High school guidance counselors don't have a clue. Remember that career match survey you took during your senior year? You filled in a bunch of bubbles, ranking various tedious activities from one to 10, and out popped a list of potential soul-crushing careers: sanitation removal specialist, retail sales associate, freelance writer. What a crock.
The truth is that the world is filled with an endless variety of weird and wonderful jobs that have never appeared on a career survey. There are people whose job is to rappel down the faces of Mount Rushmore filling in the cracks on Teddy Roosevelt's nose. Other folks spend their entire lives searching for petrified pieces of dinosaur poop. And what about the lucky stiffs who get to taste test chocolate, beer, ice cream and the occasional can of cat food? What college major did their guidance counselors recommend?
We've scoured the globe to uncover 10 of the most fascinating and bizarre jobs imaginable. Maybe one is right for you!
Karen Chin has gotten used to the jokes. As one of the world's leading paleoscatologists, she sits in her lab at the University of Colorado Boulder painstakingly dissecting and testing Tyrannosaurus Rex turds. The fossilized poop of extinct predators, Chin explains, contains exciting information about the ecosystems of bygone epochs. Matching a poop rock with its owner — or "poopetrator," as Chin joked to a publication — isn't easy, but she's been honing her skills for 20 years.
Fossilized excrement is called a coprolite, Greek for "dung" and "stone." Coprolites dating back to the dinosaurs are incredibly rare, since insects (cockroaches, mainly) or the elements typically break down the fecal matter before it can fossilize [source: Eveleth]. Due to the scarcity of specimens, and the raised eyebrows at dinner parties, Chin is one of only a handful of paleoscatologists worldwide [source: Strickland].
If you're interested in joining this small but fascinating field of scientific inquiry, follow Chin's lead and get a Ph.D. in geological sciences. Then you, too, can be called Dr. Dino Poop behind your back.
In China, where funerals are elaborate, highly ritualized affairs, the tradition of hiring professional mourners has been around for more than 2,000 years. In 2013, NPR News ran a profile on Dingding Mao, one of the "top professional mourners" in southwestern China, famous for her theatrical and ear-numbing kusang, a deafening combination of crying and singing that forms the centerpiece of any respectable Chinese funeral.
In neighboring Taiwan, 30-year-old Liu Jun-Lin performs a similar role, filling in as the "filial daughter" for a deceased mother or father. She and her brother perform elaborate costumed dance numbers before Liu performs her signature wail, crawling toward the coffin and pleading with the deceased loved one — whom she never knew, of course — to come back home [source: Jaynes].
While the idea of hired criers hasn't quite caught on in the West, the career prospects for aspiring mourners are picking up. In England, a company called Rent a Mourner supplies "professional, polite, well dressed individuals" to swell the numbers at poorly attended funerals and wakes.
And in the U.S., the Golden Gate Funeral Home in Fort Worth, Texas hires boisterous extras to get the tears flowing at its flashy "home-going celebrations," as chronicled in the TLC docudrama "Best Funeral Ever."
Necessity, Plato wrote, is the mother of invention. It is also, in certain cases, the mother of unbelievably weird and disgusting jobs. In the world of commercial chicken hatcheries, it is necessary to quickly and efficiently determine the sex of thousands of newborn chicks. Egg companies pay good money for chicks, and tiny roosters are useless to them.
The trouble is that chicken genitalia are notoriously difficult to find, especially on fluffy newborn chicks. The solution is a technique honed in the 1930s in Japan called "venting," in which the chicken sexer literally squeezes the crap out of the day-old chick in order to get a good view of its, uh, goods. Tiny bumps indicate a male, while a flat surface is female.
Japanese chicken sexers are employed at hatcheries around the world, prized for their uncanny ability to squeeze and sort 8,000 chicks a day at 99.7 percent accuracy. Despite generous salaries — up to $15,000 a month — and international travel, the chicken sexing profession is slumping in Japan, leaving room for enterprising youngsters around the world to step into this lucrative, if ludicrous profession [source: Slodkowski].
