think you’re applying for your “dream job”? think again!

A reader writes:

Why do so many folks talk about getting that “dream job” or working for that “dream company”? I’ve had three “dream jobs” in my working life so far. I pursued two, and the third found me. The first turned out to be a nightmare, and the second disappeared due to a series of budget cuts and RIFs (the old term for downsizing) in the area. The third started out as a “how bad can working in The Bronx be?” job, and that one turned into the real dream job and dream company … until the final few years. But I have no regrets on having taken it, since the company provided 30 years of employment doing interesting things and providing professional growth.

I think the emphasis on a “dream job” or “dream company” is self-defeating. Personal expectations may be set so high that either the job or the company can never measure up. The “good fit” expectation is better, but even that seems to drift to “the company won’t do things my way, so it’s not a good fit” type of thinking.

My expectations have always been, … I’ll give this job/company three or four years to see how things turn out.

I’m so glad you brought this up, because every time someone says that they’ve applied for their dream job, I think to myself, “Don’t be so sure.”

The reality is, you have no idea whether something will be your dream job or not until you’re working there. Until you’ve been working there for a while, in fact.

I’d even go so far as to say that there’s no such thing as a dream job that you can truly recognize from the outside. Because as much as you think you might love doing that work for that company, it might turn out that the boss is a nightmare, or your coworkers are horrible, or the company makes you sign out for bathroom breaks and bring in a doctor’s note every time you have a cold, or you’re abused daily by clients, or your workload is so unreasonably high that you end up having panic attacks every morning.

Dream jobs do exist — when it’s work you love, at a company that treats employees well, working for a great manager, alongside coworkers who are competent and kind, or at least unobjectionable — but it’s dangerous to think something is your dream job before you’re really in a position to know. It can lead you to turn a blind eye to warning signs or to make decisions you wouldn’t make if you had all the facts.

So here’s a plea to everyone to realize that the next time you spot something that sounds like your dream job, remember that you really can’t know yet if that’s really what it is. And this is especially good to remember when you don’t get offered the supposed dream job and you’re feeling devastated by it — the reality is that it might not have been your dream job at all.

{ 126 comments… read them below }

  1. PEBCAK*

    This is a great post. I’d also love to see more on how you can judge what a job will be like from the outside. I know that a good interview process (good communication, reasonable timeline) is one good sign, and I know that I have picked up red flags in interviews (vague job description, lots of talk about hours worked), but I get nervous about asking too many culture questions in the interview, for fear of appearing lazy or unwilling to work somewhere that is very buttoned-up.

    For example, if the interviewer can say “why are you looking for a new job?” I feel like it would be fair to ask “why are you looking to fill this position?”, but that’s not really a viable question.

    1. Michelle*

      Yes, this! I would be interested to know also. Often it’s tricky- I often ask to see if anyone in my network knows someone who has worked at the place I am interviewing, but even that’s not very helpful at very large organizations or small ones that have had major personnel changes because so much depends on who you are working with.

    2. Becky*

      I would like to know if there is a good way of asking “Why are you looking to fill this position?” I’ve seen “Can I ask why the last person left this position?” posed as an option, but I am not sure if companies would be turned off by that. For instance, in my husband’s current company there has been a lot of vacancies lately because their employees are finding higher paying jobs doing the same kind of work elsewhere in the community. I don’t think if someone asked in an interview what happened to the last person who held the job that the company would honestly say “we don’t pay high enough salaries to keep people long-term.” And I have a feeling they might be put off by being asked.

      1. Malissa*

        Interesting because, “Why is this position open?” is usually one of my first questions. I usually get the truth behind why the last person, that they were promoted or the standard answer of the person just didn’t work out. I’ve never had a interviewer get defensive over the question.

        1. Anonymous*

          I had an interviewer react very badly to this question of “why is this position open” and it told me a lot about what I needed to know working under this hiring manager would be like.

          Even if her response would’ve been “The person just wasn’t in the right job for s/he”, I’d have understood there were reasons it was a bad job fit. Fair enough. This hiring manager got very upset and berated me for asking. Think that was a bullet dodged!

          1. CRAZY for Teapots!*

            And remember… someone had to leave that “dream job” for the position to be open in the first place.

    3. Anna*

      For example, if the interviewer can say “why are you looking for a new job?” I feel like it would be fair to ask “why are you looking to fill this position?”, but that’s not really a viable question.

      I know — sometimes I feel like a little snark is needed, but (much) more often than not it just is not smart.

      1. Kelly O*

        I don’t think it’s a snarky question, honestly.

        I’m genuinely curious why the position is open. Is the former person being promoted, or moving within the company? Did they pick up and move to Kalamazoo? Was it a case of a fit that wasn’t right? (And I know in that last one you’re going to hear the sanitized version, but I tend to think more highly of people willing to admit a fit wasn’t great, and not frame it in a negative light.)

        1. Jamie*

          Fwiw when I’m involved I pre-empt the question by telling the candidate. The person in the position went back to school, was promoted, left for another opportunity, new position due to growth, etc. The only time I’m not completely forthcoming is when someone was fired – that’s covered (IMO) by other opportunities. And of course in those instances you’re screening hard for a better fit.

          I always tried to answer the questions I always had, even if the candidate didn’t ask.

          There is nothing wrong with asking politely why the position is open.

        2. Anna*

          Well, I suppose it’s really just the delivery. (I tend to deliver with a little more snark than I intend. I know that, and so I can sometimes err a bit too much on the side of caution just to be safe.)

    4. Yup*

      I totally agree, it’s so hard to know how to interpret. Candidates walk that fine line between ignoring a red flag and ascribing too much importance to a random event.

      I love when interviewers volunteer why they’re hiring for a given job, it demonstrates a good sense of interviewing as a two-way street. As a candidate, I’ve used “is this a newly created position?” to broach the subject, then followed up with “Oh I see, so how did the position come to be open?”.

      Beyond job-specific questions, I have 3 standing “culture” questions: (1) What does your performance evaluation process look like? (2) What kind of training would the successful applicant receive as part of their onboarding for this position? (3) What sort of professional development opportunities or guidance does the organization provide for staff?

