What am I worth?
December 17, 2012 10:30 AM   Subscribe

OK, I'm officially fed up with my university job. Now what?

I'm a technician at a university. I've done similar work elsewhere, but this is my second year at this particular unit. We have a research head and some administrative staff, but I help lots of other external people who need to use our tools or expertise. Over the past several months I've grown to dislike the position, but I'm not sure what to do next.

My job is demanding and I find it difficult. I was hired in lieu of a better-trained, higher-paid person, so I've had to learn everything as I go, with the resulting delays and inefficiencies: specialized scientific software, the use and troubleshooting of research equipment, bits of computer networking, unfamiliar scripting tools. This is in addition to my regular duties, which are time-consuming and require me to be extraordinarily flexible with my work schedule. I work semi-regular early mornings, late evenings, and weekends.

The biggest problem is that I am not going to get good letters of recommendation here. A number of conversations and emails from our research head strongly suggest that he thinks that I'm lazy and inefficient (or at least unpromising). The researcher I'm directly answerable to expected me to be an engineer or physicist, and quickly lost interest in mentoring me when I turned out to be neither. My ability to contribute to his research is minimal. So I'm basically doing time-consuming, relatively menial work, while desperately trying to catch up on "side projects" that I have to train myself to do as I go along, with minimal support. All the while I'm receiving oblique criticism and discouragement.

Although I work for a university and am eligible for limited free tuition, the demands of my job leave little time for class. Relevant classes are only offered during work hours, and I have little time or energy for homework. My job follows me home, it follows me after hours, it follows me on weekends.

I think I will be laid off in the medium term. Our unit is losing money (we are supposed to stay revenue-neutral). In external faculty meetings, our head has openly speculated about moving from one technician (me) to zero. He went as far as to ask me when I'm leaving for grad school (I haven't even finished submitting my applications yet, and I'm certainly not guaranteed acceptable offers). I think having everyone training and bringing in their own ad hoc technical staff is a disastrous idea, given our labirynthine tangle of equipment and its need for maintenance and general wrangling, but whatever. It's more significant to me, personally, that letting me go is being considered an appealing cost-cutting measure. Other PIs have repeatedly mentioned that this is a desirable job for lots of new graduates, and that they don't expect to have trouble finding an ideal candidate quickly were I to leave.

But what to do next? I feel like this job has actually hurt my chances to stay on this campus. Everyone in our general area knows our head researcher, and it would be awkward if someone rehired me. I've learned that saving face is sometimes a big part of academia. I'm the little guy, and it's their colleagues that researchers have to get along with, not me.

I may have also hurt my chances at graduate school: I did try to take a graduate class this semester, didn't do especially well in it for lack of time, and it all but exhausted me.

I think the expectation is that you bust your ass for 1-2 years, devoting yourself to the job completely, and then join a nice graduate program in the same area. I'm not terribly interested in graduate studies in this discipline. I'm interested in graduate studies in a more technical discipline, but it's precisely the one I have no time to take classes in. I do like the technical and quantitative aspects of my job, but I have no opportunity to pursue more in-depth on-the-job training. My supervisors have made it clear that they would prefer that I pursue training in my spare time, informally. And, again, I wasn't trained as an engineer, computer scientist, or physical scientist, so working as a technician at a lab that specializes in one of those things seems unlikely.

Can I capitalize on my experience somehow? What's it worth? What are some resources I can use to explore my options? (The career center at my alma mater will no longer see me because I am more than two years out.)
posted by anonymous to Work & Money (3 answers total)
Do you know what kind of job you want to do? Not everything HAS to be at a university. So many skills and experiences can be exported to the corporate world.

As for the class you took, don't transfer it.

Your plan of action is as follows:

Write down all the programs and experience that you now have.

Do a resume

Send it out

Get hired somewhere else.

Where you are now is not the only place there is. What you do now is not the only thing you'll ever do in this life.

Get some perspective.
posted by Ruthless Bunny at 10:44 AM on December 17, 2012

again, I wasn't trained as an engineer, computer scientist, or physical scientist, so working as a technician at a lab that specializes in one of those things seems unlikely.

Anyone trained as an engineer or computer scientist has access to much higher paying jobs, so there are few people available to work as technicians in those fields. Given that you can use scientific computing software, do computer networking, and use research equipment, you're probably a pretty valuable resource for any professor looking to hire someone at relatively low academic pay.
posted by deanc at 10:45 AM on December 17, 2012

It sounds like a poisonous work environment. Don't take it personally. I've been in a similar situation - on the very first time I presented to the board of a government organization (very similar in culture at times compared to universities) about my role, one of the board members openly questioned why I was hired.

I think you ought to a) document all the things you do and the specific skills, and perhaps work with an employment counselor of some kind to tease out some of the more meaningful things you might not think of and b) create a resume and c) get another job.

You might also want to connect with faculty in the masters program you really want to pursue, and see what they say.

If you get a job, or think of a plausible exit strategy, you might want to have a frank discussion with the head researcher or whatever.

But get an exit strategy first.
posted by KokuRyu at 10:51 AM on December 17, 2012

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