This profession is the very embodiment of "unique." Life and death are partners, yet we spend very little time thinking about the way in which we, or our loved ones, would want to die. "At peace" is the most common refrain. But what does being at peace feel like, look like, or sound like?
For Therese Schroeder-Sheker, it sounds like a harp. Schroeder-Sheker is a professional harpist and soprano who spent time in her 20s working as an orderly in a nursing home. As she watched patients pass away, often without dignity or comfort, she intuitively conceived of a new method of palliative care called "prescriptive music," using harp and voice to respond to the many physical changes that accompany death [source: Schoeder-Sheker].
Practitioners of prescriptive music call themselves music-thanologists — "thanology" being the scientific study of death. In their bedside vigils, music-thanologists employ music not as a distraction, but as a soothing response — a "cure" even — to the physical pains and emotional anguish of a sick or dying person.
What makes music-thanologists truly unique is that they all play the harp. And why? On her website, Schroeder-Sheker says it has nothing to do with the classical image of harp-playing angels, but with the portability and polyphonic range of the instrument.
In 2002, photographer Nancy Rica Schiff published a brilliant book of black-and-white images captured during her decades-long fascination with the strangest jobs in America. The cover of the book, appropriately titled "Odd Jobs," features a photograph of a middle-aged woman in a white lab coat scientifically and methodically sniffing the armpit of a shirtless man.
The brave woman was Betty Lyons, professional odor judge at Hill Top Research in Cincinnati, Ohio. A 35-year veteran of the company, which conducts scientific odor testing of soaps, shampoos, skin products, and yes, deodorants, Lyons was trained to classify odors on a stink scale of 1 to 10. Among the unenviable tasks of an odor judge is to test the before and after effects of breath-freshening mouthwash and the stench-squashing power of scented cat litters [source: The Guardian].
How do you get started in such a profession? Lyons was introduced to the research lab as a subject and leapt into the pit-sniffing gig after a year of specialized training. Salary estimates for an odor judge range between $19,000 and $52,000, but the benefits stink [source: Mason]. Yes, that was a joke.
Nancy Rica Schiff's first photo collection was so popular that she published a follow-up collection in 2006 called "Even Odder Jobs." A popular theme running through both books is the plight of the product tester.
Consider Daniel Raudabaugh, a handsome upstanding young man who tests tampons eight hours a day. When photographer Rica Schiff met him, Raudabaugh was working for First Quality Enterprises in Pennsylvania, a manufacturer of feminine hygiene and other personal care products. First Quality churned out between 1 and 2 million tampons a day and it was Raudabaugh's job to spot-check around 100 specimens for features like absorbency, head projection and cord strength [source: The Guardian].
If you're interested in this unusual line of work, First Quality has job openings for experienced lab technicians to assist in the development and testing of "Personal Care Absorbent Product" prototypes. Just think of the conversations at your next high school reunion!
No, this is not the premise of a "Saturday Night Live" sketch. Animal chiropractors are 100 percent for real. Just ask the American Veterinary Chiropractic Association, the certifying body for trained doctors of chiropractic specializing in the misaligned spines of cats, dogs and horses. The association has certified more than 1,100 people in this field since 1989.
Chiropractors use a series of manual adjustments to bring the vertebrae of the spine and other joints into alignment to allow for the unrestricted function of the nervous system. If it works for humans — relieving chronic pain, increasing range of motion — then why can't it work on animals?
Well, for one thing, animals can't talk. So it takes a very sensitive and experienced veterinary chiropractor to recognize and diagnose areas of pain, sensitivity and stiffness. Animal chiropractors are graduates of training and certification programs like the pioneering Options for Animals College of Animal Chiropractic in Wellsville, Kansas.
