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!

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Giving back

“I’ve made all my money on my own without my family and I work very hard.” -Paris Hilton

Unless you are Paris Hilton, you probably owe some thanks to other people for helping you get to where you are today. Your schools probably helped  you out quite a bit (I know you can read, so that is something to be thankful for). Maybe you had a life changing experience at a summer camp. Maybe you find your fulfillment playing a sport and you’d like others to have access to that sport. Maybe you or someone in your family had an illness that you would like to help find a cure for. Maybe your rescue dog is your best friend.

The point is, we all have had things in our lives that have been important in some way or another, and most of us didn’t get here on our own (except for Paris Hilton, obvi). That is why it is important to give back.

Considering all of the other financial obligations you are facing for the first time, giving back can be very daunting in your 20’s. If you are a student with loans, you are probably very aware that every dollar that you spend now will cost you more in the future. If you are living off of student loans, this may not be the time for you to make monetary donations because that is like robbing from the poor to pay the poor. This does not mean there aren’t ways for you to give back, they just might not be financial right now.

If you are paying off loans or other debt, you are probably also very aware that the money you put towards your debt today will save you money in the long term. It can be easy (and tempting) to put off making financial donations until you are debt free.
…but you might buy a car. Or a house. Or start a business. Or have kids and send them to college. As we get older, most people make larger purchases that require that they go into some sort of debt. Chances are, you will have some sort of debt in the future. And as we already discussed, you didn’t get to the point where you can buy a house without benefiting from education, the love of your loyal rescue dog, etc etc. So being in debt is not a good excuse to not give back (but don’t go into debt because you give more than you can afford. That isn’t helping anyone either.)

If you have any sort of disposable income at all (this means you can pay all of your required bills on time without going into debt- and no, paying for beer does not count as a necessary expense!), you can afford to give some ca$h back to your community.

How do you decide how much to give? Christian tradition supports tithing, which is 10% of your income. Other people give suggested donations depending on what the charity asks for. Other people have a certain amount scheduled into their budgets and then distribute to each of their favored charities using automatic bill pay (don’t be surprised that this is my method of choice).

I have specific charities that I donate 75% of my charity budget to, and the other 25% can go to any cause that hits me in the feels. (Like one time I was watching PBS in the middle of the day and I saw a documentary about this group. They leave gallons of water in a dangerous area of desert because hundreds of people die of dehydration each year trying to make the crossing into the US. Regardless of how you feel about immigration, I can’t imagine a scarier way to die and I support any organization that saves people from dying of thirst in a desert. So I gave them money and I was glad I had that 25% available in my budget to give without feeling like I was taking away from my other charities and without worrying whether I could make the rent.)

If you really don’t feel that you can make a financial donation right now (or if you are a student living on loans), consider volunteering your time. There are always opportunities to volunteer to help out your community, and many would argue that a gift of time is more valuable than a gift of money. You can work for a formal volunteer organization, organize a drive, or fundraise to run a race. There are tons of options.

Giving back is personal- what you choose to give (time, money, talent), how much you choose to give, who you choose to give to. But I hope you will choose to include charitable donations as part of your budget and as part of your lifestyle- part of growing up is recognizing those who have helped you get to where you are today (I’m talking to you, Paris).

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