Seeking Meaning(ful work)

Rufus F.

Rufus is an American curmudgeon in Canada. He has a PhD in History, sings in a garage rock band, and does many things. He is the author of the forthcoming book "The Paris Bureau" from Dio Press (early 2021).

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55 Responses

  1. Mike Dwyer says:

    “Alternately, approaching the corporate world with the argument that my degree shows I’m intelligent and can finish long-term projects has mostly been greeted with, “we’re not looking for historians”.

    As a fellow history major (though I stopped at the BA level) it can be tricky to market a history degree, however I have had some luck in talking about how it means I have good written skills, am good at research and attention to detail. Ultimately though 90% of corporate employers are far more interested in your actual work experience. My boss is currently looking for a QA supervisor. One of the candidates has a PhD in Architectural History however no actual experience working with quality. My boss told me he would love to hire him because obviously he’s probably intelligent and could likely do the job well eventually, but he doesn’t want to spend a year and $20,000 to train him. If he had two candidates with the same experience but one had a degree, the guy with the degree would win though.

    If you are interested in the corporate world at all, find a company that hires lower-tier management based on having a degree, any degree. I have a couple of friends who work for Kroger (big grocery store chain for those unaware). They were hired in at about $40K just because they have a college degree, doesn’t matter what field. Put in your time and a store manager makes around $100K. There are a lot of other companies where you can tackle a similar career path.

    Good luck in your job search Rufus.Report

    • Rufus F. in reply to Mike Dwyer says:

      It’s a good suggestion. Honestly, the problem isn’t money because I’ve learned how to live on about $1500 a month, so most full-time jobs will do and, if they’re not around, I’ll get two or three part-time jobs. A friend recently said to me, “you could probably get dumped in a strange city with no contacts and you’d have a job, friends, and an apartment in a month. Your problem is you need to be spiritually fulfilled in that job.” I’m willing to do the $20,000/year job to not be so bored that I want to punch myself in the face every minute I’m at work.Report

    • Roger in reply to Mike Dwyer says:

      I agree wholeheartedly with Mike. Lots of large companies hire people as specialists within a field and then develop them into management and executive positions.

      I worked thirty years in P&C insurance. Most people we hired as supervisors, analysyst, claims adjusters, underwriters or such. In general these are not fields people specialize in academically. I personally hired more people than I can ever remember, usually in the bottom rung tier of salaried position based upon simply having a degree. Virtually every creative, bright, hard working person I hired who stayed with it became a senior manager or executive in the industry (a few went into sales and are happy there). I am sure I can find two or three dozen just from my LinkedIN account.

      To add some perspective they probably started at something in the low thirty thousand range (today’s prices) and most make somewhere between a hundred and five hundred thousand per year now (after one or two decades). Some probably more, but they have exceptional people skills (which trump creativity and smarts in getting ahead in large bureaucracies).Report

  2. dhex says:

    my two cents would be to find a local nonprof of medium size whose mission you can speak to (and speaks to you) in some capacity, and see if you can get involved on the comm side of things. events, pr, etc.Report

    • Kim in reply to dhex says:

      Ditto. Was about to suggest a particular place, but realized I didn’t know where in the bloomin’ heck the “Golden Horseshoe” is.

      Skills like you’ve got, videogames and “online busking” might be up your alley too.Report

      • ScarletNumbers in reply to Kim says:

        If Wikipedia is to be believed, it is the area of southern Ontario between Niagara Falls and Oshawa.

