Monday, December 24, 2007

Top 10 Worst Jobs

In my academic life, I have had a number of excellent jobs. Even the academic jobs that weren't so great had certain interesting aspects to them. I even enjoyed being a teaching assistant as a grad student.

In my previous (non-academic) life, I had many awful jobs working with despicable and/or insane people, and I thought it might be fun to list some of these jobs. I have recently been working late to finish some papers and get manuscripts (re)submitted, and at a time like this, it's good to be reminded that things could be far far worse.

Top 10 Worst Jobs I Have Had Thus Far
(10 = least worst; 1 = worst worst)

10. Library worker: front desk
This job was mind numbing most of the time and I was not allowed to read (in a library!). There were a surprising number of rude people checking out books, but one of the pleasures of the job was that it was easy to get revenge on rude people. For example, one could 'forget' to demagnetize their books, causing the rude people embarrassment and inconvenience when they tried to exit the library. During one particular encounter with an extremely rude person, I dropped her library card down a slot that led only to a drawer immediately below the front desk, but there was no way for the rude person to know this. I screamed Oh no! That slot leads to the furnace in the basement! Your card has been incinerated and you cannot check out these books! I then 'found' the card, but in my confused state, forgot to demagnetize her books. This is why this boring job is the least worst of the list.

9. Dishwasher
This job was not so bad either. It was kind of disgusting dealing with all the leftover food and the industrial dishwasher was loud and the job was boring, but I liked my coworkers.

8. Newspaper deliverer
I delivered newspapers back in the day when this was a job that kids did. I walked or rode my bike in all weather and placed each newspaper in the door or mailbox, depending on customer preference. I collected the newspaper fee each week in person. I had the stereotypical experiences with dogs: that is, I was bitten on more than one occasion, and had to go to the emergency room once for a bad dog bite. The most vicious and insane dogs had names like Angel and Mimi. I did this paper route diligently for years, but it turns out that my mother had put the route in my brother's name, it being more common for boys to have paper routes back then, and he got awards for my work. I am sure that this has emotionally scarred me in some way, but not as much as some of my other jobs.

7. Sandwich maker
This was horrible, but at least it was brief. I worked long shifts with no breaks and was not even allowed to sit down. I had to use sharp objects and machines to slice and dice vegetables and meats. The deli area was extremely hot. After I fainted a few times from exhaustion, I was fired.

6. Babysitter
This was also horrible and also brief. In fact, I only did it once and I hated it. The experience did not start well because it was my mother who made me agree to babysit for two obnoxious twin boys who lived on our street, and I was not happy about being forced to do this. Then, in a bizarre twist of fate, my mother was invited to ride in the Goodyear blimp that very day and to bring a guest. She refused to bring me because I had made a "commitment" and I couldn't break that commitment just because it was the one and only time in my entire life that I was likely to be invited to ride in the Goodyear blimp. So my mother went without me. As the twins shrieked at each other and threw food at me, I vowed never to babysit again.

5. Library worker: book shelver
This was a bad job for three reasons: (1) it was boring, (2) my supervisor had many bizarre rules that were difficult to follow, and (3) the library patrons were dominated by residents of a nearby institution for the mentally disturbed. I worked on some floors of the library that were totally dark unless I turned on the light in an aisle. I was only allowed to have a light on as long as I was in an aisle, and then had to turn it off and walk in the dark to find the next aisle. This was stressful because of reason (3) above. Some of the library patrons thought it was very fun to sneak up on me in the dark and then scream suddenly. Note that I had this library job before the one described in #10, so at this time I did not deserve to be tortured in a library. Also, some of the less stable library patrons thought it was very entertaining to leave razor blades in some of the books I was shelving, as well as disturbing notes. My supervisor did not care about any of this, but she cared very much that I follow the rule about the lights. This was a bad job.

4. Waitress in seafood restaurant
I have nothing good to say about this experience. I worked long shifts with unpleasant people and had to dress like a cooked lobster. Huge buses would arrive and 100 people would want to be served at once. Someone always injured themselves on a lobster and would get mad at me just because they were clumsy and were bleeding on their coleslaw. The bus people would leave a few nickels under their plates as tips. The cooks said lewd and crude things to the waitresses and the manager yelled at everyone. A surprising number of customers were not nice. When I am visiting my ancestral home and drive by this restaurant, I shudder to this day.

