“I’m a 30-Year-old Receptionist and Ashamed of My Job”

I’ve been dating this guy I really like for a couple months and things are going well. He’s 35, I’m 29. He’s pretty successful, and most of his friends are too. Like, really successful. Me? I’m a receptionist at a law firm and I’m going to school online for social services. I’ll be done in a year and a half.

My problem is I’m super self-conscious around his friends because my job sounds pretty pathetic. (I know I can find a new job that I’m happier with, but that’s another conversation. I have a loose plan.) I’m meeting his family in a few weeks and I’m soo nervous. His sister has a PhD! I feel like I don’t even know what to talk to these people about and that they’re all thinking he can do better. I dread the “What do you do?” question. I hate feeling like I need to make excuses for the fact that I’m a near-30-year-old receptionist whose been working on a college degree for almost six years.

Do you have any tricks for ways to boost my confidence a little? And when I explain what it is that “I do,” how can I say it so it’s not so obvious that I’m down on myself? I’m usually pretty decent at giving advice and building people up, but I just can’t do it for myself! I know the whole “people take different paths” thing, but I just feel so uncomfortable around these people! (For the record, he never makes me feel this way). — Self-conscious Receptionist

I’m gonna let you in on a few secrets. First, people who have PhDs are just like you and me! Except they have a lot more debt. Basically, each of those three letters after their names cost roughly 25-50 grand each. Or, if they want you to call them “Dr. So-and-so,” as I would imagine they would considering how much that title cost, then each letter before their name is worth about 35-75 grand each. I guess if you’re really at loss for what to talk about with someone who is well/over-educated, you can talk about debt. Most people with advanced degrees have plenty to say on that topic.

But, honestly, you shouldn’t feel as if you have to grasp for discussion topics with your significant other’s family just because they have career success. Unless they’re total bores, they’re not going to want to talk about their work too much. They’ll want to talk about what everyone else wants to talk about: good movies, new restaurants in the neighborhood, vacation plans, their family, what books they’re reading, even celebrity gossip. It’s true! Even really well-educated people like to gossip about the stars (there’s another little secret for you). If you’re worried about awkward silences, all you need are a few generic questions about these universal topics and you’ll be golden (just make sure you have answers for them as well).

As for how to answer the dreaded, “What do you do?” question, I have another secret for you: most people hate that question. Even lawyers! Maybe even especially lawyers, though you wouldn’t know that by the amount of them who confess their profession as soon as you meet them. But for every attorney who can’t wait a second to tell you what it is he does for a living, there’s, like, five who cringe when they’re asked what they do. Why? Well, like everyone, they afraid of being judged, characterized, stereotyped, and labeled, and there’s almost no easier way to put someone in a box than based on how they support themselves.

And yet, here we are — we humans — with so many other things that make us who we are. Just look at some of the recent “Reader of the Week” columns. People’s jobs are just a tiny fraction of their lives. They also volunteer, workout, spend time with their families and friends and pets. They cook, they read, they play video games and travel. The list goes on and on. I’m sure you have a similar list, don’t you? If you were to write down all the things you do in a year or all the things you do when you aren’t working, I bet you’d sound pretty interesting.

So, lead with that. Take pride in your accomplishments outside of work and school if you don’t feel particularly confident about how you spend your life from 9-5 — though, of course, there’s no shame in making an honest living! You think someone who spent ten years of her life paying for three letters after her name had time to pursue much outside of school? Probably not. And that’s not a knock on higher education. It’s just a reminder that we all make choices and just because one person chooses to focus on advancing his or her schooling and career doesn’t mean another choice has any less value. And it doesn’t mean that everyone defines success the same way.

The key thing to remember when you mingle with your boyfriend’s friends and meet his family for the first time is that the path you’ve chosen has value and merit, perhaps in different ways than the path many of them have chosen. Don’t apologize for choosing a different path, and don’t be ashamed. There’s no need to make excuses for yourself. When someone asks you what “you do,” because they aren’t creative enough to think of a more exciting, less obvious question, hold your head high and say, “I work in a law firm by day, and by night I [fill in the blank … with the main things that make you you].”

If you don’t focus on your job, no one else will either. You control the spotlight on yourself. Remember that. If you shine it at the things you’re proud to talk about, that’s what people will see. So, think about what those things are, and be ready to direct your light there when you meet an mingle with these people you think are oh-so-successful.

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If you have a relationship/dating question I can help answer, you can send me your letters at wendy(AT)dearwendy.com.


  1. You aren’t your job. You aren’t your khakis. You aren’t how much money you have in the bank.

    I know it is tough to just erase that mind set, but it is the truth and hopefully you can get there. Obviously he doesn’t judge you for your job and anyone who does isn’t worth your time.

  2. I’m thinking this response was a little dismissive towards those with advanced degrees…

    However, LW, I do absolutely agree that you should not be ashamed of yourself! Like Wendy said, you’re working hard and your job is definitely not the only thing that defines you. Besides, with the economy like it is, plenty of people aren’t working in their dream jobs right now.

    1. The_Yellow_Dart says:

      I agree on both counts! And by the way, many PhD programs pay students to attend knowing that college professors / professional researchers will probably not be as highly paid as doctors / lawyers / business-people, who are expected to afford the exorbitant tuition rates. I know a number of people who have gotten PhDs without running into significant debt. LW, this might help with your anxiety too – advanced degrees do not necessarily mean larger paychecks!

      1. Indeed – Wendy is pretty harsh on people with PhDs here, and also gets a lot about us wrong. No need to tear down/belittle a group of others to make the LW feel better, which is what it feels like she is doing.

        As others have noted – most people with PhDs do not have significant graduate debt, because most fields pay people earning PhDs stipends that can be as much as a salary. I’m currently in a PhD program and one of my offers was for a $40,000/year stipend, though I went elsewhere.

