Every Job I’ve Had: Publishing, Teaching, and the Inevitability of Grad School

How I Always Imagined Graduate School

TV Development Intern, Summers 2005 & 2006:

I got my first ever paying job through a family friend. My mom’s college friend ran a (now defunct) television production company specializing in lowbrow A&E Biography specials (RIP), afternoon cooking shows for the Food Network, and occasional documentaries for HBO. I was shy and willing to earn minimum wage spending all summer inside, reading the internet. My first summer, I pitched subjects for a Biography special on murderers. I spent a lot of time on Crime Library, got familiar with the filming policies for both federal and assorted state prisons, and eventually one of my suggestions became a TV episode! “First Person Killers: Ronald DeFeo,” (about the guy who inspired The Amityville Horror) aired sometime in 2006, and I have still never seen it.

NYC Publishing Intern, Summer 2007:

I am one of those starry-eyed millennials who graduated with a creative writing degree. As a freshman, I schemed to get a summer publishing internship, preferably with Knopf or Doubleday or some other really snooty imprint. A friend of my grandmother forwarded my resume around (she worked in the industry) and after a very casual phone interview, I ended up interning for an art book publisher. I spent the summer fact-checking an art history textbook and lounging in the park on summer Fridays while my bosses drove to their various homes in the Hamptons. The internship was unpaid, so I lived at home and tried to remember to pack lunch.

Language Arts Middle School Teacher, Summer 2009:

Halfway through college, I was getting sick of writing workshops and way more interested in my occasional history or politics or sociology class. I read way too many New York Times Magazine articles about charter schools and education as a civil rights issue.

Feeling fired up and overly confident (I’d been an SAT tutor at a local charter school), I cold-called the head of the English department at a different charter school and asked if they had any volunteer opportunities during the summer. I ended up team-teaching summer school English to a bunch of middle schoolers. I had no business teaching (only a charter school could have hired a college student with no teaching certificate) and mostly I hope that I didn’t cause any lasting damage to my incredibly bored but mostly sweet students. The math teacher and I shared the same last name and the kids never stopped assuming we were married. (I think he was in his late 30’s; this was the year I learned everyone over 18 is an adult to a sixth grader.)

D.C. Education Policy Intern, Fall 2009:

The summer school job made it clear that I was not cut out to teach young kids, but it also netted me some unearned credibility with the education policy team at a think tank in D.C. I’d unsuccessfully applied to their summer internship program, but was accepted for the fall program my senior year of college. I researched childhood nutrition bills, staffed events, and covered reception three times. (This was required, all the interns hated it, and I once accidentally hung up on Carl Bernstein.) I did get a stipend, but since I went to school in Baltimore it only barely covered my train fare. The internship felt glamorous, but the commute three days a week was exhausting, and I didn’t like D.C. My bosses were nice and encouraged me to apply for a position with the team when I graduated, but nothing ever opened up.

Research Associate at Political Consulting Firm, 2010-2012:

This was my first adult job, the one I started approximately seven seconds after graduation. The D.C. internship had convinced me that I wanted to do something in education. I started looking up NYC charter school networks and submitting cover letters for open positions; I contacted a family friend who worked for KIPP and asked for an informational interview. She eventually put me in touch with a consultant who invited me to her office for one of those meetings you realize is a job interview halfway through. Meanwhile, I went through months of interviews with a charter school: they asked for writing tests, scheduling tests, phone interviews, all before calling me in for a series of in-person interviews that lasted for most of the day. I loved the school and my potential boss, but not the position itself. Honestly, a petty part of me resented the amount of interviewing I was doing to become someone’s assistant. I was offered the charter school job and a research associate job at the consulting firm, and I chose consulting. I thought the consulting job would let me stay engaged with the issues I cared about, while earning a livable wage and running my own projects. As it turns out, consulting is less about solving the world’s problems and more about pleasing both your clients and your boss. I have no idea why I didn’t pick up on that before. The job was neither West Wing nor Scandal-like. Some of the clients were great, some seemed vaguely evil, and the rest were organizations like the Connecticut State Dental Association. The salary was fine, but it eventually bred resentment among the junior staff, who worked investment banker hours for what seemed like comparatively little pay. The work was sometimes interesting, but more often it consisted of running focus groups where you asked people over and over, week after week, to describe the five most important issues facing their community. After a year, my co-workers and I realized that our bosses were waiting for us to quit so they could hire a fresh set of new college grads. After another year, I finally figured out how to leave.