        Niagara Falls, slowly I turn…Report

    • Rufus F. in reply to dhex says:

      Thanks! I’ll look at some nonprofits.
      Unfortunately, my videogame skills are pretty low. I haven’t played any since Frogger on the Atari!Report

      • Kim in reply to Rufus F. says:

        You said you can write and tell a decent story. That’s what folks are looking for (at least some of it). I’m not telling you to learn programming, or art (though if you’ve got some art/music skills, particularly composition, those are ALWAYS in demand).Report

      • Rufus F. in reply to Rufus F. says:

        I actually had the best dream of my life yesterday and wrote it all down. It was like a Kafka story filmed by Stanley Kubrick. Maybe I could pitch that to someone. Might make a depressing game though.Report

  3. Burt Likko says:

    Huh. Career dissatisfaction appears to be in abundance — although it appears you have more cause than I for experiencing it. Good luck, Brother @rufus-f !Report

  4. Saul Degraw says:

    There is always law school!

    Joking, joking, I kid the American-Canadians!

    Good luck. I will have more substance later.Report

  5. ScarletNumbers says:

    my degree shows I’m intelligent and can finish long-term projects

    The history department at my alma mater (a directional college) has a brochure entitled “Why You Should Be a History Major”. They listed things like having excellent research skills. The point is, just having to have the brochure is a major red flag.

    Of course, having a history degree from Harvard makes one very employable; having one from Directional State University (formerly Directional State Teachers College) makes one a potential social studies teacher. And considering the glut in that field, one needs connections and/or luck to even get that far.

    While I agree that your degree shows you can finish long-term projects, it doesn’t show you are intelligent. You certainly may be, but your degree isn’t proof of that.Report

    • Kim in reply to ScarletNumbers says:

      Work Product is always good.Report

    • Barry in reply to ScarletNumbers says:

      “…makes one a potential social studies teacher. And considering the glut in that field, one needs connections and/or luck to even get that far.”

      I was going to say – ‘…makes somebody who in better times might have a shot at becoming a social studies teacher’.Report

      • James Hanley in reply to Barry says:

        Well, my non-famous private college is turning social studies teachers out in large numbers and all the ones I think I wouldn’t mind teaching my kids and a few more besides are all getting jobs.

        There’s ideology, and then there’s facts. I’d dearly love to introduce you to that latter world someday.Report

      • Rufus F. in reply to Barry says:

        I think I should probably come back to the US to teach, honestly. Here, in Ontario, regardless of the PhD and years of teaching experience, I can’t teach high school without going back to complete another two-year program to get an Ontario Teacher’s Certificate. I don’t believe it’s the same in the states, although I’m just starting to learn about it now.Report

  6. Bert The Turtle says:

    Have you considered self-publishing genre fiction on Amazon as a potential income stream? I know that sci-fi/mystery/thriller books may not be the most glamorous styles of literature, but apparently you can make a decent income from them. Hugh Howey did a rundown of the numbers here. I would even think that incorporating some details of your academic work would make for a more engaging/vivid setting. Admittedly, the whole French-detective-solves-train-murder-while-on-vacation-in-Istanbul may have been done before, but I’m sure there are other stories to tell.Report

    • I’m pretty surprised by that article, having always heard that self-publishing is a get-poor quick scheme. I will look into it a bit more.Report

      • Mike Dwyer in reply to Rufus F. says:

        There’s self-publishing in book form and self-publishing straight to Kindle. The first is high-risk. The second requires zero upfront spend as it’s all digital.Report

      • Bert The Turtle in reply to Rufus F. says:

        Yeah, I was also surprised to see that self publishing may actually have potential for more than a few off the wall outliers (see: 50 Shades of Grey). Granted, writing pulp horror novels may or may not be soul-enriching, but it might allow you to cut back on some of the hours spent at a dishwashing station.Report

      • Will Truman in reply to Rufus F. says:

        My understanding is that Print-On-Demand has really changed the economics of self-publishing. To the point that even doing so in book form isn’t nearly as high risk as it used to be. My understanding is that Amazon’s CreateSpace is virtually free.Report

      • veronica d in reply to Rufus F. says:

        @rufus-f — It is almost trivially easy to self publish now. Which of course means anyone can do it. Which means that more or less everyone is doing it. Well not quite everyone, but tons and tons and tons of people. Every book that in the past landed on the slush pile is now an ebook on Amazon. EVERY. SINGLE. ONE.

