#609: Tips for finding the first rung on the career ladder.

Greetings Captain!

I’m having a hell of a time trying to decide what to do with my life. I would like a career that suits me, but the problem is I have no real skills.

Some backstory: I graduated with my BA in 2011 from a small school that no one has ever heard of. My degree is basically useless and no one takes it seriously. After attaining my BA, my passion for the subject is virtually non-existent. I tried everything I could think of to get started in my career at that time: internships, networking, attending conferences, etc. Nothing worked. I would like to go back to school, but after having such a negative experience with my current degree, I’m terrified that it will happen to me all over again. This is going to sound pretty weird but, if I went back for a second degree, I’d probably go for a law or film degree. I am very passionate about both subjects.

Unfortunately, I’ve had many people tell me that going back to school is a horrible idea. They are probably right because I would have to pay for everything out of pocket again (I’ve never been eligible for any grants or scholarships despite graduating on time with honors.) Something keeps pushing me to try though. I’ve visited numerous colleges over the past few years, I even got close to going back for my master’s. But every time I am about to pull the trigger, I freeze up and the doubt creeps back in. I fear that maybe I just don’t have what it takes anymore.

My only bankable skill is my ability to communicate with just about anyone. This led me to take on retail/sales jobs for eight years which I hated immensely. My current job is very demanding and I work 50-60 hours a week, but I am NOT going back to retail. I would love to just start over somewhere new and have no issue with relocating. However, my fiancé’s career here has really taken off and we can’t leave just yet. Besides, where would we go?  I live paycheck to paycheck now because I don’t have the qualifications for a better paying job. I doubt I could attain a better job elsewhere until I have more education/experience.

So I guess my ultimate question is this: what skills have helped you the most in your life? What would you recommend to someone who is super lost and doesn’t know how to continue? What steps should I take to build up my qualifications? How did you decide which steps to take in your life that have led you to a successful career?


Mad (that I have no) Skills

Dear Mad:

As an adjunct college teacher who has been rejected from many many full-time positions, I don’t know if I’m the poster-child for “success” in careers, but I’ve worked a lot of different things and I’m good at getting my foot in the door and then getting at least one or two levels up. So, I am talking to you and also to anyone who is in college now:

For the most part, your undergrad liberal-arts-and-sciences major does not and will not line up to any specific entry level job. That is not even the point of that kind of degree. I wish everyone would stop saying that it is, and that degrees that don’t match up to or train you for specific jobs are ‘useless.’ A degree can be a good credential, but having a degree and having marketable job skills are not quite the same thing. So make sure you pick up skills (editing, writing, designing, making, planning, administering, promoting, selling) as you go, and make sure you learn how to package and translate those skills for employers. 

I wrote more on that theme here, if you’re interested.

I realize everything sucks right now in the economy and it’s all internships forever, so I don’t want to say you can get hired or tell you it’s easy to find work where you live. However, as a recentish college grad with good communication skills and a history of being employed at several different things, you can apply for many kinds of jobs in many fields without throwing up red flags. Titles to look for:

  • Project Assistant
  • Editorial Assistant
  • Communications Assistant
  • Development Assistant (as someone with a sales background, you could fundraise like no one’s business, I bet!)
  • Production Assistant (in film, which you say you are interested in, and do NOT need a degree in to work in).
  • Research Assistant
  • Marketing Assistant
  • Legal Assistant (which you are also interested in, and do not need a specific degree in for an entry level position)

For “assistant”, also substitute “coordinator”, “administrator”, and “associate.”

As an undergraduate student, I analyzed first person historical texts and wrote papers on the constant visibility & performance & enforcement of femininity required by British women during the Raj. I studied comparative mythology, and wrote papers on the myth of the Virgin Mary and about the eerily similar iconography of depictions of The Annunciation and Leda & The Swan. I went to Prague and studied art and architecture and theater and the history of Judaism in East Central Europe. I learned about the history of jazz. I learned about Islam & Politics, strategic weapons negotiation, the history of political philosophy, the location and nature of every country that had become independent and of border dispute since 1900, and four semesters of economics, too.