Graduate Student, Now and Forever:

I went back to school in the fall of 2012. I started a masters degree in a wholly impractical field (history) and told myself that this was the first step on my path to becoming a professor. Nearly all masters degrees are unfunded; mine was no exception and I was able to go back to school thanks to the generosity of grandparents who had left me some money earmarked for education. Nearly all sensible people say you shouldn’t go into debt for a masters degree. They aren’t wrong and I’m enormously lucky I didn’t have to decide if I was desperate enough to take out a loan. I don’t regret the decision to go back to school, but I have some complicated feelings about how I ended up here.

If I had to sit down and make an honest list of the top five reasons I went back to school, ‘running away from my problems’ might be on there. By the time I had left my last job, I was miserable. I woke up some mornings and threw up, so afraid was I to face a boss who was disappointed in me, and worked past midnight on projects I had ceased to care about. It wasn’t the right job for me and I was struggling to accept that. I had thought I was capable of doing anything well if I put in the effort. I wanted to leave after my first year, but told myself that I couldn’t quit without a new job lined up. But I couldn’t find a new job, in part because the hours I worked made it hard to muster the time and energy to apply for things, and in part because I had no idea what I wanted to do. I was pretty depressed and trying hard to think of a way to leave my job without feeling like I’d failed at it.

I’d always thought I’d go back to school. As a college sophomore, I imagined working for a few years after graduation and then starting an MFA program. (Then I’d write my collection of short stories and buy a brownstone in New York and be a chic staff writer for The New Yorker without any of the hard work of real investigative journalism.) By senior year, I thought I’d get a masters in public policy to help boost my career prospects in education advocacy. 18 months into my consulting job with no success finding a new position, I started thinking seriously about graduate school.

I went home and looked at all the usual MPA programs. They seemed interesting, but not exciting, and worse, it seemed like they’d prepare me for the job I already had. I’d had a history professor my senior year of college who told me (while we stood awkwardly in line for sandwiches at the campus deli) that I should consider graduate school. He’d taught an early modern European history course that I’d loved — we’d read about folklore and witchcraft and the Reformation and gender relations and I’d been completely enthralled and horribly annoying in class discussions. When I thought about what I’d like to do next, taking a whole bunch of classes about history and gender and literature and culture sounded pretty damn good.

I applied to a masters program in the spring of 2012 and I think I quit my job about five seconds after I got my acceptance email. I started classes in the fall, and applied for history doctoral programs the next year. So far, things are lining up. I’m due to graduate with my masters in a month and in August, I’ll start my PhD. The job prospects upon graduation are uncertain (see every Billfold comments section about graduate school ever) and I’m not entirely sure that I’m cut out for the race to obtain one of a dwindling number of tenure-track positions. I often feel as though I’m becoming both more and less practical about my future. I cycle through phrases of either dutifully reading every article the Chronicle of Higher Education publishes on graduate student debt and adjunct poverty, or swearing off both topics to preserve my mental health. But I love reading history and sometimes I even love writing my own (when I’m not banging my head against a desk in the library at 2am), and I love teaching college students. Spending six years reading, writing, and teaching American history sounded fun and I managed to find someone willing to pay me to do it. In five years, I’ll sit down and figure out what to do next.

 

Hannah D. is an early Americanist and consumer of Haribo products.

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