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Giving It Away

My volunteer gig has turned into an unpaid job.

Mallory Ortberg.
Mallory Ortberg.
Sam Breach

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Dear Prudence,
I’m in my mid-20s and have been trying to find work in my chosen field. I’m hoping to go back for (more) grad school in the fall, but I’m still looking for work in the meantime. To get my foot in the door I started volunteering a couple days a month at a local museum. I managed to make a good impression, and I’ve been pulled from low-impact occasional volunteering and asked to help out with special projects in different departments. On the one hand, this is great experience. On the other hand, I’m now booked up for most of the week rather than a few days a month, and it costs me $5 a day just to commute to my volunteer gig. If this continues and I keep being asked to come in regularly to “help out,” how can I delicately ask to be paid for what is amounting to a part-time job? I don’t want to burn bridges or get somehow blacklisted (this museum is a pretty big player in my field), but I also want to be paid for my work.
—Why Buy the Cow?

It’s disheartening when “working for free” doesn’t translate into “getting a paid offer” so much as it translates into “working for free more.” Please don’t think that asking for money or setting limits on your volunteer hours is something that needs to be approached “delicately” or is something that could destroy your working relationship with this institution. You need to advocate for yourself, because management is not going to do that for you (a lifelong lesson!); if this institution is the kind of place you’d want to work with someday, they will understand when you set limits. “I love my work, and I wanted to talk to you about my hours. Right now I’m commuting X days a week, which costs me Y dollars. If you’re able to reimburse me for travel/pay me minimum wage/offer a monthly stipend, I can keep those hours. If you’re not, I’ll need to cut back to Z days a week.”

I’m not going to make a general ruling about unpaid internships, because there are different norms in different fields, but there’s a limit to how much the unpaid intern gets out of the arrangement. At a certain point, you don’t just need your foot in the door, you need some sense that, when you finally step through it, you will actually be able to support yourself working in your profession. If you get blacklisted for saying, “I can’t work for free more than two days a week without getting a travel voucher,” then your profession is not a sustainable one, and you should take that as a warning and look for work elsewhere.

Dear Prudence,
I have been friends with a law school classmate since the beginning of the fall. I have Asperger’s and I am deaf, so it can be a bit rough for me to make friends. I am also a private person, which I know some people in my class find “cold and snobbish.” Apart from casual everyday niceties, I stopped trying to make friends, but this particular classmate appeared to be an exception to the rule, and I was glad to have someone to talk to. I liked him and was able to be very straightforward with him. During winter break, he said something odd—he suggested that that we should “stay in bed, reading, in a nonsexual way, together.” He said some other things that also struck me as inappropriate. I am fond of him as a friend, but this looked like a red flag to me. I said nothing, thinking it was a temporary moment of insanity.

Then he asked me if we could get a drink together. I told him I wasn’t free, and he then asked me repeatedly “who [I] was with” over the next 36 hours. I didn’t answer, as I did not consider that his business. I finally told him to stop. Then he told me I was being inconsiderate and secretive, and that I was behaving “dreadfully” and “crass.” My best friend and my mother told me he had clearly overstepped major boundaries. I am completely astounded and hurt. Am I right to feel this way? What should I do?
—Is This for Real?

It’s always a relief when I can give someone permission to feel something they’re already feeling. Yes, your friend overstepped your boundaries, and you were right to tell him to stop, and you’re completely free to feel surprised and hurt. Had his first comment about “getting into bed nonsexually together” (what an odd thing to say!) been an isolated incident, it might be possible to dismiss it as a well-intended but badly delivered joke, but it wasn’t an isolated incident. Most telling of all, when you asked him to stop asking who you were with, he didn’t apologize and back off. He accused you of being secretive and suggested you owed him an explanation for not wanting to get a drink with him. Don’t let him convince you that you’ve done something wrong by saying no or expecting a modicum of privacy. If he won’t apologize and amend his behavior, then he doesn’t deserve your trust or your friendship.