3. Cook in awful restaurant
Even worse than being a waitress is working in the kitchen of a bad restaurant. One summer I worked in the kitchen of a restaurant that was run by a man with a really bad temper and questionable rules to increase worker efficiency. For example, he decided that it would save time if we removed burgers from the grill with our hands instead of using implements. If he saw us using an implement, he screamed and threatened us. So we got burned, and then would run into the walk-in freezer and submerge our hands in vats of pickles. The boss soon realized what we were doing and prohibited us from leaving our work station after extracting a burger (by hand) from the grill. Near the end of the summer, he got very angry at me and started telling me that I was a loser who would never amount to anything because I couldn't even do my job well as a cook in this lousy restaurant and that I didn't know anything and that he was so much smarter than I was blah blah blah. As soon as he stopped yelling, I started quoting the beginning of Book I of the Aeneid, in Latin -- at the time, I knew quite a lot of it. He fired me. Has anyone ever been fired for quoting from the Aeneid? It was truly a worthwhile experience (and I had been about to quit anyway).

2. Servant for wealthy insane people
A college friend and I responded to an advertisement for a summer job working for a family that had a house on a certain island off the coast of New England. The family liked to hire college students to "help" with some light housework, occasional child care, and occasional cooking at their summer home. Much time off was promised, and we would be treated like "one of the family" and paid well. Once we were on this island with no way to escape, the nice people of this family informed us that we would do all the cooking, clean the large house from top to bottom every day, and take care of their beastly children (who liked to spit, throw hard objects, and scream if not given their way). Our time off mostly consistent of going along with the family on "fun" outings at which we had to fetch things for them and basically continue to be servants. Soon after arriving, one of the family members had a screaming fit because we had allowed someone to pluck a grape from a bunch of grapes without using the grape scissors. Our pay was docked. On a daily basis, the grandfather would wander into the kitchen, look in the freezer, scream "There's not enough ice! Make more ice!". We would make more ice. Then the grandmother would wander into the kitchen, look in the freezer, scream "There's too much ice! Get rid of all this ice!" and throw it all out. Then the grandfather would wander back in.. (etc.). Our pay was docked. One night there was a storm and a shutter flapped loose. The next day, the eldest daughter yelled at us for not fixing it in the middle of the night. Our pay was docked. And so the summer went. The only member of the family who was nice to us was the youngest daughter, but she was only nice because she had recently joined a cult and walked around in a daze that may well have been chemically induced. My friend and I kept ourselves sane by writing novels in the style of Jane Austen about our experience and the dark secrets that our employers no doubt were keeping in the attic.

1. Farm worker for tragic farm family
In my Youth, I always did well in school and I always loved to read. One might think that my mother would be happy about this, but at some point in my teenage years she decided that I was becoming "too intellectual" and that I needed to spend a summer carrying out strenuous manual labor. I objected to this anti-intellectual plan and I believe I even called my mother a Maoist at some point, and that did not go over well. So, I soon found myself indentured to a friend of a friend of my mother's co-worker's dentist, or something like that. I was not even paid in money. I was paid in vegetables. The farming family consisted of a middle-aged couple, their young son, a grandfather, and another relative of some sort (a young man, perhaps a nephew). The woman of the farming family had recently survived a suicide attempt, and spent her days staring out the window at me. The young son spent his days kicking kittens and puppies and trying to make the large hog eat something that would make it ill (or, even better, explode). The young man had some emotional problems as well, and he liked to jump out from behind tractors and corn stalks to scare me. The grandfather was extremely nice but demented, and every day he told me how to get from the farm to Florida, mentioning every route number in turn, over and over and over. The farmer man was nice but he didn't really know what to do with me, as he was somehow forced to participate in my mother's Cultural Revolution-like experiment to cure me of being so intellectual. So he used to make up jobs for me. I spent two entire weeks walking up and down the rows of corn, straightening any that had been knocked over. I spent an entire week walking up and down the rows of potatoes, crushing potato bugs by hand. I shingled and painted the farm house, even though I had no idea what I was doing. I got heat exhaustion and was constantly on the look out for the disturbed young man who liked to scare me. One day as I lay under a tractor, delirious and nearly unconscious from the heat, I decided to become a professor.