      These are super important culture/mindset things to me so I pay close attention to the body language and the answers, especially anything that *isn’t* said. No questions are foolproof, but I think “how” questions can be very illuminating.

      1. ChristineH*

        Those are things I’d be curious about as well, but I worry that it’ll come across like I’m focusing too much on what the company can do for me when they want to know what I can do for them. *sigh* If I get called for any interviews (crosses fingers), the first thing I’ll do is download Alison’s free e-book on interviewing so that I don’t keep hogging up this place with my endless questions. lol.

        1. Kit M.*

          I worry that it’ll come across like I’m focusing too much on what the company can do for me when they want to know what I can do for them.

          I don’t think you’d have to worry about that with the above examples. What I liked about Yup’s questions is they come down to, “How will you help me be good at my job?” It’s really not the same as asking, say, how much vacation you’ll have.

      2. Long Time Admin*

        I once asked “who will be training me?”, and they didn’t know. The dept. manager said, “I guess I will”. Surprisingly, it did work out eventually.

    5. Ask a Manager* Post author

      PEBCAK, it’s completely reasonable to ask “Why is this position open?” and lots of interviewees ask it. Any interviewer who had a problem with that would be sending you a major red flag.

      1. jmkenrick*

        Additionally, a former boss of mine suggested I ask “what have previous people in this position gone on to do later in their careers?” – to get a sense of whether they’re promoted within the company or moved out of it, etc.

        I asked that question once and it was well received.

        1. Katie*

          I like this too!
          It’s something I really would want to know in a lot of cases too, but I never thought about asking this question.

  2. Wubbie*

    My current position used to be my dream job. I started here 10 years ago as a temp, and I never even would have accepted the temp placement if I had not been out of work for 2 or 3 months. One month later they hired me permanently. You just never know.

    But 2 years ago my boss went crazy. I’ve been looking for a new job for about a year now (still in the “picky” phase since I am employed, though I may need to loosen up those standards a little bit soon.

  3. Diane*

    This is spot-on. I work for a company that many people would consider a Dream Job kind of place–creative, well-known, often on Fortune’s list of 100 best companies to work for. But I’ve been here 8 years now. Some of those years have been “dream job” years with great supervisors, coworkers, and projects. And others have been not-so-dreamy with lousy managers, heavy, dry workload and long, tiring hours. Now I’m faced with the challenge of making it my dream job again, or finding something else more rewarding. But since this is the Dream Job capital of my town, it’s really hard to make a move.

    1. Anonymous*

      I’ve only been at my “dream job” a short time, but it’s so true that the management is a huge part of the equation. I love my work immensely, I love my coworkers, and I love the company culture. But my immediate manager is so frustrating to deal with that I am starting to want to quit already, only a few months in. The worst part is that I’d apply elsewhere within the company, but he’s given me low marks on purpose (he does it to the whole team) so if we try to apply to other departments, we’ll look like we are lousy workers. We’ve been told he won’t be managing us much longer but they still haven’t done a thing about getting a new manager in the department.

  4. Cindy*

    I’m so glad you and the OP brought this up. In a culture where you’re encouraged to conflate your career and your identity, I worry that we send the message that if you don’t have a perfect “dream job,” you are somehow coming up short as a human.
    We don’t encourage adults to hold out for Prince/ss Charming when looking for a partner, so why do we keep alive the myth of a perfect fairytale job?

  5. Malissa*

    Well my dream job is to get paid while I sit on some sunny beach somewhere reading books and drinking things that come with umbrellas, with frequent breaks for swimming.
    But back here in reality land, the most a person (me specifically) can hope for is a place that’s low on drama, high on benefits and compensation, and intriguing enough to keep the mind engaged. Alas no job is going to hit every category–but if you know of one I’m willing to relocate. So my real dream job is just one where I lose the desire to be on a perpetual job search. What is that going to take? I won’t know until I’m there.

    1. Jamie*

      My dream job involves pajamas, a tiara, and a monitor at which I can wave my hand and it would do my bidding, a cat sleeping on my desk and a dog at my feet.

      I don’t hold up a lot of hope of this showing up on Indeed any time soon.

      1. Sasha*

        Nor mine, which involves lots of naps and being a macaroni and cheese taste tester. Haven’t found it yet, still hoping.

      2. Josh S*

        …a monitor at which I can wave my hand and it would do my bidding…

        You’ve seen this, right?
        Fully programmable, customizable motion sensor that uses some technology to create a 2’x2’x2′ cube of space that you can use as input controller. Get one of these and you can wave your hand at the screen, and it would do your bidding…

      3. class factotum*

        When I was the Data Queen at my old job, I would send tiaras and wands (and chocolate) to customer service reps (aka Data Princesses) who had done something particularly well on my many SAP data conversion prep projects.

    2. jesicka309*

      I’ve been asked this question in an interview before… it was an internal job, of course. My manager wanted to know what kind of role I would be doing, in an ideal land…
      I told him up front that if I had my way, I’d be at home writing novels and getting paid squillions…but here in reality land, I’d like to be moving up within this organisation into a leadership/management role.
      He laughed…I don’t know whether I’d have gotten away with it in an interview with a new company though.

  6. Aaron*

    I can certainly relate to this story as my own history is very similar. In my past I’ve been a US Navy Sailor, worked retail, even dealth card games. While I’ve never had what I would consider to be a “nightmare” job, I hadn’t found a job that was so perfect that I wanted to make it a career. About seven years ago I was unemployed, broke, and nearly homeless. I was called in by Unemployment to meet with an Employment Specialist. The Specialist provided me with a great deal of assistance in refining my application package, but also informed me of an office job with his agency. Even though this individual had helped me a great deal I was hesitant, mainly because my personal views tend to be more conservative and the unemployment agency is often stereotyped as helping career unemployed people to cheat the taxpayers in order to collect free benefits while avoiding work. Regardless, I applied for the job and seven years later not only am I still employed by this agency, but it’s allowed me to finish my Bachelorette degree and I’m now employed as an Employment Specialist myself.

    Between my own experiences, and those shared by my customers, I’ve found that more often then not, the perfect job tends to be one that a person falls into rather than looks for and finds.