Dear Prudence,
The other night I had some of my neighbors over for a glass of wine. One guest let me know she’d be bringing her toddler. She barely supervised the child, who wandered everywhere; took and left food around the house (we recently had a mouse problem and are trying to keep things extra-clean); dipped fingers into lit candles then wiped wet wax on my wooden table; played with our remotes, cables, and phones; and pulled out and opened my husband’s Lego sets. I noticed a small but sentimental item was broken but didn’t say anything.

Everyone was delighted with the child but me. Mom left a mess on the table when she excused herself to return home to her husband, who had prepared dinner. I feel a little stressed, unsure about realistic hosting expectations, and overall unappreciated by my guest. How can I do this better next time—if at all? What would be good boundaries for me with someone else’s child in my home?
—Hosting a toddler

Next time specify that the invitation is for adults only! That is a perfectly reasonable request to make. Your neighbor can either arrange for someone else to look after her child for an hour or two or decline the invitation. Moreover, you have every right as a host to ask a guest to supervise their child if you notice said child is sticking fingers in lit candles and breaking things. It’s not rude to say, “Please put that down” or “Can you make sure she doesn’t get into that?” When someone else is a guest in your home, it’s absolutely “good boundaries” to ask that they be responsible for making sure their child doesn’t hurt themselves or destroy your furniture. It’s also fine to specify that you don’t want to host young children when you have a few friends over for a glass of wine.

Dear Prudence LIVE in San Francisco! See Mallory Ortberg and special guests on Jan. 25.

Dear Prudence,
Two years ago I moved to a new city and was quickly welcomed into a pre-existing group of friends. Within a few months, several of them were involved in a violent incident that gained national attention. They are understandably traumatized, and many of them experience symptoms of PTSD. They’ve all sought therapy, but still talk about the event in detail once or twice a month. The problem is that I was involved in a similar violent incident in my old city that I haven’t told them about. It’s really upsetting to hear them talk about their experience as it brings up memories of my own.

I don’t want them to think I’m being insensitive by asking them not to talk about this incident with me, and I don’t want to have to explain my past to them either. Can I politely excuse myself from these conversations without alienating these people I really care about? Would it be better to tell them why, or would that come across as insensitive or trying to one-up them? I’m not sure what to do.
—Don’t Mention It

You can, of course, excuse yourself from any conversation; if this only happens once or twice a month and it’s been well over a year, it’s possible that your friends won’t notice any sort of a pattern if every once in a while you step into the kitchen for a cup of tea or to answer a fake text message. But there is a chance that they will notice, and there’s a chance they’ll make a mistaken assumption about your reasons, and possibly be hurt as a result. I think the anxiety of not knowing whether your friends have noticed your more frequent absences would be painful for you.

You say that you don’t want to go into detail but that you are prepared to acknowledge your shared history, so I think your best option is to have a brief conversation with your friends individually. You can tell them that you don’t want to talk about it in depth but that a few years ago you survived a similar act of violence, and you might periodically need to step out of the room when they discuss their experience. Make it clear that you love and support them, and that right now you don’t need anything else from them. Your friends sound like welcoming, caring, thoughtful people who know how to look after themselves, so I think such a conversation will go extremely well, and they’re not likely to think you’re attempting to one-up them.

Dear Prudence,
My husband and I have had an open marriage for five years now. I occasionally date others and currently have a boyfriend, while my husband has yet to take advantage of the opportunity. I don’t mind people knowing that we are nonmonogamous, but I don’t feel the need to make an announcement. My husband is more private than I am and would prefer to keep it to ourselves. When it comes to his family, he is adamant that we not tell them.

My question concerns how to handle the inevitable: Someone we know sees me out holding hands with my boyfriend (or worse—kissing). My fear is that they will see me as a homewrecker and judge me. They may feel that they have witnessed something they shouldn’t have and feel embarrassed. If I know they’ve seen me, I can address it directly. But what if someone sees me without me noticing? How can I avoid making people feel uncomfortable and potentially ruining a relationship with a friend/acquaintance/co-worker without making a big “coming out” announcement?
—Nonmonogamous Anxiety

Since your primary goal is to make sure you don’t have to speak about the nature of your marriage with your husband’s family and to not have to make any sort of public announcement, then I think your best strategy is to minimize public displays of affection with your boyfriend or any other new partners, especially if you’re at a bar or restaurant where you’re likely to run into someone you know.

