Worthless

In just over a month, I’ll be graduating with my Master’s degree in biology. I worked my ass off in the lab, taught two classes, and took several of the hardest courses of my life in order to earn that degree.  I read hundreds of papers, worked crazy hours, and stressed myself to the point of collapse more than once (seriously, I can show you the medical bills).

To even earn the right to try for that degree, I worked my ass off for four years of college. To be honest, most of the coursework for that was relatively easy for me, and even the stuff that wasn’t was at least usually intellectually satisfying. But in addition to the coursework, I also worked in several labs for free or for minimum wage, worked multiple food service jobs, volunteered for my department, and tutored in order to occasionally have spending money.

But as things currently stand, I won’t have full-time employment when I graduate in a month. Right now, all my prospects for generating income are part-time or freelance, and if I’m lucky I’ll make enough to pay my bills.

And because of this, I feel like a fuck-up. A failure. Pathetic.

I know that I shouldn’t feel this way. I know that the economy is fucking us all pretty hard right now, especially people my own age. In the three years I’ve been in the relatively cushy position of making a livable wage and getting decent benefits in grad school, many of my friends have had to take dead-end jobs outside their fields, move in with parents, or otherwise struggle to get by. I am aware of how rough it is out there right now. Hell, just tonight, I got an email rejecting me from a part-time, hourly writing position… that had over 100 applicants.

But none of that really makes me feel much better.  See, the progressive idealist in me desperately wants to believe in the inherent worth of people: to believe that everyone should be entitled to at least food, shelter, and healthcare; to believe that if you works hard to acquire meaningful skills and apply them enthusiastically that you should be able to get a job that pays a living wage.

But there is another part of me that is just echoing every conservative pull-yourself-up-by-your-bootstraps douchebag on the internet saying: This is no one’s problem but your own.

I made the mistake of going into biological research in a time where funding is at an all time low. I made the mistake of thinking that it was reasonable to follow my dreams and work hard and trust that I would make it somehow. Sure, I couldn’t have been expected to predict the economic collapse, but if silly things like ‘security’ and ‘not having massive debt’ and ‘having enough money to pay my bills and also maybe have some fun stuff too’ mattered to me so much, maybe I should have focused more on fields with high growth and earning potential.

I spent my life up through high school thinking that if I just worked my ass off in school and did everything “right”, I would end up with a life I could be happy with.  I expected to have to work hard, and I expected to have to do some work that I didn’t enjoy, but I had been told my whole life that I had to do a certain set of things to be successful, and I was doing them, so I thought I would be successful.

And that’s when I started getting rejection letters from colleges. I was a National Merit scholar, I had almost perfect SAT scores, a GPA over 4.0… and I still got rejected a lot. I expected some of that, but after years of people assuring me that I’d “go to Harvard someday”, I kind of expected that at least ONE of the top-tier schools I applied to would accept me.  And one of them eventually did accept me…though off their waiting list, after I had accepted a position at a state school.

I was shamed, more than a little, for being at all upset about not getting into better schools. After all, I got a full-tuition scholarship at Purdue University, which is still a pretty fucking awesome deal. What kind of entitled brat was I, whining about not having a chance to go to U of Chicago or Washington in St. Louis? At the time, bitching about the entitlement of millennials was a trendy thing, and I felt rightfully indicted. I had been a fool to think that just being smart on paper gave me a right to anything.

Not going to an ivy-level school actually turned out to be a good thing for me, especially given my current life situation–I graduated from undergrad with almost no debt, something that would have been impossible for me at a top-tier private institution, and I got a great education. But I was still humbled by that experience, by being caught off-guard about what success requires. And I was SO DETERMINED not to let it happen again. I would not be one of those horribly entitled members of my generation, I would earn my way, damnit.

And so now, facing down ‘failure’ again, the “entitlement” accusation is screaming in my ear. I should not be whining about “unsupportive academic culture” or “poor funding of science” or “the shitty economy”… because that’s just fucking life, and I should have planned better. I should have been better.

On the one hand, this impulse of mine, to refuse to let myself make excuses, is not an exclusively awful thing. Certainly, playing the victim here is not going to do me any favors. Certainly, I need to be working at 110% to develop my skills and apply for jobs.

