Job vs career
by Jordan Cusumano, LLMSW
I will start out by saying that someone who landed their dream job as their first professional job could likely write something exactly like what you are about to read, talking about all the wonderful things they gained from beginning their career exactly where they planned. And if you find it - send it my way! I would love to know what that is like.
For me, I graduated with my master’s in social work in August and needed a break. Mentally and physically, both professional Jordan and personal-life Jordan needed to take a break to let it all sink in before jumping into the professional world. After a few months “off,” I began applying to jobs - and it became both a full-time job and a daily ritual to apply for jobs. Even the shortest sentence of a job posting would give me enough reason to apply for it. It was Christmas Eve when I got a voicemail from an MSW who had interviewed me back in November. She said she had hired someone else for the position I had applied for, but they had a per diem position working as a social worker for hospice. This was probably one of the only fields of social work I had sworn off long ago. Eager to start working and worried that it would be a long time before another job offer found me, I decided to take the leap and give it a try. They say it’s easier to get a job after you have one - and I was hoping like hell that was true, so I didn’t have to spend too much time as a hospice social worker.
It would take another article to talk about all the things I learned during my time as a hospice social worker, and the larger impact this work will have on my professional future has yet to be seen. However, I can tell you what I learned by taking a job that wasn’t my dream job.
1. I learned just how brave I could be.
Many people are truly called to work with patients who are dying. As someone who didn’t feel called to this work and didn’t have a lot of experience being in the dying space with someone, this was terrifying work for me. Every single day that I went to work, I astounded myself with how brave I was. It may sound silly, but this job was something that terrified me - and by showing up, I was facing my fears. This gave me what I needed to continue to show up.
2. I learned how important it is to take advantage of being new.
Although I had a master’s degree, that was about all I had when it came to being qualified for this job. I hadn’t taken classes on end-of-life; in fact, my focus in school was children and youth. Because of this, I took full advantage of the beginning days of my job when I was in “training,” shadowing the other members of the hospice team. I truly felt like a sponge - soaking up every moment of tenderness the nurses gave to patients, every tearful moment of silence the social workers shared with families, and every form of nonverbal communication that my teammates used when words simply weren’t enough. I was also very honest and up front with my colleagues who were always available to answer my questions and help me through as I was learning the job.
3. I learned how important it is to truly interview your interviewer when on a job interview.
Being a new professional, I didn’t ask a lot of questions that might have helped me know more about the work culture I was walking into. For example, my colleagues at this job worked well past their 40-hour work week on a daily basis. Starting at 8 a.m. and working well past 6 or 7 p.m. was the norm. Asking my interviewer about the expectations for workers when their day is technically done might have helped me to see that the expectation for them was that they would finish their day - no matter how much overtime they ended up having.
4. I learned how important it is to check your pay stub and to have your income very thoroughly explained to you.
I am still learning this one. At this job, I had a seriously low paycheck one week and it took more than a month and talking with the CEO to have them pay me in full. The reason? There was a discrepancy between the way I had been told to input my hours and the way that payroll wanted me to input my hours. When they realized this, they stopped paying me for my non-client hours until the documentation was changed to the correct method. Even though going with the flow might be helpful in the field, going with the flow on your pay and benefits is not helpful.
5. I re-learned the importance of self-care.
Doing a job that you don’t feel particularly confident in can be a really exhausting and discouraging endeavor. Without my self-care (which for me is my horses, but it can be anything that helps you relax and "forget" about your cares), I would not have been able to continue to go to work every day.
6. I learned the importance of cutting myself slack and keeping things in perspective.
Not every work environment is like this, but many work places are breeding grounds for drama and blowing things out of proportion. When you are working in a job that isn’t your dream job, it is a lot easier to keep these drama temptations under control.
7. I learned the importance of staying non-territorial.
Since my first job wasn’t my dream job, I had no problem letting my colleagues give me advice and assistance. I wasn’t territorial about any part of my job, and this helped me to stay open to help and keep many of my more territorial colleagues happy. I simply did not participate in any fight or frustration over something that someone else wanted.
8. To follow up #7, I will say I learned how to define my role and advocate for myself within my role.
Even though I wasn’t territorial, I was able to define my role and stand up for the parts of it that I did need to be territorial about. Without the emotion of it being my dream job, I was able to learn how to do this without emotional bias clouding my judgment in any direction.
9. I learned that at the end of the day, a kind heart and genuinely nice approach to something really can be enough.
There were many days as a hospice social worker that I simply did not have a clue what I should do. I didn’t know which forms they needed to sign, I didn’t know how to answer their questions, and I felt as if there was nothing to say that would be right. However, nearly every day as a hospice social worker, patients and their families told me that they appreciated me and what a great job I did. This blew my mind every time. That’s when I realized that while they had many needs, their biggest need was to be treated with respect and kindness. This really can go a long way.
10. I learned that doing something really does make you competent at it.
It was a few months into working as a hospice social worker when I remember stepping back and realizing that I really was a hospice social worker. And that is something I never thought in a million years would be true.
So, in so many ways, this job made me truly believe that anything is possible! Including rocking my dream job when it comes my way.
Jordan Cusumano, LLMSW, is a 2014 graduate of the University of Michigan's Master of Social Work program and is employed by St. Joseph Mercy Health System Cancer Centers, working as Program Coordinator of a grant-funded volunteer program, the "Link Volunteer Navigator Program." Jordan recruits, trains, and supports volunteers who provide information on psychosocial resources to patients and families affected by cancer and continues to grow the program's infrastructure.