How to Land Your Dream Job
in an Underpaying Field during a Recession
10 Easy Steps!

Laura Eppinger

Oh hey there you private college senior whose single mom still can’t pronounce “FAFSA,” let alone fill out the form! And hello you Humanities whiz destined for short-term temping for the next decade! There is light at the end of the tunnel—albeit a very long tunnel and a rather dim light waiting for you. Here are 10 easy-to-follow steps to help you through this time of discernment:

1. Identify Your Passion

Because you can’t sleep at night, you can’t focus on your last semester of undergrad, it’s all just practice, it’s all fruitless, how can you waste time in this world while there is so much to be done? Ask yourself: what do you care about most? Let this passion lead you to work you’d like to focus on.

You’ll focus on women—keeping them safe on their walks home from the train station, or helping them report their rapes. (Which are violent and frequent on your campus, or in your city, in your country. You read statistics but also know that women under-report, and you read their stories, too, and the only pattern you see is that they’re recurring, recurring, recurring.)

Or, kids. You’ll focus on kids, the ones who just want a safe place to be, to write or to paint without judgment or standardized tests, or to try out science experiments without being labeled as nerds, to be queer or foreign or anything at all without being bullied into the ground.

You find an organization that you believe in. They deliver a service and meet a need in an inclusive, empowering way and the thought of being part of this work is the only thought that can get you to relax, or eat, or cry a little less every morning.

They’re not hiring.

Stick around.

2. Volunteer. Intern. Just Get Your Foot in the Door.

The “foot in the door” is maybe the wrong turn of phrase. It’s not that your organization is hiring but only wants trusted people. Your organization is never hiring. Well, they are never hiring you. 

They operate based on grants—government-funded, private foundations, maybe even individual donors. As such, they’re beholden to the whims of these financers. Sometimes one donor (oh, let’s call it state-level government just for fun) will give your organization the funds for a full-time salary package, all benefits included, but also make it clear that there is one candidate they may hire. If they choose anyone else, those salary funds will somehow dry up.

But you don’t care about any of that. The work, on the ground, sustains you.

So get your hands dirty. Speak up for any piece of the work—the least desirable jobs are a good place to start. Get in early, say late. Do cold calls to raise funds and awareness for your issue. Make posters for rallies on the weekends. Answer the never-ending Interest Forms from potential volunteers, and train this workforce in turn, even though they make it to one shift, maybe two, before falling off the radar. Make sure invitations to donor appreciation lunches are on the right shade of cardstock, in the exact typeface the director prefers. Set the table and clear the table for fund-raising dinners, though you’re not exactly invited to sit at the table for the event.

Shake it off. Put more tasks on your plate.

3. Support Your Passions with Other Work

You do have bills to pay (and the biggest one is for that degree you slogged through), so you need to find paying work. But hold on to the work that keeps your heart beating, that reminds you that you have a pulse, that gives you a reason to draw back the blinds in the morning.

Take a part-time job, or two.

Learn to fill weeknights, weekends, any free time with odd jobs. Babysit, wait tables, promote new brand-name beer flavors at bars, walk dogs, run errands, throw sauce pans in a Hobart, vacuum office buildings, scrub toilets—any and all and more and more wait for you.

You will see that every free moment is an opportunity to work, a chance to pull in money—just a little more money, please, even if it’s in cash. If you’re not doing that work you love, you should be making money. Not that it ever accumulates. It spills as if through a sieve to that greedy mistress Sallie Mae, and though they are smaller there are other cracks it may slip through, too.

Interning will cost you money—professional clothes (from Goodwill), bus fare to and from the office, something to put in a brown bag and stow in the office fridge every day. Small expenses, but your income is small, too, and scattered.

You will manage this.

4. Live Frugally and Avoid Unnecessary Incidental Costs

Socks are an incidental. A replacement umbrella is an incidental. New shoes, a winter coat without holes, a drink with a childhood friend, and any meal that wasn’t prepared at home are all unnecessary expenses you can live without. All you need is work. Just work.

Sometimes you meet up for coffee (size small; black; paid for in quarters and nickels and choked-on pride) and realize it’s a date, or it could be a date. But dating is expensive—you’d need new clothes, underwear purchased somewhere that’s not Walmart sometime more recently than three years ago. And oh God, how much would a new razor set you back? Another rule you may want to set: No Second Dates.

5. Avoid Burn Out—Remember What Matters!

Watch the years go by. Your friends will get married, but there’s no money for you to travel to out-of-state weddings, and no money for gifts for in-state ones.

You stay within your 10-mile radius of home, the work you love, and the work that pays. But you have that work you love, and that’s what matters.