Horse chiropractors are in the most demand, making house calls (stable calls, technically) to adjust giant spines of thousand-pound animals. Annual salaries for horse chiropractors range from $40,000 to $85,000 [source: SalaryExpert].
The world's largest single depository of gold bars is not held at the famous Fort Knox, but in a Goliath vault 80 feet (24 meters) below the streets of Manhattan. The golden horde of roughly 530,000 gold bars is maintained by the Federal Reserve Bank of New York on behalf of account holders including the U.S. government, foreign governments and central banks worldwide [source: FRBNY].
The Federal Reserve Bank of New York isn't your regular bank and armored truckloads of gold bars aren't your regular deposit. To move this valuable and heavy currency — each gold bar weighs 27.4 pounds (12.4 kilograms) — the bank employs teams of gold stackers who work in shifts to avoid fatigue. Each stacker also wears magnesium-tipped boots ($500 a pair) to protect toes from dropped booty [source: Klisz].
There's also no sleeping on this job. At the end of the workday, the single entrance to the vault is sealed off by a 9-foot (3-meter)-tall, 90-ton (82 metric-ton) steel cylinder that locks into place with four steel rods and cannot be opened until the morning [source: FRBNY].
The subway and commuter rail system in Tokyo is a study in mass transit-induced claustrophobia. Legendary for its fierce efficiency, the Tokyo rail system packs in rush-hour commuters like sardines, where it's not an uncommon site to see passengers so compressed that their feet don't touch the ground.
The job of cramming human beings into subways cars has been performed by white-gloved oshiya, or "pushers," since the 1950s [source: Said-Moorhouse]. Watching the oshiya at work — as in this amateur video posted on YouTube — is like watching a hippo trying to squeeze into a pair of skinny jeans. The passengers are forcefully, if politely, shoved into the cars, careful not to catch any loose clothing or pinky fingers in the closing doors.
In addition to their people-pushing duties, the Oshiya look out for passenger safety and help people safely board and exit the cars. In response to a rash of groping incidents, Tokyo rail trains now include one or more women-only cars.
Stroll down the streets of any major city and take a good hard look at the condition of the sidewalk. For every square foot of concrete, you will find a dozen or more sickly black smudges, the smeared and petrified remains of billions of carelessly spat wads of chewing gum.
Sidewalk gum stains are such an eyesore that companies have sprung up to perform the unenviable task of scouring the sticky refuse from the streets. Gumbusting professionals arm themselves with custom pressure washers that shoot out jets of superheated steam — plus a proprietary chemical blend — to soften and dissolve globs of 25-year-old Bubblicious. The process is painstaking, requiring three to five seconds of concentrated steam per wad of fossilized gum [source: Bhattarai].
Duane Cummins, owner of Gumbusters D.C., steams up enough gum in the nation's capital to earn upward of $100,000 a year [source: Bhattarai]. But before you run out and invest your life savings in a door-to-door gumblasting business, read through this eye-opening account of one gum entrepreneur's regretful experience in Los Angeles.
For lots more lists of dirty and otherwise dreadful jobs, check out the related HowStuffWorks articles on the next page.
How can you get out of giving a professional reference if you don't want to? HowStuffWorks has some tips.
Author's Note: 10 Unique Careers You Won't Believe Exist
My job didn't even exist when I was a senior in high school. Sure, there were freelance writers and journalists, but there was no such thing as the Internet. There was absolutely no way for my guidance counselor to predict the massive technological shifts that were going to permanently disrupt the publishing and entertainment industries, allowing a doofus like me to sit at home in my pajamas writing articles on every subject imaginable while never stepping foot in a library. When my kids talk about what they want to be when they grow up, they usually go for the classics: veterinarian, teacher, mommy. But what they don't know is that the employment options available to them in 15 years might look very different from today. Their future career might not even exist. What college major would best prepare you for being a sanitation removal specialist on Mars?
