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Apr 28 2013

A Rant About People Who Smugly Inform Me That My Career Will Not Make Me Very Much Money

Warning: this will be a rant. So it’s not very nice.

When you’re about to graduate from college, people tend to ask you what you’re planning on doing with yourself afterwards. So I often tell people that I’m going to grad school to study social work.

Most people respond to this positively or at least neutrally, but there is a substantial minority of people do not. Every so often I’ll run into a dude (it’s usually a dude)–he might have an MBA or plans to get one, and he sneers at me, flashing his Rolex, and says, ”Social work, huh? Not gonna make a lot of money with that, are you?”

For starters, I just want to point out that this is a really quick way to reveal yourself to be a douchebag. You might not care that you’re revealing yourself as a douchebag, but then again, you might, especially since the way that this usually goes is that you’re flirting with me and perhaps hoping I’ll be impressed with your business acumen and earning potential. Nope!

In any case, though, I don’t understand why people think this is appropriate. How much money someone makes is a private matter, and you’d never think to make a comment like this to someone who’s already well into their career. But young people, apparently, do not deserve that sort of courtesy, so you should definitely feel free to pry into our financial situation at any time.

(To be clear: unless you are my parents, or other people from whom I might ever conceivably ask to borrow money, how much I make currently or in the future is none of your business.)

And I know everyone who makes these comments probably thinks they’re being incredibly original and edgy, but actually, people who go into fields like mine meet these douchebags all the time, so we’re quite aware of what people think about our earning potential. Even if we didn’t, though, it might shock you to know that people research these things when they make decisions about their career! Yup, college students planning for the future. Imagine that. When I was deciding about grad school, I checked starting and median salaries for people with the degree and license I hoped to get, including specifically in New York City. I also figured out how much my education will cost and now know how much and for how long I can expect to pay back my grad school loans.

Is this information pleasant? No, not really. But I already know it, and you don’t need to remind me. I’ll do just fine without your (random stranger’s) advice.

What’s funny is that some people seem completely incapable of realizing that not everyone cares all that much about how much money they make. I mean, yes, people should probably plan to be able to live on what they’ll be making. But that’s about all I care about that. Will I be able to live reasonably on it? Will I be able to occasionally buy myself nice things or take trips? Yup. It’d be nice to have more money, but I’m sure there are plenty of high-powered doctors and lawyers who would say that it’d be nice to work a few less hours. Just like they chose to make that tradeoff, I’m choosing to make this one.

It’s also important to note that I get very different responses when I say that I’m getting a degree in social work than when I say I’m going to be a therapist. In fact, I’m doing both; I’m getting that degree in order to be a more effective and more intersectional therapist. But when I tell people that I’m studying to become a therapist, that conjures up images of helping middle-class white ladies deal with their divorces. When I tell people I’m studying social work, that conjures up very different images. And generally they involve not making very much money.

There are, in fact, many things you can say when someone tells you they’re going to study social work that are not “Pfft, not gonna make a lot of money with that, are you?”. Here are a few:

  • “Wow, that must be a difficult job. What made you decide to go into that field?”
  • “Which populations would you want to work with?”
  • “Do you want to open a private practice someday?”
  • “Would you ever want to do social work research?”
  • “So what is social work, exactly?”

Yes, you can have a conversation that’s not just about money! So if the first thing you can think of to say about my career plans is that, surprise surprise, they won’t make me much money, I feel sorry for you. Because not only are you a douchebag, but you’re a pretty unimaginative one at that, since it’s apparently impossible for you to even entertain the notion that there’s more to choosing a career than choosing how much money you’d like to make.

23 comments

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  1. 1
    djiril

    The way I see it, if you set out to make money, you may be successful or you may not. If you set out to help people, you probably will. Good luck!

  2. 2
    smrnda

    I can imagine the frustration, since it isn’t like median salaries for different professions aren’t widely available and that much of the time, they’re publicized to students in a program. I live in a college campus, and last I checked, about every department listed info on salaries for grads on posters in the hallways of their respective buildings along with other employment related statistics. The ‘not much money’ sounds about as dumb as someone informing you that the weather will likely be cold if you move to Alaska.

