“I Don’t Want a Desk Job”

#WOCintech chat

English and creative writing majors figuring out a career path often start with what they don’t want. “I don’t want to teach” is the first filter, often followed by “I don’t want a desk job.” Sometimes it’s more specifically, “I don’t want a corporate job.”

There are jobs that don’t involve desks, but they can encompass everything from freelance copywriting (and putting your laptop on whatever surface you choose) to being a transportation manager for Union Pacific (yes, the train company; yes, they employ English majors.)

There are jobs that don’t involve being employed by a corporation, but they can involve everything from being a case manager for an addiction treatment center to creating branding for a political campaign to running an afterschool program.

“Desk jobs” and “corporate jobs” and “soul-destroying jobs” are not all the same thing.

It’s not OUR job as English advisors to tell students want they should want in a job. If a desk is a deal-breaker, so be it. But it’s usually not about the desk.

By “desk job,” people frequently mean:

  • Advancing organizational goals they don’t care about.
  • Tapping on a keyboard all day.
  • Working mostly alone.
  • Perceiving no opportunities for professional growth.
  • Making little impact on the lives of others or the world at large.
  • Spending each day surrounded by a sterile, boring environment.
  • Earning a good salary at the expense of other life goals.

A “desk” doesn’t automatically come with all of these qualities. Rather than ruling out the “desk job” altogether, it’s helpful to think more about the positive qualities that you want your career to have.

  • A purpose you care about?
  • A lot of variety in your day-to-day work, including working in a group around a conference table, working remotely, spending time outdoors, going from place to place?
  • Rich interactions with other people, either one-on-one or as part of a team?
  • Opportunities to learn new skills or advance to greater responsibilities?
  • Work with a demonstrable impact on the world in ways that matter to you?
  • A lively, vibrant workplace?
  • A livable salary, also but meaningful work and good quality of life?

If you can pinpoint what matters to you in avoiding the “desk job,” you can get closer to identifying the work you would enjoy.

Sometimes people assume that career happiness lies selecting a nonprofit over a for-profit employer, but there are many other variables in play. A meaningful job with profound impact on an issue like prison reform might require long hours alone in a cubicle poring over proposed legislation — making it the right job for some people, but not for the someone who would be happier in a marketing job for a startup that involved more creativity, teamwork, and variety. Someone terrible at “sales” for a large company might excel at engaging donors in a wetlands preservation project, while someone with a lot of leadership experience might be bored at a small nonprofit that offers limited opportunity to gain skills in training and supervising others.  

Rather than ruling out a “desk job” (or even assuming you know how much desk time a particular job will require), learn more about what kind of work might be meaningful and interesting to you.

  • Recognize that up to now, you have probably only encountered a fraction of the jobs that are out there in the world that you could do — and open yourself up to serendipitous discovery.
  • Go to career talks and events on campus to learn more about the options available to you.
  • Join the Department of English Alumni Mentoring Network (call 333-4346 or email kwilcox@illinois.edu to make an appointment with Kirstin Wilcox, Director of Internships to get signed up!)
  • Talk to the professionally employed adults around you about what they like about the jobs they do.
  • Go to the LAS Life and Career Design Lab to map some provisional next steps based on the the things you have found meaningful and interesting in your life so far.

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