        Most of those are, shall we say, too horrible to even imagine reading. But there they are, an ocean of crap by desperate hopefuls.

        And from that ocean the one or two folks who rose above, and (let us admit) got darn lucky — you will hear about that lucky few. You will hear much about them. Your odds? Not even enough to laugh at.

        That said, there’s no reason not to self publish. It’s easy and cheap.Report

      • Kim in reply to Rufus F. says:

        My comment about self-publishing is “You still need a Copy Editor, guyzzz”
        (Serialists can often use their readership to spot the pernicious bonehead-errors… but that doesn’t fix “scripting mistakes” — this is Boring, and there’s No Climax (where do whores go?))Report

      • Michael Cain in reply to Rufus F. says:

        You still need a Copy Editor, guyzzz

        Indeed. I read the first two books in a series, the first one published by traditional means and the second (and subsequent) self-published. By the end of the third chapter in the self-published, I was like, “Get a copy editor, please.” By the end of the tenth it was so annoying I gave up. Missing commas; constant “your” rather than “you’re”; the choice of “to”, “too”, and “two” seemed largely random.Report

      • Kim in reply to Rufus F. says:

        that’s totally not what a copy editor does (at least most of the time — yes, that stuff should be fixed, but…) A good copy editor says “this part’s too long” “that part conflicts with this part.” “bad characterization — justify this” “show not tell” and half a hundred other fixes to the novel that the author needs to do.

        Authors have shiny ideas. Copy editors make sure the shiny ideas fit together and make sense, and that the author doesn’t prattle where they oughtn’t.Report

      • Michael Cain in reply to Rufus F. says:

        Kim, it’s how the authors I know use the term, it’s what Wikipedia says copy editors do, and it’s the description of what you get when you pay for copy-editing at CreateSpace (specifically, “…give you suggested corrections for grammar, spelling, punctuation, and correct any typos present in the text.”). “This part’s too long” and “Why is this character even here?” are more general editing.Report

  7. Chris says:

    I second the non-profit route. There is likely a pretty strong non-profit and activist network where you are, and if you can get into that, you will be able to find a lot of potentially rewarding work. Even for-profit agencies that work on the sorts of things that interest you or that you care about are likely looking for people where you are who can write, think, and find information.Report

  8. LeeEsq says:

    Have you ever considered work at a museum of some sort or in a library?Report

    • dhex in reply to LeeEsq says:

      sadly, they tend to be pretty popular and have far less difficulty attracting talent. libraries have a tremendous need for volunteers and not a ton of funds. successful museums are pretty good on funding and have more talent to pull form.

      that said you never know, etc etc and so forth, especially if you work in an area that has a museum with some kind of department with your area of specialization or interest available.Report

    • Brandon Berg in reply to LeeEsq says:

      I know someone who has a master’s degree in library and information science, and she’s been having a lot of trouble finding a decent job in the field.Report

    • Rufus F. in reply to LeeEsq says:

      I have thought of it and applied to all in the area, but my experience echoes what’s been said. One librarian told me of a man like myself who had gotten a position by starting as a janitor and doing that for seven years, which seemed quite a long application process.Report

  9. Francis says:

    In all seriousness, you should be writing ad copy. A friend of mine did it on a spec basis straight out of college (which is 30 yrs now — gah) to pay for graduate school. As I recall she did so well she got hired on a full time basis.

    (Creativity, insomnia, spec work, low wages = advertising)Report

    • ScarletNumbers in reply to Francis says:

      This is what Jim Gaffigan did for a living after he graduated from Georgetown.

      I wonder if he had the Hot Pockets account for Chef America…Report

  10. Mike Dwyer says:


    At the risk of sounding like a paid shill for this guy, I highly recommend the books Start and Quitter by Jon Acuff. For people in your place in life they are great resources. I think you’ve got a real edge in that you are used to living on the cheap (relatively speaking) and it sounds like you don’t have any major commitments tying you down. I’m slowly trying to work on my dream job now and it’s significantly harder when you have a family, mortgage, etc. Not impossible, just much less room for taking risks.