- Bhattarai, Abha, "This company un-gums the works." The Washington Post. April 12, 2012 (Jan. 6, 2015) http://www.washingtonpost.com/business/capitalbusiness/this-company-un-gums-the-works/2012/03/30/gIQAl7vnpS_story.html
- Darcy Ward, DC. "Pricing" (Jan. 2, 2015) http://animalchiropractornc.com/Pricing/
- Equipment Trade Service Co. "Dominator Gumblaster Twin V – Gum Removal Machine" (Jan. 2, 2015) http://www.shopetsonline.com/Dominator-Gumblaster-Twin-V-p/gumblaster_twin_v.htm
- Eveleth, Rose. "Dinosaur Poop is Harder to Find Than It Should Be." Smithsonian. Jan. 6, 2014 (Jan. 2, 2015) http://www.smithsonianmag.com/smart-news/dinosaur-poop-is-harder-to-find-than-it-should-be-180948246/?no-ist
- Federal Reserve Bank of New York. "Gold Vault" (Jan. 2, 2015) http://www.ny.frb.org/aboutthefed/goldvault.html
- First Quality. "Lab Technician" (Jan. 2, 2015) https://ch.tbe.taleo.net/CH06/ats/careers/requisition.jsp?org=FIRSTQUALITY&cws=1&rid=1246
- The Guardian. "The world's oddest jobs – in pictures." Nov. 11, 2013 (Jan. 2, 2015) http://www.theguardian.com/artanddesign/gallery/2013/nov/11/worlds-oddest-jobs-in-pictures
- Jaynes, Allie. "Taiwan's most famous professional mourner." BBC News. Feb. 25, 2013 (Jan. 2, 2015) http://www.bbc.com/news/magazine-21479399
- Keene, Allison. "Best Funeral Ever: TV Review." The Hollywood Reporter. Jan. 4, 2013 (Jan. 2, 2015) http://www.hollywoodreporter.com/review/tlc-best-funeral-ever-tv-407382
- Klisz, Tom. "The Federal Reserve Bank of New York: A Fortress of Gold." The Michigan State Numismatic Society. Fall 2010 (Jan. 2, 2015) http://www.michigancoinclub.org/articles23.html
- Lim, Louisa. "Belly Dancing for the Dead: A Day With China's Top Mourner." NPR. June 26, 2013 (Jan. 2, 2015) http://www.npr.org/2013/06/26/195565696/belly-dancing-for-the-dead-a-day-with-chinas-top-mourner
- Mason, Barbara. "Jobs that Really Stink." LiveCareer (Jan. 6, 2015) http://www.livecareer.com/career-tips/job-market/jobs-that-stink
- Rent a Mourner. "About Us" (Jan. 2, 2015) http://www.rentamourner.co.uk/
- Said-Moorhouse, Lauren. "How to survive Tokyo's subway sandwich." Oct. 29, 2012 (Jan. 2, 2015) http://www.cnn.com/2012/10/26/world/asia/tokyo-travel-subway/
- SalaryExpert. "Animal Chiropractor Salaries" (Jan. 6, 2015) http://www.salaryexpert.com/index.cfm?fuseaction=browse.animal-chiropractor-salary-data-details&cityid=300&positionid=111095
- Schroeder-Sheker, Therese. "The First Vigil: The Birth of Music-Thanatology." Chalice of Repose Project (Jan. 2, 2015) http://chaliceofrepose.org/first-vigil/
- Slodkowski, Antoni. "Chicken sexers in Japan lament the decline of an industry." Reuters. Aug. 31, 2010 (Jan. 2, 2015) http://www.reuters.com/article/2010/08/31/oukoe-uk-jobs-chickens-idAFTRE67U0QY20100831
- Strickland, Eliza. "Reading the Book of Life in Prehistoric Dung." Nautilus. Nov. 14, 2013 (Jan. 2, 2015) http://nautil.us/issue/7/waste/reading-the-book-of-life-in-prehistoric-dung