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Doing Both

Doing Both

Most PhD programs are pretty intensive, requiring the pursuant to work in some capacity at the school in the department to which they are submitting their PhD candidacy. Many of them maintain student work positions to fund their studies. I am one of those students.

I work during the day at the university as a research assistant professor, which I thought was going to mean I wrote exams, delivered lectures, graded responses, encouraged great students, helped less great students find alternate routes to their goals, etc. But I work in more of a peer advisor capacity and as an obstacle between disgruntled students and their actual professor. I sit in a dark little office doing my research, and pretending to fulfill my on-paper duties of: administrative assistance, peer review and guidance, and other duties as assigned” but this doesn’t take up more than about four hours a day. I spend the other four of these paid hours (think, way below minimum wage with some tuition benefits) doing and writing my research. Then I go straight from school to the damn mall four days a week for my retail shift.

It’s a lot of work. I’m really tired all the time. My social life – besides work-required social events – is limited to a maximum of ten hours per week. I try to run to school every morning to try to maintain some sort of exercise regimen and often there are yoga or pilates classes (student-led) at the student center that I try to drop in on.

I try to explain to people that while my entire life currently revolves around academia, I do not plan to do this long term. The academic lifestyle is very concerned with publish – publish or perish, they say – and this results in lots of scientifically unsound papers getting published just so that academics can maintain their credibility, name-recognition and funding. Over half of new PhDs remain in academia, this number is higher in those studying humanities, but in the sciences we’re somewhat isolated.

I would like to maintain a career in research, but not in an academic setting. I want to work in the pharmaceutical/bio-medical development field but from an ethical standpoint where chemistry can be studied to develop cheaper drug options that are available to more people around the globe. Research and development is a heavily funded pharma initiative, obviously because there’s lots of money to be made in pharmaceuticals. But the money made is based on demand, not the difficult in producing. So I figure, if we make drugs that are astonishingly easy to produce and we sell them for production cost, people will buy enough of it to make up for the lack of mark-up. And then we can collectively come together as a culture and agree that life-saving drugs are a human right regardless of income and people like Martin Shkreli will cease to exist altogether.

The tricky part is to develop inexpensive ways to produce drugs that are already on the market – this is the central topic of my dissertation. I’ve completed 16 credits of my academic course work of a required 20; all have been completed at or above the 500-level of which only four are required; one has been in mathematics and one in natural science for the sake of well-roundedness; and my research coursework has been occurring concurrently so I’ve completed 6 of the required 8 credits.

Once I complete and defend my dissertation, which will fulfill these additional 2 credits, I’ll be ready to get out there and get working. And if I have to spend a year or two in clinical research or pharmaceutical r&d internship work, I’ll do that. I’ll even be willing to work at this personal injury law firm in Biloxi if that’s what it takes!

Bosses

Bosses

All of my bosses are white, gay men between the ages of 24 and 30. Literally, I have a boss who is TWENTY-FOUR YEARS OLD. He does the scheduling and payroll etc. He’s lovely and he considers this his career, “I’m a lifer” he stated during my interview as a way to demonstrate that there is growth opportunity in retail. He doesn’t seem to mind my scheduling conflicts and my tendency to bring books and school work in to do in the breakroom whenever I have a break. And he talks to me with a… very specific tone if you know what I mean. “Ohhh hay gurl, what you get up to this weekend?!” like I’m his token black friend. I am.

He’s great. I also have a boss who’s 30 years old, dresses head to toe in our stores attire even outside of work, he’s about forty pounds overweight and says everything with a slow, judgey SASS. He repsonds to near everything with a long, slow, low “Mmmmm hm.” As though he never really believes anything anyone says. He doesn’t really do any managerial tasks but he’s been here for like a decade so I think they just had to promote him. He and 24-year old boss do NOT get along so they never work the same shifts and never overlap – there’s another boss who kinda mediates this divide. It’s hilarious.

I once ran into the 30-year old one at a drag show in the valley, he wasn’t performing in it (which I would have loved!) and I wasn’t really intending to be there so we both kinda pretended not to see one another and carried on with our lives. Although after that and ever since then, he’s been especially cool with me on work matters. He left me a packet about “corporate growth” once and I had to find a gentle way to let him know that this was not a long-term career for me. This was just a means, but that’s condescending to say to someone who is in it for the long haul. So I just thanked him, told him I’d look through it, and it’s been in my junk pile ever since.

Sometimes the greatest thing you can learn from a boss or manager is exactly how not to interact with people so I try to look at my bosses as characters, rather than people, from whom I can learn good things to do and not great things to avoid doing. The former: I’ve learned how important it is as a boss to just treat people like their jobs are not the most important element in their lives. And the latter: I’ve learned to never sleep with my fucking employees. Duh! Both duh!

Attire/Coworkers

Attire/Coworkers

We’re required to be in properly pressed attire for our shifts, for obvious reasons. I literally have one pair of black slacks and three black button downs for work, I alternate between these for my six shifts a week. If they’re not properly pressed, I bring them to work and steam them, it’s an obvious solution. One day, this girl shows up for work in a creased top, like it had been in plastic packaging, folded, and she took it out and put it on and came to work. This is exactly what had happened, I learned, which is against rules since we’re supposed to wear the (hella cheap and deeply discounted for employees) swag they sell in the store. But apparently Walmart was having a sale on shirts that looked similar, so she went for it.