People have never paid me to know about or do anything relating to any of those things. In office environments (non-profit, management consulting, public relations companies, foreign aid), in the beginning, people paid me to:

  • Unfuck the fax machine
  • Unfuck the copier
  • Unfuck the database
  • Unfuck the printer
  • Unfuck _________ (whatever thing someone else doesn’t want to deal with).
  • Write web copy and do very light HTML coding in a content management system for internal company website.
  • Resize things in Photoshop so they look good on the web or in print
  • Write & proofread newsletters
  • Write letter letters
  • Write meeting minutes
  • Remember tons of boring shit
  • Do expense reports
  • Generate invoices
  • Put those invoices in the mail
  • Keep track of when the invoices got paid and make calls if they did not
  • Send mass mailings
  • Mail packages and do order fulfillment
  • Collate responses to mass mailings
  • Plan meetings (find out schedules of important people, set meeting dates, remind people about the meetings, make there be food & appropriate tech at the meetings, take notes at the meetings).
  • Answer phones
  • Order catering
  • Take coffee orders and bring back the correct stuff
  • Go to the store and bring back the correct stuff
  • Order office supplies
  • Back up the server
  • Make sure people can connect to the web
  • Call people on the phone and verify information
  • Factchecking and web research
  • Transcription and logging of dictation and interviews
  • File things in the correct files
  • Event & conference planning and support. Did the banners get ordered? Did the binders of materials get made and copied? Did the agenda get distributed? Does the hotel know we need x thing?
  • Take boss’s scribbled notes and thoughts and turn them into PowerPoint presentations
  • Know Word, Excel, Powerpoint, some Photoshop, some HTML, some Access, type fast & without errors

I was in no way passionate about any of these activities, but I was pretty passionate about putting food on my table and about learning, and these things fit the bill. Have you ever done any of those things, in any capacity? Do these things sound like things you can learn how to do, if you were shown, say, once or twice, or if you had to Google how to do them? Then you have skills you need to work any kind of entry level white collar job. Oh, btw, you work in sales? Well, you do something that I can’t do and that a lot of people can’t do. That is a very valuable skill.

When I showed that I was good at that stuff, I would do more interesting work, like:

  • Create budgets and timelines for projects and manage them.
  • Go on research trips.
  • Write requests for proposals and evaluate incoming proposals.
  • Design training programs and itineraries.
  • Write subsections of proposals.
  • Over time, write the main section of proposals.
  • Write press releases.
  • Write web copy for external audiences.
  • Recruit people for overseas assignments and handle all the logistics of sending them on those assignments.
  • Set up field offices, acquire space, office furniture and equipment, and hire and train new staff.
  • Go to lots and lots of meetings.
  • Over time, run some of those meetings.
  • More event planning & conference support. Lots more.
  • Document processes and help create manuals.

These are all communications-y things to do at a job that can apply to many employers. I went to Idealist.org just now and plugged in assistant and came up with a job like this. I don’t know if that job is where you live or if you want that job, but you could do that job and anything like it.

My classes in undergrad taught me to read deeply and widely, to formulate arguments, to investigate hypotheses, and to write and write and write.

My part-time jobs and time running music and theater stuff taught me the rest, like, hey, when I was a senior I organized the D.C. A Capella Fest, recruiting groups, managing their housing, doing publicity, handling ticket sales and money, and making sure 2 sold-out shows in a 750-seat theater ran smoothly and made money. My work study job taught me to do data entry, light office work, and support event planning. My waitressing jobs taught me to deal with people and work in a fast-paced environment. My degree was one line on my resume. These other things were the skills I had to sell.

