Is It Worth It?

What it means to have a ‘dirty’ job

by Denise Wrestler

I am the lucky winner of a magazine lottery. I didn’t sign up for it or enter a drawing, but apparently I have been chosen to receive various issues of random magazines. Every month like clockwork an issue (or two or three) of a popular magazine appears in my mailbox. Other than my precious monthly issue of QP, these magazines usually make their way to the recycle bin.

But recently, as I scoffed at an erroneously received issue of GQ, something on the cover caught my eye—a small caption near the bottom that read "Internet Janitor." Intrigued, I opened the magazine to read about what the position of internet janitor entails.

Opportunity of a lifetime

The article, written by Lucas Peterson, was about when the author was a young man straight out of grad school and was presented with a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to join Google as an intern.1 The internship was classified as one of the "dirtiest" jobs out there—combing through everything bad on the internet and reporting it to Google.

Peterson’s title was quality evaluator and his responsibilities included perusing hours of online material and scouring the shady corners of the internet in the name of improving search and ad quality for Google. He was the quality department of the world wide web, mopping up the mud the internet tracked in.

Peterson quickly learned the reality of what his job responsibilities fully entailed—watching videos and viewing images posted online that had been flagged as inappropriate. What exactly gets flagged as inappropriate? How long did he have to watch a video before he could determine whether it was actually inappropriate? What are the guidelines for determining what is "dirty" and should be removed, and what is "clean" and can stay?

Although some people may see surfing the internet as a 20-something-year-old’s dream job, it quickly turned into a nightmare. Over time, Peterson’s job duties morphed from watching mildly offensive material to much darker content.

Do you have a dirty job?

Most people likely don’t want to be an internet janitor, but what about careers in the quality assurance (QA) field? Do you have what someone might consider a dirty job? What is a dirty job, anyway?

Most people assume a dirty job is simply one that involves unpleasant materials—the QA technicians who handle bodily fluid samples all day, the R&D scientists who clean the cages during animal studies, or the QA associates who work for the city and are required to spend hours upon hours inside sewer lines, for example.

But dirty jobs aren’t just those that deal with dirty materials. A dirty job causes you to think about your job in a negative or unproductive way, even outside of work. A dirty job causes stress—it takes away from your home and family life. It doesn’t just entail day-to-day unpleasantries in the lab or at the office, but also muddies other areas of your life.

Tossing and turning in bed for hours late at night, worrying about work-related issues that are out of your control. Waking up in the morning physically drained, dragging your feet from lack of sleep and lack of motivation to complete yet another eight-hour day at work. These are all side effects of a job that might be considered dirty.

It’s important to evaluate how you feel about your job and how it affects you physically and mentally, and determine whether you might be headed toward a dirty job. Although the position of internet janitor might horrify even the strongest of us, all kinds of dirty jobs exist—and they aren’t always obvious.

Is it worth it?

Most people would wonder why anyone would want to stay at a dirty job. Although Peterson’s low-paying, entry-level internship was less than desirable, he hoped it would turn into a permanent position at one of the most prestigious tech organizations in the world. And for him, that was worth it—at least for a while.

Similarly, many quality professionals stick with their dirty job because they hope it will eventually improve or lead to something better—a raise, a promotion or valuable experience.

Would Peterson have made it his career if Google paid him handsomely for his work or if he was offered a different, permanent job after six months?

What would happen if you put a time limit on your dirty job? How about a cost? Would you continue to bear a dirty job if you knew it had an expiration date? Would you overlook the unpleasantries of your dirty job if the money was right? At some point in their careers, every individual must consider these same things.

Eventually, Peterson started to lose sleep and became depressed. The images he saw day in and day out became too much, and one day he left work and never went back. For him, the cost and time invested in hopes of gaining something bigger in his career weren’t worth it anymore.

Lasting effects

I’d never considered the psychological toll a dirty job could have on someone’s wellbeing until I read about the internet janitor. Peterson’s story left an impression on me and made me evaluate not just my own situation but my loved ones, friends and family who also might be enduring a dirty job.

What do you do when you realize you have a dirty job? Do you have tools in place to address it? Many people find that simply talking with their supervisors will "clean" the issues they face with their job duties and workplace. Employers across the world are trending their work cultures toward ensuring employee happiness because time and time again, it has been proven that happy employees make for a more productive and profitable enterprise. Readjusting hours, job duties, projects and other stress-causing attributes not only benefits the employee, but the organization as well.

Not all organizations can be flexible and address every employee issue, so how do you know when it’s time to leave a dirty job? How can you gauge the point at which the psychological damage from your job is irreversible, despite your efforts to correct or ease it? Not only must you perform a risk analysis and weigh the pros and cons of your career, but you also must consider the short and long-term psychological effects it will have on you. The road to the optimal work-life balance can be a rocky one. It is up to you to determine how long you’re willing to travel it before you must find a different route.


Denise Wrestler is an independent quality assurance/regulatory assurance consultant for CYA Medical Device Consulting in Dallas. She holds a bachelor’s degree in chemical and biomedical engineering from the University of California, Irvine. An ASQ member, Wrestler is an ASQ-certified quality auditor and engineer.

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