A dishwasher, a garbage man, a gas station attendant: UC Berkeley professors talk their first jobs

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Nishali Naik/Staff

Before they were our illustrious gatekeepers of knowledge and information, UC Berkeley professors and lecturers were just like us: scraping by on hard-earned tips, scoring coveted research positions and all the while scrubbing the dishes of some stranger. Check out some of the first “real” jobs of UC Berkeley’s esteemed faculty.

Alex Filippenko, department of astronomy

My first major job, other than being an informal undergraduate assistant in a chemistry lab at UCSB, was at UC’s Lick Observatory, about an hour’s drive east of San Jose. I held this position during the summers after my sophomore and junior years in college. Besides selling things in the gift shop and giving tours of the Great Refractor (under which James Lick is buried) during the afternoons, I used a telescope most nights to conduct my first publishable research project. This experience showed me the joy of explaining science to people, developed my research skills, introduced me to many well-known astronomers, and taught me how to get by on very little sleep. (However, being stuck on a mountain top, my social life was essentially nil.)

Darren Zook, department of political science

My first job was the very undramatic job of working in a grocery store, bagging groceries in Texas. It was one of those jobs that afterwards makes you appreciate every day of your life that you don’t have to do it anymore.

My first job was a 24h shift packing luxury Christmas hampers in a warehouse in Gloucestershire. … Very British. — Joseph Lavery

Joseph Lavery, department of English

My first job was a 24h shift packing luxury Christmas hampers in a warehouse in Gloucestershire. (A Christmas hamper is) just pickles, boozy fruit, plum pudding, etc., sent off to wealthy people at Christmastime. Very British.

Laura Stoker, department of political science

McDonalds! Age 16. :)

Joshua Hug, department of electrical engineering and computer sciences.

My first job was the summer after my senior year of high school. I was an Intern at Lockheed Martin Space Operations. They were pretty clever and offered a technical internship opportunity (with guaranteed post graduation job) for kids coming out of high school, allowing them to snag us before we found cooler gigs during college.

While there, I worked on a 3 person team to make an intranet website (that is, accessible only within the network for the building we were in). It wasn’t particularly useful work, and they kept us on a pretty short leash which kept us from doing anything particularly interesting, but I fondly remember going in during the evenings to make up missed work hours and listening to Bjork all by myself in an office building.

Martha Olney, department of economics

My first ever job was as a babysitter. Before I started, I took the Red Cross course for teenagers wanting to be a babysitter. When I began I charged 50 cents an hour (25 cents when they were asleep). I babysat enough to buy my first (used) car and pay the insurance. I enjoyed caring for kids and watching them grow up.

My first job with a real paycheck was in high school when I worked for the attendance office during and after school. I went from classroom to classroom and picked up the attendance cards which were left in little pockets near the door. We then ran the cards through a computer card reader which generated a list of who was absent. I enjoyed working with the attendance office staff. I got high marks for efficiency, organization, and friendliness.

My first non-school job was for an insurance agency. I worked 20 hours a week after school during my senior year of HS and then 40 hours a week in the summer. I started as a clerk doing filing and copying, but quickly acquired more responsibility and was the auto insurance specialist during the summer after HS. I enjoyed working with people, doing work with numbers. The owners of the firm were very pleased with my ability to work with clients, to problem solve, and to work efficiently and pleasantly.

To this day, whenever I pass a trash collection truck, the distinctive smell brings me back to those three weeks. — Duncan MacRae

Duncan MacRae, department of classics

I left high school in England without firm plans about where or when I would go to college, so while I was figuring that out, I signed up for a temp agency (I think the American term might be a “staffing agency”?). This meant that I didn’t so much have a single first job as first jobs. The most memorable of these was as a trash collector, covering for the regular workers’ vacation time. I did that for three weeks; it was really tough work, I remember that all my muscles seemed ache at the end of every day (which started at 4.30am). This was before the days of rolling garbage cans, so the job involved running down the street behind the truck and lifting trash bags off the curb. The best part of the job was when we got tipped a little extra to take away particularly large pieces of trash; the worst moment was when a trash bag burst open and spilled across the street — it turned out to be full of used diapers … To this day, whenever I pass a trash collection truck, the distinctive smell brings me back to those three weeks. I also washed a lot of dishes and served a lot of meals that summer and fall, but those jobs were less memorable.