        I would say that most people with PhDs will joke that they are at least slightly insane for making the choice to get one. The earnings return relative to the amount of time and effort put in is not good for us; we’d be much better off coughing up $100K for an MBA.

        I don’t think the LW should be intimidated, though. It’s not so different from meeting anyone else that you may or may not share interests with, aka every time you meet a significant other’s family, ever. They may or may not be in love with their work and may or may not spend much of their time in intellectual conversation versus conversations about celebrities (Gotta disagree with Wendy here, too – I would not find that a relatable topic of conversation). But if your boyfriend was from a family dominated by boys who love discussing the intricacies of car mechanics at the dinner table, a similar problem would exist. It will come down to the LW’s, and the family’s, actual similarities, and in the case of major differences between them, the social skills/ability to bridge those social gaps.

      2. Also, it may be helpful to have a chat with your boyfriend in advance about his family and how they tend to treat his SOs. Some families are wonderful and sweet to any newcomer; others (the majority?) thrive on various dramas. My partner’s family happens to be of the former type, so despite our many, many differences (including religion!) we get along famously. I hope you are so lucky!

        If not, his accounting of their possible sore spots and things to watch out for will probably be most useful for you to hear right now. As mentioned by a commenter down below, one possible thing to watch out for is the stereotype of an early 30’s woman who is looking to snag a rich man so she can drop out of the work force, be supported by him, and make babies. I could be wrong, but this doesn’t sound like you – you seem to have a plan and a direction. In any case, some families will have no problem with this kind of woman, or be happy (grandbabies!) but others might be wary about it.

    2. Yeah agree about the dismissive tone. The PhD program that I am in pays a livable stipend and full tuition, BUT I am an indentured servant to my laboratory and PIs for 6-7 years. Education/money/titles/etc or lack thereof doesn’t make a person better or worse than anyone else. The only people who actually think that way are misguided douchebags and not worth anyone’s time.

    3. i think the response was entirely warranted. this LW is very imtimidated by these people with advanced degrees, and so thinking about them in a different light will make it easier to deal with the situation….

      dont take it personally. you gotta be able to laugh at yourself. two letters before your name costing upwards of 70,000? thats funny, come on.

    4. lets_be_honest says:

      I don’t think she was dismissive and I have an advanced degree (not to be one of those people, haha!). I think she was exactly right. It would also never cross my mind when I was meeting my brother’s girlfriend that I have a degree and she does not and I’d have to assume the same for your boyfriend’s family.
      Totally agree with your last paragraph Amanda.

    5. ele4phant says:

      I disagree. I am in graduate school right now, and I didn’t feel that this response was dismissive at all.

      My choice to go back to school for an advanced degree was a great choice, probably the best choice for me, but I know that its not the only path. This response was right on, we can live our lives any number of ways; there’s no reason to be intimidated or to feel less than someone else because of your education.

      Besides, at the end of the day, I agree that I am not defined by the amount of education I have or how I make a living, and no one else is either.

  3. BriarRose says:

    I loved Wendy’s response. I have a college degree, but stayed at home for several years with my daughter and being out of the job force for a few years didn’t translate into a very good job when I went back to work last year. For a while it really bothered me that I didn’t have a “good” job, didn’t make a lot of money, etc. But like Wendy said, there is so much more to everyone than their jobs, and chosing to focus on that is a great way to present yourself to people AND a great mindset to have. I identify myself as a mother, friend, daughter, quilter, runner, crazy dog owner….and somewhere down the line my job comes into play. I don’t try to deny or downplay it. A job is a job, and going to school and working is no easy feat. So pat yourself on the back for that.

    Oh, and one other thing. The receptionist at my company is one of the hardest working people here. She pretty much keeps the place running, everyone likes and respects her, and when she’s out, it really shows. I’m willing to bet everyone at work views you the same way, so keep that in mind before you start thinking of yourself as “just a receptionist” and not “the organizational force that keeps a law firm humming along”.

    1. Shadowflash1522 says:

      I like this so much!

      I’m not even all the way out of college yet, but I *adore* the receptionists and secretaries at my co-op job. I don’t think I could ever like their job or do it nearly as efficiently as they do, but that just means I have all the more respect for them. After all, they’re the ones who help us barely competent engineers do things like book plane tickets, get lunch delivered to the meeting, find conference room Executive 3, and remember to smile and converse with other people. This place would just about collapse in on itself without them. It’s like a superpower!

      1. I understand the good intention behind your comment but it comes off as a bit condescending and insincere. As an engineer (Or really, just any other person) you really wouldn’t be able to book your own plane ticket or find a conference room? I find that highly unlikely. Your other comments also make it sound like you only “respect” receptionists soo much because they take on a job that is deemed so lowly by you that you could never “ever like their job”. Because it is so beneath you right? Just treat us secretaries, receptionists, etc like normal people with normal jobs. No need to act like an overly enthusiastic kindergarten teacher hyping her student up over a finger painting. -Sincerely, a 30-year old receptionist.

  4. LW- in order to not come across self-conscious, you’ve got to not BE self-conscious! You know why you’re on the path you’re on. Focus on the plans you’re making to better yourself, and remember that long term investments do pay off, you’ve just got to be patient and put in the work. I know many people with “good careers” and sky high paychecks that are miserable and/or now making plans to pursue something else.

    This is an excellent litmus test for you anyway. I personally cannot stand pretentious people, it’s my ultimate pet peeve. Say what you do proudly and firmly, don’t be ashamed of who you are. It comes across, and is unattractive. If people treat you poorly or think he could “do better” based on your current job, then they’re people who only would have liked you for superficial reasons anyway.

  5. sweetleaf says:

    Hey, Hey! I’m a 28 year old receptionist and I love my job. I love the people I work with. I love the company I work for. It ain’t no thing, sister!

    1. sweetleaf says:

      And also I should add: I’m a very talented musician, I’m a mommy, and I’ve got a very handsome man who holds me every night. My job pays the bills and that’s that.

