How to be Successfully Funemployed

I am at the end of a fantastic yearlong fellowship. This means that I (and quite a number of my fellow fellows) are now officially unemployed. This post is dedicated to them- but I know there are many other unemployed people out there who hopefully can learn from my experience.

This is what I know: It is going to be alright. How do I know? Because I have done this before.

I graduated in May of 2008 after a successful academic experience at a highly ranked university. I worked two jobs while in college, played a sport, had internships every summer, won awards and volunteered during undergrad. I did everything “right.”

I spent the summer after I graduated volunteering at a position that would have turned into a job, except that after volunteering for the summer it had become clear to me that the job was a horrible fit for me. I started job hunting in late September…exactly a week before the market crashed.

No one would hire me. At every interview I did, the employers all said the same thing, “A month ago we would have hired you, but now… we have a hiring freeze that may last a few years.” I must have gone on 30 interviews. I wore out the lining of my new suit.

It was no fun. It was actually very, very depressing. After it became clear to me that a traditional job with benefits was not in the cards, I had to try something else.

Luckily, I had a roommate who worked as a gardener for a truly wonderful woman who ran her own upscale garden design business. I was able to get a part time job gardening and I LOVED IT. I hope when I get older I am able to work as a gardener again. It was lovely to work outside, a great way to keep moving instead of sitting all day, extremely low stress and the worst thing that ever happened was a bee sting (which actually really hurt!) My boss was a fantastic mentor and was extremely understanding, flexible, supportive and generous. Gardening was definitely not the prestigious job that I had expected for myself straight out of school based on my grades and ambition…but it turned out to be a huge blessing that gave me the time and flexibility to think about what I really wanted to do next, rather than blindly apply to any job I could find.

Gardening for 15-20 hours a week was not quite enough to pay my bills (even though my boss was extremely generous), and as winter rolled around our hours were reduced. I knew I had to look for other ways to supplement my income, because still…no one was hiring.

One Friday afternoon, I was feeling really desperate. My bank account balance was frighteningly low. I was driving around the city (using up gas I could barely afford), asking all of the restaurants if they were hiring. I happened to drive by a temp agency and decided to see what kind of agency it was (I had no idea these things even existed, but they had the word “employment” on the sign). I walked in with my resume in hand, and I walked out with a two-day temp job writing Christmas cards for a company the very next week. I did a great job at my first placement and after that I had many more temp jobs (some of them relatively long term positions) with that agency. Working for that temp agency really helped to supplement my income, and I think that walking in wearing professional clothes with my resume in hand is what got my foot in the door.

After a while, I started using some of my skills from academia. One of my freakish skills is that I happen to be awesome at standardized tests. This had been useful twice in my life: for the SATs and for the GREs. I decided to cash in on my underused standardized test skills and I started tutoring the SATs a few hours a week. Each hour I tutored I was paid double what I was paid at my other jobs. It wasn’t that many hours, but it meant that I could pay all of my bills and not have to worry about where next month’s rent was coming from. I really liked working with the students (generally they were nice, hardworking kids who were just trying to get into good colleges/get scholarships) and it was rewarding to see them succeed.

I was gardening, temping and tutoring- all while applying to jobs and internships- anything to get my foot in the door. As you can imagine, many months of applying for jobs and getting rejections, interviews and then rejections, or not hearing anything at all can be very depressing. Despite my three part time jobs, I still sometimes found myself with a lot of free time. After a few months without much happening on the job front, I decided I needed to shift my attitude. I wasn’t unemployed, I was funemployed. Being funemployed means that you look at the free time as a gift, a gift that helps you improve yourself.

I had lots of time to read, cultivate friendships, cook new meals, go to museums without the crowds, join a church group, grow vegetables, stay out late at my friend’s weeknight concerts, watch movies, exercise and take naps. I don’t have time to do half of those things when I am working 40 hours a week, so I tried to spend a lot of time doing low-budget activities that I enjoyed. Even though it was great to be able to do all of those things, it also was sometimes difficult when I had a week ahead of me with only 10 hours of work scheduled. I do better and I get more done with structure in my schedule- so I started volunteering on a regular basis for an organization that allowed me to practice my Spanish while also helping others- a win win.

