Underemployed

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thedude
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Underemployed

Post by thedude »

On days like this, it drives me crazy to be underemployed. I am a Ph.D. level administrator and my work seems to come in bursts. Today I have done nothing of consequence. My boss has no new work for me right now. Others in my department have no new work for me right now. There's only so much reading I can do before I start to pull my hair out.

So, if you were in my situation, where you had e.g. 1-2 days per week when you were being paid to do nothing, what would you do to (1) make yourself more employable, (2) keep busy, (3) possibly make some money?

My background is in science. I left the lab 3 years ago to take this job and still consider it to be one of the best decisions I have ever made. I can't (yet) start looking for a new, higher level job because of the economy primarily, and also because everyone here is quite happy with my work, yet my boss believes I'm not ready to move on. She is extremely powerful in my organization and has explicitly told me that I will need to start thinking of moving on and making progress in my career in the next few years, but not yet. I have her support and can't lose it by planning a move right now. I need to wait 1-2 years.

Some things I have thought of and associated problems:

1. Brush up on my programming skills. Problem: programming for programming's sake is not fruitful. Without proper context, without a problem to focus on, any skills you pick up quickly atrophy.

2. Brush up on my foreign language skills. I speak a few foreign languages, but none fluently. Actually, now that I am thinking about my problem in a structured format, this seems like quite a good option. I could spend my time reading news in foreign languages.

Thoughts, anyone? If there were some way for me to make a buck or two with my spare time, I would consider it quite seriously.
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Bob B
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Post by Bob B »

There are literally millions of unemployed people who would love to have your problem. Not to be harsh, but until the economy improves and you can make a move (maybe to another company) you should suck it up and be thankful for the job you have.
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chaz
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Post by chaz »

Increase your foreign language vocabulary - that is easily lost without being used.
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mcmd
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Post by mcmd »

Any opportunity to teach others what you know?
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likegarden
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Post by likegarden »

I worked as an engineer for 43 years. I believe I never felt underemployed. I often did not wait for work, but found my own work then with my boss' approval.
There is always work! There is always something which needs an improvement. Look at the department's goals, find the problems and research how you can improve something which is related to your own assignment.
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kramer
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Post by kramer »

In my opinion, for an actual job in another country, you need fluency or something very close in that language if it is really going to help your career. I would undertake the effort to become fluent only if I had a fairly specific goal in mind (or if it is strictly for pleasure, understanding that as you go).

I am an advanced student in one foreign language and a solid beginner in another, both learned as an adult. However, this was strictly for pleasure (and I spend a lot of time in these countries). The amount of work involved to become fluent in another language is mind boggling. I think that there usually better ways to advance your career skills if you are not already an advanced student.

Kramer
paulsiu
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Post by paulsiu »

Since you are on someone else's dime when you have free time, you should look around. What can you do that will benefit both you and our employer? Something that will increase the efficency or may be try to figure out how to prevent works from coming in bursts.

You can also ask your boss what her goals are. There must be something that she wants done eventually. Laying down the groundwork will be helpful to her and to you (for the experience).

Paul
mathwhiz
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Post by mathwhiz »

Or you can do what some of my "underemployed" co-workers do.

1) Take long lunches and come in late and leave early.

2) surf the internet

3) take personal phone calls

4) take care of personal errands like doctor's appointments, billing, online shopping

5) socialize and gossip
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Downeastah
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Post by Downeastah »

mathwhiz wrote:Or you can do what some of my "underemployed" co-workers do.

1) Take long lunches and come in late and leave early.

2) surf the internet

3) take personal phone calls

4) take care of personal errands like doctor's appointments, billing, online shopping

5) socialize and gossip
We must work at the same place! A couple of my so-called colleagues pull this crap all the time. :x
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TheEternalVortex
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Re: Underemployed

Post by TheEternalVortex »

thedude wrote: 1. Brush up on my programming skills. Problem: programming for programming's sake is not fruitful. Without proper context, without a problem to focus on, any skills you pick up quickly atrophy.
It's fairly easy to find problems to work on.
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thedude
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Post by thedude »

paulsiu wrote:Since you are on someone else's dime when you have free time, you should look around. What can you do that will benefit both you and our employer? Something that will increase the efficency or may be try to figure out how to prevent works from coming in bursts.
I try to identify problems and offer my help. Some of these things I can help with, but not always immediately - e.g. I volunteered today to review a professor's research paper; still waiting to receive it. Some things I cannot help with due either to political or technical reasons. Our finance team has very weak leadership. But I can't step in because it's politically fraught.
paulsiu wrote:You can also ask your boss what her goals are. There must be something that she wants done eventually. Laying down the groundwork will be helpful to her and to you (for the experience).
There's only so many times I can casually knock on her door and say, "so, I have nothing to work on right now, is there anything I can help with?" before I become annoying. She will sometimes give me another thing to do, but it's not really challenging or substantialThis is really bizarre. I feel delinquent, yet I never get anything but praise from my boss. I have asked for a candid review and what I got was "I don't really worry about you at all, since you're such a self starter... You've done well on tasks X, Y, Z..."