Maximilian Auffhammer, department of agricultural and resource economics

My very first paying job was changing out computer tapes in a server room in mid 1980s Germany. I also helped cut off the sides of paper that had holes in it for dot matrix printing.

Leslea Hlusko, department of integrative biology

My first job after college was as a clerk in a mall bookstore working for minimum wage. I really didn’t like the manager but loved the books, and so expended a lot of effort trying to find excuses to hide among the shelves and read. I will never forget the sting of a customer who scoffed at me and asked if this was really all I was going to do with my college education from UVA. There was a recession going on at the time and that really was the best job I could find. After another retail job, I ended up working for a year as a receptionist/clerk at a law firm, which further solidified my desire to be a university professor.

David O’Sullivan, department of geography

My first job was a ‘real’ one, the kind of thing students really want straight out college: telecommunications electronics design engineer at a major (now bankrupt and no more) company. It was a job where I really could apply the hard-won knowledge I’d picked up in my engineering degree.  Having said that, it was clear right away that there was still a lot to learn about simply getting along, working in teams, surviving meetings (and staying sane in the process), and learning to take corporate-speak not too seriously while keeping a straight face!

Michelle Douskey, College of Chemistry

I was in high school in Omaha, Nebraska. I was a hostess at a restaurant (called Joe Tess’s Fish Cafe), the person that decided where to seat people. I don’t know how many times a family would say for a family of four, “we have three and a half,” meaning the baby…

Nadia Ellis, department of English

My first job, right out of college, was English teacher at an all-boys high school in Kingston, Jamaica, where I’m from. I was 21 years old, probably looked like a minor, and I inherited a syllabus that I struggled mightily in my inexperience to make relatable to my students. But I loved that job and it’s still one of the most challenging things I’ve ever done. It’s the only position I applied for — I was absolutely certain I wanted teach high school as my career. And though I went on to become a professor, the sparks that lit my inspiration to go into the classroom then are the same ones that fire me now.

I swore I’d never work in restaurants again — but my next jobs after that were dishwasher, dishwasher, busboy, and waiter. —Jeffrey Knapp

Jeffrey Knapp, department of English

My first job, after washing cars, mowing lawns, etc., was as a dishwasher in a restaurant called The Fin and Claw. Awful experience, and I swore I’d never work in restaurants again — but my next jobs after that were dishwasher, dishwasher, busboy, and waiter.

Christine Palmer, department of American studies

At 16, I held my very first taxed job.  I worked at Miles Avenue Elementary School as a Bilingual Teacher Assistant.  It was a summer job at a year-round school, in a mixed class of third and fourth graders, and was mostly translation, helping students with their work, and making sure no one died on the playground or escaped on field trips. My first paying job, however, was ironing my father’s shirts — one dollar per shirt, which wasn’t bad for a 7-year-old.

Munis Faruqui, department of South and Southeast Asian studies

My first job in college, through freshman year, was as a dinner-shift dishwasher. I loved the camaraderie of the cleaning line and the kitchen staff. I was shocked to see how much food got wasted by students. I was also struck by passing comments about my willingness to do “that kind of work.”

My first and only job after college was as a paralegal in a large NYC law firm. I loved getting a “real” paycheck. I also valued the experience of being in a “real-world”job with deadlines, responsibilities, and lots of group work. However, I also found most of the lawyers to be pompous, self-important and, most surprisingly, unhappy with their lot in life (this despite the big paychecks and seeming prestige).

Andres Cediel, Graduate School of Journalism

My first job was working the cash register at my college’s snack bar. I worked the morning shift, ringing up coffee and pastries for all the administrative staff who came in to start their day. I did not yet drink coffee myself, and remember being tired and bleary eyed as I calculated orders at 7am. It was a window into a world of working adults, which made me appreciate my privileged life as a student even more.

John DeNero, department of electrical engineering and computer sciences

My very first job was helping a neighbor add an outdoor wooden deck to his house. I poured concrete, learned how to use a nail gun, and sanded a lot of wood. My first full-time job was a business analyst position with McKinsey & Company in San Francisco, just after finishing college.

Paul Hilfinger, department of electrical engineering and computer sciences

A summer job with Chevrolet Engineering Division of GM in Warren, MI. I spent the summer developing a report generator to be used with an old IBM database system. Rather fun, actually: I avoided a good deal of coding by using the IBM 360 assembler as the input processor.