Finally, after nine months of being funemployed- I got a job offer. The job offer was fantastic. At my new job, I made some of my best friends, learned a ton, and set the stage for grad school and for this fellowship. If I hadn’t had that job when I did and if I hadn’t worked with the people I worked with, my life would be very different today. Nine months of funemployment sounds terrible- but it wasn’t all bad, and it led me to some wonderful things (including teaching me how to survive on not a lot of money, and now I can pass that information on to you!). In some ways, it was an amazing growing and learning experience.

Here is my advice for surviving funemployment for my fellow funemployed fellows (and any funemployed readers out there):

  • 90% of why you do not get a job doesn’t have anything to do with you (especially if you have been successful in academia and in your past jobs). Put your best out there, but if someone else is an internal hire or has more experience or whatever…there is nothing you can do about it and it is not a reflection on you. It doesn’t mean that you did anything wrong (either in the application process or in life). There is just a lot of competition out there.
  • Another dream job posting is right around the corner. Don’t get your heart set on any one job. (This advice is also good for apartment hunting. And blind dates).
  • Add some structure to your days. Make yourself get out of the house at least once a day.
  • I get more done the busier I am. Stay busy= apply to more jobs.
  • Make plans with your friends, either during the day or at night. See your funemployed friends even more and commiserate together. It is super important that you get out and aren’t isolating yourself.
  • Go see the touristy things in your town that are usually too crowded on the weekend.
  • Find a volunteer opportunity that fits with your skills and interests. Try to make a regular schedule.
  • Find a part time (or full time) temporary job that can help with the finances for a bit.
  • Exercise every day. Set yourself a fitness goal that you otherwise might not have time to reach. You will feel better.
  • Start a project! Want to learn to draw? This is how I learned. Or learn to make websites, start a blog, write a book, learn to take photographs, organize your closets, start a garden, read a series of books, learn to sew or knit or make candles, watch all of Hitchcock’s movies. Whatever you want.
  • Time to learn to cook!
  • Now would be a great time to get your financial goals settled and organized 🙂
  • Join a club. Start a club! I love my book club.
  • Now there is no such thing as a school night. Check out some live weekday music or some late night happy hours.
  • Visit family that you don’t normally have time to see.
  • Networking is always cited as the key to successful job hunting. You can’t network if you don’t leave your house. Look into professional societies and go to happy hours/volunteer events/public talks/free conferences.
  • Take care of chores. Sometimes when you sit around all day the house can become a wreck without you even noticing. I like to do big piles of dishes first thing in the morning so I feel accomplished right off of the bat.
  • There are tons of free online courses and tutorials available. Are you looking at jobs that need a certain software skill set? Brush up (or learn) from youtube, even if you don’t own the software yourself.
  • If you can afford it, now you have plenty of time to travel. Try to have internet access so you can keep job hunting.
  • This is an awesome time for self improvement, whether it is professional or personal. Think about your bucket list and get to the less-expensive, more time-intensive tasks. Learn a language, join Toastmasters, start that novel.
  • Be aware that if you live with a partner, this can be an extremely trying time for relationships. Try to channel some of your unfocused energy into doing loving things for your significant other. (Also if you are home all day and they are working, pay extra attention to doing the chores.)
  • Go for a hike on a Tuesday.
  • Be nice to yourself. This is a difficult time, and it’s ok if you occasionally spend 8 hours watching Netflix marathons or sometimes feel sorry for yourself. Just remember- when you are done being blue- think of this time as a gift and an opportunity- you are funemployed, after all.

It’s going to be just fine. I promise.

PS: If you feel like you want to hire me or any of my wicked smart fellow fellows (I’m talking phds in subjects you didn’t even know existed!) just drop me a line. We would be happy to hear from you and we all already own suits!


Make Mo’ Ca$h Money

You’re tracking your spending, you’ve set up your budget, you’re slenderizing your spending…but still, things aren’t adding up. The alternative to spending less is to make more, but sometimes your lifestyle just isn’t conducive to switching jobs or adding another job into the mix of awesomeness that is your life.

There are a few ways to increase your income that don’t require major lifestyle changes. It all depends what you are looking for, so choose what works for you.