      1. LOVE.

      2. ….Pam Halpert?! 🙂

      3. delilahgem says:

        I did receptionist work for a long time, and loved a lot of the aspects of it, loved most of the company I worked for until I got laid off). It is easy sometimes to get yourself down, but like others have said your job doesn’t necessarily make you YOU. Companies need many positions to work, you’re still part of the machine.
        And you say your boyfriend doesn’t make you feel uncomfortable? That’s a major plus.

  6. I love this response Wendy!! Especially the first paragraph because that’s how I feel about my Masters right now since I’m currently unemployed (as are most of the people who graduated with me…). I’m a normal 24 year old except I spent a little more time in school than most people my age. Otherwise I go out with my friends, spend time outdoors, etc… And Wendy is right, there is NO shame in making an honest living. I WISH I had a full-time receptionist job right now. There’s also no shame in paying for college yourself and going part-time. In fact, I have enormous respect for people who work full-time and go to school at night. For me, going to school full-time and working part-time was very stressful and overwhelming.

    Lastly, as someone who comes from a well-educated family I will say that I value a nice person over a well-educated person. Your personality is still the most important factor in meeting people. Your boyfriend’s family will not see you as beneath them because you don’t have your college degree yet. They will see you as a hardworking individual who makes their brother/son happy. Be proud of who you are! Oh, and stop insulting all of those hardworking receptionists out there.

    1. coralmonster says:

      This. Me too! I just got my MA and am about to be unemployed. I too wish I could be a receptionist.

      I can’t say that I care that much about other people’s qualifications either. As long as I like them, that’s all that matters. When I first met my SIL it didn’t occur to me to care about what she ‘did’. I just cared about whether I liked her or not. Which fortunately I did/do!

  7. This was exactly the advice I was going to give, but better said! I also second that there is no shame in working just to pay the bills. In this economy there are plenty of people whose jobs are just jobs, what they do to stay afloat when opportunities are scarce. Even those with advanced degrees (heck, sometimes especially those with advanced degrees) aren’t always living their dreams, either.

    Take a minute to write down what you love about yourself and what makes you special. Use that as a jumping-off point to feel confident in talking about yourself.

  8. Dear LW,

    Be so glad he cares and likes you so much to take you to meet his family! I have a PhD and so do many of my friends but we could care less about the education level of the people we date. We just want to see each other with partners who treat us well and make us happy. Education level does not guarantee any of that–only the character of the person. And Wendy is right, my friends and I love to talk about celebrity gossip. And if it makes you more comfortable, maybe a few days before make sure you are familiar with some current events to keep the conversation flowing. But the most importantly, just relax, be confident and show them how much you like your guy and they will love you!

  9. LW I really wouldn’t be worried about it, I would talk to his family about the same things you talk to him, and his friends about. It doesn’t seem to me that they have a problem with your career path or you pursuing your degree, and they probably enjoy your company for who you are, and his family will too. Just because people have fancy degrees it does not mean they are that much different than you, it just means they have a different passion for what they want to do in life, and no matter what that is as long as it is important to you it will be important to them.

  10. rangerchic says:

    I got laid off from my dream job because of the economy. It was taking a while to find a “good” job so I took a job as a pharmacy tech to help pay the bills while still looking. I told one of my best friends what I was doing and she was like “oh, I’m so sorry”. I was flabbergasted. I was like sorry for what??? You do what you have to do to support your family…I don’t really talk to her much more. It was apparent the way she said it that obviously if you don’t have THE job, THE income, THE whatever then you are not worthy and I should feel ashamed. Ugh…I really can’t stand people like that.
    Unfortunately, I also have a Aunt in the family like that. I avoid her if at all possible.

    I also work with 4 people with PhD (I just have a bachelors) and they really are regular people though maybe a little odd (but then who isn’t??)! LOL.

    Just be proud of what you are working towards – you have a goal. You probably won’t be a receptionist forever and to be honest…you might make even less working in the “social services” field depending on what you plan to do. I admire you for pursuing that field! Good luck 🙂

  11. I’m a glorified receptionist, and I’m 30, so I can relate. I work for an amazing company that provides amazing benefits, and I love where I work. If I wanted to, there would be an opprotunity for me to move up, but I would have to give up my awesome hours, and sometimes have to work till 9-10pm for weeks at a time. The guys in my office are jealous when I leave at 5pm ever day. There are pros and cons to all jobs- Yeah I make less money, but I also have more free time to actually LIVE my life. Think about your situation in that way, and I think it’ll make you more content with it!
    When his family asks what you do, tell them you do admin work for a law firm- Emphasize how you love your awesome hours, and then tell them what you do to fill up all your free time, then ask them what their interests are.

    1. delilahgem says:

      Yes!!! This is exactly how I felt at my last two jobs and I’m looking for something like that again now.

  12. 6napkinburger says:

    I’m pretty sure that the LW knows she should feel comfortable and confident with who she is, that she doesn’t have anything to be ashamed of. That goes firmly under the “easier said than done” column.

    If you want advice on how to feel less … self-conscious when asked “what do you do”; you could answer with what you WANT to do, eventually. You said you have a loose plan, and that you are studying social work. Do you want to be a social worker? Do you want to work with a specific group of at-risk kids? The more details the better.

    An answer like “Eventually, after I get my degree, I want to work with at-risk foster children in the suburbs of East St. Louis to increase the percentage that attend a 4 year college. Right now, I’m working at a law firm downtown.”

    Most people will not follow up with “Which firm?” unless they are lawyers, and are legitimately curious. Everyone else will focus on the first part… “Why east st louis?” “how did you decide to do this?” “That’s amazing! if only there were more people like you!” “I’m so jealous; I just work with a computer all day.”