    1. A.A.*

      “I’ve found that more often then not, the perfect job tends to be one that a person falls into rather than looks for and finds.”

      I agree. Although it has its bad moments, my current job is rather “dreamy.” I was in 3 departments/2 job titles before I ended up in this position. Circumstances in this particular role changed dramatically two months after I took the internal transfer, and I actually hated this job for a few years. I stuck with it because it was more of a people issue than anything else, and I knew it was the type of work I wanted to be doing.

      The longer I’m here, the more ability I have to influence the direction of my position & career so that it becomes more of what I like doing. I don’t think you normally have that opportunity at a brand new job, and a lot of people won’t put in the 3~5 yrs in a position needed to have some credibility to make changes to your job. I bought the dream job Kool-Aid for a while, but it just made me unsatisfied with life more than anything.

      1. PEBCAK*

        Oh, this is a good point: that perhaps you have to make your own dream job. In the bad economy, we stopped getting raises, and I really fought for other perks (flexible hours, telecommuting) but I was only able to do that because I’d spent a few years building up a good reputation.

      2. Not So NewReader*

        Excellent point, A.A. It takes time to carve out a niche in a new work place. Sometimes we get respected just because we have not left yet! Others know the work is tough. An employee that has earned a reputation of being helpful and bringing his/her brain to the table- can really end up in a good spot.

    2. Sasha*

      I realize it was a typo, but I thought you said “death card games,” to which I thought, that sounds bad ass and highly dangerous!!! What are these games?? :)

  7. Sara*

    Just like there’s no dream man/dream woman, there’s no dream job…. what Alison posted is spot on….

    1. Jamie*

      Yep. My husband may not be perfect, but he’s perfect for me.

      Kind of the same thing with work…without the perfect part.

      1. Sara*

        Yes, that’s exactly what I mean. On paper, the person may seem like a great!person! but once you get to know them and live wiht them, that may not be the case at all….same goes for work :)

  8. Lauren*

    My dream company was TripAdvisor, because I loved working on travel clients. They have the best perks and are on the Best Company lists every year. Then I interviewed there, and I realized what I do now is done differently at TA. My current job description is completely different from what they consider the same title as. For me, my job now is more creative, but there its all IT and testing using SQL. My dream company has a different way of doing what is technically the same title. I also realized that all the big travel companies do it this way. Kayak, Cheap Flights, Expedia, Travelocity, etc. consider this job to be technical and requires a computer science knowledge that I just do not have.

  9. Coelura*

    In five years at this company, I’ve had six managers. We’ve gone almost 12 months without a major reorg, so I know I’m about to change managers or lose employees. Don’t know which yet. As with others who’ve posted, sometimes this has been an enjoyable job and sometimes I’ve dreaded starting each day. Right now, I’m just bored but figure that will change soon enough. And maybe that’s part of being in a good position for me – I don’t have to change companies because we’ll reorg soon enough. It’s like the weather – if you don’t like it, wait awhile, it’ll change!

  10. Zahra*

    Funny because I just emailed Alison about a dream job opening I saw this weekend. The insights here about being just as careful (if not more in order to adjust your expectations) about evaluating the role and the company for a good fit are very important. I’ll have to think about this in detail if I get to the phone screen/interview stage for this position.

  11. Xay*

    This is a great post.

    I interviewed and got a tentative offer for what I thought was my “dream job” a couple of years ago. I waited 2 weeks without hearing about a final offer and ended up accepting a different position. The company lost the contract for that position a few months later so I would have been unemployed had I waited and ultimately accepted their offer. The job I accepted is not what I would consider my dream job, but it certainly hasn’t been a nightmare job either.

  12. Sam*

    Indirectly related, I reminded of that bit on Office Space…

    Peter Gibbons: Our high school guidance counselor used to ask us what you’d do if you had a million dollars and you didn’t have to work. And invariably what you’d say was supposed to be your career. So, if you wanted to fix old cars then you’re supposed to be an auto mechanic.
    Samir: So what did you say?
    Peter Gibbons: I never had an answer. I guess that’s why I’m working at Initech.
    Michael Bolton: No, you’re working at Initech because that question is bullshit to begin with. If everyone listened to her, there’d be no janitors, because no one would clean shit up if they had a million dollars.

    1. A.A.*

      The other thing about this. . .
      Lots of people tried to make that thing they’d do with a million dollars their career and ended up miserable. Love working out – open a gym – work bad hours and never have time to work out. Like baking – start a cupcake business – work bad hours and grow to hate baking. Some people make it work, but for many of us it is better to do what we love from 5 pm to 8 am and find a less than “dream” job that allows us some time for a personal life.

      1. Meg Murry*

        I agree with this 100%. There are a lot of things that I love doing for a few hours a week, or that I love one aspect of but hate another and if I tried to turn that hobby into a full time job I would hate it. For instance, I love to knit for a few hours a week, but I couldn’t do it for 40+ hours a week, and definitely not at the rate I would need to do it to make a living selling what I knit. And I love to bake, but I hate hate hate grocery shopping and dishes, so baking more that I currently do would mean more grocery shopping and dishes, which I would hate. A “good job” to me has a much higher proportion of my time doing things I enjoy or don’t mind, and much lower proportion doing things I dislike – but I don’t think anyone is going to find a job where they love ever hour of every task they do. As my father always says “There’s a reason they pay you to work – if it was so great, they would find people to do it for free.”
        This also ties into the “do what you love is not good career advice” post: a friend that was a theater major learned the hard way – so many people love theater, they are willing to work at it for free. Life lesson – don’t take student loans to learn a discipline people will work at for free, unless you are also willing to work in a different field to pay back said loans .

        1. Dan*

          In a prior lifetime, I wanted to be a pilot. But in a similar fashion to theater, too many people are willing to do it for almost free.

          I went and got a math degree and do some white collar aviation work. My first year on the job, I was making more than a 6-year captain at a regional airline makes (don’t forget they have to be a co-pilot for quite some time before that.)

          Best part? If I lose my job, my experience stays with me. A pilot starts over as a first year co-pilot again.

