Underemployed: My secret new job



I’ve had a new job for a few months and no one knows.

I’m too embarrassed to tell anyone. There are a few people who do know, but only because someone should be aware of my location in case the world implodes – and they’re under threat of great bodily harm if they leak my secret.

Unfortunately, specializing in violence prevention and women’s rights is incredibly low-paying and psychologically taxing, so I have always had to supplement my income by teaching college courses. In my experience, it’s also a surprisingly abusive and exploitative field, which led me to give up the career a few years ago. I kept teaching.

So here I am, a trained and experienced M.S.W. and M.P.A. with a B.S. in psychology and a B.A. in French. This new job, however, does not even require a high school diploma or G.E.D.

I recently told a friend that I think I’ve hit rock bottom. She replied, “There’s no bottom as long as you’re still trying!” Am I, though?

At this point, I must share two realities: First, adjunct teaching is notorious for its low pay. A couple of years ago, an article from an adjunct professor explained that she made more money as a dog walker than teaching eight classes at local universities. Second, the housing market in LA is a shitshow. I was paying a whopping $1,575 for a 750 sq. ft. one bedroom until a couple of months ago, when construction crews flipping the unit above me destroyed my bathroom, unleashing sewage, mold, and God knows what else, effectively evicting me. I lived in a hotel for about a week while I desperately searched for an apartment. My new rent is about twice my old rent…and that’s reasonable for the area.

Most of my friends and family want me to leave LA. I understand why that seems like an easy answer, but it’s easy for them, not me. Frankly, it would feel like a final failure. I do have an established teaching career here, if nothing else. My life is here, though it clearly doesn’t sound like a good one to them. And no non-profit worker will be surprised to hear that my career has moved me about every three years, as funding and jobs changed. I’ve been in LA for 6 years, the longest I’ve been anywhere, and there’s something to be said for staying put. I discussed this fact with a fellow professor; though moving might feel good at first, there’s a thing called hedonic adaptation, or the hedonic treadmill. Basically, a big change can make you feel happy for a bit, but happiness levels tend to return to baseline. So I move to a place with more clouds, no friends, whatever, and…?

The point is, I’m here now and I must work. I want to teach, but it doesn’t fully support me. Even before I gave up on my violence prevention career, working full time plus teaching didn’t support me, no matter the location. Thus, I found myself interviewing for a customer service job similar to those I thought I had abandoned after my undergraduate days as a bank teller.

So here it is, I’m a receptionist at a vet’s office. Maybe I should have thought twice when my friend, who works there and got me the job, kept using the word glamorous. As in, “This job is NOT glamorous!” She was clearly worried for me. Well, yeah, answering phones and greeting customers is pretty routine, but I figured it would be better than nothing. My teaching and mental health had been suffering – with middle age looming, I couldn’t envision a future in which I would ever be financially comfortable. I was deeply distracted by debilitating regret that, despite all my schooling and professional experience, I have never been able to support myself. I needed to feel like a capable adult. This job would help by providing both income and a significant discount for my genetic nightmare of a rescue Pug (there isn’t enough room for all of his problems in the appointment system’s reason-for-visit section, so I write “hot mess” when scheduling his exams).

I didn’t think about how many euthanasias a busy vet’s office does. Today a dead cat’s tail brushed my arm as the doctor carrying him walked by.

I ignored my friend’s warning that the job description included cleaning exam rooms filled with  blood, pee, poop, and vomit. My third day on the job, a coworker dramatically complained that I wasn’t cleaning well enough. Apparently, I left some paw prints on an exam table – pretty dire stuff. I know I sound like an asshole here, but I used to sit at women’s bedsides, their chest tubes draining at my feet, after their partners had just stabbed them. Perspective.

I sit at the front desk with coworkers who could literally be my students, and cower every time I see a customer’s silhouette approach the front door. If it turns out to be someone I know, I’ve already planned my feigned emergency vomiting episode and the quickest escape route.

I really want the doctors at the clinic to know that I have expertise, but there is just no way to work that into the conversation naturally. “Doctor, here’s your patient’s fecal sample. Also, I attached my CV.”