    1. theattack says:

      I completely agree about telling them what she WANTS to do. I’m in school for social work right now, and I’m taking a little longer to do it than usual too. But boy are other people impressed with my character and dedication when I tell them I want to be a social worker. They’re even more impressed when I tell them about what I’m passionate about in the field, which populations I want to work with, and any sort of dreams I have for my career. LW, most people perceive dedicating yourself to this field as a major asset in your character.

      You are passionate. You are a critical thinker. You are a lover of people. You embody empathy and understanding. You give so much of yourself to help other people. You are a future social worker, and you are amazing for it. I would bet that your character, aspirations, and passions are much more important to your boyfriend’s family than what sort of job you have. (And not just anyone can be a receptionist either! That requires some major multitasking skills, interpersonal skills, and ability to learn and adapt to things that aren’t your specialities! Those are great qualities as well!)

    2. BriarRose says:

      Great reply, napkin! I think I might have to employ your suggestion of leading with “eventually I want to…..”

  13. YouGoGirl says:

    Now college tuition is so expensive that many young people must work full-time to pay for their tuition. Then it takes a lot longer to finish their degree because you can only take one or two class. You are not “just” a receptionist, you are a college student who is working as a receptionist to earn money to pay for your degree (not that being a receptionist is anything you have to apologize for). Your boyfriend’s family will probably admire you for sticking to your studies for so long rather than look down on you for not finishing your degree in the conventional timeframe.

    I am a PhD student who will graduate in about a year (without a lot of debt because I have been a teaching and research assistant). I have feelings of anxiety similar to yours when I talk to women with children because I am afraid they will look down on me for not having children.

    1. YGG: Thanks so much for saying this! I recently finished a master’s and am starting med school next year. The ladies at the job I am currently at are always guilt tripping me about how I need to put having a family first, think about my biological clock, etc. instead of going to med school (I’m 26!). I do feel like they are judging me in some way. I often get anxious at work, because they are always trying to talk to me about having kids and starting a family…which I consider very personal choices. It’s nice to know I am not the only one that feels that way. I have done every polite thing I can think of to gracefully sidestep questions and unsolicited advice, but it doesn’t seem to help. Let me know if you have any ideas!

      LW: No matter your education level, income level, social group, etc. there will be a group that is intimidating or that you aren’t sure how to interact with. I know a lot of people in higher education/academia that are geniuses, but also lack certain basic social skills; they can’t function outside the classroom/lab. Meeting new people is hard for them, and dating is even worse. The fact that you are a successful receptionist, student, and girlfriend shows how well-rounded you are and that you have strong social skills. Many PhDs would be intimidated by you!
      Think about that. 🙂 Also, your bf most likely learned what qualities he wants in a mate from his parents and their relationship (in general, we tend to emulate our parent’s relationship and look for traits similar to those that our parents have, i.e., what is familiar to us). Which means that his parents will agree with him on how great you are!

  14. You work, why should you ever be ashamed of yourself? As long as you are doing your best just carry on, and if anyone looks down on you for any reason, you have have had a good insght into their priorities.

  15. Anyone who is worth a damn isn’t going to judge you for your level of education. People who are interesting are interested in people from other walks of life. Talk about where you are wanting your career to go when they ask about it. If they specifically ask what you are doing now, say you’re working through school. Trust me, they will understand that completely. Getting through most any kinds of school is hard work, especially when money is scarce.

    Highly-educated people are not just friends with those of their education level, no matter what the TV says. My mother, a medical doctor, is good friends with the woman who used to be a receptionist for her nursery (she is now going into nursing). She’s good friends with a farrier, a woman (my friend’s mom) who works in a plant store, several people in the food industry, etc. She’s also friends with people who are highly educated, but she never treats them any differently.

    People are going to be smart and dumb through all walks of life. Some of the smartest people I know are people who just couldn’t afford college right after high school, or had to take a break, or can only go to school part time. It’s not something shameful! If anything, it’s remarkable that they can do that.

    If they ask about your career, tell them about what you hope to be doing. They’ll want to hear about it, I’m sure.

    1. SpyGlassez says:

      “Anyone who is worth a damn isn’t going to judge you for your level of education. ” — preach it!

      The Ginger just finished his AA at 28. I have a masters. It wasn’t an issue because he is more than the degree to me. I love that he recognized that school wasn’t for him when he was younger, and that when he was ready, he was able to man up and go for it. Likewise, his mom has her Ph.D. I’ve never felt she looks down on me for doing a terminal program that only went through to the MA level. When people ask what you do, more often than not they are looking for common ground and a connection. You can answer that however you want – I write, I teach, I run an online business, I am finishing my social services coursework, whatever.

  16. LW, i would say to take wendy’s advice… definitely take her advice. but, if you do find yourself in the position of having to explain yourself about your job, i would look at all the cool things receptionists get to do. now, ive never been one, but i have honestly always wanted to. i always thought it would be an awesome job. you get to talk to people all day, right? so you get to learn about all these new interesting people and their interesting law problems. you get to organize the office, and i love organizing things, so i would love that. and then lastly, you get paid to run errands! i love running errands! i think being a receptionist would be epic. i think, bottom line, if you look at your job like you enjoy it, they wont look down on you. if you approach it with an attitude of “oh its just to pay the bills, i hate it, i hate waking up every morning”, ect, then they will pick up on that. look at the positive cool things about your job (there are positive cool things about every job), and focus on those things if you have to focus on your job at all.

  17. LW,

    I think it might serve you to think of your job in terms of experiences instead of a title. You say that working as a receptionist “sounds pathetic,” but I’m willing to bet that you have lots of great stories and experiences to share from that job! That’s what people are interested in! You know what my favorite job that I have ever had is? Working as a “Guest Service Representative” at the Mall of America the summer after I graduated college before going to graduate school. Sure just the title sounds super lame, but I absolutely LOVED it! I sat at the Guest Information desk and I have SO MANY crazy stories and met so many interesting people that I love telling people about my job there!