          1. AgilePhalanges*

            I know I’m late to this party, but my brother learned that lesson, too. My dad was a private pilot all our lives, and my brother followed in his footsteps, got his pilot’s license early on in high school, made money by instructing throughout college, where he got his aviation degree. After struggling to finally land a job as a pilot, he was laid off after only a few months. He switched careers to again follow in my dad’s footsteps, but this time as an air traffic controller, and makes much MUCH more than he ever could have as a pilot, after only a year or two on the job. If he works enough weekends, holidays, and overnight shifts, he’ll be able to buy a small plane to enjoy on his own terms instead of flying for “the man.”

        2. Your Mileage May Vary*

          I knit too and many people have suggested I make a business selling what I make. They don’t understand that those knitted garments cost a bunch of money in yarn, let alone your time investment. I’d never sell anything for what it’s worth.

          The next suggestion is to open up a yarn store. Which I’d do if I won the lottery and didn’t have to rely on having the store make a profit.

          They call them hobbies for a reason.

      2. Victoria HR*

        Agreed. I make soap as a hobby and sell it online and at craft fairs. I was making a batch last night and realized, if I had to do it 8-10 hours a day every day, I’d hate it. Great hobby, crappy job :)

        1. Sasha*

          My mom is always trying to get me to turn my crafty hobbies into businesses. And my dad tells me I need to be a newspaper comic strip artist (because that’s not a dying breed) because of the “hilarious” comic I wrote that was published – once – in my junior high newspaper. Gotta love parents. :) But yes, if I turned hooping or sewing pajama pants into a business, I would be 1. broke beyond belief (terrible salesperson) 2. miserable 3. crippling arthritis from making hoops/pajama pants all day.

          1. Ali*

            Same here! I wanted nothing more than to work in media/PR for a hockey team (as in, not writing for a newspaper), and then about a month or two ago, I started to wake up and realized that I’d be making low pay while working 12 hours on game days. I was also sick of writing for free for “experience” and “exposure.” But I just got promoted at my day job, and I’m hoping to find writing jobs that DO pay so I can become a copywriter, where maybe the hours are still crazy, but the money is better and I can have a life.

        2. Elizabeth*

          I always get “you should write a cookbook!” or “you should open a restaurant!”. I like to cook, I do it pretty well & I have a pretty good natural palette for flavor combinations (my husband & I place “guess the spices” at almost every restaurant). But I have no illusions about wanting to cook for large numbers of people regularly.

          One of my favorite food bloggers published a cookbook about a month ago, and she admitted that the last flurry of recipe testing left her completely burnt out on cooking. She can’t bear the thought of setting foot in the kitchen for a few months yet, since all she did up until about 2 weeks before the book officially went to press was cook, revise recipes & sleep. I have no interest in hating cooking that much.

          1. Jamie*

            I have no interest in hating cooking that much.

            This is funny because my go-to response when I get well meaning but completely clueless advice from people who tell me I should do freelance IT and make a lot more money is “I have no interest in hating my job that much.”

            I’ve done it – the hourly rate is higher but the unpaid hours trying to drum up business and the million little other things that make me want to cry and it actually comes out to a loss money wise. If I ever want to work a lot harder, for a lot less money, doing things I hate I’ll go back to freelancing.

            I love well meaning people.

            I also wish I had a friend like you, because there is this perfect chicken salad sandwich at a restaurant about an hour from my house…and I can’t replicate it and I can’t find another like it. It’s perfect and I have the pallet of a four year old so it could be made of crayons for all I know. But if I had a friend who could decipher recipes from tasting I would totally barter tech support for favors in that area.

      3. Long Time Admin*

        That’s right up there with “do what you love, and you’ll never work a day in your life”. I’ve actually seen this as career “advice”.

        I love to read murder mysteries and drink coffee all day long.

        I’ve been working all my adult life because I can’t find anyone to pay me to do that.

        1. Anna*

          I love to read murder mysteries and drink coffee all day long.

          I’ve been working all my adult life because I can’t find anyone to pay me to do that.

          This, times a really big number.

          I wasn’t born yesterday. There’s a reason it’s called “work.” My view is that I’ll be okay with a meh day job — so long as I have enough hours left in the day to get some knitting done and read a few pages of a good book, and enough vacation time to get away from the office for a week or two every now and then.

          It should be noted that having a day job is what got me into books in the first place: said job was dull and intellectually unstimulating, and my brainpower needed something to work on if I wasn’t going to resort to Matilda-esque telekinesis. (Somehow, it hadn’t quite sunk in previously that reading is a lot more fun when you get to pick your own books.)

    2. Laura L*

      Plus, how many people wouldn’t do anything or would do a variety of things if they had a million dollars?

      If I had that much money, I wouldn’t spend more than 15 or 20 hours a week on any one thing.

  13. dejavu2*

    This letter is so right on. A few years ago, I thought I had landed my “dream job.” It was exactly, spot-on everything I had been working towards. Precisely the position I wanted, with a niche industry leader. Besides the work and the location being perfect, it came with an amazing benefits/PTO package, and fabulous coworkers who were literally some of the best people in our industry nationwide.

    About a year in, the board had a moment of collective insanity and replaced our head guy with a total sleaze bag who literally had no experience in our industry. Mr Sleaze then set about one-by-one firing and replacing over half of the employees, ultimately including me – but not before our benefits and PTO packages got slashed. The company got run into the ground in what felt like slow motion, though it really took less than a year for it to get completely overshadowed by competitors. At the end, working there was like a nightmare. Literally, almost every day people were crying in the hallways, or giving explosive interviews to the trade papers. When people who know the industry find out the time period I worked there, they’ll usually laugh and say something rude about how I was lucky to escape alive.

  14. Kelly O*

    I really want to smack whoever started the idea that you should just love whatever you do.

    I totally bought into that for a while, and I have a string of short positions on my resume, because the second I got bored or unhappy I just jumped to whatever paid a little more (because if I’m going to be bored and unhappy I should make the most I can, right?)

    Blew up in my face in September 2008, and I’ve been paying for it ever since. Put me with someone with the same education and years of experience, but theirs are with one or two companies and mine is with more than a half dozen. Sure, some of those were moves because of my husband’s job, but enough of them were me just jumping when something minutely better came along, looking for that dream job. So who would you pick? I get it. It doesn’t make things easier to take, but I get it.