Just had a conversation with my fiance about all this. She helped me brainstorm a few projects - some small, some not so small - that I think I can take over. I will mention to the boss that I would like to do these specific tasks and see how it goes.
retiredjg
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Post by retiredjg »

Find an online course and study at work?
Ricola
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Post by Ricola »

Please! This is like those people we hear about that are stressed because they have jobs while others do not, or have too much money. You do not have a problem. On the contrary, you are one of the luckiest people around. My only suggestion is that you use your free time and money to go shopping and stimulate the economy. :)
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thedude
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Post by thedude »

Ricola wrote:Please! This is like those people we hear about that are stressed because they have jobs while others do not, or have too much money. You do not have a problem. On the contrary, you are one of the luckiest people around.
:roll: Yeah, okay. Well, maybe it's not a problem for you, since you're not in my shoes. Stagnating in my career is a serious problem for me. I've come to this community to ask for suggestions because it seems to me that most Bogleheads are also concerned with making the most of their careers.
Ricola wrote:My only suggestion is that you use your free time and money to go shopping and stimulate the economy. :)
No, that's quite alright. I'll let other people spend money frivolously, thank you very much. I'm saving my pennies for a house. And retirement.
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VictoriaF
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Post by VictoriaF »

You need to define your own project and work on it. With respect to foreign languages I concur with Kramer that the cost-benefit ratio may be too high.

When I was in a similar situation I published several papers. Publications provide you with expertise, recognition, pass to conferences, and resume line-items. You should select a subject area in which you want to expand your expertise and that is related to your organization's mission.

The second suggestion is to hone some basic skills. These may include programming languages, desktop software (e.g., becoming a MS Excel expert, using advanced graphics, mathematical or statistical packages), web technologies, probability and statistics, and even writing skills.

You are right that it is difficult to learn software without a project. The best would be to write a program associated with a paper for publication (see my suggestion above). You may also try to write a program (or develop an Excel spreadsheet) for some aspects of your financial planning. If everything else fails, you may do your studies using text books that contain problem sets.

One more thought: are there any certifications applicable to your work? Network and IT engineers frequently go for CCNA/CCNP/CCIE (Cisco certifications); managers get PMP; there are various information security certifications; and lots of others that I don't know about.

You don't have a problem. But you do have a challenge to use your time productively. Please do,

Victoria
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thedude
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Post by thedude »

Victoria and others: thank you. Now, regarding PMP certification - is this something that any of you know much about? I hadn't heard of it and will do some surfing tonight to figure out what I can figure out.

Have thought about publishing papers, but I think realistically that I would need to make a serious commitment - say 20-50% of my time - to make a contribution to the scientific/professional literature that isn't a complete joke (which would damage my reputation). Problem is, I can't commit that amount of time consistently - work is too stochastic.

Perhaps I could think more carefully of what sort of contribution might be considered valuable. I am not the most creative person, so it would be challenging for me to come up with something that would be worth putting my effort into.

As things currently stand, I have claimed a few more tasks for myself: get my department's Wiki up and running, prepare for writing an NSF grant (will write as much as the boss lets me), etc.
billern
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Post by billern »

thedude wrote:As things currently stand, I have claimed a few more tasks for myself: get my department's Wiki up and running, prepare for writing an NSF grant (will write as much as the boss lets me), etc.
Why don't you figure out a way to apply for some additional funding to start some new projects in your department that can use up some of your free time?

That way you get more work, more responsibility, and it looks good on the resume.
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preserve
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Re: Underemployed

Post by preserve »

thedude wrote:On days like this, it drives me crazy to be underemployed. I am a Ph.D. level administrator and my work seems to come in bursts. Today I have done nothing of consequence. My boss has no new work for me right now. Others in my department have no new work for me right now. There's only so much reading I can do before I start to pull my hair out.

So, if you were in my situation, where you had e.g. 1-2 days per week when you were being paid to do nothing, what would you do to (1) make yourself more employable, (2) keep busy, (3) possibly make some money?
I would do a more thorough job on the projects I was given. Re-do them two or three times. Repackage them / pose new questions. Work on presentations that you probably will never use etc. You can also organize your projects on a wiki/intranet, start automating your work by creating processes and flow charts, writing your own MS Access reports / database.

They key element is that you want to do your work at your own level of standard, not someone elses. Slack time does wonders for this.
kenbrumy
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Post by kenbrumy »

If you can "broaden" your value at work do it. If you can't develop alternatives that will improve you.

I had a NASA job a few years back and I literally had 3 to 5 days per month of actual work. I developed a whole series of hobbies that included wandering around JSC and seeing what was going on that interested me (no end to interesting stuff and people glad to let me see what they were doing), extending my professional credentials, studying personal finance (that's when I discovered I was financially able to retire) and looking for a better job which I eventually found making almost twice as much.
exeunt
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Post by exeunt »

Complaining about no work? Terrible. I'd enjoy myself--read a book, or heck, write one.
denismurf
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Post by denismurf »

I can tell you from personal experience what NOT to do in this situation.

Don't become the team know-it-all by formally proposing well researched ways other people can do their jobs better.

