How School Prepares Us For Work: A Friday Chat

I learned more office politics in grad school than I did in my entry-level jobs”

ESTER: Happy Friday! The midwife said my iron was low, so I just had BBQ for lunch and I’m feeling great. How are you?

NICOLE: I have not yet had a salad for lunch, but I am also feeling great! It’s a good Friday. I’m excited about seeing the Gilmore Guys tonight. Do you have fun plans for this weekend?

ESTER: Nope! A kid’s birthday party, a meeting of my writers’ group, just low-key stuff like that. What will the Gilmore Guys be discussing? Will they pull you onstage to discuss your series? They should.

NICOLE: They won’t, and here’s why: in one of their podcast episodes (and I can’t remember which one at this point) they said that they were now so famous that they couldn’t risk working with someone they didn’t already know. All of their special guests and co-hosts had to be people they trusted and liked, so they could consistently provide Good Podcast.

It makes sense. Also proves that it is really about Who You Know.

ESTER: Oh wow. I had no idea they were that famous. If you could guest-star on any podcast, whose would it be?

NICOLE: That is a really hard question because there are so many great podcasts! I’d love to be a guest bailiff on Judge John Hodgman, or a guest advisor on Dear Sugar. Basically I guess I want to tell people what to do, LOL. How about you?

ESTER: Ha! Just like my kid. Twice this week I’ve picked her up from pre-school and she’s told me, sadly, “I wish I could be the teacher, and then I could tell everyone want to do.”

NICOLE: I loved teaching, when I used to do it more often. You’ve got everyone’s attention, you can do those mind-trick things where you ask them leading questions and then BAM! surprise them with an unexpected response, and you get to talk about something you know really, really well. What’s the downside? (The pay.)

ESTER: Yeah, and sometimes crumbling infrastructure, poisoned water, inept administration, layers of bureaucratic nonsense … That’s the worst-case scenario. But Babygirl sees none of that yet. To her the fantasy is the equivalent of Jafar becoming a genie and saying, “Absolute power!!”

NICOLE: Isn’t that movie supposed to teach kids that Jafar is the bad guy?

ESTER: Uh, yes, I’m pretty sure it is. Also I haven’t shown her Aladdin yet; I’m not a monster. I’m just imagining that that’s what’s going on in her head.

NICOLE: With any luck the teacher aspiration will develop into a love of learning rather than a desire for absolute dictatorship.

ESTER: Ha, yeah, one hopes! It must be hard to be a pre-schooler, too: they want autonomy but bigger people are always telling them what to do and they get time-outs if they don’t listen.

NICOLE: I remember very little about pre-school, except that I liked to play in the dress-up box and that once I got my foot caught on a wooden play structure. It’s high school that I remember as being hard, in the exact way you just described.

ESTER: Right, because it’s the same problem! You generally have much less autonomy than you want and when you break the rules you get grounded. Aw. It’s hard to be a kid. At least at this age Babygirl still looks up to her teachers; I think most high schoolers have often cultivated a certain amount of disdain.

NICOLE: I still feel like some high school teachers earn it, although I wonder if I would view it differently now. You can tell when the disdain is mutual.

ESTER: I definitely had more respect for the teachers who felt like they had respect for us too. There were ones with maddening, arbitrary-seeming rules, and that made me breathe fire. I still remember the time I showed up for a make up test with a pencil, having forgotten that that particular teacher didn’t like pencil, and she took 5% of my grade for not writing in pen. THE BLISTERING INJUSTICE OF IT, NICOLE.

NICOLE: They were trying to teach us how to follow arbitrary and ever-changing instructions, which is an important workplace skill! But yeah, I hated that garbage too.

ESTER: High school teachers really are, in a way, sent to break our spirits in order to prepare us for the workforce. They introduce us to the concept of petty dictators. They make us realize the degree to which one often needs to either suck up or say nothing. I feel fortunate I had as many good ones as I did.

But the funny thing is that nowadays so many of us go on to college between high school and the real world, and college can be such a drastic shift away from that kind of treatment: often, administrators care about your feelings, profs care about your mind. Then it’s a rude shift when you’re done and back to the real world again. No wonder so many young twenty-somethings feel jerked around.

NICOLE: And then they go to grad school to recapture college, and realize that it’s all about breaking their spirits again!

ESTER: Oh no!

NICOLE: I swear I learned more office politics in grad school than I did in my entry-level jobs, and it made me a better person because of it. Or at least a better worker, which is what counts.

ESTER: Ooh, in what way?

NICOLE: Well, that part of being on a team is about recognizing that some people’s thoughts and opinions have more weight than others, for example. That seniority has value. That nobody wants to hear your big ideas on the first day you walk in the door. I was told at one point “you need to learn how to play the game.” So I did.

ESTER: That definitely sounds more like a workplace lesson than a grad school one. I’m kind of surprised humanities grad school unfolded that way, so hierarchically. But perhaps that’s naive?

NICOLE: My experience might be unusual because I went to theater grad school, where we essentially ran a full-time production company, mounting like eight shows a year and a summer Shakespeare festival. Other Billfolders can share their own grad school experiences!

ESTER: Oh, that makes more sense. I guess in that case you really do need to come to a full understanding of hierarchy, and your place in it, in order for things to function.

NICOLE: It also helped because I was invested in my grad school performance in a way that I wasn’t invested in, say, my performance as a telemarketer. Which gave me another big advantage when I went back into the workplace, because I had been working a job that “counted” instead of a bunch of time-filler jobs. I had already put in that work to figure out how to function in a workplace where I hoped to stay, not one where I’d walk out the door as soon as something went wrong.

ESTER: I was wired such that I hoped to stay in every job I was in, no matter how subpar the job was or how badly suited I was to it. I didn’t leave a job voluntarily until I was in my mid-20s. Monogamy is such my default, it’s kind of pathetic. I had to learn that jobs are not loyal to you, so it is unreasonable to be loyal to jobs.

NICOLE: The Billfold: Telling You to Quit Your Job Since 2013.

ESTER: No, no! Don’t do that! Nicole!

NICOLE: The Billfold: Telling You to Consider Your Opportunities and Not Treat Every Job as a Permanent Situation and also Don’t Quit Unless You’ve Got a New Job Lined Up, Probably.

ESTER: … Better.