Anonymous said...

Oh boy! Now I know why these professors have lost their marbles!

quaryn-dk said...

Good grief. In light of a previous posting about your mother-in-law, I have to wonder: is she worse than or better than your own mother?

Alice said...

Funny how cultural revolutions often do not have the result intended! Nice to read this... I recently did a similar exercice of trying to find what OTHER job I could consider doing (am a tenure-track science prof) and could not come up with anything realistic... (did not prevent me from wyning that day)

amy said...

Thank you, thank you! I alternated between laughing and crying through your stories. If you ever want a break from physics, you'd be a first-rate novelist!

CAE said...

Awesome post. Just what I needed after complaining all morning about having to work (at a job I actually like) on Christmas Eve!

I also hated hated HATED any job that involved food. Strawberry picking, kitchen prep, waitressing, popcorn duty at the cinema, you name it. I liked being a bartender though, even though you don't get tips in Britain.

Ms.PhD said...

I think this is my favorite post ever. I laughed and laughed and laughed. Your mother sounds like a piece of work. And didn't you say you don't like surprises? It's no wonder with all these wackos sneaking up on you!

I agree with Amy, you could always publish Jane Austen-style novels for a living if you wanted to.

Ψ*Ψ said...

Super awesome post! I'm lucky enough to have only held one non-lab-tech job: in a movie theater. *shudder*

HumboldtsClio said...

Why do all the crazy people go to libraries? I was also a book shelver, working my way through college, and I shelved a dark corner where homeless people and mentally disturbed people liked to lurk. Ironically, it was the special education section.

I haven't commented before, but I've been reading your blog for a while and I really enjoy it.

Helen H. said...

I can't believe you still talk to your mother. I'd have disowned her after all that.

Any chance you'll post the Austen-esque stories you wrote in your summer trapped on an island?

Charlotte said...

You told your manager off in're so awesome.

Female Science Professor said...

My mother is nuts, but she is not evil or malicious (mother-in-law = evil, malicious).

My novel, Pale Face, Dark Heart will likely never see the light of day, and that is probably a very good thing.

Kea said...

Has anyone ever been fired for quoting from the Aeneid?

No, but I wish I had been! I'm always way, way too polite. God knows how I can keep doing this. I have also waitressed and cooked, amongst many, many other things. I'm waitressing again at the moment - the people there are nice enough, though. Previous bad jobs (besides waitressing and cooking and cleaning) include:
1. vineyard labourer (vine trapping is as mind-numbing as you can get)
2. ice-cream seller and cone maker (try cooking all day long at a hot stove in 45 degree C whilst being expected to smile nicely to the rude customers)
3. financial analyst - I hated this the most
One of my waitressing bosses would delight in giving me the job of cleaning the toilets, not realising how relieved I was to get half an hour of peace.

graduated! said...

Brilliant. Can only wish that you could have made a mint selling your own Nanny Diaries, with interspersed Latin. Arma virumque cano indeed. Only in your specific instance, it'd presumably be saeve memorem RedLobsterOrSimilaris.

Ann said...

And here is the million dollar question: where does professorly life fit on the list?? (from another FSP...albeit at a smaller institution) Thanks for being able to look back on those experiences with humor!

Heather said...

This makes me feel so much better about my own job history! Thanks for the stories!

Albert said...

Did you have any job besides professorship that you would not rate as nightmare?

curiouscat said...

I had a job that was declared one of the 10 worst jobs in Washington DC by the City Paper. It included a great write up: "Unlike for instance the Department of Interior, where the drudgery and anonymity of government work could be mitigated by a built-in sense of larger purpose, OPM exists solely to manage the red tape of the federal government employment. It is the bureaucracy of the bureaucracy.
'Some stay longer,' says one benefits specialist. 'But they're like prisoners who have stayed in jail so long they don't want to leave.'"

Anonymous said...