My boss approaches her to tell her she has to press her shirt. Apparently, neither of them were aware of the damn steamer in the break room and they got into a real loud argument in the middle of the store about the fucking shirt. It was beyond pointless as we were literally surrounded by blouses and steamers, but I try to never get involved in other peoples’ arguments.

Finally, our boss Daniel said, “Girl, please go home, press your shirt, and come back for an evening shift.” And this girl looks him right in the eye, rips her shirt off, storms out of the store in leggings and a bra and presumably made her way through the mall, to the parking garage, to her car, and drove herself home like that.

Part of me still holds her up as a hero, that was a bad ass move. I mean, sure she was unemployed after that and nobody ever saw or heard from her again, but it was a COOL THING to behold!

There was another coworker who offered me a ride home once because she had seem me waiting for my buss the week before after a shift. We made our way out to her toooootaly piece of shit car and got in. She spent the entire ride home trying to convince me that I should “join her team” and help her “move product” and after some digging I realized that this woman was cooking meth in her basement and wanted me to sell it for her. Nah. No.

She looked so typical of someone who would ask you this that it never even dawned on me how perfectly she fit the mold. She was short, fat, had bright red hair that she definitely definitely dyed in her bathtub, her face looked ok – even pretty – from far away but up close she had cystic acne and her teeth were jacked up. She was about 24 years old, had two kids at home, and invited me over for an orgy once. “The mayor will probably be here for this one” she tried to use as a selling point, as though I’d ever fuck the MAYOR!

I had a mantra – this is a means, this is a means, this is a means.

Training

Training

I spent my entire first day at this store learning, literally, how to steam clothes. Now I know what you’re thinking, who doesn’t know how to steam clothes? The answer to this is primarily young, white, privileged women who never had to do anything for themselves – whose clothes returned from the dry-cleaners steamed and pressed for them. They never had to actually steam their own blouses and so now an entire day of job training is wasted teaching young entitled whote folk how to accomplish simple tasks. And I’m the one who’s lucky to be employed here! Had I known, I would have just made a resume that stated: Alison Jane Taylor – Knows How to Steam Garments!

At the end of the first day, we filled out our W4s and got all of our paperwork in line – I am not lying when I tell you that I was the only person in that room (ok so there were only four of us, but still!) who didn’t call her dad to find out the information.

A lot of the training for this job was steaming garments, folding slacks, hanging things in one location and then later, hanging the same things in another location, speaking with people who kinda don’t really know what they want and trying to convince them that you know exactly what they want. They’re usually pretty open to input, especially when they can’t get their girlfriends on FaceTime and I say something like, “Oooh girl I know exactly what would look bangin’ on you!” For females, you pretty much just have to tell them they look hot. And for males you pretty much just have to act like you’re super into them.

Occasionally there would be dressing room horror shows to clean up, but the job is pretty easy, nobody expects much of me, showing up for a scheduled shift is regarded as heroism for some reason.

Retail Experience

Retail Experience

When I was growing up on the west side of Chicago, my ma operated one of those “boutiques” that people drive past and wonder, “how do places like that stay in business?” We sold cigarettes, expired canned goods, and kitty litter but somehow my mom kept finding odd ways to stay in business. For a few summers, we just let proper gangsters rent out the back room for “meetings” and they kept the business afloat simply to have a front to work out of. Sometimes we’d host community development meeting and rally preparations in our back room, this would keep us going for a month or two at a time. My mom sold discounted cartons of cigarettes that she bought in Northern Indiana, which seemed to generate a notable income. She hustled.

I’m quite confident that most of our schemes were right on the border of legal, and my mom was a hard-worker but she wasn’t fucking around with any of the illegal gang shit. Sure, she’d let these big wigs gather in the back room, smoke it out, and make plans, but she maintained that we weren’t funding or involved in the plans – we just provided the room.

Some of the other boutiques in the area were selling dime bags out the back and one or two even participated in the gathering and selling of illegal guns – from those gun shows in Indiana. My mom’s brother died real young from gang-related gun violence and she never ever talked about it. But once I did hear a man proposition her for turning these kinds of tricks out the back of our store and she hustled him outta there in a real hurry.

See, my mom was very careful to never really break any laws and I’ll save you the trouble of asking her why: the modern government works harder to keep black folks enslaved (in prison) than it does to protect any members of society, they make our survival skills illegal so that they can inprison us for trying to stay alive, and once we’re in prison, we’re slaves again and American racial balance is restored. Ooohoh she loved giving this speech! And almost every time she delivered it, it got better, she got angrier, and you could just SEE the listener growing convinced.

Never one to shy away from the “angry black woman” vibe, she delivered this speech so many times while I listened from afar that I could deliver it word for word now. And I believe it. I’ve seen enough of America now to know my place. And my place, currently, is in the fucking mall selling work clothes to people with job interviews who will certainly return them after the failed interview.

But when it was time to apply for retail jobs – I have a bachelor’s degree in chemistry and I work in retail while fulfilling my PhD work – I used my ma’s store as retail experience, I used my ma as a reference (we luckily have different last names), and I was told how damn lucky I was by friends and family to have such a respectable job. This is how low the bar is for respectable jobs in my community.