No one hiring me for office-y type work OR to work on a set has ever given a single shit about my GPA or even my major. They cared about:

  • Could I make the case that I had done something related before, or that I could pick up whatever it is quickly?
  • Did I show up on time, wearing the right stuff, and seem willing to learn and personable to be around?
  • If someone asked me a challenging question in an interview, I brazened through it. “I haven’t done that exact thing before, but I have done x related thing/similarly complex thing and if you teach me I would be happy to learn.” This is the answer they want to hear, btw. If this question makes you apology-spiral about how you are not good enough, they will believe you that you can’t.

Without seeing the job descriptions that you’re applying for or your resume, here is some blanket advice I can give about job searching for people at the beginning of their career:

  • Rework your resume so that it is more skill-based and less academic-based. Quantify everything you can, i.e. “Shift lead for retail store doing $X in business/day, supervised Y employees. Responsible for cash reconciliation and bank deposits, making the schedule, ensuring coverage, fulfilling online and phone orders, and handling customer complaints and special requests.” “Sales associate in X industry, handling Y number of accounts, clearing $Z in revenue annually.” This is one of the ways academia fails young job seekers, I think, because the stuff that is prestigious inside school doesn’t really translate outside of school. So people play up their GPA and their prestigious prizes and downplay their work experience from “crappy” first jobs, to their cost.
  • Make a LinkedIn profile, friend lots of people, get a nice photo. Look at the LinkedIn profiles of people you admire to get an idea of how to do this well.
  • Have your college’s career office look at your resume & profile, if possible. It’s part of their job, they won’t think it’s weird.
  • Make sure you have some kind of social media presence that you wouldn’t mind employers seeing if they search for you.
  • If you have any writing clips or anything that constitutes a portfolio of work, organize it nicely in a way that a stranger could understand what everything is and access it quickly. You never know when someone may ask to see it.
  • What companies are in your area that seem like they are good places to work? By which I mean, they pay well, hire often, easy commute, mostly not evil. Since you don’t know what you want to do, don’t look for “passion” right now, look for a starting point at a company you’d be proud/happy to work for. (Hint for you, Salesperson Extraordinaire. Where do your favorite clients work? The ones who love you? They are part of your network now.)
  • Do they have any entry or mid-level communications jobs advertised on their site?
  • Read lots of job ads that look interesting to you. What buzzwords or skills are they asking for? Any way for you to pick that stuff up on the fly (free class online, tutorials, training session, have a friend show you)?
  • You’re a communicator? Cool. Adapt your resume to highlight the most relevant experience and make a sweet cover letter that explains why you would be good at doing that job. Match what they say they need to what you’ve done.
  • Try to find someone you know who does something similar or who knows the company. Have them look at your materials and talk you through what the day-to-day is like. This can be tremendously confidence-building.
  • Do not apologize for where you went to school or your major. Stop describing yourself as a person with no skills. Do not denigrate sales, your retail work or any work you’ve ever done. Other people can be assholes and look down on all of that stuff if they want to, please do not do their work for them. One of the benefits of a college degree is that you’ve theoretically been taught to extrapolate and apply skills and methods of thinking to multiple situations. Extrapolate! You don’t have to have done exactly that thing before.
  • Be really really nice to yourself.

If you are interested in film, look on Craigslist or at local film festivals and find a movie that’s shooting locally. Volunteer to work on it in some capacity in your free time. You need zero degree or experience to get started. If people like you, they’ll want to show you how to do things and they’ll want to keep working with you. You’ll do it for free a few times. In the meantime, read everything you can, go to No Film School and Film School Rejects to pick up the lingo, and pretty soon you won’t be doing it for free anymore. If you can learn sound recording/get good at editing and sound design, specifically, you’ll start making money before almost any other crew position. If you want to direct, when you feel ready, make your own movies. Shazam! You’re a filmmaker! It’s a field where people talk their way in at the entry levels and then prove themselves in order to stay. You don’t need another degree to do it. You just have to want it bad enough to work for free at the very beginning on indie projects and the best way to figure that out is to jump in. This is how I started making movies. Local filmmakers were good at writing and directing. I was good at talking people into unwise favors and herding money and people toward deadlines. “Helping out” quickly became “associate producer/production manager/casting assistant.” I went to film school only after I produced several films and realized that I wanted to write and direct as well. School was a way for me to level up my skills and make a lot of work in a compressed time period, but I would have done it with or without school.