    His best advice? What would you continue to do if you never got paid a dime for it. That’s a good place to look. And never overlook opportunities to do something that is marginally related to your interests. I want to be a professional writer someday. My current position, which is with the same company I have been with for 14 years now, is as a process writer. It’s a very thin connection but the word ‘writer’ is on my business card, so that’s a start. Plus, being forced to write very to-the-point instructions for our hourly employees is forcing me to become much better at brevity, something every writer can use practice on.

    Do you have any experience with grant writing or fund raising? Those are two skills that are in-demand in the non-profit world.Report

  11. Brandon Berg says:

    The problem with liberal-arts jobs is that there are way more people who want to do them than there are openings, so you end up fighting half a dozen other people for a single job opening with lousy pay.

    If you want a job that lets you use your brain, that pays well with decent hours, and that doesn’t require going back for another degree, software’s your best bet. I have a friend who got into web development in her 40s, so it’s not too late. Come to think of it, I also had a coworker at my last job who’d only started six years back, and he had to be in his mid 40s at least.Report

    • Chris in reply to Brandon Berg says:

      The problem with liberal-arts jobs is that there are way more people who want to do them than there are openings, so you end up fighting half a dozen other people for a single job opening with lousy pay.

      This is largely true, but I’m not sure it means go into a field you don’t like (and maybe Rufus loves software). It just means you have to work to get the job you want, and by work, I mostly mean network. That’s why I suggested activist circles. My brother, for example, has a history degree, and got into environmental stuff (particularly transportation and water) a few years ago, which got him involved with a handful of local environmental groups, as well as local politics, which in turn allowed him to build a fairly large network of people in various industries. In the end, that resulted in a pretty good job

      If Rufus can make friends wherever he goes within days, networking should be a breeze for him.Report

    • Rufus F. in reply to Brandon Berg says:

      Interestingly, my mother went this route very early on before the tech boom in Northern Virginia. Since there was so much pressure to join in at the time, I took a few courses on the subject, but never quite clicked with it. Now, that was probably 15 years ago or so.Report

  12. Pinky says:

    I’ve got a question. So far we’ve said that teaching is a good match for his skills, but there are so many people who are interested in it that it doesn’t pay well. Ditto working at a library. Ditto self-publishing. But – didn’t Rufus say that he’d like a job that interests him even if it didn’t pay well? That’s his marketable skill: willingness to accept a low paycheck for a stretch. He should find a library, non-profit, whatever, that’s willing to pay next to nothing. Two years later, he’s got two years of experience along with a degree, and he’s hirable for something better. Someone who’s a natural teacher and doesn’t want to get paid much should be able to find work at a run-down inner-city school or small-town museum.Report

    • Maribou in reply to Pinky says:

      I agree with this, without the “run-down inner-city school part”. I mean, Jay said, “Is your institution hiring anything good?” and my gut reaction was 1) we pay way under market and 2) who would want to move HERE? but actually we get a lot of apps for any job. and yet, *I* would hire you (Rufus) in a heartbeat, and it seems like you wouldn’t care that we don’t make enough money by external standards.

      which is not suggesting you should apply HERE (because, like, that would require immigration and we don’t really have jobs other than teaching that we need to fill outside the country, so jeez what a process that would be, worse than the janitor for 7 years thing), but rather that places in the triangle might be more open to hiring you than you think. Also I don’t know how you feel about your alma mater or how they feel about hiring alumni… but we LOVE hiring alumni into jobs that don’t pay them well enough just because they so want to do them. For one thing, we are like “YES WE DON’T HAVE TO WORRY ABOUT THEM KNOWING HOW THIS PLACE WORKS” (especially if they can demonstrate that they know how this place works). It happens many times a year on our tiny campus….Report

      • Rufus F. in reply to Maribou says:

        Hmmm… Immigration’s not a problem really because I’m still an American citizen. I feel dumb asking, but where are y’all again?Report

      • Pinky in reply to Maribou says:

        A Canadian-American trying to get out of a dead-end job…you’re not a Senator from Texas, are you?Report

      • Maribou in reply to Maribou says:

        Colorado Springs.