    Now, incidentally enough, I’m in a PhD program for pharmacology, and I also dread the “what do you do?” question because a) people think I’m studying to be a pharmacist (which isn’t true, I’m doing drug research) and b) people’s eyes glaze over when I try to explain what I study. I love it, but my job at the MoA was much more interesting than what I do now. And Wendy is right, people with PhDs are just like normal people! I have lots of friends with all sorts of jobs and levels of education and I definitely don’t think less of those who don’t have as much education as I do.

    Also, you should be very very proud that you’re putting yourself through school and that you have a full time job! Trust me, people with PhDs value education, so you shouldn’t feel bad that “you’re almost 30” and haven’t finished school, you should feel extremely proud that you’re getting your degree!! If you’re excited about what you do and what you’re going to school for, other people will be too!

  18. cookiesandcream says:

    LW, I know how you feel. I’m unemployed, and I feel embarrassed whenever I run into someone I knew from my hometown. I was a good student, so naturally they’re curious about what I’m doing now. I feel really self-conscious about the fact that I got fired from my job even before it began and that my plans haven’t worked out. Plus, it doesn’t help that all of my friends and acquaintances either have jobs or are working towards advanced degrees. I feel like I’m the only one who isn’t doing something amazing or really interesting.

    One thing I do is just talk about what I hope to do in the future rather than what I’m doing now. It always gets people talking and they don’t ask questions about my current situation. I don’t see why your plans to find a new job should be another conversation. When someone asks what you do for a living, you can just say that you’re working as a receptionist while studying to work in social services. That’s a very respectable, smart response because it demonstrates that you are very intelligent, hard-working, and work towards achieving your goals. Having those qualities is NOT something to be embarrassed about! Then you can elaborate about what you hope to do once you get your degree.

    Another thing that might boost your confidence a little is having the perfect comeback just in case you end up running into a pretentious douche. You can always say something along the lines of, “Well, I know being a receptionist isn’t the most glamourous job in the world, but I firmly believe in being financially responsible and not incurring thousands of dollars in debt to pursue my goals.”

    Good luck, LW, and remember that having a job (any job) so you can work while achieving your goals is not a source of embarrassment!

  19. WatersEdge says:

    LW, I have an advanced degree and I just want to say, don’t sweat it! My brother’s girlfriend was apparently very intimidated to meet me, to the point where she pretty much refused to talk in my presence (English is not her first language and she was afraid she’d look dumb). Despite her rarely talking, what I noticed about her was 1) how much she clearly loved my brother, 2) how happy they seemed together, 3) that she appeared to be very sweet and nice.

    That said, the total honest truth was that there was a part of me that wasn’t sure if she was good enough for him. I’m going to tell you why, so you could avoid making this particular gaffe. She appeared to want to stop working and have my brother support her ASAP. She was very interested in marriage (and they are quite young for that IMO) and she wanted lots of babies ASAP, which doesn’t fit with my brother’s life plan. It wasn’t about her lack of a degree, it was about a lack of independence and passion. She really seemed like she wanted to latch onto my brother and ride his coattails to success. Don’t downplay your achievements just because you think they’re not as good as other people’s. Tell them what you like about your job. And if you have a few wonky office stories about the people you work with, share ’em! Everyone loves lawyer jokes! And share some of your genuine passion for your current job, your hobbies, and your future endeavors. As long as you come off like a well-rounded person who makes your brother happy, and who doesn’t want your brother for anything other than his excellent company, your degree level will not matter to them.

    Unless they’re assholes. But we can’t control everything, can we!

  20. Honeybeegood says:

    I too am a few months shy of 30! I used to bartend and wait tables, and now I’m a sales rep. None of which are amazingly impressive jobs. If I had a nickle for every person that condescendingly asked me if I was in school or what I was going to do “for a real job” I could retire. If you’re making money its a real job! I have a degree in a semi-lucrative field, but I’m a working for the weekend type of chick, and I love that I can work pretty standard 40 hour weeks, get paid decently, and not have to take my work home with me.

    Unless they’re one of those jerky condescenders mentioned above when someone asks what you do it just means they want to know more about you while making conversation. So answer what it is you do? Do you read, hike, ski, knit cat mittens? If you want to throw in that you’re also a receptionist do so, but unless your work is your passion why spend time talking about it when you could be discussing the difficulties of finding models for your mitten shows!

    1. SpyGlassez says:

      Four years in retail, three years before that at a warehouse, a stint in child care….all of it was “real.”

    2. The sales reps at my old company were the most amazing and dynamic people you’ll ever meet. They have sparkling personalities, think skins and spines of iron. I could NEVER do that job. They are the most amazingly upbeat people.

  21. fast eddie says:

    1. Being a receptionist is nothing to be self conscious about. Juggling incoming calls and clients is very important and people who are good at it are few and far between.

    2. Your continuing your education and that is extremely commendable. I didn’t finish an undergraduate program until I was 52 then remained in a lowly position for 2 more years to finish grad school. Keep going, it will pay off eventually, mine certainly did.

    3. Unless his family are blue nose snobs they will commend you for your effort. Your BF knows your qualities and his family will also. Conversation with strangers is always daunting but people always like to talk about themselves. Start by asking them about anything under the sun and let them do the talking. They’ll think your the brightest person in the room and you may well be. Having a lot of education isn’t the same as intelligent or personable. Be prepared with some recent events in the news like CNN on-line for 2-3 days. Listen to talk radio on the way to work but filter out the nut cases on that.

    4. Buy a new dress that’s not too expensive. It’ll make you feel better and more confident and let us know how this went. 😉

      1. Painted_lady says:

        I adore LZ Granderson – thanks for posting!!!

    1. GatorGirl says:

      Love #4. LW, you should definitely dress in something that makes you feel confident, take a few minutes to do your hair, put a little make up on, ect. Feeling like you look good can do wonders for your confidence.

      Just make sure you wear something that, while is true to your style, respectful of your BF’s family and situation appropriate. I wore heals to a Memorial Day BBQ the first time I met my BF’s family…boy did I look dumb.