  3. 3
    Loqi

    I can’t help but shake my head at this. If you hear about someone going into social work and your bewilderment is at how they can go into a field with such a small salary, you must not be familiar with social work. If you were, your bewilderment would be how they can deal with how emotionally taxing it is. Social workers are to emotional stamina what Olympic athletes are to physical stamina. It takes a special person to deal with the heartbreaking cases of injustice out there day after day, while the rest of us have the luxury of being able to look away whenever things get too upsetting.

  4. 4
    Ben P

    Just FYI, most young-ish lawyers don’t make a whole lot more money than social workers these days. Add in the debt, they’re probably doing worse. Even for those who win the lottery and get into big firms out of law school, there’s little to no opportunity for advancement anymore because the business is shrinking. I worked in a big firm for four years, left before they laid me off, and work for the the state, primarily as a child welfare attorney now. (I also do adult protection cases, assist with administrative hearings and assist with abuse/neglect prosecutions).

    That said, I think you get at this difference in your post, because you talk about being a therapist. But I think in the general public there’s a confusion or lack of knowledge about the terminology. Social work involves a lot of different jobs that pay substantially different amounts of money, but the public perception of a “social worker” is someone at the very bottom of that scale, with an undergraduate degree only, making maybe $25k a year. On the other hand a therapist in private practice can make a comfortable living, particularly given no insurance company pays psychiatrists to do therapy anymore. Therapists can make even beyond that if they develop a specialty or develop private clientele.

  5. 5
    Onamission5

    Sometimes I think there’s a gendered aspect to this. I know when I was in college and I heard it, it was often couched in a “silly woman hasn’t figured out what’s really important” tone. Like either my priorities were all messed up or I was expecting a man to come along to take care of me and that’s why I wasn’t making the future acquisition of gobs of money a personal priority.

    1. 5.1
      Miri, Professional Fun-Ruiner

      Well, when men want to do things like counseling, social work, or teaching, they’re almost universally derided as too “feminine” or not “ambitious” enough. It doesn’t really seem like an appropriate career for anyone, except maybe women in certain conservative communities. But yes, it’s definitely different. Men wouldn’t get that “oh, silly man, he just doesn’t UNDERSTAND” thing. They’d be stigmatized in a different way.

  6. 6
    Some Old Programmer

    This reminds me of another rant; you might enjoy it.

    “Taylor Mali on ‘What Teachers Make’”

  7. 7
    Zugswang

    Reminds me of Taylor Mali’s bit about what teachers make (don’t worry, it’s actually pretty great):

    1. 7.1
      sheila

      That’s exactly what I was going to post.

  8. 8
    Francisco Bacopa

    Well what the fuck? There was this dude who became a community organizer and drove his honey on a date in a rusted out car. Somehow he got into state politics and rapidly traded that for a US Senate seat. Whatever became of that guy?

    Of course, Miri can never become president, but all hail Senator Miri. Dudebro with the Rolex be tryin’ bribe you once you get there.

    1. 8.1
      Miri, Professional Fun-Ruiner

      Oh, Francisco, you win the Comment of the Day award for that.

      Not Bad

  9. 9
    doublereed

    This stance is always so bewildering to me. Money is a means, not an end. Whenever people have this kind of money-drive, I always try to focus more on what they plan on actually DOING with their money. Unsurprisingly, they usually don’t have much of an answer.

    I feel like they treat money as achievement points or something.

    1. 9.1
      Francisco Bacopa

      Yeah, it’s just like the people racking up points on “Defender” back in the 80′s . Pay me a multi-million CEO salary and I sure won’t be coming back to work for a third year. I would try to become the Dos Equis man with that kind of money. And Branson and Bezos are really doing that with their spaceships they are trying to build.

      Maybe in 20 years when a few women get to that level we will see what Dos Equis women can do.

      1. 9.1.1
        doublereed

        But what would you do? Isn’t the Dos Equis man just a spokesperson now? Like I don’t know what he does day by day.