Underemployment within a full time job is a common problem in good and bad economic times, particularly in large organizations. I don't recall ever seeing a book or article about it.
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Post by LadyGeek »

You are missing the big picture here - politics. Your boss is "extremely powerful in the organization". She's giving you direction to hold back for later.

That means she's up to something and needs you to be a team player. When the time's right, she'll reward you with a promotion. Of course, that's after she's gets what she wants.

Follow the advice given here. Hang loose and try to see if there's something you can do that will bring extra funding to the department. Finance is power. Control of finances is control of power. However, don't ask your boss to share her funds. You'll be sweeping the floors on your way out the door.
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September
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Post by September »

kenbrumy wrote:If you can "broaden" your value at work do it. If you can't develop alternatives that will improve you.

I had a NASA job a few years back and I literally had 3 to 5 days per month of actual work. I developed a whole series of hobbies that included wandering around JSC and seeing what was going on that interested me (no end to interesting stuff and people glad to let me see what they were doing), extending my professional credentials, studying personal finance (that's when I discovered I was financially able to retire) and looking for a better job which I eventually found making almost twice as much.
Would you please shed some light on how you find a better job?
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Post by leonard »

I think the trick is to identify opportunities and problems you can solve, without appearing to your coworkers or boss as frivolous. I always like brainstorming as a means of identifying opportunities. So, perhaps you could brainstorm problems that you can either solve yourself directly or can readily influence others to solve. It could be your own work process, a shared work process with a coworker. Or, it could be a "stretch goal" that would really challenge you to learn new skills, influence others in the organization. Perhaps, you could network with peers or other departments and take on a little additional work on joint projects you have. Thus, you are challenging yourself, impacting the business, and building advocates for you across the company.

Anyway, open word or take out a pad of paper and start a free form brainstorming list. I bet you will hit on some things you would love to fix and positively impact your organization at the same time.
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Post by tc101 »

I had a job once where there was noting to do. I was a programmer and it was during the dot com bubble and they hired a bunch of us to build something but couldn't decided what they wanted to build. They had lots of money from selling stock in their worthless company and they wanted programmers available for when they decided what to do.

It was terrible. I learned some new programming skills. I investigated and fixed some problems with the current system, but it was boring and depressing even though the money was good. I eventually quit.
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VictoriaF
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Post by VictoriaF »

I thought of an analogy.

When one shops, e.g., at a supermarket, the intellectual work of reading labels and comparing prices and physical work of stacking the shopping cart and pushing it around -- are much more enjoyable than being idle at the checkout line.

Even if you can talk on the phone or read magazines, even if the checkout is expedient -- still everybody seems to hate this idleness. Why should the idle time at work be different?

Victoria
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stan1
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Post by stan1 »

I've always thought of idle time at work to be an opportunity. Many years ago I had a job where we would have 1-2 months of gap between projects that lasted 18-24 months. We relished those opportunities to work on process improvements and tools that made the next development cycle more efficient.
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thedude
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Post by thedude »

Thanks to everyone for the comments and suggestions. This problem, for the time being, has remedied itself. I think my boss is tuned into my feeling of underemployment and boredom (while I do not directly say to her "hey, I'm bored here..", I make it known when I am idle and offer my help). I've been asked to apply to the NSF for some seed funds for a new initiative we're planning. That will keep me busy on and off until August. I have also taken the initiative to set up our department's wiki, which will help fill in the gaps. When these two tasks are done, I have two solid line items for my CV as an academic administrator, and will have provided something of value to my community.

The trick is, as Victoria points out, to fill the idle time. Still not sure how I will fill the slack, but at least there will be no slack for a short while. There are also some professional development courses that I'm planning to take - these are day long sessions that may end up being a waste of time, but hey, no one cares whether I waste my time.

I sympathize with tc101, big time. My first job out of grad school left me earning a good amount of money for a 26 year old, but horribly depressed. I left in a few short months to take a postdoc position, which was also horrible.
mathwhiz
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Post by mathwhiz »

It was terrible. I learned some new programming skills. I investigated and fixed some problems with the current system, but it was boring and depressing even though the money was good. I eventually quit
I guess it takes all kinds of folks in the world. Getting paid a lot of money for doing nothing? This would be another person's dream job. They'd ride that gravy train till it ended.

Personally, I'd be content surfing financial news blogs all day in a job like that.
btenny
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Post by btenny »

A long time ago I worked as an engineer on a project where another part of the project technically failed. So our group had to mark time on and off for 2-4 months while another group of people fixed these other parts of the design.

To keep our group busy we decided to design a satelite dish TV receiver. Think DISH network but back in 1970ish. This "special non-work" project served lots of purposes. We trained ourselves about satelite stuff and wireless stuff. This technology was similar to what we were working on for the company. The project was small enough for a few of us to do all the work. We made something worthwhile that we could all take home at the end of the project. We paid for all the materials out of our pockets. The big boss knew what we were doing and liked the stuff we were building and wanted a receiver for his home use. We had to go back to our real jobs before this receiver was complete so many of us eventually spent nights and weekends completing the receiver.

It was fun. We learned a lot. We kept busy. Maybe you can do something like this.

Bill
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