Some ideas:

  • Are you a cat whisperer, dog whisperer or baby whisperer? Try pet sitting or babysitting. Worked to bring in money when you were 14, still works to bring in money now.
  • I used to work as a caterer for super fancy weddings when I was in college. They were almost all on Saturday nights in the spring and summer, so it didn’t interfere with my weekday schoolwork and activities. I was in a pool of servers so if I couldn’t work then they would just call the next person on the list. Unlike normal waitressing, you make pretty high base pay, everyone is eating the same thing so it’s really easy and you also get tips. The whole event takes between 8-10 hours. Not too bad. Just don’t spill lobster on the mother of the bride like I did my first day (It came out of her dress and I didn’t even get fired, don’t worry about it!)
  • Are you a math whiz? A master wordsmith? In love with history? Somewhere out there, there is a student struggling in the subject you loved and he or she has parents who are willing to pay to help that kid get an A. Get into tutoring! You can sign up with a local tutoring company, post on Craigslist or on local college websites (or email professors), or drop flyers off at local school (with permission, of course. Don’t get yourself arrested for trespassing in schools!) The pay is awesome, the hours are flexible, and you are helping someone out.
  • Do you have a hobby? Could that hobby turn into money? Crafty or artsy people might want to open up an shop or contract out a booth at a local fair or festival. Musical people (depending on the instrument and your level of skill) might want to play for weddings or funerals. Be creative- I love refinishing furniture that I find at yard sales. I have sold some of my furniture for profit after I had rescued it and refinished it. I didn’t have to set up a store, I just sold it on Craigslist and enjoyed doing the work!
  • Many churches need help only on Sunday mornings. Sometimes they need help with childcare or they need someone to come in early to turn on lights or heat or make coffee. This is another job that won’t interfere with your weekday schedule! Check out your local churches and other religious institutions in the area.
  • What do you do at your day job? Could you sell those services as an independent consultant? (make sure you aren’t breaking any rules at your work, please). While I was working as an administrative assistant I got paid to format my friend’s PhD dissertation because I am a whiz at Word, thanks to my nitpicky admin experience. Once I had done one dissertation I had the tricky formatting rules down and I could have marketed myself as the PhD dissertation formatting expert of the university!(…but I had other life plans for myself so I didn’t!)
  • Are you a computer master? Can you make websites? People pay a lot of ca$h money for those skillz.
  • Look around your house. Do you have a lot of stuff? Books, board games, nice clothes, electronics, dvds, sports equipment…pretty much anything you are tired of that is in good shape can be sold. Try setting up an ebay account- just keep in mind that ebay charges some fees and shipping expenses can add up, so if the item is listed for too low of a price it might not be worth your time.
  • Neat freak? Offer your cleaning or organizational services for a fee.
  • If you have a flexible schedule but just aren’t ready to commit to a permanent job, try temping. There are always a ton of administrative jobs that anyone with basic computer skills, attention to detail and customer service skills can do. Sometimes the jobs are temp-to-hire so if you are a good fit for the company and if you like the job they might hire you on full time! Otherwise, it can help keep the lights on while you are waiting for your dream job to come through or for school to start up again. A benefit is that you get to work in a variety of offices and see what different workplaces are like. You also can pick up some skills that look great on a resume.
  • Own a truck? Try offering your services as a moving assistant.
  • I had a friend who started her own company as a “helper.” If you need help prepping for a party- she will help you! If you need help going grocery shopping- call her up! Need someone to help you with the laundry because you have a new baby and who knew tiny clothes took so long to fold? She is the woman for you! It is a lovely idea for a side business.

The main point of these ideas is that there are ways to supplement your income if you are willing to work for them. Play to your strengths- I hate babysitting so I will NEVER advertise  my babysitting services. I love working with people so I don’t mind answering phones for the day as a temp. Be creative about how you get the word out about your new endeavors- Craigslist, bulletin boards, word of mouth- they all work well.

If you are looking at this post because you are job hunting- here is my last piece of advice. Get out there and volunteer in the field you are trying to get into. It will get you out of the house, it will give you experience and references that you can put on a resume, and it will help other people. It may or may not lead to a permanent job (don’t go into volunteering expecting to get a job in return)- but meeting more people (and letting them know you are looking for a job) and getting experience is always a good plan. For a while I volunteered a few hours every Friday at a museum where I created educational material for the public. Guess what real job I got hired for a few months later? A job making educational materials for the public (not at the same place I volunteered at, but this time I got a lovely salary!) I got the job because I already had experience! You never know where volunteering will lead you.

If there isn’t a formal volunteer program in the field you want to work in, try to create your own position. People generally say yes to enthusiastic and motivated free help! Even a few hours a week counts as experience.

You won’t get rich off of these ideas (well, maybe you will, in which case you are cleverer than I!) but hopefully they will take some of the pressure off of your finances while you are out living your awesome life.

Good luck!

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