If you are interested in law, and want to be a lawyer, that does involve more school. But you could look for administrative/office jobs at law firms to get your feet wet and figure out if you like the environment and the work before you commit to law school.

If the thought of going back to school really entices you, what if you could go for free? Or for cheap? Or part-time, at your own pace? Apply to all of the colleges and universities near you not as a student but as a worker, and see if they offer tuition remission for their employees. You could work in admissions and recruitment (that sales background would make you very attractive there). You could do administrative work. You could work for a department.

Again, I don’t want to be cavalier or dismissive about how much the employment environment sucks for young people right now or act like any of this is easy. It’s hard to transition fields. It’s hard to look for jobs when you’re exhausted after a 60 hour week in the trenches. But you have skills, and I think you can stop underselling them and I think you can let go of the idea that you have failed somehow if your school wasn’t a direct launching pad to exactly the kind of work you want to do. It’s okay not to know what kind of work you want to do. It’s okay not to have a mission statement. “I want to do something in the communications field, where I can write some and learn as much as I can” = good enough to go! If you’ve worked a busy retail or sales job, you can help an association run their annual conference and you can get the annual report collated and out the door.

I hope this was helpful in some way. Nobody broke this down for me when I was an undergraduate flailing about. Like, I knew that “careers” existed, and that I should want one but I did not understand what the actual day-to-day work was, especially at the bottom rungs. I was very invested in a model of “prestige” and taught to scorn entry level work as beneath me, while also internalizing sermons about the value of “paying my dues” (which is it, World?). I was smart, so people assumed I would figure it out, and I did eventually figure some of it out, but I did so much later and so much more “from scratch” than many of my peers. Ah, the joys of trying to finish college when you have a mental illness. So it’s a privilege to be able to break some of it down for others. I used to write resumes for people, and the job was 15% writing and formatting and 85% LOOK HOW GOOD YOU ARE, YOU CAN TOTALLY DO THIS cheerleading.


What did I miss? What strategies have worked for you all in changing careers and figuring out what you want to do?




148 thoughts on “#609: Tips for finding the first rung on the career ladder.

    1. EXCELLENT rec, thank you! I wasn’t aware of her, gonna do some heavy archive reading tonight I think.

      1. Oh my god I am so happy for you, the day I read her entire archives was one of the best media-absorbtion days of my life. Her advice is generally excellent, and I really love the idea of “aggressive lady advice” in general.

        Also, this is off topic for this thread, but on the topic of Jen Dzuria, I adopted her recommended advice for a response to street harassment and I can report 100% success so far.

  1. I’ve been reading Ask A Manager for a little while now and I find it really useful, to hear from someone on the hiring side who is dealing with hiring all the time, with guidance about resumes and interviews (compared to most of us who only encounter hiring every now and then, and generally in a stressful situation).

    1. I like Alison and her site a lot, her site is filled with very sound advice and she moderates her discussions with a lot of grace and humor. I feel like my mandate is to demystify stuff and make you feel like you could totally do whatever job it is, she’s got the cheat codes for presenting it with more finesse to hiring managers. A++

  2. “If you are interested in law, and want to be a lawyer, that does involve more school. But you could look for administrative/office jobs at law firms to get your feet wet and figure out if you like the environment and the work before you commit to law school.”