      1. fast eddie says:

        I bet the number of wearing heels stories exceeds the population of China. Some my wife’s BFFs wore heels to our back yard wedding where the ground hadn’t quite firmed up. We still laugh about that.

  22. Well said Wendy!
    Most likely, nobody will judge you for it. Your problem seems mostly to be dealing with combatting the negative voices in your head, which are predicting (erroneously) that other people WILL look down on you for your work…and there is no way to predict what someone will think of you before it actually happens!
    But, if someone ever DOES criticize you, or claim that they are a more “worthwhile” person because they have a “better” job, instead of getting defensive, prove that they are wrong by agreeing with them on some level, but then trying to refute it with common logic.
    Sample conversation:
    Person X: “Yeah, well, you seem to be pretty happy, but I’m making much more money than you and I’m doing something that is much more critically acclaimed than you so that means I’m a better person than you”.
    You: “You’ve made a great impact, and you certainly have been successful. I respect that a lot, and it sounds quite rewarding and exciting. But please forgive me if I just don’t understand how that makes you a better person. how does that make me inferior to you or make you a more worthwhile human being? Why is it only that great achievers are interesting to you?”

    Make them see, if they are prejudiced, that WORK does not equal WORTH! If work=worth, then a baby, who has not accomplished anything work-wise would be less “worthy” of a person as a middle-aged working adult, and similarly an old man or woman who has lost most of their capacity for work or even motor function would be not as “worthy” as a human being. This is clearly nonsense!

  23. “runner” “dog owner” “knitter” “musician” ?

    this defines your identity? then you have a problem.

    what people do for a living is a fairly large part of their identity, regardless of how “success” is defined. i don’t have graduate level degrees, and i dont make a lot of money. I make the national average, and i work for a good company.

    I don’t think too much what a person does for a living in a social situation, it is just something that is part of the conversation.

    however if you tell me bullsh-t like you’re a “runner” or other nonsense, i’ll probably assume you’re good for nothing.

    unless you run in international marathons and win prize money.

    i don’t REALLY care what you do for a living, there won’t be a value judgement in most cases. your job is as interesting as you want it to be, if somebody is paying you money, they probably see value in it … don’t they ?

    people gotta make a living, at least you aren’t a drain on society. but don’t give me bullshit.

    1. Shadowflash1522 says:

      I’m not even sure what you’re trying to say.

      First you said that people who define themselves using things outside their jobs have a problem, then you say you don’t think about their jobs, then you say that their answer will make you think they’re a good-for-nothing, then you say you don’t care.

      Make up your mind, and get back to us when the troll party ends.

  24. I can relate to the LW, and I love Wendy’s response. It might be my favorite response yet from Wendy!

    Two things I’d add. To quote from Eleanor Roosevelt, no one can make you feel inferior without your consent. LW, you’re smart and kind and can hold your own. Don’t forget that. People are more than just their degrees.

    2. A wise friend once said to me, the grass is brown everywhere. Not to be negative, but true! Getting a PhD is awesome, and it’s a great accomplishment, but a lot of my PhD friends worry about getting jobs bc the market sucks for the humanities. A lot of them love their career choice, but also worry about having to move to the middle of nowhere to find a job teaching freshman writing to unmotivated 18 year olds. My friends in law talk about quitting ALL THE TIME and pursuing something they are passionate about. My point is that everyone has their own problems and worries when it comes to their jobs, so don’t worry about what others may think.

  25. As someone who is getting a PhD (but not in debt, thankfully), I will reiterate the point that we are just like normal people. Sometimes we really want to talk to normal people and not other pretentious academics! I actually hate talking about what “I do” because it’s something most people have an opinion about (education) and I don’t want to talk about my research at work AND at home.

    It sounds to me like you are self-conscious about the path you’ve taken, or at least a little dissatisfied. First off, you’re only 29, so it’s not like you’ve squandered your youth soul-searching. Many people are still finding their way at that age. Second, you actually have a job in this economy, so be proud of that!

  26. People don’t get phDs because they think they’re so much smarter than everyone. The few friends I have who are pursuing them are doing it because they really like the subject, want to teach or have no clue what else to do with their lives. The point is, don’t assume that these family members are spectacularly smart or that they’ll look down on you. A lot of my friends with higher degrees (I have a BA), tell me they’re jealous of me because I’m out being a grown woman with a job, while they are still students.

    Everyone encounters receptionists in their daily lives, and I’ve also heard a lot of people say they could never handle the job. They know that receptionists have to be able to multitask, be friendly, smart, organized. I’ve tried to get receptionist jobs before, and I’ve never even gotten a call back. So don’t feel bad about yourself. Plus, you’re in school, when you’re in school, nobody really cares what you are doing for a job because they know it’s temporary.

  27. Sue Jones says:

    OK, so don’t gossip about the stars…. I think it is great that you are putting yourself through school for social services! It is a great and well needed profession and not all great and noble professions pay well. And the fact that you are doing it yourself while you are also working is very admirable. It has nothing to do with whether or not you are a deep, caring, intelligent person. But it is true, people talk about what they eat, where to go, etc. While the details of your current job may seem boring to you, the fact is that it is a means to an end. I don’t think your boyfriend can “do” much better than with a self motivated woman who wants to make a career out of helping others. And if you do end up marrying, great! He can be the main breadwinner, you can have a career that fulfills you and perhaps work part time and spend more time with the kids eventually (I know I am jumping the gun here, but always good to think about long term possibilities….)

  28. Girl, if anyone asks, just say, “I’m a receptionist at a law firm.” If they then suggest the law as a profession, say “Yeah, working 80 hours a week, stressing over billable hours and being evil for a living… that’s a REAL step up. Look, I like my job, and it gives me plenty of time to study for my social science degree and (insert hobbies and other loves here).”