But you know what? I should not be feeling shame for being where I am right now, and I am angry as fuck at anyone and everyone who would have me believe I should be.

I am angry at myself for letting the toxic idea that a human adult that cannot find gainful employment is always to blame for their own predicament get under my skin. I am angry that my own struggles to feel worthy of notice or love have provided fertile ground for the notion that a person who cannot economically support themselves is worthless.

Because, yes, all you totally self-reliant devil’s advocates out there, I could have made different choices that may have put me in a better position. I could have, for instance, gotten a degree that translated directly into a job in a field that was growing. But fuck you, hindsight is 20/20, and there are ALWAYS things that one could have done better. I can’t even tell you how many times I’ve seen assholes comment on a humanities major’s tales of unemployment woes with “haha, should have gotten a degree in STEM”. Hell, I used to think that way myself at times–I was one of the smart ones, going into a “useful” field. Look where that got me.

The bottom line is, you shouldn’t have to do everything perfectly in order to have a right to complain when things go to shit. In particular, when things have gone shitty in part because the larger societal structures (the economy, the academy, the institutions supporting public science) involved are fucking broken, we have every fucking right to be pissed.

Could I have done better? Of course. You’re talking to a chronically depressed perfectionist, was there any chance in hell I’d say anything different?

But damn it, you shouldn’t have to be perfect to be deserving of a decent life. None of us should have to be. And I don’t think believing that should get me labeled an entitled brat.

And damn it, job or no job,

I am not worthless.

(inspired in part by this post and the following discussion)

18 Comments

  1. Exactly how i felt when i completed by BSc in Economics in July 2011. Had i graduated 10 years earlier i would have been snapped up by an investment bank because of my degree class (1st) and also i have a very strong network. Like you, I thought if i be perfect, work hard, educate myself – I will live the dream. However, none of that happened. I did get a graduate role as an analyst but not in in Banking. I did it for a year and realised that the private sector isnt for me and now i am doing my MSc Economics. The economy is still horrid and the chance of getting into banking is narrow so instead I intend on going into research. Have you considered a PhD ?

  2. A lot of people are having a tough time. From all walks of life. I too thought things would work out for me, and I honestly believed that things would be fine. And boy, was I wrong. The economy is in the pits. Everything has forced me to rethink everything.

  3. I went through a lot of the same thought processes you have now when I found myself as a top high school graduate and a minor in a fundamentalist family that would not allow their children to seek an education. I felt worthless, stupid, and as if only I had made a few different choices, I wouldn’t have been in that situation.

    I was wrong. And at the end of this part of your journey, you’ll see that too. You worked hard and followed your dreams, and expecting to be able to live off hard work is not “entitlement.” And honestly, I’m of the opinion that people who manage to persevere and work hard when life throws them obstacles turn out to be much kinder, more persistent, and put-together people than those to whom life deals a straightforward hand. Think of your journey as a character-building exercise.

    And always remember that you are brilliant. You are smart enough to earn a Master’s degree, which is something that less than 10% of the population ever accomplishes. You can do this.

  4. I send you many Jedi-Hugs, Keels. I could sing you the song of my people (Liberal Arts), but alas, that doesn’t help much, if at all. (And besides, you already read my Job Shame post. I can only hope you’re in a more positive state of mind three years into your career hunt than I am).

    I do want to say a few things though. For starters, there’s no secure field anymore. Not one. My friends and peers who decided to go to Law School after we graduated are just now finishing with their degrees–and when they chose to go to law school 3 years ago, it was a great idea. The economy was tanking and almost everyone I knew was jumping straight into a Masters program in an attempt to postpone the inevitable job search and to wait out the economical slump. Fast forward 3 years, and now Law students are being laughed at. The job market is oversaturated with bright-eyed, bushy-tailed lawyers fresh from school and almost none of them have jobs. In fact, almost every new lawyer I know does something OTHER than law, and many of them went to prestigious scools, so that doesn’t guarantee you anything either,

    The other day I even read an article about how majoring in Business was a bad idea. Fucking BUSINESS! As an English major, I used to look at the business students (IU has the Kelly School of Bidniz, which is pretty excellent and well known) and think, “Damn. I would hate to study that, but they are all going to make BANK when they’re done.” Not true, apparently. (Although the two Kelly school kids I know personally are doing pretty well, so who knows?)