    CA gave a lot of great advice but I cannot call this out enough. The practice of law is LITTERED with the bodies (sometimes, sadly, quite literally) of people who went to law school because 1) they didn’t know what else to do after getting a B.A., and 2) they figured they were interested in the topic of law/liked to argue about things, so it would be a good fit. (You think you hated sales? Imagine if you were stuck doing sales because you had $100K in debt to pay off and it was the only thing that made enough money so that you could pay loans AND eat this month.)

    And that is not even getting into the horrific wasteland that is the legal job market right now.

    TL;DR – do not even seriously think about law school until you have spent some up close and personal time looking at exactly what practicing law means.

    1. OP, I am a lawyer and happily employed in my chosen field (not in the U.S.A. though) and I cannot begin to tell you how much I agree with this. Please don’t confuse being passionate about “issues” with being passionate about the law. Being interested in the rights of workers doesn’t mean you will find employment law anything other than a dead bore, caring about the environment will not stop you from hating environment law and wanting to help the cause of justice is not really a qualification for spending your life dealing with criminal law.

      The law is not a subject, it’s a science. It is pedantic and imprecise at the same time, it can be so absorbing that you forget to eat, but also mind-numbingly dull. Studying law is mostly about learning to think in a specific way and then articulate this. It’s not about flaming oratory (what happens during a trial is only a small part of the work a lawyer has to do), but about finding the appropriate rules of law and then interpreting them in such a way that you construe arguments that support your preffered solution to a dispute. And practising law is being able to sucessfully navigate the court system, which is another kettle of fish entirely.

      Before you commit to law school, try to a) take (even just attend) a couple of classes to understand what the law really is and b) get some first-hand expierience to learn what practising law will entail where you live.

    2. I was going to say the same thing. I’ve been a lawyer for 15 years, graduating into a much better market. The legal market is a giant downward-spiraling clusterf*ck right now and has been for the past 5 years. There are a couple of really good law school “scam” blogs out there – the best is Inside the Law School Scam by Paul Campos (normally of Lawyers, Guns and Money).

      This is the advice to anyone that tells me they’re thinking about going to law school:

      1. You must really, desperately, can’t think of anything else you want to do with your life except be a lawyer.

      subpart a – you must actually know what this means. It does not mean, for the most part, being crusader for justice or a high-flying master of the universe (at least not for a very long time). For the better part of your career, you will be reading stacks and stacks of paper. for 15-20 hours a day. If you’re in litigation, this means discovery. If you’re in corporate, this means due diligence. two sides of the same coin. Try working as an intern or paralegal at a law firm for a year before even applying to law school. See how miserable all the junior associates are and then decide if you still want to join their ranks. subpart b – a lot of the “specialties” schools push on students are not things people actually practice in the real world. there’s no such thing in actual practice as “international law”. People who work at the Hague practice criminal law under the rubric of various treaties and charters. I did international corporate finance for several years – this actually amounted to learning and knowing the securities laws of many individual countries (US, Britain, Italy, Luxembourg, Ireland, Mexico).

      2. You should only go to law if you get into a top 10 school. And I mean “objectively” top 10, not some school trying to sell you on the idea that they’re somehow top 10 in some area of law that has no applicability in the real world. These are the the only schools that have anything close to decent job placement these days, and even then, it’s a crapshoot.

      3. You should be VERY aware that if you borrow money to go to school, student loans are non-dischargeable in bankruptcy. Remember this always. This debt will stay with you forever. If your parents co-sign your loans, it will stay with them even when you die.

      4. Those low-paying public interest/pro bono jobs? fewer and farther between, and often harder to get, than the corporate jobs.

      5. If you think you’re going to “hang out your own shingle” fresh out of law school? Think about who is going to hire someone who has no freaking clue what they’re doing. Those will be your clients. Those people will not pay their bills.

      1. Regarding #5 – I can say from personal experience that single-person law shops fail ALL THE TIME. (I’m their landlord and they stop paying rent about 6 months before they close up shop.)

