How can I escape the temp trap?
April 23, 2008 8:54 AM   Subscribe

Career-filter: I have gotten myself mired in the temp/admin world, and I want to get out! What kind of positions should I be applying for to gain experience, set myself up for grad school and get started on a meaningful career? Please help me take the next step in moving my life forward!

I am a 2004 graduate of a top liberal arts college, currently working as a temp legal assistant. Since graduating almost four years ago, my work experience has been scattered and (honestly) not very substantive. I have temped in a couple cities, taught English abroad for a year, did volunteer fund raising and other work in a couple developing countries, and then back to temping and admin assistant type stuff.

Ideally I'd like to find a new job and stay in it until fall '09, and then start grad school (international relations, marketing, maybe business).

In every job I've had, I always get good evaluations, and my temporary assignments have always turned into permanent offers that I've turned down, as I don't want to be an administrative assistant forever. The real-world consequence of this has basically been no benefits and lower salary, for doing the same work I supposedly didn't want.

I don't know what field exactly I want to be in, but I am interested in business, marketing, the environment, anything/everything international (especially Asian), and more. I know that's super broad, but it's as narrow as I've been able to make it.

I am trying to find jobs and employers that would be understanding of a scattered resume, but that would also be willing to give me a chance to prove myself and actually do some substantive work. I can write, am very personable, have decent math skills, and am a fast learner.

I am not super concerned with salary, as I am pretty frugal and willing to sacrifice in the short term.

I currently live in Washington DC, but I am considering moving to New York. Don't let my geography constrain your brainstorming, however, as I am really willing to consider anything interesting.

I have a feeling that my question may not be as clear as I'd like, but I feel like I'm too close to the problem to see what information you might need... I will be watching this thread, so please do ask questions and I will elaborate!
posted by allen8219 to Work & Money (13 answers total) 6 users marked this as a favorite
You have little over a year before you want to go to grad school. Why not temp, or take one of the permanent admin jobs, until then?
posted by ThePinkSuperhero at 9:06 AM on April 23, 2008 [1 favorite]

Hi me a few years ago. Nice to see me again. Get out. GET OUT. I mean it, get out now.

Look for government jobs both as a Fed trough USAJobs and contractor. Look for NGO work. Its DC ther are jobs out there, find one, any one and get the hell out of temp legal assistance. Do it now. Please, MEmail me or I'm at hotmail if you want more suggestions, but stop surfing Metafilter and start surfing job listings!
posted by Pollomacho at 9:07 AM on April 23, 2008

I'm wondering if grad school is really something you need at this point. Grad school is all about focusing on a specific topic that you're passionate about. If you're not sure what that topic is, grad school might not work so well. You might try doing what Pollomacho suggests and try to get a job in an NGO dealing with, for example, international issues, and see what really floats your boat.

You might also get some inspiration from Overcoming Underearning, which is aimed at women but applies to anyone.
posted by PatoPata at 9:25 AM on April 23, 2008 [1 favorite]

If you're interested in marketing, you can probably find a position as an assistant account exec, which is essentially a glorified admin, at an advertising or marketing agency. Your experience should qualify you just fine.
posted by miss tea at 9:35 AM on April 23, 2008

Interesting replies already, this is exactly the kind of stuff I was hoping to get back.

TPS: that's a valid question, and as recently as a week ago I was asking it myself. However when I talked about it with my friends, they uniformly said, "No, you can do much better than that. Don't settle." And you know, I can do better than this, I just need some help along the way.

Pollomacho: I am glad to see that it is possible to break through to the other side of this... whatever this is. I may MeFi mail you as well, but do you have suggestions for the kinds of job titles I should be looking for? Do you have a sense of whether I could get something higher than what is usually called Program Assistant? I am tired of making copies for other people, or at least of having that be the intellectual apex of my workday! I have been in a complacent rut for like two months, but in the last week I've applied to some more jobs...