Being young and fearless helped. Right after, I moved on to New York and graduate school, and the rest is history. — Kate O’Neill

Kate O’Neill, department of environmental science, policy and management

When I left college I moved from England to Ireland and spent a year as a lecturer in Economics at University College, Cork; my undergrad professor recommended me when they had a last minute departure! I taught the Econ 101 equivalent and an upper division course and I was barely 4 years older than the freshmen (!) I taught. Fantastic experience, especially living in Ireland for the year, making a lot of friends, and being thrown into a tough but rewarding job. Being young and fearless helped. Right after, I moved on to New York and graduate school, and the rest is history.

Amy Gurowitz, department of political science

I worked at a gas station. It was strange and kind of creepy at night. People were always surprised I worked there (as a teenage girl).

Malcolm Feeley, Boalt School of Law

My first sustained full time job was after my freshman year in college. I took some time off, hitchhiked from Texas to Idaho, and hired on with the US Forest Service for several months.  I was part of a crew that systematically walked through quadrants in the forest to pull up plants that spread a disease that kills White Pine trees. But it was a hot summer, and I ended up spending about two months fighting one huge forest fire after another. I liked the work and came a hair’s breath away from hitchhiking to Missoula, Montana and enrolling for a degree in forestry and wildlife management at the University of Montana.  But I ended up returning to Texas, completing college there, and going to graduate school, which after the moving around a bit led me to the Law School here at Berkeley, where I’ve been for the past thirty five years.

Robert Beatty, department of molecular and cell biology

My first real job was as a computer coder when I was 16.   I would write numbers on sociology research questionnaires, for example, Yes=1, No=2, California = 48, and then look up occupation to find the number for a specific job, teacher =025, chicken sexer=378.  After the questionnaires were coded, the numbers would be put on to punch cards for computer input and analyzed with the giant computers back then.   The job was great fun because most the people were young like me and the atmosphere was relaxed as long as you got the job done (this meant getting a certain number of questionnaires done each hour).   Of course, it was also great to have money so I could have a car.   

I and the other cook’s helper, who was also promoted to “cook,” were reheatin’ like mad for the remainder of the Olympics! — Greg Choy

Greg Choy, department of ethnic studies

It was the summer of 1984, the Olympics in Los Angeles, and my college graduation. My first job out of college was as a “cook’s helper” for the dinner crew in the Olympic Village, but not in LA. Few people know or remember that there was an Olympic Village on the campus of UC Santa Barbara, from where I graduated, to accommodate athletes in the rowing competitions at nearby Lake Cachuma.

The title “cook’s helper” essentially meant I was a go-fer for the actual cooks. The truth of the matter, though, was that no one was doing much cooking. Essentially, all we did was un-package and heat up pre-prepared frozen foods, put them in warming compartments where other recently hired grads would retrieve them, place them onto the serving line, and dish them out to the athletes, coaches and other staff. The only food prepared on site was salads. Our “uniforms” were mauve-colored smocks and matching goofy caps. ARA, who ran the food operations then, hired way too many of us and, toward the end of the Olympics, laid off way too many of us — including all of the cooks. So I was promoted to “lead cook” my last two weeks (an hourly raise by $2.00). I and the other cook’s helper, who was also promoted to “cook,” were reheatin’ like mad for the remainder of the Olympics! Neither one of us had much of a clue about how to run a kitchen. The manager, who often kept himself cubbied away in a nearby office in the dining commons, told us “Yeah, we fired too many of you. Just do your best and try not to get anyone sick.” Unforgettable words of leadership, which we followed to the letter.

In the end, we got to keep our smocks and caps, two Olympic pins — one from ARA and one from UCSB Olympic Village — and we were all given UCSB Olympic Village posters and tee shirts, all of which I have seen on eBay selling for well into the tens of dollars (but my Lithuanian ’84 Olympic basketball team tie-dye tee? Priceless!). Resumé line: 1984: Served six weeks in busy dining commons at Olympic Village. Took on leadership tasks. Can reheat with the best of them! It was, if nothing else, a lot of fun.

Alexandra Yoon-Hendricks is the managing editor. Contact her at [email protected] and follow her on Twitter at @ayoonhendricks.