      2. The idea of what a “safe” field is has radically changed over the past decade or so. (Lawyer, professor, etc.) The professional classes are imploding just like all of the other classes.

        1. I know, right? I read the other day some think tank or business mag declaring nursing and pharmacy the “safest” degrees of the moment. I don’t know enough nurses (though, I must say, it’s a far more versatile profession with a wide range of paths to specialize than I once thought,) but the pharmacists I know are saying the same things as the lawyers, which is that the job market for new pharmacy grads is terrible!

          1. I suspect there’s so much lead time on all of those professions – decide on field, qualify for school, finish school, do required internship/apprenticeship/clerkship/whatever – that by the time people are actually qualified for [Safe Job], they’re operating on 4+ year old information.

      3. I’ve been a lawyer for 12 years, and I have to disagree strongly with #1. I’m a lawyer as a second choice career (reformed teacher) and one of the reasons why I like it is because of the stacks and stacks of paper and the “boring” document review. I’ve found that the colleagues I know who are happy in the practice of law at the moment are the ones who like bringing order to chaos and being detail oriented and like writing and reading the rules of stuff. The passionate crusaders from my law school class have almost all burned out and moved on to other things, but the pencil pushers are paid and content.

        I do agree that shadowing or interning or working at a law firm in an administrative capacity would be a good look at the Real Life of a lawyer to figure out if you will be happy doing it. And the legal market is tough right now, for sure. That is not a joke.

        1. I think “to desperately want to be a lawyer” is a good point, as long as it is based on reality, which is ” to find the law interesting and absorbing and to like doing legal work”. But you have to realise that the law is basically a never-ending and complicated system of writen rules that are supposed to regulate society and legal work is about knowning, studying, interpreting and implementing these rules. If you understand that being a lawyer is doing this, fine; if you think being a lawyer is about dazzling juries with your speeches, you are doomed to diappointment.

          1. As someone who almost went to law school I have to echo that it’s crucial to understand what you are in for. I took the LSAT and researched schools knowing if I went into law it would be in the subfield I was already in (I wrote ERISA plans).

            The number of people who wanted to be a lawyer that i met who had no idea of the amount of paperwork involved or who had never bothered to look at an actual law or regulation was astounding.

            In the end I chose another path because a better opportunity came along.

        2. Don’t get me wrong – I love what I do, and I do one of those “boring” jobs as well. I’m an in-house corporate finance lawyer for an Insurance company. What I’m really talking about are the waaaay too many people who view going to law school as some sort of post-graduate liberal arts degree because they don’t actually know what they want to do with their lives. There’s too much debt, and too much uncertainly these days for people to keep making that choice.

          I always point out that people who don’t know what they want to do with their lives don’t go to medical school. Only go to law school if you actually want to be a lawyer. Law schools will spin you on the bullsh*t that a law degree is somehow versatile and will open secret doors to other careers. Other than a select few (mostly in politics), it’s not.

      4. For three years I worked as a fundraiser for a legal human rights nonprofit – and it was a huge eye opener as to what it was like to be a lawyer (not in the US, but not with a radically different country in terms of the legal system). My job allowed me to meet with government, UN, international NGO officials and talk about our goals and mission. The job of the lawyers meant huge case loads regarding very tedious administrative procedure, lots of reading, most courtroom work was in regard to the State being unresponsive, and seeing very little success (though this was due to the field of our nonprofit).

        During the time I was there we worked on a few large torture projects, and legally speaking – it was a real eye opener of what kind of day to day work I did not want to do. While being a paralegal or legal assistant in one way to get an idea about the law, I can also add legal nonprofits as a way to get some insight but also a whole wide world of “legal adjacent” jobs. Legal nonprofits not only need research, but also often have communications/advocacy departments – as well as fundraising.

        I’m sure other people here might be able to suggest other “legal adjacent” types of jobs, but that job could not have suited me more in regards to justice/human rights and the kind of day to day work I wanted to do. Our executive director was terrible to work for – but that’s another story.