PatoPata: I totally understand where you're coming from, but I think in my case it's going to be best to get an advanced degree sooner rather than later. That comes from talking about this with my family, friends, etc. My academic background and test scores are strong, and my college is ranked highly enough, that I should be able to get in to some very selective programs, which will give me much more flexibility in terms of available work post-graduation. Wow, for a self-congratulatory sentence, that was some tortuous wording and structure.

miss tea: Interesting, I didn't realize what an AAE was... do you happen to know what kind of salary that usually pays? Equivalent to other admins?
posted by allen8219 at 10:00 AM on April 23, 2008

I think you might have to move out of DC if you want a more career-track job without a masters. I did a bunch of job-searching here when I was looking to change jobs about a year after graduating from a top liberal arts college (with a really high GPA and what everyone told me was an incredibly marketable degree), and it was insanely hard to even get a call back from anywhere I applied--the vast majority of jobs that were a step above the admin or research assistant level all preferred candidates with masters. Since lots and lots of people with a masters degree move here to get jobs, the unfortunate fact is that even if you're qualified it'll be hard to get an interview when you're going up against people with an MA. Competition for NGO jobs - at least the ones that are actually salaried, no matter how low the salary is - are fierce, and lots of hungry job-seekers with the $50,000 graduate degree are going for the exact type of job you're looking for.

I know the conventional wisdom is that you should work a few years before getting your masters, so that you're not wasting time specializing in an area that you find you don't like, but in my experience that doesn't work very well in DC. Even if you get a job at an ideal organization, with only a bachelors you'll probably not get substantive work--research assistants in many places are basically glorified admin positions. So, I think your best options are:

(1) Move out of the DC area and find the "perfect" job in a city where graduate degrees are far less common. I don't know if New York fits the bill here; my guess is not so much--I'm thinking of cities like Minneapolis, Raleigh, anywhere that doesn't attract droves of new college grads with stars in their eyes. Ideally, you'd find a good job (I found that and were good search engines) and then be willing to move wherever you need to go to take the job.

(2) Just suck it up and go back now to get masters degree in something fairly general, like an masters in public policy (MPP) or MBA. Yes, you'd probably get more out of it if you had a lot of work experience, but lots and lots of people in DC get the degree first and the experience second, so you might have to do the same. Just go for a graduate degree that is intended to be broad rather than narrow (an MBA is much more flexible for future career changes than a masters in obscure Asian culture).

(2a) On a slightly different track, you could always get an MPP or MBA part-time while working an admin job, especially if you accept a full-time placement at one the places that keeps offering it to you. Many companies offer tuition benefits, and it's a bit less painful to get a graduate degree just to compete when someone else is footing the bill.

I dunno if this is very helpful with for your question. However, having done the ultimately fruitless job search looking for jobs and employers ... that would also be willing to give me a chance to prove myself and actually do some substantive work -- I feel like I should share some of the conclusions I ultimately came to about the job market for people with a bachelors in DC. It ain't pretty, and a lot of the advice that may be pretty decent in other areas of the country (find something you love before going back to graduate school / just keep looking for substantive work because somebody has to be hiring smart young grads with drive!) unfortunately doesn't seem to hold here.
posted by iminurmefi at 10:05 AM on April 23, 2008 [1 favorite]

iminurmefi: Thanks for the reply! Your advice really resonates with my own experience as well... my fruitless job searching has been quite frustrating for the past few months. I am really regretting not having applied to masters programs last fall, especially as many of my friends from college are now getting their acceptance letters and visiting campuses.

I'll be returning to this thread later tonight, but this afternoon it looks like they are actually going to make me work for my paycheck.
posted by allen8219 at 10:34 AM on April 23, 2008


I spent my early 20s as a full-time musician/songwriter and needed work when I wasn't on the road or preoccupied with recording. When I finally grew weary of the pop life, as it were, I had - like you - a few years of great life experiences, but not so much currency in the working world. I staved off those feelings of stagnation by giving my free time to causes and organizations in which I believed.

Looking back since then, every job I've had of any substance - every job - I got through volunteering first and then being offered a full-time gig. YMMV depending on the places you choose, but if you are thoughtful and strategic, and stick to things about which you are passionate (and hence more likely to give of yourself), it is more likely to reward you. And even if you don't end up getting an insta-gig from it, at least it looks good on the rez and offers great networking opportunities with other passionate people.