    And here’s a dirty little secret of people in high stress, hard work jobs: they are often envious of people who can just cruise.Especially if you tell them all this with a sunny smile and an air of relaxation.

    If they’re vulgar or nasty enough to push it, ask them about the higher education bubble and whether they think, as many do, that it’ll be equivalent of the mortgage crash in a year or two. That should shut them up.

    1. Totally agree! As I mentioned above- you should see the envious looks I get from co-workers/friends when I tell them I leave work at 5 every day and when I leave work, I don’t think about it again until the next day when I’m on my way back in.

      Yeah, I wish I made as much as they do, but they wish they had down time away from work just like I do.

  29. I’m going to be honest. I am pursuing a PhD and my experience is that a good percentage of the people I go to school with are fairly pretentious and look down their noses at people without much education. The thing is, those people are insecure, jerky, phony, a-holes! Seriously. Some of them make me want to barf. Your boyfriend sounds like a good dude who recognizes an awesome person (I am impressed by someone working their way through school and pursuing a degree is social services). So if the sister happens to be not so nice, just be as sweet as pie to her. Kill her with kindness. She will be the one looking like a fool and your boyfriend will see her as petty. The whole thing reminds me of an incident with a college friend of mind and her fiancee’s family. My friend is a nurse, went to state school, and a minority. Her boyfriend’s family was full of super rich, white, ivy league educated lawyers, doctors, bankers, etc. They were condescending towards her. Her fiancee was appalled by their behavior, although they are nicer now. Point is, the pretentious people always come off badly.

  30. Just wanted to reiterate that people who get PhDs are not doing it for the money. If they wanted to be rich, they’d be doing something else. Also, some PhDs are socially awkward. Unless they talk about their research or teaching, they have nothing else to say. This makes them boring, so, LW, if your bf’s sister can’t talk about anything else but her research, you should feel sad for her, not intimidated by her.(if the sister is in a science field, she might watch Big Bang Theory, Futurama, The IT Crowd – just throwing it out there).

    Another thing I agree with everyone else – I don’t judge people by their degree. Due to various circumstances, some people take longer than others. Not everyone is as lucky to have their parents pay for their degree, and when I see someone paying their own way, I have nothing but admiration for them.

    One thing I do judge people though is if I notice that they’re wasting their potential. And you, LW, don’t seem to be doing that. So, chin up, go out there, and impress everyone. Your bf seems to like you for your character, and his parents will probably do too, because, you know, they raised him.

    1. This is exactly what I tried to say, but you did a much better job! 🙂

  31. Skyblossom says:

    My husband has a PhD and so I’ve been around lots of people who have them and they are pretty much just like everybody else. They don’t spend their time talking about PhDs. They talk about their kids and their commute to work and their hobbies and their yoga and home repairs and if they’ll be able to get the lawn mowed over the weekend or if it will rain.

    I have heard plenty of discussions about how degrees are over valued and too many Americans go to college compared to other countries where many students go to technical programs where they receive a small stipend and end up with the same skills as an American college student but without the debt of the American college student. People with PhDs have gone to graduate school with people from all over the world with a broad range of ages. They don’t have a set time in mind as to when a degree must be completed. They do say students with real work experience tend to be better motivated and do better in school. There is a lot of respect for those who work to put themself through school which is what it sounds like you are doing.

    You say you’re going to be meeting them in a few weeks and also say you’re so uncomfortable around these people. If you haven’t met them how can you possibly know that you’re uncomfortable around them. You are prejudging them in a way that you are hoping they don’t already judge you. Just give them a chance like you would anyone else. Be polite and positive and kind. They will be watching to see the dynamic between you and their son and to see what you’re like. If you seem down on yourself they will accept your self opinion. If they ask what you do tell them and talk about how you’ve come to a decision about what to study and why you study online. Talk about how your experience has affected your decision. Show your growth and maturity. That’s what really matters to most parents. I think a career choice is often like a marriage choice, when you’re a little bit older and more mature when making the choice you will often come up with a career/partner that is a better match for yourself.

  32. Speaking also as someone with a PhD. I personally don’t like discussing it all that much. I like talking about the specifics of my job, but not necessarily the amount of education it required to get me there, and I certainly don’t look down on other people just because they didn’t take the same path. There are so many other interesting careers/lifestyles out there, and some that don’t even require an undergraduate degree. I personally really hate being defined by my job/degree, as I consider it to be only a small fraction of my life and my interests, and I generally assume it’s the same with other people.

    And as someone else mentioned, there are so many other qualities that people consider important when meeting the significant other of a loved one. LW – you’re not a deadbeat, you’re working toward a career that you’re interested in, and have so many other things going for you. If it helps, maybe make a mental list in your head of all the great qualities you have ahead of time. Keep repeating that to yourself beforehand and the confidence will shine through. You really have nothing to worry about.

  33. Insecurity is a terrible thing, LW, and you are the only one who can make the decision to honor your choices and stand up for them, no matter what the rest of the world has to say about it. If you approach every new person with an “I am less than I should be” attitude, that’s what they’ll see. This is not good, for you or for any relationship you are in. Own your choices, whether it is to be comfortably employed at a job that doesn’t challenge you or whether you are deliriously happy and determined to be the world’s best reception professional..

  34. Addie Pray says:

    LW – I kid you not, I’m copied on an email exchange between friends of mine, who happen to be two lawyers, one PhD (a college math profesor), one doctor, and one MBA – and three of them are arguing about beer – yes, arguing over what beer tastes better – and one of them just replied “yo mama tastes better.” Even “smart” people are idiots.

  35. GatorGirl says:

    LW, my BF is in a Phd program right now, and he is as normal as can be. (Just a note he is being paid a to teach while in school, so he’ll have to debt at graduation) I have a BS and work as an office manager both of which he has no problem with. He’s working on a Phd because his undergrad degree is in history…and his options were limited. All the kids in his program are normal people too. Ok, maybe a little wierd and socially awkward, but still normal people.