6. Swallow Pride and Move Back Home

It’s an uneasy choice, deciding to pay rent or student loans each month. Your lease will run out and you’ll decide not to renew, but to move back home.

It’s supposed to save you money. Maybe it will. Maybe it will cost you more—you realize your mother needs help paying for her prescriptions, and keeping the house stocked with bread or laundry detergent. You chip in—of course you chip in, you’re not a monster! So you don’t pay rent, but that money still leaks out, somehow.

7. Navigate Corporate Culture Like a Pro!
Learn to grind your teeth and keep your mouth shut as you watch men come and go from positions of power in the organization you love.

Women surround you on the ground—they’re the case-workers, caregivers and teachers. They burn out and move along, but you forgive them for it, always.

But the men in business suits, they rankle you. They move in with their MA degrees and knowledge of QuickBooks and take home more money in one pay period than you’ve seen in a year. (The idea of more school for you, more student loans, is at first terrifying, then humorous. But maybe the terror isn’t completely justified. See #8.)

The men, they’re just there to keep the Director seat warm—this is their gap year before Med School or Law School or Business School. This is their competitive edge on each application—a year with an urban, poor population!

They don’t give a fuck about your clientele. But you do. So you grit your teeth.

8. Be Open to New Opportunities

More years pass, and one of the parents you babysit for is an Admissions Counselor at your state university. One day, after she’s dropped you off at the bus stop, she lingers at the traffic light, ostensibly checking her cell phone. You’re starving after a 12-hour workday, but all you have in your bag is a banana that’s more brown than yellow, and it’s not a great dinner but it is, at least, fruit. You peel it back and wolf it down.

Looking up, you see that mother you work for, telling you to get back in her minivan. She’s taking you to dinner and then she’s driving you home—don’t worry about it, she says.

She asks if you’re OK—if you’re really OK. Her kids adore you, you’re patient and kind and very helpful at homework hour. But you look grey, or something, and can she help?

You won’t answer the question, but all the things you’ve been thinking about come spilling out. You know you’ll be embarrassed later, but it’s too late now: You went to Catholic school to please your mother! She always thought private school meant a better education but her parents couldn’t afford it for her, and goddammit, she really thinks it made Jesus happier to see you there! But you had no idea how much debt you’d be saddled with, and not the right skill set to be hired for a job that would actually help pay it off! You just love kids, and making change, and helping people, but oh God, you’re hungry all the time and you’ve lost some weight but there’s no money for new clothes and everyone at the office has seen you in the same three outfits week in week out for three, no five, no seven years and there’s nowhere else to go, you can clean more offices but you always lay out money for the first round of cleaning supplies so you barely break even, and your hands, they’re ragged now, your hands!

She tells you to drink some water and wash your face in the bathroom. On the drive home she uses words that ice you over with anxiety—income-based exemption for the GRE, fellowships, scholarships, night class, part-time.

You’re scared but you listen.

9. Invest in Yourself

Driven by that mother you babysit for, you do research. And not about homeless shelters with open beds in your city, or Headstart guidelines, or the proper language to make a referral on a client’s behalf. You research for yourself. You realize that you have a future.

You’re a charity case. You pay little or nothing for these classes because your income has been so small and you’ve got the black circles under your eyes to prove it. Your classes meet online or at night once a week.

Enrolling in school again gives you a reprieve from paying student loans. You still work two jobs and intern, but some of the apprehension that greeted you every morning and taunted you every night has let up.

Your leadership certification or your Masters or whatever you’ve signed up for is just one more thing to work at. You work at it, as hard as you can. More years pass. You graduate.

It could happen that after a decade of devotion to the organization you love, you’ll take interviews and accept an offer somewhere else. Same field, similar work, but there may be another entity that values you enough to hire you. It doesn’t feel real at first, but you will leave. You will start over. You’ll be fine.

Or it could happen that you luck out and that position of power at the organization you love is open again—it’s open more often than it’s filled, it seems to you—and now you have the bona fides and the experience to lead. You’ve served coffee to each member of the Board of Trustees enough times for them to know you by name. Or by nickname—someone called you “The Workhorse” once and you didn’t laugh but the name stuck. The interview is comfortable—joking, even. The offer is made. You want to faint, or throw up, but all you can say is, “Thank you.”

10. Give Your All to that Dream Job

The first thing you do when that pay check is deposited, the very first, is: you go out and buy some Chapstick. What a luxury! The bus ride home feels warm and dreamlike. There’s more work ahead, there’s always more work, but there’s less fear now. Less despair.

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