      5. I just want to comment on #2 above re: only go to a Top-10 law school. Yes, those schools have good hiring numbers but so do lots of non-Top 10 schools and the hiring numbers for schools are publicly available. Yes, the market is bad in some areas, particularly where the market is glutted with lawyers. But I teach at a top 100 school and our hiring numbers are excellent and tuition is relatively low.

        I agree that you should see what life is like in a law firm if possible but don’t fall into despair regarding law jobs. Also, law school applications are really down right now so if you have good undergraduate credentials and do well on the LSAT you are much more likely to be offered a scholarship right now than in years past. Look into it and see if you think law could fit you and whether you could get some financial assistance. Good luck!

        1. I’m sorry, but if you’re relying on the hiring numbers published or provided by the law school, then they’re probably bullsh*t. How many of the *jobs* at your school are actually full-time, JD-required, non-temporary, non-law school funded one-year internships designed to stack the deck for the US News “employed after 9 months” column, *real* legal jobs that pay a salary that is sufficient to support the debt load that your students need to borrow to attend your school? And of those jobs, does your school simply ignore any graduates who don’t report (i.e., are probably completely unemployed)?

          And scholarships? Are scholarships guaranteed for three years, or does the rug get pulled out after the first year for some percentage of the class?

          OP – I can’t recommend Paul Campos enough for a real analysis of the truth behind many of these claims. I know plenty of really smart, excellent lawyers who went to non-top 10 schools (Fordham and St. John’s in particular, being that I’m in NY), it’s not a knock against any of those schools in that sense. But big firms are simply not recruiting at those schools anymore, and if you’re not at the very very top of your class, or you don’t have the right connections, you simply won’t get a job.

          1. ” Yes, those schools have good hiring numbers but so do lots of non-Top 10 schools and the hiring numbers for schools are publicly available.”

            Seconding Sam here – if we define ‘good hiring numbers’ as ‘people graduating from a professional program and having a high probability getting jobs in their field which can justify the debt’, then very, very few non-Top 10 schools have those numbers. Once you’re below the traditional Top-14, you see the post-graduation survey figures drop like a rock –

            See: http://www.lawschooltransparency.com/ for reports by school.

            Aria, name these schools, and people can check them out for themselves.

          2. Aria’s talking about UNC Chapel Hill, which is about a top-30 school. It is a good school. Still, slightly less than 70% of their 2013 graduates got what would be viewed as real lawyer jobs (FT/LT/JD required). That’s not bad. But it’s not a good reason for a kid like the original letter writer to go to law school.

            I’d also quibble on her characterization of it as being relatively low tuition. Relativity is slippery. The in-stater borrowing full tuition and COL can expect over 170K in debt. Non-res, that goes up to about 240K.

          3. There are other sites where the relative value of degrees from specific law schools are discussed, yes?

            The kid in the original letter will go to law school if they want to go to law school, and presumably will go to the best place that they can afford. The lawyers saying “nooooooooooooooooooo” and offering reality checks are appreciated, but there is no need to continue debating the merits of specific schools here and now. Thank you.

    3. I agree with all of that, and want to emphasize how little law practice (and law school) are like the popular idea of law. It’s fun to debate policy on the internet, but law school is about technically balancing arcane and unrelated legal principles, and the practice of law is figuring out how to spin so that you can answer “yes” to whatever boring question decides the case in favor of your client. Only the very lucky have “passion” handed to them, and even that happens very seldom.

      There is essentially no overlap between debate, academic law, and law practice – being good at debate does not prepare one for law school, which does not really prepare one for practice of law. If you love writing 20 page research papers daily and can do it well, you can (and probably will) succeed at law. Otherwise, law school probably is an unwise financial decision, even ignoring that law generally isn’t a field for finding one’s passion.

