Some insights from temping

I finished up my first temp assignment today – two weeks of data entry for a start-up firm in the financial district. When I first got the assignment, I spent a lot of time googling the company trying to figure out just how evil they were. I’m not sure, since I’m still learning all kinds of business terms that I knew very little about before (venture capitalists! angel investors!) but they didn’t seem too bad and most of the people there were quite friendly.

What I see when I hear “angel investor”.

Even though it was only two weeks of doing some very (very) basic work, it proved enlightening in all kinds of ways. First, evidence that academics are not the only ones who know classic literature enough to make jokes about it. I was working with a group of temps to get this particular data entry project done, all of whom were artsy types who temp during the day to supplement their not-so-great/non-existent artist income. We started out working in a room by ourselves, and the conversation ranged from opera and musical theatre to Dickens. At one point, one temp read out an especially crazy Russian name from hir file, and another temp responded, “That name is straight from a Dostoevsky novel!” My heart was warmed.

I liked these other temps. They were nice, fun people. But then, on day 4 of our assignment, the smackdown came. As it turns out, they were moving very slowly through the data, and our supervisors, who up to this point had not really been checking on our progress, were seriously displeased and concerned we wouldn’t meet the deadline. We were moved to a different part of the office with a better computer set-up and given quotas (something they really ought to have done in the first place – the teacher in me was a bit frustrated with the lack of clarity on what they expected of us. Lesson learned: next time I will ask).

With the new set-up, I found it quite easy to get through twice the quota every day. I find the best way for me to get through this kind of mind-numbing work is to turn it into a game where I push myself to work as efficiently as possible. So I finished my assigned work well ahead of time. I was given some of the other temps’ work, since they were still moving pretty slowly and our supervisors were still worried the project wouldn’t be done on time. We ended up finishing it a day early, and on our last day they gave us some new stuff to do, since we were already there anyway.

The revelation that came from this part of the assignment is that in jobs outside of academia, people recognize and appreciate hard work. My supervisors emphasized repeatedly how grateful they were for my effort and that I had saved the project, which wouldn’t have been done on time if I hadn’t worked so quickly. As I mentioned earlier, they weren’t very on top of checking up on our progress at first, and I got the impression that they might have been chewed out by someone else for not keeping us on track. So even though this was very menial work, work that a computer will probably be able to do in a few years, it wasn’t hard to make a good impression doing it. I wasn’t even making a conscious effort to make a good impression, but academia socializes people to work very hard because we are always convinced that we are not working hard enough.

I was surprised by how shocking it felt to be praised for my work. In academia, it always feels like your best is never good enough, and you get used to slaving away on a project till your brain feels beaten to a bloody pulp, only to be given more criticism, more recommendations for revision, and maybe a vague acknowledgment that you seem to have shown some effort somewhere along the way. I’d say most people who get into academia are extremely competent people who are motivated, quick to learn, and can be counted on to get things done when they need to. In general, you couldn’t survive long in academia by being a slacker. Academia demands that you work your very hardest for very little in the way of payment or recognition. This isn’t the case in every job out there. In some places, people do actually notice that you are working hard and are eager to let you know it.

My supervisors assured me that they would let the temp agency know how much I had helped them with their project, so hopefully I can start getting assignments more challenging than data entry in the future. Though I must say that data entry was still better than preparing for those wretched, godawful qualifying exams. I’d rather do data entry for a year than have another year of exam prep!

On a more frivolous note, my favorite example of business-speak that I picked up from the past two weeks was the expression to “reach out,” used every time one is planning to make a phone call to someone (and I was sitting by a group of people who were making a lot of phone calls). “Why don’t you reach out to Jim Bob?” “I haven’t heard from that client in awhile, I’m gonna reach out to him.” “I heard so-and-so is interested in our product. Can you reach out to him today?” “Have you reached out to blahblah again?” For some reason it made me giggle, and I’ll leave you with the song that is stuck in my head as a result of all the “reaching out” happening next to me all week:

Or this, which kind of brings us back around to those angel investors:

And I’ll stop there!

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2 thoughts on “Some insights from temping

  1. What made you go into the temp route? I’m intrigued since I might try out that route soon and so happy to have a new blog like yours!

    • When I decided I wanted to quit, I was really conflicted about when was the best time to do so – I was just finishing up preparing for my qualifying exams, so the next step would have been the proposal and then dissertation. If I’d already started the dissertation, it might’ve made sense to hang around for another year while networking/job searching on the side, but the prospect of pretending to start a dissertation project for real when I knew I was going to leave seemed kind of awful. At the same time, it just wasn’t possible to job search while preparing for exams, and I was pretty scared of just quitting with no job lined up. But my partner got a full time job in a big city through temping (before later coming to grad school), so this seemed like one good strategy for finding a “next” job, especially for someone like me who has never had a full time office job (since I went straight to grad school from undergrad). Many agencies will do temp-to-perm jobs, or sometimes a company you are on an assignment with may be really impressed with you and decide to find full time work for you.

      I’m in the NYC area, so there are loads of agencies, some better than others, and the pay is pretty good – $15/hr seems pretty standard here. Some places pay less, and the assignment I just had paid a bit more – the pay check I got from those two weeks was bigger than any I got during grad school! Here there are also agencies that specialize in certain industries (e.g. there is one that only works with non-profits).

      This comment is turning into its own post, but I’ll definitely do more posts on temping as I try out different assignments. I’m happy to answer any more questions you have, and thanks for the comment!

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