Ahh, yes, the thing that pushed me over the edge was the family farm. Specifically an incident with a cow, a dead calf, and a method of birth that proved rather more successful with Caesar. Except I don't imagine that Caesar smelled quite as bad coming out . . . that moment, the stench of amniotic fluid and dead calf in my nostrils, I decided to study literature for a living.

Zeno said...

Wow! Great stories ... and scary! I grew up on a family farm, so I know a bit about how gross it can be. I was glad to get away. I used to think a library job wouldn't be so bad. Now I know better!

Alioth said...

WRT dark library basements: was it forbidden to bring a flashlight / wear a headlamp?

Wow, this really puts PhD Comics into perspective...

Ole Phat Stu said...

My worst one?
Sorting Garbage to pick out the recyclable stuff.

Garbage men have been my heroes ever since and always get a large tip at Xmas.

Dr.Stuart Savory

Åka said...

This piece was wonderfully written. At least you were able to leave these jobs! Some people have to stay...

My own experiences are very different. My jobs before physics were really good. I worked at a cemetary, tending the flowers on the graves, and I was really good at it. I like working with my hands. I also worked with packing vegetable seeds for mail order, in a very nice little company. I worked very hard, and knew that I did a good job and that my effort was appreciated.

My second worst job was when I was employed as an accellerator engineer, just after graduating. I had no experience in the field, I was by far the youngest person in the lab (and the only woman), and I was supposed to work on a project all alone. I got a computer and a course in accellerator physics, and an empty office. It could have been wonderful, but I felt very insecure. I didn't see any results, I didn't know how to get going or what kind of progress to expect. Worse: I got payed but could not show results. I felt very bad, I had enjoyed working hard and wanted to do something I could be proud of. I wanted to deserve my salary. The time passed, I felt more and more confused in my lonely office and after a while I quit.

But I'm still in physics. After this job I decided that I needed more education, that I was not ready for a job, so I applied for a PhD position.

My very worst job ever was teaching 13-year-olds for seven weeks just before summer. Imagine having to stand in front of 30 very critical judges, who are not going to like anything you do and who might throw water balloons at you or suddenly decide to climb out the window!

Rosie said...

Oh goodness, you've brought back memories. I think the food service jobs are among the worst I've had, although made bearable through having cool co-workers. My worst job ever, though, which I thought I'd wiped from my mind - worse than the Romanian orphanage - was my day on a farm as an Onion Turner.

See, a tractor can plough a field into neat little ridges. With an attachment, it can even drop little onions into those ridges. But it takes the human touch to rotate every single onion so that its roots are pointing down and its top is pointing up.

Imagine, if you will, a field over half a kilometre long. The rows - and onions - are endless. You start out bending your knees, squatting along the rows as if toddling along like a baby. Your legs ache. You try straightening your leg and bending from the waist, swooping over the onions. Your back aches.

It's been raining, then sunny, so the soil has formed great claggy lumps that have dried rock hard. You are reduced to crawling along on hands and knees, one palm reddened and bruised by the earth, the other shoulder and wrist too tired to rotate any more onions. You look up. You're still only halfway down the first row. there are over 100 rows.

Needless to say I did not return the next day. 12 New Zealand dollars an hour was more than the minimum wage, but for the first time I said, dammit, my time is too valuable for this!

Anonymous said...

I grew up on Martha's Vineyard. I think I worked for the same family.

Female Science Professor said...

I'm sorry if you worked for the same family, but at the same time, I hope you did. I would hate to think that there is more than one family like that in the world.

Robert D Feinman said...

If you are feeling nostalgic for your library jobs you might want a daily dose of the comic strip "Unshelved".

The cast of characters are librarians and a few hanger's on, as well as an unending supply of clueless patrons.

Carl said...

At 48 I too have had several jobs from which to pick as the worst.
I also was a newspaper delivery person when it was done by bike and had my share of dog run ins.
I worked on an avocado ranch as the only “Gringo”, there were no toilets (not even an out house).
I also worked as a “lot boy” at a car dealership where I was asked to do every task that no one else wanted to do.
HOWEVER the worst job by far was a more recent one working at a Candy Factory as a production manager. I got NO respect from upper management (I found out later this was a pity hire) and was treated like an idiot in so many ways. For me doing nasty grunt work is far better than having your soul sucked from you and your talents ignored while others around you have no clue to where their own talents lie and others begin.
For details, please see my blog post:
The worst job I ever had

Rob said...