    You can like what you do, and there will be things you like more than others about what you do, but even cool jobs have downsides. It’s all about finding the things you like, dealing with the things you don’t, and keeping a bigger perspective on your personal happiness.

    At least that’s what I’m trying to do. Well, that and realigning my career goals and working on the education I need to really follow where I think my heart and my talents lie. (And I know, that won’t be all sunshine and unicorns all the time either, but I think doing something that fits me better will help make the not so great parts easier to deal with.)

    1. Nyxalinth*

      Are you sure you aren’t me? Because this is what I have done. Especially with the pay. “If it sucks, at least the pay is worth it.” No, not really.

    2. Sasha*

      Me too, I have jumped around a lot and always though my one, true purpose in life was just around the corner. I also did this in college with several changes in major. I also had the pressure of “whatever you pick is what you do for the REST OF YOUR LIFE” and was crippled with fear at every direction. I am a much happier person now that I’ve realized all these things.

      1. Laura L*

        “whatever you pick is what you do for the REST OF YOUR LIFE”

        Yes! This has been a problem for me ever since graduating college. I’ve finally realized, about 6 1/2 years later, that it’s not true. I don’t have to be limited to this one thing for the rest of my life. It’s made decision making much easier. And the future less terrifying.

    3. yen*

      Me too! Although a job where your heart and talents lie sounds like the definition of a dream job to me.

      (It’s kinda what I’m trying to do now – the problem, I find, is that my heart changes and my talents are not always what I think they are.)

  15. Vicki*

    I was happy to see this Q&A. Like the OP, I keep reading about people who have just “applied to my dream job!” and every time, I think, oh sweetie, no. Don’t get your hopes up like that.

    Like the OP, I’ve had a number of jobs that seemed Just Great when they started (and then something fell apart in the first year). My most recent job, on the other hand, was one I never expected to keep past the 12-week initial contract. That job lasted for almost 6 years and I would have been happy to have stayed longer if my position hadn’t been “eliminated” by a clueless new VP.

  16. ADE*


    However, there is something to be said for chasing your dreams in pursuit of a dream job, because while the destination may not be all it’s cracked up to be, for all the reasons you mentioned, the journey can help inform you as to what you like.


    About five years ago I thought I knew exactly what I wanted to do. I found the person I felt to be the best at doing this thing and built a relationship with that person by sending an unsolicited fan e-mail. (This is a small enough field that sending somebody a note out of the blue about how you as a stranger admire their work gets responded to-right away!)

    As a college student I pursued an internship doing exactly that kind of work, thinking that I’d “grow up” and go work with this person after graduation. Turns out that “growing up” meant getting a different kind of job, but a job related to the internship that I pursued for my initial Dream Job.

    The job I accepted was a great job for me until recently, when I started to feel like the personal victory/BS ratio was getting out of whack from its careful balance. I have been able to reflect on what about this job I really appreciate and what I want to run away from, and those reflections have informed my next career paths.

    In the meantime I have been following another passion of mine on the side- something that will probably not turn into a real “job” but the kind of thing I could absolutely immerse more into should I find myself without paid employment at some future date. That passion also came up when I realized I’d want to try working for an organization like it one day.

  17. Jen M.*

    I think this is one of your best posts ever. I often need to remind myself to keep my expectations realistic. It’s a real problem for me.

    Once I can bring myself back down to Earth, I can learn to love something–ANYTHING–about where I currently am and get more out of the experience that way.

  18. Nyxalinth*

    Customer service is definitely not a dream job for me, but until recently I felt too stuck to do anything about it. I’ve begun looking into other possibilities (one thing that has my attention as a possibility is grant writing, for a number of reasons) and I’m certainly not seeing them as dream jobs. I’m going in with research and eyes wide open. I’ll settle for a job that is mostly agreeable that I genuinely care about and the bad days are usually bearable over the dream job thing :)

    1. ChristineH*

      Ooh grant writing has been on and off my radar as well. Curious about what attracts you to the idea.

      1. Nyxalinth*

        I like the idea of being involved with non-profits and I love writing. So while it wouldn’t be creative writing in the sense of storytelling, it would still be creative to an extent and I’d be working for the greater good at the same time–if I choose my work wisely!

    2. Diane (the other one)*

      What appeals to you about grantwriting? What kind of workday and pace do you like best, and what doesn’t work? You will have to spend a LOT of time managing other people’s expectations, fears, and input, all in between frantic deadlines and mind-numbing slow times. You get to learn about all sorts of subjects and ideas. You have to be a crackerjack researcher, writer, editor, IT wrangler, and project manager. You have to know your way around a budget. You have to get people to give you information on your tight timeline, when they may prioritize other projects ahead of yours. You have to learn to read complex regulations and instructions, often in five different places, and make your best guess. You get to make connections with people and organizations doing great work, but without much money.

      I do this for a living, and I’d be happy to give unsolicited advice :-).

      1. Nyxalinth*

        All that, and I’m still interested :)

        What’s the best way to get training, and where should I be looking for postings?

        1. Diane (the other one)*

          It depends on what you want to focus on (small nonprofits, large nonprofits, hospitals, colleges, religious organizations, etc.) and whether you want to seek small grants from foundations or large federal grants. Either way, I’d start with a good, intense training program from a reputable group like The Grantsmanship Center (TGCI) or the Foundation Center. Have a real project in mind. Some colleges have courses, including those tied to a particular field like healthcare. Make sure the instructor is actually an active grantwriter and isn’t relying on old information (sort of like college career centers telling you to put an objective on your resume).

          Many people fall into grantwriting by accident, by working at nonprofits or colleges in other capacities and then taking on a grant or two to fund their work. You can certainly volunteer to work on a grant, though if you’re just starting out, it’s best to be paired with an experienced person to teach you the lingo and shortcuts.

          I got hired as an entry-level writer for a university’s grants and publications shop. My boss understood I was green, sent me through training at TGCI with a few projects in mind, and mentored me through my first proposal. After that, it’s trial by fire. The field is becoming more credentialed, but I’m waiting to see if the credentials demonstrate much more than a year of experience will provide.