It will also make your grueling day-hours somehow more manageable, since you can look to some other part of your life for the Meaning and allow your monkeywork to just bring in the bucks.
posted by mykescipark at 11:09 AM on April 23, 2008

I'm temping and I really like it. I personally am beginning to think careers are overrated and it's just not so bad. I had a real job/career a year ago and it sucked. My bosses were out of the office all the time, not working, and were fairly abusive to my colleague and I, who ended up doing all the work and running the office.

I'm much happier as a temp. There's a lot more freedom. I've turned down several permanent job offers myself to remain a temp, until I start grad school in a completely different field in January.
posted by onepapertiger at 12:35 PM on April 23, 2008

I don't know what sorts of schools that you are envisioning for your masters, but I wouldn't assume that the boat has sailed on starting a masters program next fall. Many of the graduate programs at schools in the DC area (Georgetown, GWU, GMU, U of MD) allow people to take classes as a non-degree seeking student, then apply the following semester or year and transfer in the credits, so you're in the same spot as you would have been if you were admitted a year earlier. Also, in my experience, masters programs have much more flexible deadlines than you might believe based on their websites. I submitted my application for grad school a good 2 months after the posted deadline, and I had no problem getting in. (Of course, I didn't need funding, as I'm doing it part-time while working, which I'm sure helped quite a bit.)

All of which is to say, there doesn't seem to be any downside to taking one or two classes this year, especially if you might be able to transfer them into a program next year. It strengthens your resume to be able to point to some post-BA work, it gives you a sense of whether you'd be happy pursuing a specific degree, and it might even land you ahead of the game when you do formally apply for a program. Win-win-win.

(Other than the part where you're really tired all the time from the never-ending stream of stuff to do. But that's just my end-of-semester burnout talking.)
posted by iminurmefi at 1:00 PM on April 23, 2008

I was in a very similar situation not too long ago. I happen to live in (near) DC and spent a few months temping while I was furiously job searching. By furiously, I mean I had probably 10 jobs searches coming directly to my inbox (learn to work the technology) and I would apply to anything and everything.

I went on a couple of interviews and maybe the lack of Masters was what kept them from hiring me. I don't know because the two legitimate jobs I might have actually wanted said they would call back and never did - maybe there's so much competition they needn't be worried about pissing off their applicants. I'm at my current position partly because of coincidence but also because I was willing to do anything. I came here to reorganize a file system. But I would have rather organized a file system for an NGO in my field than any number of other interesting things at places I have no intention of staying.

In any case, as someone with a "real job", the two pieces of advice I would offer are these:

1. Network as much as humanly possible only never think about it as networking. People our age won't be able to get you hired but it would certainly help to have a friend on the inside. Second volunteering but do other stuff too - join clubs, go to talks on your subject (there are 100 of these every day in DC), book readings, social clubs - anything! Plus, all that stuff makes your temp job seem less crappy.
2. Go on "informational interviews." I had the opportunity to talk with some high-level people at organizations I wasn't interested in while I was job hunting. They strongly recommended I contact the person at an organization I would like to work for who would theoretically be my boss. Apparently if you ask these people to let you buy them lunch, they'll consent and you can ask them career advice. According to my "sources," they'll even offer to pass your resume around in some cases. The point is, what can it hurt?

As for "program assistants" at NGOs: As one of them, I can assure you that a lot of the work I do is purely administrative and most of the work I do is somewhat administrative. But this is where we begin. Everyone is "entry-level" at some point and then they move up. It's not as depressing as it sounds and I guarantee I feel more gratified by what I do here at my NGO than I would if I were toiling away at a law firm.
posted by AquaAmber at 1:12 PM on April 23, 2008

I'm not marking best answers yet because I am still interested in what others have to say, but so far I am so grateful for your insights and experiences...

Also, iminurmefi, I will definitely check out late registration/part-time class stuff... Ideally I'd like to go to SAIS or Georgetown SFS, but I am sure you're right about the post-BA work looking good to admissions people.

Yikes, 30 minutes left and work, and 60 minutes of work to finish. What are the odds my Ask MeFi day would also be my busiest day in like three weeks?!

6.67%, perhaps?
posted by allen8219 at 2:29 PM on April 23, 2008

I'm really not sure what the salary level would be in DC, for and Asst Account Exec, so it's hard to say. Here (Portland ME) it would be low 30s.
posted by miss tea at 3:09 PM on April 23, 2008

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