How Do You Explain What You Do for a Living?

Can you relate to this?

Every now and then I’ll meet someone new in a social setting (gasp!), and during our getting-acquainted chitchat they[1] will ask what I do for a living, and vice versa. This is of course normal for most of us. Usually, instead of immediately launching into a detailed explanation of what I do in my workaday world, I’ll abbreviate it with a one- or two-word descriptor couched in terms of who I am. We all do this. We say, “I am a teacher . . . plumber . . . carpenter . . . homemaker . . . sales manager . . . pastor . . . circus clown . . . accountant . . . police officer . . . business owner”—whatever. If the other person wants more detail, we’re usually happy to oblige.

For the past twenty years, I’ve worked in various capacities in higher education. I’ve been an instructor in the classroom (both undergraduate and graduate); I’ve been a research technician, conducting statistical analyses using data sets both large and small;[2] and for the lion’s share of the past twenty years I’ve been a counselor—an academic counselor. I retired from full-time employment at a large university five years ago; since then, in semi-retirement, I have worked part time at a community college as an academic counselor, and I love it. I also enjoy my freelance work at home as a copyeditor, blog writer, and occasional voiceover guy. I keep busy and, for the most part, out of trouble.

When I meet a new acquaintance and we exchange pleasantries about what we do for a living, my go-to line is, “I’m an academic counselor at a college.” Occasionally, I’ll also throw in that part about my freelance work, but I usually hold back as it’s a little much at first bite. The reactions to “academic counselor” range from nothing at all—maybe a silent head nod—to “Oh, that’s nice!” Sometimes a friendly soul will be certain they know exactly what I do: “Oh, yeah. You tell students what classes to take. You’re an advisor, right?” At that moment, I face an internal conversational dilemma. Do I leave well enough alone and say, “That’s right! That’s exactly what I do,” and turn the focus of the conversation back on them, or do I try to fill in a few details?

I could explain that, yes, of course, in my work there are plenty of students who only need help selecting appropriate classes for the next semester or two. Even that isn’t as easy as it sounds, keeping students progressing efficiently toward their educational objectives while juggling the demands of school, work, family, and who knows what.

But do I tell my new acquaintance that there’s more to my job than “telling students what to take”? Should I talk about the young, first-time, first-generation-college freshman who hardly knew what questions to ask me last week, who didn’t know beans from sprouts about why he was even there and what he hoped a college education could do for him?

Do I explain about the student who failed her classes two semesters ago—and the semester before that and the one before that—and finally bombed out of school altogether, but now she’s back to try again? Do I jabber about how that young lady and I worked together to find a glimmer of hope and encouragement so she could still move forward to achieve her dreams?

Maybe I should wax eloquent about the fifty-plus-year-old student who recently became disabled and lost the job he held for thirty years, and how together we fleshed out a plan for him to go a brand new direction and find gainful employment a year or two from now in a new career, while he worries about keeping bread on his family’s table and a roof over their heads.

Should I ramble on about the high-achieving, straight-A student who recently decided there might be other mountains to conquer beyond community college at a four-year university, and how we explored options together and found a clear, doable path to get from here to there?

Nah. It takes too long and I hate boring people to death on our first meeting (maybe on the second meeting it’s okay). No. When new acquaintances say, “Oh, yeah. You tell students what classes to take, right?” I’ve learned to say, “Uh, that’s right!”

Now, how about explaining what a copyeditor does. Holy, moly! If you think “academic counselor” is fun, try this one. After the typical initial glassy-eyed stare, if my new friend says anything at all, it’s commonly something like, “Oh, a copywriter, huh?”

“No,” I reply, “I’m a copyeditor.”

“Oh. Oh, yeah! You proofread stuff and find typos and misspellings. Just like my kid sister—she’s a really good speller.”

My internal conversational struggle begins anew: Do I explain that copyediting and proofreading are very different tasks and definitely not synonymous? That there’s a whole lot more to copyediting than correcting typos and misspelled words (although that’s a part of it)?

Thumbs up - manNah. It takes too long, and I hate boring people to death. So I take a deep breath and say, “Yep, that’s right! Just like your kid sister.” Δ

If you would like to know more about what I actually do as a copyeditor, please check out my Copyediting Services page here on this website.

[1] As a concession not only to twenty-first-century sensibilities but also to a smoother writing style, when the gender of the subject is not specified, I often use the gender-neutral third-person-plural pronouns “they,” “them,” or “their” in place of “he,” or “he or she,” or the wretched “s/he.” The latest edition of the hallowed Chicago Manual of Style concurs on this point for the first time.

[2] SPSS statistical software and I became best buds in those days.

© 2018 by Dean Christensen

Author: Dean Christensen

Educator, copyeditor, writer, baseball bug, word lover, book hound, guitar picker, classical music aficionado, classic rock 'n' roll and movie buff, sinner, saint, former this, used-to-be that, and future who-knows-what. Every day is an adventure in learning how to be a better person.

4 thoughts on “How Do You Explain What You Do for a Living?”

  1. We all figuratively stand on the shoulders of people who went before us. I’m very grateful for friends and mentors from family, church, high school, college, and work. Where would we be without them? Thanks for reading my posts, Corky. I’ll try not to let you and others (if any) who read this blog down. 🙂


  2. Dean, I really enjoy your essays or blogs. I may have said this before but we have a lot in common. We both love Classic Rock and Roll and I also love Folk Music. I have been collecting music on my I phone. We both love baseball and we have taught grad and undergrad. I actually quit my job as the Clinical Supervisor for Tulare County Crisis Services and went to work for the community college COS and Directed the Academic Counseling Department for the Disabled. I lasted about 6 weeks. I did not get along with my boss and I was bored. I went back to working with the seriously mentally ill. I love meeting people and finding out what they do for a living. One of my favorite stories is where I was playing wheelchair rugby and I met this guy that was joining our team and he looked familiar and I realized I knew Dino before my accident. He was a quadriplegic before my accident and Dino coached American Legion baseball. When I met him we started talking and he remembered me when I lived in Lodi and I ask him what he was doing. He told me he was a Captain in the Lodi Fire Department. I asked him about his job responsibilities and he said he was a skin diver and dove for lost dead bodies. I knew paraplegics and quadriplegics that skinned dived but not for a fire department looking for bodies. Man. Corky

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I’m happy to know we have so much in common, Corky, however, I believe you’ve accomplished much more than I have. Thanks for your always-encouraging words. They, and you, are much appreciated.


      1. Dean, I am not sure how much I accomplished. So much of whatever success I have had I owe to the Lord, the Profs and classmates from SJBC and my Dad. I truly admire your skills with the English language. If I had your skills I think I would had stayed in school another 5 years even after finishing my LMFT. I really mean this and that is God was so good to me when it came to my career. I just loved my worked and the people both Clients and other professions God brought into my life. Now, I spend most of my time with my son and wife. I look forward to reading your blogs and essays. Corky

        Liked by 1 person

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