You do have to accept, of course, that you cannot be so constantly vigilant that you can eliminate the possibility that someone who knows you’re married may see you on a date at some point, but that doesn’t mean you can’t take practical steps to minimize your risk. You can make reservations in a part of town that you don’t spend a lot of time in, or save the kissing and hand-holding for after you get home from the restaurant. If discretion is important to you, you may have to postpone some public affection.

Dear Prudence,
I am an adjunct assistant professor at a four-year public university. Due to funding cuts, we have not had any tenure-track jobs available in many years. We have one opening this semester and everyone expects me to apply for it. I think I have a decent shot at it, but I am struggling with whether to even apply. It would be a tremendous amount of work just to apply and compete against applicants from all over the country, and I am already overwhelmed with work. I also have major family responsibilities, young children—including a special needs child with multiple medical issues—and a very long commute. Achieving work-life balance already feels like a losing game. I am loath to add more to my plate and fearful of what would fall through the cracks as I prepare for the dog and pony show. If I got the job, I don’t know that I would have the bandwidth over the next five years to do the research, writing, publishing, travel, and presenting necessary to achieve tenure.

What’s more, I feel resentful about having to compete for a job I am already doing. The whole enterprise feels like a political game I don’t want to play. And I am already reaping the emotional rewards of teaching and working with my students without playing the game. But by not applying, I am potentially missing out on the financial and social rewards that come with tenure: the respect of my peers, a better benefits and pay package—not to mention job security. So do I leave this tenure-track opportunity to others who may be more free, with fewer family responsibilities, who will have greater capacity to jump through the hoops? Or do I reach for the brass ring and try to grab something for myself as a reward for the years I’ve already given to this institution as an overworked, underpaid adjunct?
—Tenure Trouble

There’s a lot that’s specific to academia about this question, but there’s plenty here that’s fairly universal. You (1) hate most aspects of your job and wish you had a better one; (2) have the chance to apply for a slightly better job with your existing employer, but are struggling to balance the demands of your work and your home life, and you don’t relish the extra work of putting yourself forward as a candidate; (3) dread the level of work you’d have to do if you did get the promotion.

If you don’t apply for this job, how much longer do you think you can pull off being an “overworked, underpaid adjunct”? Another year? Another five years? You sound precipitously close to burnout already, and right now you have zero job protection if your department decides to cut funding yet again. That’s not to say you have to apply for the job, but it does seem like an opportune moment to reflect on just what sort of a future you can envision for yourself in academia if you decide not to seek tenure. Maybe right now the idea of thinking more than a month or a week ahead feels impossible! If that’s the case, then “I can’t take on any more responsibilities at work, and right now the game plan is simply to get through each day; maybe I’ll reassess in a few years when the kids are older” is a perfectly viable answer.

I think there is, at least, a way to address the resentment you feel about applying for a job you believe you are already doing. You point out that in order to achieve tenure you’d have to take on a lot more research and publish or present more of your findings, which isn’t part of your current job. You’re not just auditioning for something you already have.

Being an adjunct, by all accounts, is a lot of work for very little recognition, and the untenured academic track can be demeaning and distressing; the question is whether you want to stick with the devil you know or risk trading in your current set of problems for a new one. My best advice is to get your department chair’s opinion on whether you should put yourself forward—”everyone expects me to apply” isn’t the same thing as “I’ve been recommended for the position”—then figure out whether you’re capable of doing more work if you get the job. If the answer is “No matter how much more money or job security they give me, I’m already stretched as thin as possible,” then don’t apply (and maybe consider, in a year or two, looking for work elsewhere).
If the answer is “Yes, if I made more money and had better benefits,” then go for it. Either way—good luck.

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