Nostalgic for the 18 jobs I had

29 Apr

I love this thing on Twitter where people share what jobs they’ve had! For example, I love knowing that Maria Orive worked at McDonald’s (just like me). I also love knowing that Dmitri Petrov used to work as a taxi driver or that Natalie Tellis worked as a cashier.

The meme is about sharing five jobs you’ve had, but it makes me nostalgic about all the 18 jobs I had when I was in school, in college and after college.


I started working summer jobs when I was 12 or 13. I don’t think we needed the money, but in my family, it was considered normal to work in the summer. My first job was peeling tulip (and other) bulbs, because I lived in the bulb area of The Netherlands. These agricultural jobs were available for 12, 13 and 14-year-olds while you had to be 15 for most other jobs like working in a supermarket. So, during several weeks in the summer, I would take my bike early in the morning and ride to one of the farms near the coast, often together with my older sister. We’d work all day getting paid per crate of bulbs peeled. We worked hard and got blisters on our hands. Occasionally, my mom would come to say hi and maybe work with us for an hour or so. Even though we were pretty good at this job, my mom was much faster, because she did this work throughout her youth on her parents’ farm each summer. She would sometimes remind us that when she worked in the summer she wouldn’t get paid unless all the work on their farm was done and she and her siblings had time left to work on other people’s farms.

These first summers that I worked, the money I made would be split 50-50. I had to use half of it to buy my school supplies and the other half I could spend however I wanted. From early on I spent my money on trips. We’d take our bikes or the train and go camping for a few days easily spending the money we had earned.

Later when I was 15 or 16, I had other jobs. One summer I worked in a nice supermarket in our town, mostly behind the bread or cheese counter, which I really liked. Sometimes I had a job just for the two-week Christmas break. I remember one winter I worked as a cleaner in a small pharmaceutical plant in a nearby town. I hated it. For a while, I also cleaned the local table-tennis clubhouse on weekends with a friend.


The summer before I went to university I had a job in an industrial laundromat where they washed sheets and towels from hotels and homes for old people. The work was monotonous but not hard. It was fun to see the machines fold towels. I had never realized that there were machines that did that! We also folded some of the towels by hand, and I still fold my towels the way I was taught there. I was one of the few high school students who worked there that summer and I remember having to explain why I would want to leave town to go to a university somewhere else. I found it hard to imagine why someone would want to stay.


My first year at university I spent in Aberdeen, Scotland, which was a foreign country for me but part of the EU so I could easily study there. If I remember correctly, I paid almost no tuition fees. I was supported by my parents who would each send me money every month and by the Dutch government. I also wanted to find a job but my English was not very good and the only job I was able to get was at McDonald’s. Because of my bad English I usually mopped floors and emptied the trash. On good days, I was allowed to fry fries in the kitchen. It may be hard to believe, but I didn’t mind the job at McDonalds and I enjoyed learning how a fast food restaurant works. At McDonald’s I met people who needed two jobs to pay the rent and buy food for their kids. I didn’t know that was possible. Later that year in Scotland I worked in a store that sold cookies and I waited tables in a cafe that served traditional greasy food prepared by a cook who smoked while she cooked.


After a year in Scotland I went back home to The Netherlands and enrolled at the University of Amsterdam. I don’t remember what my first job was back in The Netherlands, but I slowly moved on to doing some more interesting jobs. I worked in a supermarket again, this time as a cashier. I was also a receptionist for a while at the school where my mom worked (by then as a principle). The school was a kind of community college that mostly taught Dutch as a second language to immigrants. One of the things I learned the first day on the job was that I could never give any information about any student to the police. The school’s policy was that everyone, even those considered “illegal” in the country, should be able to learn and feel safe at school.

I got a job selling newspapers on the phone, cold-calling people to ask if they wanted to receive a newspaper for 3 weeks for almost no money! This was early in the telemarketing boom and most people still answered the phone. The job was okay, and I was quite good at it. It was nice that my younger sister was doing the same job and we sometimes worked the same shift and went home together afterwards.


I also worked for a while in an office of a start-up that sold data about events – like how many people came to a festival and what age groups were represented – to people who wanted to advertise at those events. I liked data even then and seeing that someone could make money off of collecting and selling data was intriguing. Previously, I had worked for the Department of Biology analyzing student evaluations of classes in Excel. It was fun to learn to use Excel and later it turned out to be a useful skill that most students didn’t have at the time. I also created a brochure for the Department of Biology with short stories about all of our full professors. I don’t think it really registered with me at the time that only one of them was a woman. It was really exciting that I got to talk to all these professors, the photographer, the designer and the printer! I still have a copy of that brochure.


I liked traveling, but going places costs money. I held a job for a while at a company that organized outdoor adventures. This meant driving to Belgium to the hills and the forests (Ardennen) and preparing activities for groups of school kids or teams from a company who would arrive the next day and then working with these groups for a day or two. I really enjoyed the hikes, the camping and the kayaking. One year I went on a trip to Israel and handed out flyers for a hostel in exchange for a place to stay. I also got paid one summer to map out hikes for tourists on a Greek island.


The only jobs I had with a clear relevance to my current career were the teaching jobs I had at the University of Amsterdam. I was a TA many times for a mathematical biology class and a biostatistics class. I liked those jobs and they made me feel like I was part of the department. I was often teaching together with some very good friends. One of them later became one of the co-founders with me of a start-up. She now works as a math teacher and we still hang out together.


When I dropped out of my first attempt to do a PhD, I needed a job again to pay my rent.  I ended up being a bartender at the best jazz club in Amsterdam, Het Bimhuis. I mostly made cappuccinos or poured beers for the people who arrived early for an 8PM concert, and then I got to enjoy some jazz. I felt a little out of place here because I knew almost nothing about jazz and nothing about alcohol. But I liked the music and it paid the rent for a while in the fall of 2001 until our start-up started making money early in 2002. In 2003, I became a PhD student again and I have been employed by universities ever since.


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