The worst jobs you can have during uni

January 15, 2014
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My worst job during university was working as a nanny to three young boys. The oldest kid had fratricidal tendencies and a serious proportion of my time was spent chasing him while he hunted his brothers with a cricket bat. One time while bouncing on the trampoline, two of the boys got into a fight so savage that, when I was finally able to separate them, one brother had literally torn fistfuls of hair out of his brother’s scalp.

I eventually quit after a particularly disastrous pick-up from school. At one point, the middle boy, trying to avoid his brother’s punches, ran out onto the road in front of a car. I grabbed his arm – kindly I thought, as I was saving his life – and he bit my hand so hard he drew blood. When I told his dad what had happened he replied, “You know how kids are” with a shrug, as if his son was just a cheeky scamp and not a kid in serious need of a time out.

If you want a sure thing conversation starter, just ask a bunch of twenty-somethings about the worst job they had to take to support themselves through study. Some will tell of jobs that are just downright unpleasant, like my mate James who was paid to clean out the “maggoty bins” of his student accommodation every week.

Some jobs are bad because of their ironic consequences. Another person I spoke to, Jack, a drummer, stapled fabric onto couches in a furniture upholstery business to support himself while doing his music degree. Jack’s job, which paid just $12 an hour, resulted in him getting RSI in his wrist: a condition that temporarily stopped him from being able to play the drums.

Even some jobs that are mostly terrific have their downsides. One friend worked for several years while studying as a superhero at kids’ birthday parties. The job was fun and paid well, but frequently led to him being hit on by the lusty, middle-aged mothers who found the sight of a twenty-something man in a Superman costume just a bit overwhelming.

One of the most commonly unpleasant jobs that uni students take is call centre work. Amy Galea worked in a call centre in Wollongong for eight weeks to fund an overseas trip in between her Bachelors degree and starting her Masters.She heard about the job because lots of her friends had been employed there, though none had stuck it out for longer than six months. She soon learnt why.

“I think I just didn’t prepare myself for how depressing it would be,” said Amy. “It was just a horrible place… You’re talking all day to people who don’t want to talk to you, and you have to convince them of something you might not even think they should do. I just wasn’t used to that much rejection.” Amy mostly called on behalf of different charities, so people weren’t too rude to her, but she did regularly get hit on by men saying “really gross things”.

According to her supervisors, Amy’s biggest problem was being too nice. “You end up calling a lot of lonely people. The people that you’d call during the day, they’d either be unemployed, or people at home with their kids, or retirees who are usually on pensions… I got told off for not pushing lonely pensioners into sales.” She told of one lonely old woman who was so grateful to have someone to talk to that Amy stayed on the line for “definitely too long”, as the woman talked about her health problems and her estranged family. “I just felt so bad that I didn’t end the call, and afterwards I got a long talking to from my supervisor. And I went home just feeling like this is the worst.”

While Amy endured boredom and despair at the human condition, she didn’t, at least, suffer any physical pain for her paycheck, unlike Matthew McAlpine who “sold his body to science” during his first year of medical school. One of Matthew’s tutors, who was also a PhD student at the university, told him they were conducting experiments on reactions to pain. Matthew says his tutor informed him: “There are some things that even the rats won’t do", so instead they ask the medical students.

Matthew volunteered as a human lab rat, but discovered it was not an easy way to make money. “What essentially happened was they would inject saline into my shin, into my muscle, to trigger the pain pathways. I was holding a meter to say how much out of ten it was hurting at any given time,” he said. “I thought, how bad can it be?” The answer was “very”. Matthew said the saline injection flooded his leg with pain, which he endured for two or three hours at a time, several times a week for about one month. He says that for $20 an hour, it probably wasn’t worth it in hindsight. “After a while I realised there were probably other ways to earn money that didn’t involve having pain inflicted to you.”

Most uni students know that when they complain about these jobs, they are comparing battle scars in an otherwise extremely privileged life. That their university education sets them up for better jobs and a lifetime of better earnings than if they didn’t attend university. Fingers crossed then that the worst job we have while at university – whether it’s call centre work, being experimented on, or looking after murderous little tykes – will be the worst job we ever have.

Kate Lyons

Kate Lyons is a Sydney journalist who writes for The Sydney Morning Herald, The Age and Daily Life. She blogs at and

Photo: Caitlin Gibson, University of Technology, Sydney