    I wholeheartedly believe that luck and networking are more important than anything else in this economy. Sadly, in the end it comes down more to who you know than what you’re capable of. I landed my current job thanks to nepotism, and nepotism is (incredibly) how our office does most of their hiring. Everyone is connected to someone here. I wish I could give you better advice or some sort of hope to salve the wounds you have and the wounds to come.

    I’ve been steadily applying for jobs in my field for over a year, and I’ve only had 2 interviews. And neither of those jobs even bothered to call me back or properly reject me. It was all hope and then just radio silence. Forever.

    And I also don’t think it’s healthy to look at your past and think “I should have been better.” It’s easy to think that because the past is over and done with. Oh, I should have done this or this, I should have tried harder, I should have cared more, etc etc. That vein of thinking can really screw up your mind, so do your best not to succumb to it. Instead, just think of how you can be better now. Where does the road to “better” begin?

    Personally, I think you’re doing a great thing just by keeping up with both of your blogs. You’re a wonderful writer and almost brutally honest in your self-portrayal and assesment, which is refreshing and interesting and brave. You’ll get a lot of rejection notices, Keely. And you’ll shout into the void and only hear silence echo back (and the only word there spoken was the whispered word: “Lenore”) (sorry, literary humor). It’s not so much the rejection as the never-ending silence that gets in your head and messes with your mind. But regardless of that, regardless of going broke, having debt, or moving home (all of which I have done, not necessarily in that order), you just have to keep going. Losing faith in yourself and giving up are the biggest pitfalls. Don’t fall prey to them. You’ve worked too hard to give up now.

    You’re strong and smart and talented. Keep going.

    • I will be okay, and I will keep going. I’ve had a great stroke of luck in getting some readers here, and that incentive to keep writing is enormously helpful.

      You’re quite right that no field is ‘safe’ right now. A lot of educational choices that might have looked smart back when we started college would have ended us in the same place. :-/

      Thanks for the comment and the confidence. I really appreciate it.

  5. What you think of a situation and how you respond to that situation are different things. You are absolutely right to look at the economy, at academia, at the research climate and be angry. You are absolutely right to respond to it, not by giving up, but by trying as hard as you can. Being angry at the situation doesn’t mean you’re entitled – it means you’re observant.

    It’s amazing the mind games we play on ourselves. When I try to have a life outside of research, I feel guilty. When research is going badly and I’m upset, I think “What’s wrong with me – I should love this so much no matter how hard it is!” It’s dumb. If more people acknowledged the problems, instead of feeling that it’s shameful, maybe things would be going a little better.

  6. Hey,
    Just to let you know I felt exactly the same when I graduated in 2011. Only my field was literature and English, speaking of a completely useless degree… I don’t live in an English speaking country but everyone assumes their English is at least ‘good’, even if my texts are better and I can poke more holes in their grammar than there are in a Swiss cheese. (/end rant)
    I initially started to write this reply to say ‘hang in there, it gets better’, and somewhere I do believe that that is true. Fact is, though, that a year and a half later I don’t feel any f*ing different, certainly not better anyway, about it.
    You will get a job, eventually. And after a few months, weeks if you’re unlucky, you will discover that it’s dead-end, way below your pay grade, and mind-numbingly boring. And then every day from that point on will just be a struggle to get yourself into work. But.
    But work is not everything. The mistake a lot of people make is that they measure their personal success with the success of their careers. This is a false method, especially in our time and economy. Careers are not the (only) road to happiness.
    It sucks that you won’t get chances where others would have, and all of the other things young people these days rightfully complain about, but that does not mean you should stop fighting.
    Find a goal, a motivation, a role-model, whatever. Something to set your sights on. And every time someone tries to bring you down, visualize that something. Think thoughts like ‘What would my role-model do?’ or ‘What can I do to make my goal happen?’, or even ‘How do I turn this into an advantage?’. Do not let them get you down. Do not let anyone tell you what you should be thinking or how you should be feeling. You are your own person – and no one can change that. Not even Mr. Shitty Economy.
    Stay motivated and keep doing things you love with conviction, and before you know it, that will get noticed – even if it’s only in a small way.
    Don’t live to work, work to live.
    I hope all of this cheesy rantiness was at least a little bit helpful.

