Why You Should Apply For Your Less-Than-Dream Job

How ignoring the unwritten rules of the job search pays off.

Apr 13 · 6 min read
Photo by Bart LaRue on Unsplash

I was 28 when I quit my first real job after law school with no job lined up. I remain very proud of what I accomplished as the first executive director of a “start-up” nonprofit. Yet after two years, I was emotionally exhausted from the role and couldn’t figure out how I could balance my personal life and remain in that position. I didn’t have the energy to launch a job search while fulfilling the responsibilities of my position, so I felt trapped.

Everyone always told me it’s far harder to find a new job when you’re unemployed. I never questioned that logic before, so I kept waiting for a miracle. Somehow, the job would get easier after the first two years or someone would step up with another job offer. After six more months of struggling and waiting for someone else to solve my problem, my husband helped me realize I needed to step away from the job and put myself first. He could see I was not thriving and that I was too overwhelmed with guilt to do anything about it. I felt embarrassed because I thought I was weak for not being able to stay in that job. Other people had far more difficult jobs. I thought I was being selfish for putting my mental health first. Other people pushed through. I felt stupid for breaking the rule of quitting before lining up a new job. Other people heeded the advice of seasoned professionals.

It’s only now, more than 15 years later, that I understand the gift I gave myself. I wasn’t able to silence all those other voices in my head, but I plowed ahead anyway. Once I had the time to focus on myself and my career aspirations, I didn’t know what to do next or how to even start the conversation. I thought I would use the time to recharge and figure out what might be next for me professionally.

I won’t lie: I spent far too many hours lounging on the couch watching bad daytime TV and avoiding the hard work of reflecting on what I enjoy, what I’m good at, and what I might want to do next.

Eventually, with some gentle encouragement from my incredibly loving and patient spouse, I got off the couch and started to schedule coffee/lunch dates with people I admired. I wanted to ask for their advice about the next steps and figure out what my options might be. One woman I met with during this phase had left her position as the executive director of a civil rights nonprofit, where I had first met her, to join a local law school to direct their public interest law program. I was intrigued by the idea of working at a university and drove to campus to meet with her.

I don’t remember everything we talked about, but I know she advised me to volunteer with one of the many civil rights impact litigation nonprofits in the city. I nodded politely but I knew that wasn’t going to happen. I am a member of the Bar, but I had no intention of being a civil rights litigator. I learned over the course of my law school experience that what I most enjoyed was working with people, not doing legal research for hours at a time in front of a computer. I like meeting people, hearing their stories, and then figuring out how I can help them.

Moreover, I also had found it difficult waiting for incremental reform, since many lawsuits can take years to yield results. I did not realize how much I value seeing tangible results on a much faster timeline until my first legal internship experience as a 1L. I tell my students all the time that sometimes you don’t realize important truths about yourself until you’re put in a situation where it’s just not a good fit. Plenty of jobs look great on paper but doing the job will reveal important revelations about what works for you and what doesn’t.

Within a few days after I met with her, I received a mass e-mail that she sent recruiting a part-time temporary employee to work with her for three months. I was intrigued. I figured that I could tolerate almost anything for three months (everything seemed easier after I survived the first year of law school!). Plus, I could still connect with folks and continue my real job search while working part-time. Little did I know, but that part-time job was an incredible opportunity. I started here more than 17 years ago and I’m still here. I am so thankful that a casual decision I made to just try it out turned into one of the smartest decisions of my career.

I could have missed this boat had I made a different decision. I could have ignored the email, since it wasn’t a full-time job, nor was it a permanent job. I might have let my ego drive the decision, as I went from being an executive director of a start-up nonprofit to a program coordinator at a law school. Moreover, my predecessor did not have a law degree, as the role involved managing programs. So I could have been elitist about it and thought it “beneath” me to take on an administrative job that did not require a JD.

But I didn’t do any of those things. Instead, I thought to myself, “I worked with great administrators when I was a student. Maybe a career in Student Affairs would be fulfilling? What is it like working with students from the other side of the table?” Spoiler alert: I think it’s better on this side, as I have absolutely loved the opportunity to meet so many incredible and inspiring students but I don’t have to deal with the stress of studying or taking exams.

I am always sad when my students graduate and go off into the world, but we keep in touch and I’m so proud when I hear of their accomplishments. I imagine this is how I’ll feel when my daughters leave the nest. Unlike parents who eventually run out of kids, I am fortunate that I get a new batch of 1Ls every Fall. Thus, I have a constant pipeline of new students with whom I develop new relationships, learn their stories, and help them on their way to being incredible public interest lawyers.

I also might have balked at joining an elite private institution. As the product of California public schools, I had never had any experience with a private institution, having only attended public schools from K-JD. If someone had asked me where I saw myself in university student affairs, I would have assumed it would be in the University of California system or the California State University system, the two public higher education systems in California. But I figured a three-month commitment wasn’t that long, so I could manage to work in a private university system.

I have subsequently learned so much about how (wealthy) private institutions have less bureaucracy and more resources. Yes, I knew private institutions can have gigantic endowments, but seeing it first-hand is another story. Our faculty-student and staff-student ratios are phenomenal and some of my students pay less here than they would have at Berkeley Law, my public school alma mater.

Once the three-month temporary position ended, I was hired as an assistant director. Then I eventually made it back up to the executive director title, which is the title I’ve held for the past 11+ years. Throughout my time here, I have often paused to reflect on how much I enjoy my job. It’s rare that anyone from my generation (Gen X, for the record) stays in a position for 10 years, let alone more than 15. I lucked out to find a position that is fulfilling on so many levels. I’m grateful I took a chance and didn’t let a bias against a temporary, part-time job stop me from discovering what has been a dream job.

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