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Working While a Student – Try to Get Ahead or Find a Job for Which You’re Overqualified?

One of the responsibilities I have in my current position is training and supervising several student workers. The work they do is pretty easy for the intelligent ones (don’t get me started on some of the others), it’s definitely not rocket science and it’s better for people who can thrive doing tasks which don’t require full use of their mental powers. It’s the sort of job you can do while listening to music or podcasts or books on tape, which some do.

Most of my students are undergraduates, but there’s one who stands out above the others. He’s got an excellent work-ethic, he’s good at his job, he’s personable, and he’s vastly, vastly overqualified. When I saw his résumé, my first thought was “Why would he want to work for us? This guy could be earning more than I am!”

The answer is precisely that—because he’s overqualified. He’s in an intense graduate program. He needs part-time work which doesn’t tax him mentally or physically, something he doesn’t have to think about when he’s not at work.

Working “Menial” Jobs in College

I realized that I did the same thing in college, taking on a bathroom-cleaning job (mostly men’s rooms) because I found it therapeutic to get up from my computer every night and spend an hour and a half doing something else. Like the position I’m supervising now, this job gave visual evidence of progress and would leave one feeling satisfied about having made a concrete, if small, difference.

On Saturday, we had dinner with some friends, one of whom is going back to school and working at Starbucks. Sure, he could get a better job, but the hours allow him time for class and the job doesn’t carry over into after-hours. He was temporarily promoted to supervisor because he was so good at it, but he stepped down when he found that it was interfering with his primary goal—getting his degree and moving on.

Afterward, I realized that a whole set of Micah’s friends do the same thing by working in the circulation department of the library at the university where they also study and teach. That particular job allows for a little studying when there’s no one they need to assist at the deck. We have similar positions at my workplace, even door guards who do almost nothing but study during their shifts.

The Alternative: Starting Your Career or a Small Business in College

A number of my friends in college spent their Senior years kick-starting their post-college careers. The teachers and social workers did year-long practicums. The business majors, accounting majors, and some of the communications/writing majors found internships with local businesses. The engineers disappeared, but I’m pretty sure they were just building machines in the basement of their building.

Other college students focus on starting their own small business instead of pursuing outside work. It means they have more control over their hours and the scope/scale of their work. On the other hand, it also means they’re more heavily-involved, since they’re the boss, sales, and labor.

Since I didn’t have a car (and didn’t have a car payment!), there was no public transit, and there were no good jobs I could easily walk or bike to, I stayed on campus. And there were times I felt like a slacker for doing so. On the other hand, I felt lucky compared to my student-teaching housemate who tried to juggle teaching English classes in an underfunded, low-scoring school with finishing her senior projects and other senior year classes. Her work consumed all her free time and took away from her studies (though it was necessary for licensing, so it’s a good thing she did it).

But I think that both routes have their merits if you do them right. Working a less-challenging job won’t look as good on your resume, but it allows you to focus on what you’re in school for—learning. On the other hand, real-life work experience in your field may look better on your résumé and should provide you with references and contacts you can use later.

I actually did both in college, since I worked in the library for three semesters before I switched to my more mindless job. It did count toward library experience and even helped me land the job I have now, since I was working in the same department and had an idea of what the work entails.

For other people’s musings on college this week, check out the pair of articles from the Studenomist and Brian Scheur of My Next Buck on whether parents shouldn’t pay for college or whether parents should pay for part of their kids’ college educations.

Did you attend college and work at the same time? What kind of job(s)? How do you think it paid off in the long run?

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Paying For College – Should Parents Pay For College Tuition?
March 13, 2010 at 4:46 pm


Adam March 10, 2010 at 7:59 am

You know, I’m glad to see that you hired him. I’ve heard plenty of managers utter the phrase, “you’re just too overqualified for this job”. Well, if I’m overqualified, doesn’t that mean I will be great at the job? I mean, I am here and willing to take the job even though it may not pay that well. Doesn’t that say something?

In terms of jobs, I had PLENTY in school. I wrote a post several months ago on my blog about how jobs seem to have become disposable and I counted at least 10 jobs that I’ve had since high school (I’m only 26). I think they’ve helped me in the long run. I definitely learned some things that I don’t want to do for a career! The only thing I regret is not using the money to pay for college. I wasted it on stupid things that most college students spend money on. I know I could have graduated with minimal debt and not the $60k I graduated with.
.-= Adam´s last blog ..Debt Update: February 28, 2010 =-.

Tony March 11, 2010 at 6:23 pm

Great post. Made me look back at my college days and see what i did, graduate at the end of the year. I went the route of working full-time and attending school. There were a couple of semesters that i attended school full-time and worked full-time. I had no life and it was the best thing i could do. I decided to work full-time in my field as well as go to school for the experience. When i graduate in December i will have over 5 years experience as well as my degree. I do not regret doing what i have done. Also working while going to school helped in school as i knew the stuff already.

Meghan Fife March 18, 2010 at 6:58 pm

I’m currently going to school full time and working full time. I’m not sure if it’s necessarily a jump start to my career but it’s a relatively solid job with great pay and benefits yet isn’t a job that could interfere with my evenings for school and study.

I also go to school online through a university in another state so “class” time is non-existent. I just have to get my homework done (which requires a lot of reading and listening to lectures.)

I’m not sure how it will pay off in the long run but I’m really glad I’m doing it. I think it will pay off well. Both will look good on my resume. It may not be for everyone, but I’ve found a way to juggle it (so far) and still stay sane so if this is at all an option for young people out there I say go for it!
.-= Meghan Fife´s last blog ..Back to the Basics Part 3-Budgets =-.

mapgirl March 19, 2010 at 9:56 am

I worked at the 24-hr study library at school. All I did was reshelve/return to order 1 bookcase each shift and read the newspaper. It was a great sinecure and your friends would come visit you on your shift to say hi because it was a central spot. I loved that job.

A frugal friend of mine told me about the Starbucks ‘short’ coffee because he was a barista while doing his history PhD. Side income, the work doesn’t follow you home, flexible work hours, it was perfect for him before he got a TA stipend.
.-= mapgirl´s last blog ..Hipsters on Food Stamps =-.

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