Again, I know I sound like an asshole. This job could be worse. I know there are worse jobs out there. But for me, it feels like a step back and that is painful. It didn’t help when, early on, a customer came in with a LA Children’s Hospital lanyard. In talking about her work, I mentioned that I ran two programs in children’s hospitals in the past. She looked at me, absolutely appalled, and exclaimed, “And you work here?!”

I’ve used my skills to help some customers through saying goodbye to their pets. I’ve answered HR questions for my supervisor. I try, but that’s not the job I signed up for, and it’s not well-received. My coworkers just complain that I’m taking too long with these customers and I need to take out the trash. I really want them to put “M.S.W., M.P.A.” on my name tag, but I think that would invite more shock, horror, and questions about why I’m there. And let’s be honest, it would only serve to make me feel better about myself. I signed up for a job in which my degrees don’t matter, and that’s on me.

It took a while to admit, but this is where I am, literally and figuratively. I’m in an expensive town, and I’m at a place of transition in my career…and my life. Levinson, a famous developmental psychologist, called it a “mid-course correction.” I just hope it’s truly a correction and not a huge mistake. The destruction of my apartment, perhaps a reflection of my destroyed career, forced me to admit that I can’t keep this up. I love teaching, but it’s not enough. The other side of giving up is moving on, and my first step is moving on from a strictly financial perspective. This job doesn’t pay much, but it pays enough to allow me to focus on teaching without worrying (too much) about paying rent.

I remember when I was hiring for one of those programs I ran at a children’s hospital. It was a tough job market and I had far too many Ph.D.’s applying for a job that only required a bachelor’s degree. I was torn – these applicants deserved a job, but they were also overqualified. This job wouldn’t fulfill them. Research demonstrates that underemployment is psychologically worse than unemployment. Was it fair to hire someone who, as my current boss has said about me, is “vastly overqualified for this position”?

I don’t know if I should be grateful for this job or wish they had saved me from myself, forcing me to accept defeat and look elsewhere. Maybe I do need to concede to failure and leave LA.  It’s weird how making an informed change in your life can feel like a failure, but in the meantime, this job fell into my lap. Yes, I’m as embarrassed as can be, and every time I’m cleaning up poop (which I also was scolded for saying – in this world, one must say “stool”…obviously) I have to chase away the, “I went to grad school…twice…” thoughts. But it’s a job. This is where I am. I’ve taken a step. I’m not confident it’s a step forward, but it’s still a step. And hey, if nothing else, the discount is nice.

Ashley Maier
Ashley Maier is a psychology professor in Los Angeles. She spends her days reading student papers and, occasionally, doing some writing of her own.


  1. As a LCSW who also left the violence prevention field for similar reasons, I deeply share your sentiments of the depression economic reality of our field. And so, despite working two jobs (FT as a school social worker supplemented by an adjunct teaching job), I’m looking to the gig economy to get me through my summer break. Dog walking – here I come!

  2. I whole heartedly empathize with your situation Ashley. As an young adult (32) I went to college to have my dream career as an art director in the advertising industry. I got myself sufficiently in debt had 20 great years (acquired a bunch of “stuff”, including an addiction from all the excess).

    I ended up losing EVERYTHING. House, job, car, Marriage. I had to resort to living in squaller – but it was that experience that brought me to my knees and I became humble (with the help of AA and a little book called “Twelve by Twelve: A One-Room Cabin Off the Grid and Beyond the American Dream”).

    My attitude completely changed and I embraced minimalist and CLEAN living. The crazy cooincidence is I started a dog walking and pet sitting business and have become wildly successful. I am actually making more money doing this than when I was employed. Why? I think because I am doing this completely for ME, I am my own boss, I get to pick my clients and I put all the effort I used to put into fucking up into my business. My partner says: “use your power for good”. I was “desperate as a drowning man can be” and now I cherish my bottom as a badge of honor. Without the horrible things, I never would appreciate what I have now.

    Magic came of rock bottom. Maybe this situation is preparing you for something bigger to?


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