          The Grants Professional Association is good for some training and conferences, as well as regional or field-specific professional organizations.

      2. ChristineH*

        What appeals to you about grantwriting?

        I enjoy writing and the aspects where you mention research and learning about different subjects & ideas really appeal to me. It’s hard to explain; everyone tells me that I write well and very detail-oriented; thus, people have suggested grant writing as one avenue to use those skills. Plus…I dunno….in the last few years, I’ve been curious about how programs are developed and evaluated, and grant writing seems to be one way to learn that.

        What kind of workday and pace do you like best, and what doesn’t work?

        I like having typical workday hours, but because of transportation issues, it’s harder to be flexible with working late or going to meetings on short notice. Also, I’ll admit that I prefer a somewhat slower pace without a lot of frequent interruptions. Not sure in what context you mean by “what doesn’t work?”

        1. Diane (the other one)*

          You know, you might be able to work with a local nonprofit on program development and evaluation, and ask to work with them on a grant application to get your feet wet. It IS valuable to understand how programs are developed, how they actually function, and how their success is measured. Any piece of that might lead you to your next career.

          You could see what nonprofits in your area have just gotten grants from your regional foundations. Most have good websites and newsletters. It might open the door to a volunteer project or even paid work in the program itself.

          Grant work is very fast-paced. Interruptions happen, but I arrange my schedule so I have plenty of alone-time with my computer to just focus, and I work in a culture that (mostly) respects a closed door.

          Once you get some experience, you could freelance and work remotely, but it’s much harder to manage than in-person brainstorming sessions. It just means you have to be very organized.

          1. ChristineH*

            Thank you Diane…this was helpful! In fact, during the past year, I’ve volunteered on a couple of proposal review committees, which has been a really great way to learn about how programs are developed (both committees required it to be laid out via the Logic Model) and evaluated.

            I still can’t say for sure this is the direction I want to take just yet; just looking at all my options. (FTR: I have an MSW and had originally planned on direct social work. Long story on why I strayed from that!)

    3. ADE*

      I also LOVED customer service and entered my current job looking forward to the customer servicey appeal of it (think: non-profit side sales and marketing)

      Have you also looked into front line fundraising, corporate foundations/relations, alumni relations at universities, corporate philanthropy at large companies?

      1. glennisw*

        Development (fundraising) is a field that seems to have a great many openings – this is a good suggestion.

  19. AP*

    This is so true! I was passed up for a “dream job” at Company A about five years ago, and took a different job I was offered instead (but was still pretty excited about). I’m still in the same industry, so I work with many people who have worked at Company A or are familiar with it, and all I can say is that I got really lucky. They’re not horrible, but the job that I was eh about turned into an amazing experience, and that does not seem to be the type of experience people have at Company A.

  20. Sabrina*

    This is a great post and I hope that many people have a chance to read it. Specifically, I hope that my fellow young adults will grasp the message. I am truly glad that I have. My first dream job was going to be working in government. Well, I had two internships that swayed me away from that dream job. Life is truly about trial and error.

  21. ChristineH*

    Great post Alison – an excellent dose of reality for young people entering the workforce and even for more experienced job seekers trying to chase that ever-elusive “dream job”. I like what someone said above; that a “dream job” (I think “good job” is a more realistic term) is one that has more of tasks that you enjoy or don’t mind than those you don’t enjoy.

  22. Interviewee*

    I agree “dream job” is generally over-used, but I do also think a job can be a “dream job” or “good job” when you first start, and then things change and it isn’t anymore. It may not even be that the job or manager or anything else changed, but it’s just not right for you anymore, personally and/or professionally.

    My current job is a good job – for someone else. It was a great job when I started 5 years ago, but I should have left 2 years ago. Thankfully I just got a new “great job”, maybe even a “dream job” for me right now (more responsibility/room for growth, 2.5x salary, better benefits, paid relocation overseas, etc.) and put in my notice to my “good job” last week.

  23. Elizabeth West*

    *sigh* Sabrina said life is trial and error. I’m still waiting for everything I try not to be an error!

    One thing I do is try to picture the bad that could go along with the good. Example: is this commute going to kill me? How much of my day is going to be spent doing X, when I really like Y? Of course, I don’t know much of this until after the interview. That way I’m prepared if it’s not perfect. I consider this a strength, as looking ahead kind of like when you’re defensive driving.

  24. nonny*

    This is a great post. I think this is also why it is so important for those of us who are in what others might consider to be dream jobs to be as honest and forthcoming as we can with our student interns and entry level people about their realistic career prospects and path. I work in the arts field and over the last five years I have tried to temper my encouragement with cold hard facts like “you’ll probably never make more than $30,000 per year in this field, no matter how much experience you have” and “most people in this role stay in it for a long time, so there are only one or two jobs that open per year for applications in our town” and “it’s unlikely having a master’s degree will increase your job prospects at all, so you should really reconsider going to graduate school”. Sometimes I feel bad that I may be crushing their dreams, but ultimately I think it is better to provide a realistic view that no, you can’t just do what you love and the money will follow. Particularly when I see young people taking on a lot of debt for school, or when I am mentoring someone who is working their way out from a disadvantaged background, I really feel I have an obligation to provide them with some realistic perspective.

  25. jesicka309*

    How about having a dream company to work for?

    I have a mental list of about 5 companies that I would LOVE to work for. I have already worked at one of them, and I’m currently working at another. Both are great companies, great culture, great benefits, with the added thrill of being able to say “I work at XYZ TV station!”

    The problem comes when they ask “That sounds super cool, what do you do there?”. I turn into mumble mumble “I put the ads on TV….mumble mumble…very important…mumble…”
    I’d love to move within the org into a job that’s a better fit, as I love working for the company, but it’s just not happening for me, and it’s kind of breaking my heart to have to leave yet ANOTHER company I’ve loved working for.

    :( Has anyone else experienced a dream company, but nightmare position situation? People I speak to about hating my job think I’m crazy!