        It’s hard to get a job on my campus. But if you apply over and over, and you are bright and smart, you will eventually get one. I would think if you figured out a bunch of cities with Oberlin Group schools, and ESPECIALLY at schools you have attended for one of your degrees, it would be relatively easy to make the shift.

        Or at least, that was my experience, that it just took persistence and not listening to the people who told me I could never get a job there (most of whom were less financially flexible than I was). Your M may V.

        (It would be pretty easy to get a job if I was the only person hiring for the campus. Sadly they don’t seem to think that is a good plan.)Report

  13. Marchmaine says:

    I have advanced degrees in History as well (no PhD, I collect MA’s like bobble-heads). What I was surprised to discover is that Sales is a very good fit for all of our talents: Self-starter, Self-directed, analytical, quick learner, able to synthesize complex issues into easily understood language, as well as the oft required (but never actually satisfied) “premier writing and communication skills.” More than a few of my peers have advanced degrees in the Liberal Arts; it is a truism of high-tech that techies make terrible sales reps… they miss the story for the technology. People don’t buy technology, they buy solutions to the problems making their jobs suck – and as noted above, there’s a lot of suck in jobs these days.

    The good and bad of sales is that it is relatively easy to get and lose a sales job… and the wrong kind of sales job is just a shitty job at the bottom of a crappy pyramid – don’t do that.

    My tip to you, then, is to look only at Business-to-Business sales (consumer sales is not what I’m talking about here… that is pure commodity sale and you are neither compensated nor, really, needed). Look for complexity – software used to be great and I’d start there, but that’s just what I know. I personally started with Wine sales (B2B – selling wine by distributor to professionals) and moved into Software. Quite likely you won’t get hired for the prime Account Exec role until you get some experience… look for Business Development, Inside Sales, Marketing Sales (and such) for a high-tech (i.e. complex) company that sells products to businesses. While they are low status jobs (and usually kinda grindy and yucky), they probably pay 2x, 3x or 4x what you make today (my transition from Teacher to Wine to Software doubled my base salary each time)… and once you learn the business, you can take the leap into direct/field sales (or perhaps sidle into Product Marketing, or other positions where our skills dwarf those with Business Degrees).

    You can position the skills I mentioned above (plus many others tailored to the job description and industry) as good reasons to give you a shot. Hiring managers for sales positions are looking for people who know success and how to get there… details about the product you are selling are just that, details. You have a PhD – that’s your success story; and if your PhD story is like most of my friends’, you had to navigate a complex political cycle to a successful close; that’s way more than anything the IT Management or Marketing undergrad brings. That’s enough to get an entry-level job in (good) sales.

    B2B sales is hard, demanding, relentless, and filled with risk… but, the rewards are massive, and, more importantly for Self Directed people like us, the work profile fits us. We bring order to complexity, we can manage uncertainty, we will apply creative solutions to bypass roadblocks set-up by our own company, the competition, or the customer, and we love the constant puzzle of understanding people, motives, moves and counter-moves… B2B Sales is chess with real people. After Agriculture, it is the most mentally challenging thing I do.

    Sales is misunderstood because, well, cars. Don’t do that. I could go on about what sales is not…but I’ve said too much already. Good luck.Report

  14. notme says:

    Aren’t most folks seeking meaningful work, though your undergrad degree may make it harder.Report

  15. Miss Mary says:

    I have an incredibly meaningful job, but the stress that comes from all the other stuff (ever shrinking budgets, politics, always having to fight for what’s right – no easy wins, etc.) is getting to me. I wish someone would pay me to travel the world… Maybe I should marry for money 😉Report