and sometimes kind of crappy. (Imagine doing the same detail-oriented work you are doing now, but outdoors in a rainstorm while cold water runs down the back of your neck and the supposedly waterproof notebook gets all wrinkly.) They either can see that the crappy scut work leads somewhere and they work hard at it, or they blow it off and act like a prima donna. Guess which approach works better in the long run?
posted by Forktine at 6:23 AM on October 19, 2010

There is a very good chance that when you go to grad school, you will be doing repetitive tasks for less money than a technician gets paid.
posted by Comrade_robot at 6:35 AM on October 19, 2010 [1 favorite]

I agree with primer_dimer in working on optimizing your tasks-- obviously some physical tasks like cleaning glassware etc can only be done so fast, but trying to be as efficient as possible can free up some time to learn new lab techniques etc. We have some RAs in our lab who finish their assigned work efficiently then ask for more stuff to do and actively work to make things run better in our lab, and other RAs who dutifully do their assigned work and nothing more unless specifically asked. The first set get to do more stuff that goes on their resume and eventually they get onto publications that help w/ the next.

Also, I don't think that the coordinators/grad students/lab managers/PIs that I have worked with have ever had "low respect" for the RA position-- it's a necessary and needed thing to get stuff done in the lab. Ppl are seen as reliable/flaky/good/bad to work with depending on how they do at their job.

Being an RA is definitely not a dead end-- the exposure your lab provides you will help you decide if that's the kind of thing you want to do and if you excel at your moderately sucky and possibly mind numbing tasks, this will let the PI write you a letter saying that you'll be good at stuff in grad school.

Also there was this similar Askme although the OP was more resentful of their job.
posted by tangaroo at 7:41 AM on October 19, 2010

I need reassurance that this is normal, my low-pay and low-respect position is not a reflection of my self-worth, I need to stick it out, and good things will come of my patience and hard work.
I just want to feel better about myself and my position. I need to know this is NORMAL and not a dead-end.

The people on the bottom run the place. This is true of all places. I have seen CEOs that don't know how to break down a cardboard box, and managers that have no idea how to deal with BBP cleanup in the bathroom. They may have the money, but you, with your practical skills and your "we're all in the shit together" attitude, you keep the place running every day.
posted by WeekendJen at 9:31 AM on October 19, 2010

Bitchwork in science has still got to be far more interesting than bitchwork in other fields. Like, say, fast food. Or not having a job at all and you're stuck living with crabby parents. This will eventually pass, and it could be a lot worse in the meantime.
posted by jenfullmoon at 12:41 PM on October 19, 2010

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