  7. Definitely not worthless. I’m about to be in your position – I graduate in July, and my degree is possibly held in even less regard than yours! I always figured that if I was clever, the world would somehow all turn out ok for me and it would all be lovely. That changed when I didn’t get the university I wanted, went through clearing and had a complete change of heart and degree.

  8. Hi Keely, Kaitlin pointed me your way yesterday, and I’ve only read this post so far, but based on what Kaitlin mentioned about you, we’re in very similar situations.

    For example, THIS. This times a million:

    I spent my life up through high school thinking that if I just worked my ass off in school and did everything “right”, I would end up with a life I could be happy with. I expected to have to work hard, and I expected to have to do some work that I didn’t enjoy, but I had been told my whole life that I had to do a certain set of things to be successful, and I was doing them, so I thought I would be successful.

    I’m battling those thoughts near daily; I did it all RIGHT, damn it! I did what they said I should do, and now I’m… sitting on my couch, feeling royally screwed. Bit of backstory: did the undergrad thing, got a master of Education, and began teaching in the Chicago Public Schools. I landed a rockstar job right away and basically got fast-tracked to leadership positions and such… but I. was. miserable. 12 hour days with no breaks (because someone always needs something), demanding and occasionally unreasonable parents whose expectations were way beyond the scope of what I actually got paid to do, and the resulting feeling of failure as I left each night because no matter what I finished, there were still 50 million more things to do, and by the time I checked my email in the morning, that number would have increased. If I was making Wall Street money for that level of stress and effort, that would be one thing… But our corrupt mayor would have the entire city believe that we greedy teachers make too MUCH money and leave at 3 every day.

    The teacher-bashing in this city, especially during our strike, was insane. I went from being on one anti-depressant to two (and high doses of each), plus an anxiety medication. I started having panic attacks every Sunday around 5 o’clock. I started having panic attacks at work. And, after three years and a handful of months, that was it. I burned out completely. I went on medical leave last October and officially resigned in January. I’ve been writing about it over on my blog… I have no idea what I’m doing, and I know there is a part of me that feels like a failure and a quitter. UGH.

    Anyways, that was my longwinded backstory! I’m off to read more about you!
    Lauren

  9. Pingback: Thinking out loud: graduation, career choices, and ANXIETY | a little dose of keelium

  10. Pingback: keely the science writer | a little dose of keelium

  11. For most of us, the shame is worse than the “tangible” effects of unemployment (such as having to couch-surf or move back home). Thankfully, many of us that had the ability to get into a good college also have the ability to find enough food to stay alive (and kudos to Obamacare for letting graduates keep their parents’ health insurance).

    But the shame is real and “tangible”. I’m 42 and I still have to deal with disappointing my parents. I know how tough it is to be READY (both academically and emotionally) to go out there and do something important — “important” enough for an employer to actually pay you to do it.

    But the shame is also not real. Your life is your life. If you were an orphan, or in a wheelchair, or had a criminal record, would you be as hard on yourself? Would you expect others to be as hard on you? We are often more able to extend empathy to others than to ourselves. All your shame, by definition, is internally generated.

    If you’re on this planet for 90 years, you will probably spend less than half of it working full time. I’m glad you want to do something worthwhile. As an economist, I can tell you that unemployment is the most damning indictment of an economy. It means that you have healthy educated people who WANT to do good for society and are unable to.

    But, in the grand scheme of things, it won’t matter if you worked for 43 years or 44 years out of your life. And on the bright side, you aren’t doing *harm*. You aren’t working on Wall Street stealing money from grandmothers’ retirement funds. Just by sitting around and being you and touching people’s lives, you are already more valuable, in a purely objective sense, than many of this world’s most “successful” people.

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