    1. FreeThinkerTX*

      Whoa, yeah, I’ve been there! I was fortunate to go to work at one of the largest software companies in the world, in Sales, but with one of their contractors/partners. I got to see how the sausage is made, so to speak. And it was ugly. Very, very ugly. All up and down the Sales and Marketing side of things it was one nasty, toxic mess.

      Of the several hundred people I met who worked directly for Large Software Company, only a few were genuinely happy about it. And most of the others moved on to other companies during the two years I was there (and it wasn’t just regular staff, it was managers, directors and VPs, too.) I was grateful to have been able to experience the seamy underside of Large Software Company without going through the trauma of the [very rigorous] interview process, and then quitting (or being fired) within a year or two because I would’ve been a horrible fit for that culture (paranoid, territorial, micro-managing etc.).

      I’ll say this for the experience though – It was where I learned my new work motto, “Just because you can measure it doesn’t mean you should” . . . otherwise known as Murder-Morale-With-Metrics.

    2. Laura L*

      My position isn’t a nightmare, but I definitely like my company more than I like my position. And people often think where I work is really cool, so my position must be as well.

      It’s not a big deal, I’m in an entry level job, so I’m applying for promotions in the department as they open up.

      It looks like you’ve tried moving within the company and it hasn’t worked out, so I guess I don’t have any real advice for you. :-(

      I think you just have to decide which wins out: liking the company or disliking the job?

  26. V*

    Great post, and I just want to point out that it is also highly appropriate for those who might miss out on job openings because the doesn’t look like their “Dream job.”

    I applied to 80 jobs before I got this one. I have to say that it’s as close to “dream job” as I’ve been in my life and I couldn’t be happier – with that said, it was probably one of the jobs that I was least enthusiastic about applying to when I initially saw the ad (within a field that I was enthusiastic about, if that makes sense). I applied anyway.

    I have many friends who cherry-pick job postings when they have no way of knowing whether the job would even be a good fit, let alone a dream job. It’s not smart to get your hopes up about one “dream” job, and it’s also not smart to be picky when applying for jobs because they don’t look like your dream job on paper. Especially when the job description is a 30-line run-on sentence that was pulled out of the HR filing cabinet.

    1. Jen in RO*

      I applied for my current job without even knowing what the role meant, but someone close to me thought I’d be a good fit. It was the only interview I got out of that batch of resumes, I got the job and three years later, I love it! There are issues, of course, we’re understaffed and it’s about to get worse, but I like the work, I like my boss, I have great coworkers and the pay isn’t bad either. I don’t think it gets much dreamier in real life.

    2. Linea*

      Exactly! Same experience here.

      When I was looking for my first post-university job, after an initial unproductive search, I began applying to anything that resembled like a fit to my qualifications (regardless whether it was a “dream employer” or a “dream job”).

      I ended up with an employer I had never heard about previously, eventually doing work that had nothing to do with what was described in the ad – and I LOVED it! It was a fantastic job for me, stimulating, with a great office atmosphere and good bosses.

      Then, after almost 4 years there I felt I had learned everything that job had to offer and there was no room for advancement any more, so I applied for what sounded like a “dream job”. I got it and started 5 months ago, and I must admit, so far I am not impressed. It’s not the job of my dreams after all… :-/

      Thank you, OP, for this fantastic letter!

    3. Jules*

      As a JD writer, you have no idea how hard it is to get managers to cough up the deets. Like seriously?! You are trying to hire someone to help with work. Instead the description can be so generic that it can be anything =_=;

  27. CW*

    From experience, around about the time that you realise you’re in your dream job… someone else has other ideas.

    When you get to that point where everything is running like clockwork and you think, ‘Great, I can take time off here and the operation is running like a dream even when I’m not there… I’m so proud of this team.”

    Someone else is thinking, “Get this guy out of there, we need him somewhere else bigger doing this.”

    And it begins again, striving to have that perfect setup.

  28. danr*

    OP here… Wow. This something that I kept thinking about as I read almost all of the posts in AAM when I found it. I know I missed a few since I kept getting sidetracked to the ‘related’ postings at the end of each one. I’ve kept up, asked a question or two, added comments and asides now and then, and I kept coming back to this. Alison, I know you’ve been thanked many times here… so here’s another. Thank you for spending the time for all of us to come together here and learn from you and each other.

  29. Not So NewReader*

    I always wondered how many people felt their job was their dream job. Probably not many.

    What I am getting out of this- is the talk about loving your job. Well- have been reading lately about “love is a choice, not an emotion.” Next step in logic we could chose to love our jobs. Maybe not. But I think I could put more and more effort into focusing on what is RIGHT about my job.
    I had a job once that I LOOVED. I could not keep the job- too many toxic chemicals. Am still dealing with a small amount of residual damage from that time. The whole thing was a surprise- the fact that I loved it and the fact that I had to let go of it. A roller coaster story on that one.
    The job I lasted longest at was because it fit my life at that point. The hours fit nicely for home, family, etc. I could do the work- all though it was challenging- it was within the range of doable. I wasn’t washing windows from the outside on the 32nd floor. That’s not doable. At that time the pay was okay given my setting.

    I think a person has done well if they land in a job where they use their natural abilities. Everyone does something well. Okay, we have to apply ourselves to find out what we do well. Finding our patterns is a big deal. “I always do well with X task or Y type projects.” Even when things go very badly- if I know that I can figure it out eventually- that is a big deal to me. Learning what areas I consistently do well in has been a huge help.

    1. Elizabeth West*

      I had a job like that too once, where the hours fit and all the people fit, and the workplace fit. It was fun and interesting. Unfortunately, the business closed. :(

      I could not do that job now the way it was. There were no benefits, it was part-time and it paid minimum wage. It would have to be full-time, benefits, and waaaay higher pay scale. My experience has grown, and financial considerations have changed because of the state of the economy. And even then there were things I disliked at the job, but they were far outweighed by the pluses. If I could find another job like it that fit my economic requirements, BOY would I be happy.

  30. Dan*

    I learned about dream jobs when I was right out of college. My first was as an intern, working for Lockheed Martin. I worked with guys who had written code for four different companies (saw the copyrights on the source) but had the same office the whole time. So what’s the company? Your coworkers and your manager. You might have a different paycheck, but the *job* is the same.