Classic example of why professors are professors - they cannot succeed at anything else in life!

Anonymous said...

I'm 57 have had a number of jobs like that including sandwich making,and i enjoyed them verry much

Jason said...

It was funny to read your bad jobs, since it brought back some painful, yet interesting memories. I have luckily not had a truly bad job, just ones with some moments that were not fun.

Once, I was working as the handyman for an office building my father worked in and there was an interesting mix of people working there, but one guy asked me to vacuum the parking lot line because they were being painted the next day. Everyone else in the office told me to forget him and just sweep the lot.

I also spent one summer working for local parks department, a job I enjoyed, but they had a toilet that used bacteria to recycle the solid waste. So, I had to rake the mass to ensure there was enough oxygen for the bacteria, that was a wonderful smelling experience.

Bad jobs make you stronger, but it's not aways obvious at the time.

eva123media said...

Hilarious! Loved your witty writing style, & for sharing your work follies as well as an interesting peek into motivations of why people who go into professorships! I've had a few of those jobs as well over the years. i.e. I always promised myself I'd never work in a food/restaurant environment again after 7 years in jr. high & high school in numerous chinese restaurants with demanding guests & relatives. However, in my first wk of college, I saw that the cafeteria positions offered a bit more $. I wavered about whether to take on a 2nd job, & ended up getting the less desireable shifts at crack of dawn (6am) or graveyard shifts at 11p cleaning floors etc. because I signed on 2 wks later than the rest of the crew! After graduation, my first 2 jobs on the set of commercials as an intern & then paid, ended up coincidentally being those with loooong 22 hour days or something! Also ended up doing kids entertainment where I got to dress as a power ranger or a fairie or minnie mouse with the big head! More recently, when I started real estate, I ended up in some pretty shady neighborhoods sometimes where I saw horrific fires, or places that were completely in shambles with garbage everywhere! (of course I saw many beautiful places as well!) Cheers!

eva123media said...

ps forgot to mention the high school jobs of manual labor putting in plastic strips on thresholds for the bottoms of doors (my dad had a construction company and segweyed into thresholds at some point). Or ones I had chosen as side jobs where I was peddaling perfumes and spraying people at offices when we went door to door, or selling shoes or catalogs from catalogs as a kid (i chose to do that!). The last decade I've been working freelance behind & in front of the camera on big movies & commercials etc, so obviously that's been entertaining and/or at times difficult as well! Feel free to edit these down since you have such great writing skills! thanks!

Humberto said...

When I was 18 my parents send me to IOWA to live in a farm in this small tow called Farmington...they wanted me to go to school there and improve my English (I am from Costa Rica and I studied in a public school)...the first two weeks I just thought I was going to die but after some time I started to love it..Life in a farm it’s a little bit of an acquired taste...Now I am a Computer Systems Analyst and when I really want to relax I go back to IOWA

wannabewriter said...

you are an extremely good writer! Before I read this I wanted some of those jobs, but now I'm rethinking it.

Anonymous said...

I was actually beginning to like this article until I read your #2 Job "White Slave". For a professor with a high level of intelligence to classify their self as a white slave is very disrespectful and degrading. A slave is "a person who is the property of and wholly subject to another; a bond servant". Over the years they have been many different races forced into slavery. A color of a slave was never broadcasted. For you to talk about how you were paid to be a slave is ridiculous. My ancestors were slaves for many years and did not earn one red cent. You may not consider yourself to be racist but your title says differently.

Female Science Professor said...

I would go with 'immature' and 'lacking in judgment' before going with 'racist', but whatever. Clearly what I wrote is ridiculous, as you astutely note.

Zodia said...

I always hear rumors about waitresses doing things to the food presented to rude customers. So, regarding your experience in the library, is it morally acceptable to harass rude people/patrons/customers? Isn't this just one step away from torturing criminal suspects?

Female Science Professor said...

Yes and yes