        What I was trying to get at was that if you had lots of money already would you THEN become a social worker? Or a full-time philathropist like Bill Gates? Or something? Funding things isn’t doing things (although I guess there’s lots of schmoozing involved). Doing things is doing things.

  10. 10
    ischemgeek

    I have the other extreme. People hear “chemist” and think “chemical engineer” and say approvingly, “Wow, so you’ll be rolling in the dough!”

    Actually, chemists make about as much as teachers.

    Oh.

    Awkward silence.

    Personally, though, if I were a chemical engineer, I wouldn’t get to play with as much cool stuff in the lab, so it’s worth the pay cut. :)

  11. 11
    Matt Smith

    Which populations would you want to work with? My wife and mum are both social workers so I was curious.

    1. 11.1
      Miri, Professional Fun-Ruiner

      What an excellent question! I’m particularly interested in working with LGBTQ folks, survivors of sexual assault, and/or people with mood disorders. Needless to say, these three categories overlap a lot. I’m mostly interested in working with adults and maybe couples, but we’ll see where my courses and fieldwork in grad school take me.

  12. 12
    cethis

    If you can support yourself, and be happy with your job, who are we to complain?

  13. 13
    shockna

    Corollary rant: Whenever people find out I’m going into engineering, they assume I’m doing it purely for the money. Now, I’m doing it because I have a passion for robotics.If I were purely into money, I imagine I’d be just another MBA, as I’m positive a good MBA is going to make more than I will.

    1. 13.1
      DaveL

      I have to imagine that there are MBAs who choose that path because they have a passion for commersce, management, and leadership. I must say in my experience management is something that is very often poorly done in the business world. Leadership even more so. I have to wonder to what extent this perception of earning potential leads people of marginal interest or talent into MBA programs.

  14. 14
    suffragettesass

    Miri, just logged in to throw some support to you. I finished my PhD in social work in 2005 and am now a professor of social work. I’ve been privileged to do some of the most interesting and challenging work that I know of. I’ve helped people with developmental disabilities, survivors of intimate partner violence, people in poverty, and people on death row fighting their sentences. Since 2003, I’ve developed extensive expertise in program evaluation of services and organizations which serve vulnerable and at-risk populations. It’s a career path that has allowed my creativity and flexibility to shine, and has offered great versatility. My career has rarely become routinized and the work is never trivial. It was a rewarding choice. Not easy, never that, but I have always enjoyed frequent feelings of accomplishment. I hope the same for you. The old cliche fits here, for anyone who questions your choice of social work as a career because of the financial prospects is truly missing the forest for the trees.

  15. 15
    DaveL

    As an engineer, I saw a lot of this from the other side. A lot of kids arrived in college after high school and, as is often the case, didn’t have a clear idea what they wanted to do with their lives. So a lot of them figured “hey, I was pretty good at math, and you can make a lot of money doing X”. A lot of these ended up in my classes. Now, it’s true that you can make a good living in this field, but I met many students, and many engineers since, who just plain hated the work. Is that really what they went to college for – to force themselves to go through the motions for 40+ hours a week just so they can go on eating? Is that extra X number of dollars a month worth giving up half your waking hours from young adulthood to retirement for something you loathe?

  16. 16
    SugarB

    I appreciate your rant very much. I used to hear that from my dad until he finally realized that my end goal in life was not to be a millionaire. I also had to take a step back and see what his intentions were. He sees me as a person with a LOT of potential and that I could be incredibly successful in the business world. Problem is, I hate business.

    Now, I’m going back to school for software engineering, because I find this field incredibly fun. Back when I wanted to be a teacher (before politicians ruined the public education system), Dad was always telling me how little I would earn. My response was always that it wasn’t about the money – it was about helping the kids.

    I admire people who go into social work. I would love to do that and make my life’s work about helping others, except that I internalize everything and would probably wind up committing suicide. This is why people like you are wonderful human beings. You should get a big expression of gratitude instead of a dickweed comment about how little you’ll make.

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