    Right out of college I landed an interview with Northrop Grumman. Their people said, “Don’t ask us any questions about Northrop Grumman, we were just acquired last month and are still trying to figure it out ourselves.”

    After grad school, I came across a job posting that was a 100% perfect match for my skills and interests. No joke or exaggeration. At the interview, everybody I talked felt so cold and impersonal. I was hoping they wouldn’t offer me a job, because in 2008, the economy was in the tank, and I couldn’t afford to turn the offer down. But the pay sucked so bad, I couldn’t afford to take it, either. Thankfully, they did not offer me a job. First (and hopefully last) time I’ve ever hoped to be turned down from a job.

    I now work at an awesome job.

  31. Chris*

    I’m not really sure how to think about this. On one hand, its important that you have something to shoot for and don’t “settle”. However, it’s also just as important that the bills get paid. For instance, if you really wanted to play jazz trombone as your dream and felt unhappy because you never pursued it, well, it probably wouldn’t be a bad idea to get some lessons on the side, go to jazz clubs and meet some musicians, and see if you can hopefully get some chances to perform on the side. If you find you hate practicing (one of my teachers mentioned that professionals would spend weeks perfecting ordinary whole notes), then quit. But if you still find it awesome, you should find some way of getting involved (although, that same teacher mentioned that you have to be either the best of the best (Louis Armstrong, Charlie Parker), or be unique and adapt (Miles Davis)).

    Maybe this affects me personally because someone I am close to quit their dream due to real life circumstances (“I quit following my dream to become a lawyer because I needed to work so I could feed and educate my kids.”). I don’t know how to put it: that person never really seemed to follow any sort of passion since.

    1. Chris*

      -hit submit accidentally-

      I guess the whole point of life is to keep finding hobbies or things that make you happy. It doesn’t have to be your job; If you discover that building 3-D printers or clay sculptures or making a better Castle Crashers or bowling, then you should find time for those things. If you find those things no longer make you happy, find other things.

      Regarding “dream companies”, I can safely say that there definitely more companies that put more effort and success into their work than others. SpaceX, for instance, builds everything in-house including engines and the actual spacecraft, and are additionally able to keep their launch costs cheap. With the Falcon 9/Dragon launch and rendezvous in May, they have been shown to have a functional working product, which opens up the door to contracts and other things.

      Anyway, my point, at the college career fairs I’ve been to [another day we can talk about my experiences with “college career fairs” vs “adult/grown up career fairs” as everything is different], the “SpaceX” line has been about as long as a roller coaster ride at an amusement park. With good reason: The students want to work with a company that has a clear agenda and is doing something big. And the 2 people that I know got internships there; One of them was captain of the school robotics club and custom designed a certain “device”, and the other was one of the best welders in the school, co-founded a club, and won an international competition and a large monetary prize based on what that club did (Don’t want to reveal too much information as it’s easy to Google and figure out who certain people are, and I’d rather protect their privacy.). I had a friend of mine, who had been to one of their plants and was incredibly impressed with their in-house work, mention that “if they had a janitor position open, he would take it.”

      In short, there are dream companies that people would kill to work for, and the more people that hold them as dream companies, the tougher it is to get in. And, well, the advice is probably the same as the above: keep trying new things and find hobbies that make you happy. If it’s not your job, it should be some outside things you like to do. Isn’t that what life really is all about?

  32. BW*

    Thank you for this post and response! I cringe everytime I see a reader say “dream job”. I’m thinking “You only read a job posting!” Even if you think you know a company or it has a great rep, you just don’t really know what it will be like to work there everyday until you work there everyday.

    Of course being over 30 (as mentioned in my comment to the person who gets treated like a teen at work), maybe I’m old and jaded. ;)

  33. Jobber*

    This sounds like people who’ve been divorced complaining about how people getting married are so naive. If all of your dream jobs didn’t work out, the common factor is you, not the job. I’m sure the job sucked, but maybe you need to do more research, ask more questions, get to know the people working there, etc. before you declare something a “dream job.”

  34. Sally*

    Two years into college, I thought I knew what my dream job was. I spent the rest of college preparing for it, got the job right before graduating, and was really good at it. And I HATED it. Ten years later, I’m doing totally different work that sounds dull as hell on paper, but it’s interesting to me, I learn something every day, and I work with great people in a great culture. I wouldn’t call it a dream job, but I do think it enables me to live something close to a dream life, for me.

  35. Pauline*

    My dream job is to work for myself. Before that, it was a job that paid decently and was close to home to limit the commute. Apart from that I don’t think I would be happier working at a cool start up than in a boring office. At least in the normal office you go home at 5, while the cool start up lures you with pizza nights so you stay until 10pm.

  36. Burgundy*

    I spent 4 years building a business on the side because I thought it would be my “forever dream job” and I would never do anything else…. After going at it full time for a year I realize that working from home isn’t all I thought it would be!

    At the beginning of the year I decided to go back into the workforce and just found a new job last week (part in thanks to the advice I’ve received here!) At first I found myself over-analyzing whether or not the job would be perfect, but during the interview I got a good feeling of working with a competent team of really nice people. I can’t wait to get started!

  37. Starry Eyed*

    Sure enough, my dream job turned out to be a dud. Not because it was “bad”, but the job was undefined, without clear assignments. Ignored danger signs of a job without purpose, with a company having no clearly stated mission. Although from all appearances prosperous, actually had serious financial problems (small privately held). So cut in mass layoff some months later. Worst of all, turned down what in retrospect would have been a much better position. Set my career back several years.

  38. Jerry*

    In my opinion, a dream job is a job that you don’t necessarily like going too, but you don’t mind or have a feeling of resistance/negativity towards going there. In other words, it doesn’t drain your mental or physical energy from just the thought that you have to go there. You feel fine going there. They say, “you have to work tomorrow,” You just think, “alright, that’s fine” and you truly feel it. At the end of the day a jobs a job and you have to do something to make a living. It may not be a very high standard of what a dream job is, but it’s realistic. We all would like to be able to sit on our butts watching tv and pigging out all day while getting paid for it, but that’s unrealistic in most circumstances.

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