how much does your job in college matter? — Ask a Manager

A reader writes:

I am a senior undergrad at a state college in a science major. I have been working for a year as a research assistant for a professor I very much admire. This professor has exposed me to many opportunities for travel and study that I otherwise wouldn’t have known about, and she has been a true role model to me. We are both women in a male-dominated field, if that matters.

The work I do for her is interesting, if somewhat repetitive. I have picked up lots of tech skills I otherwise would not have had much experience in. The trouble is that it pays very poorly — less than minimum wage (being a student employee, they can get away with that). I’ve made it work for now, but it’s getting tough. We are grant funded, and raises are not possible.

Before deciding to go back to school, I made a good wage at a specialty grocery store. The work was uninspiring and physical, but paid 40% better than my gig at school. A market near me is hiring, and on impulse I put in an application, but now I am full of doubt.

Is it better to make peanuts working in a field I would love to work in after graduation? When applying for jobs after graduation, will employers care if my most recent job was in a grocery store, as opposed to something related to my field?

I am so tired of being contantly broke. I can cover the bills, but barely. Is it worth living on ramen and mac n cheese for now if it increases my odds for a better job in a year?

I would love to tell you your jobs in college don’t matter … but they do.

Most employers hiring recent college grads will heavily favor candidates who have relevant work experience over those who don’t. It will help you hugely to have work experience in your field, or adjacent to your field.

It’s not that other types of jobs don’t matter. They do, and they often give you transferable skills that aren’t immediately obvious. And certainly unrelated work experience is better than no work experience! But work experience related to the field you want to work in is by far the most compelling to employers (plus, it’ll build the most useful contacts).

So, what does the rest of your resume look like? Do you have other jobs that relate to the work you want to do once you graduate? If you have a lot of them, in most fields you’d probably be fine spending the rest of your senior year doing a better paid but unrelated job — because your resume already has the work experience that will draw in employers. (A caveat: That’s true generally. But for science in particular, and especially for the specific type of science work you want to do, make sure you’re verifying that with people in your field.)

But if you just have this one year of relevant experience, I wouldn’t stop there. Two years of work relevant to your field will serve you better than one year when you’re looking for your first post-graduation job. (That assumes you can swing it financially, of course. If you can’t, you can’t. But if you have options, this is the significantly more helpful one professionally.)

Any chance, though, that you can keep the research assistant job but for fewer hours and then do the grocery job as well? That might not work out with the amount of hours they’d each want versus the amount of hours you’re available to work, but you might be able to thread the needle by combining the two.

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