    I think the real issure isn’t about the education, but your just nervous to meet his family. I’m a Yankee, and my BF’s family is from South Carolina. We all have differences when coming into a new group of people. It will go better than you expect. One suggestion- let them steer the conversation. I would not recommend bringing up celebrity gossip unless someone else does first.

  36. violet quaker says:

    This is like my life – except I tend to feel self-conscious around my peers, especially those who attended the same prestigious college as me. (Incidentally my boyfriend and his parents don’t give a crap what I do. The bf and I both come from working-class backgrounds.)

    The LW may be justified in being afraid of being judged by those of her boyfriend’s family who hold advanced degrees. It is possible to have some (not all!) be condescending to staff on lower-levels and/or to those who do not have advanced degrees. Some may not truly understand or appreciate the effort and skill it takes to get things done, not do they understand this type of work has value as well. Trust me; I’ve been working for academic institutions for years in administrative support positions and I have experienced these things first-hand.

  37. I see someone else is commenting as “rabbit” now. What’s a girl to do! XD That person’s avatar is even the same color as mine!

    1. lets_be_honest says:

      Are you sure its not you and maybe you have amnesia?

    2. well, it is green but a different shade and pattern. also you are Rabbit, other person is rabbit 😀

  38. *hug*

    There is NOTHING wrong with being a receptionist. I have no degrees right now. I’m 28 with four kids. I got out of the retail industry when I was 20 to get away from a very abusive husband and the first job I got was reception work at a women’s prison. I was a receptionist until the current place I’m at promoted me to an admin assistant.
    Receptionists are so much more than answering phones and glorified door guards. We are the pulse of the office, the glue that holds the place together. Without us – many small businesses would fall to pieces.
    Your job isn’t you. Your job is a means to an end. It is helping to put you through college, and it is helping you to learn more about life, and learn more about yourself. It is a job of self-discovery. If you were miserable there, you would have left. So obviously this job has some redeeming qualities. If your guy wasn’t sure of you, he wouldn’t be bringing you to his family. Stop the self-castigating and realize that once school is over, you will have less debts and better opportunities because of your job experiences, including your reception work. You’ve proven that you are willing to take the “low man” jobs in order to get ahead. People like that (I’m serious when I say that) in an employee.
    You are good enough for his family, and just as smart. You just need a little more confidence. Time to talk yourself up to YOU.

  39. You can always put your job in the scope of “I’m putting myself through school.” Trust me, I get where you’re coming from. I’m 28 and got my BS online (which a lot of people don’t even think is “real college”) and because of massive loan debt I still live at home. Luckily the home situation isn’t a big pain in the ass, but it is a big pain in the ego. Also, the field I got a degree in took a huge hit at almost the exact year I graduated, so what I thought was going to be a sure thing turned out to be just as unpredictable as everyone else’s jobs & plans in this economy. Le sigh.

  40. Michelle.Lea says:

    all you can do is do *your* job the best you can, whatever it is. i think the older i get, the more i look at people differently. in the way that they’re not different. there are so many gray areas, you cant judge someone by their job. or think they’re ‘better’ or ‘worse’ than you. it is what it is.. if you’re unhappy with your own, only you can change it.

  41. Ok LW. Here’s the thing: I was a receptionist with an Associate’s Degree for many years. Everyone I knew was working on Master’s Degrees, PhD’s, etc. I felt very left behind, out of the loop, insecure, and ashamed. However, once I took some time and really examined how I was feeling I realized that I felt that way because I didn’t feel like I was living up to my potential. Nobody else cared that I was a receptionist. Nobody cared that they had a “better” college degree than I did. I was projecting my own feelings on those people. I knew I either needed to get some perspective and be happy with my situation, or do something else. My choice was to go back to school, finish my Bachelor’s degree and attend law school. I am graduating in a month. I didn’t do it because of pressure from anyone else. I did it because I knew I would never be happy if I didn’t try.

    It seems to me that you are struggling with some of the same issues. You are working your way through college. However, your skewed perception is that you are a career receptionist who happens to be taking a couple of online courses. Unless everyone you know with advanced degrees was independently wealthy, I’m sure they worked jobs they weren’t necessarily “proud” of while they were in school too. BTW, there is absolutely nothing wrong with being a receptionist. Receptionists make the world go ’round and most offices would fall apart without one. So you really needn’t be so hard on yourself. I actually loved being a receptionist, I just knew that my talents could be better used elsewhere. That said, you really need to look inward and determine if your feelings of inferiority are just masking the fact that you feel like you could be doing more. If that’s the case, then DO IT! If these feelings truly are coming from others, then dump them. Forget ’em. Screw ’em.

  42. try smiling and saying something (in your natural modest voice, you don’t want to boast about how AMAZING you are for doing this) and say “oh, I’m one of life’s multitaskers- I’m supporting myself as a receptionist while studying to work in social services- “, maybe relate ways in which your work enriches your understanding of people, and how you might apply this experience in your future employment. Ask them their opinion about which aspects of your future career choice they think most important in the world today. Don’t boast- they have maybe never been as independent and self-motivated as you obviously are, and you don’t want to make them feel bad- but you really have nothing to fear. Unless they are utter spoilt monsters, NO-ONE is going to look down on you. If anybody is insecure/stupid (and no, a PHD does not make people immune to stupidity,) just smile and say”oh, you’re so funny!” and ask them a question about themselves. Above all, ask them about themselves. Prep yourself beforehand with info on their specialist subjects, and have a well-thought out question for each one. They will remember you as intelligent, well-rounded,and a thoroughly nice person. Most people actually judge others on how interested they are in them—and this lot may just be aching for a new person to show off to. Many academics are tremendously socially insecure- concentrate on putting them at their ease. Remember, they may fear that you will be judging them as effete and out of touch with reality.And go for it, girl-you sound like a very cool person anybody would be happy to welcome into their family! Good luck.

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