      1. So much this. One of my majors was philosophy, and a good half of my cohort in that field went on to study law. Those who did it because they really, really liked reading and getting thoroughly immersed in knowing what other people had said, liked it. The ones who really enjoyed arguing in seminars…did not. I considered it myself, but various people pointed out to me that it was an unwise decision: I was passionate about theory, and ethics, and ideas – not the down-and-dirty work. I became a teacher instead, and it was a much better choice.

      2. TimS, “law generally isn’t a field for finding one’s passion” is an over-generalization born from the popular idea that one can only get passionate about “cool”, a.k.a. creative, things, like art, music or literature. The long-suffering non-lawyer friends and partners of my collegues and myself can testify that we are all passionate enough about the law to highjack many a discussion and derail it towards our beloved incomprehensible technicalities and obsure statutes. Don’t assume that, because something is boring to you or is deemed boring by general standards, no one can find their passion there.

        P.S. In all fairness, I have to confess that I enjoy washing the dishes too.

      3. I found debate (organized, competitive debate, not internet arguing) to be a very very helpful prep for both law school (particularly timed exams, because it taught me to quickly organize my thoughts in a coherent and organized fashion) and the practice of law. I wouldn’t say they’re at all the same, because you also do have to love the detail oriented reading and briefing, but debate has been a huge huge help to me.

    4. I also totally second the AskAManager recommendation, I’m a total fan. But if you want to know what practicing law is about, go to corporette.com. While it’s superficially a work-fashion site, it’s heavily skewed towards lawyers and reading the comments (especially in the weekly open threads) will give you an excellent insider view of what practicing law is really like.

      Also LW, really, it’s almost shocking to hear you go on about lack of skills! Sales talent is so rare and precious, and good communications ditto, follow the Captain’s excellent advice and you’ll be doing something stupendous in no time while you ponder law school :-). Lawyers who can bring clients in are few and far between, and people who can raise money for film even more! I could totally see you as Ms Big Producer, star of big studios :-). Raising funds for a large nonprofit, the local university/museum? You may loathe your specific sales job, but this talent can open any doors for you and you’d enjoy using it for something that interests you. The world is your oyster..

    5. As a recovering lawyer, one thing I would stress is that having a passion for justice is not at all the same thing as having a passion for law. I know many people who went to law school thinking that they would be able to use their degree to help right societal wrongs. Most of those people are now either miserable or employed in other fields. The practice of law, especially as an entry-level attorney, involves a lot of long hours and monotonous tasks. It doesn’t usually involve changing the world.

      Before deciding on law school, I would recommend meeting as many lawyers as possible and just talking to them about what they do. What do they like? What do they hate? If they had it to do over again, would they have become lawyers? Getting answers to questions like this should help you figure out whether law is what you think it will be and whether it is a good fit for you.

      Also, what other people have said about the current market is true. You very easily could graduate $100k in debt with terrible job prospects. Just another consideration.

  3. So, I work as a Legal Assistant, and have some advice about working in law firms as not a lawyer, and also about law school and other career paths in the legal field. I kind of went about things backwards, as I graduated with a BA in Poli Sci, and had no idea what I wanted to do with my life. All the rest of the folks in my major were taking the LSAT, so I did. I’ve always tested well, so my high LSAT score led to getting into a few law schools. I did 2 years of law school before I dropped out. I straight up hated it. Now, lots of people hate law school and go on to be great lawyers, but that wasn’t going to be me. After I dropped out, a friend got me an interview at the law firm she worked at, and I’ve been working off and on as a legal assistant ever since.

    Things to think about in the legal industry:

    Firms (especially small to mid-sized) can be very up and down in their staffing needs. I’m very good at my job, but I’ve had the bad luck to be laid off a couple times due to general downsizing and it sucks every time. I’ve also survived a couple layoffs, which sucks too. It’s a hard field to feel secure in.

    A paralegal certificate is never going to hurt. It’s what I recommend for my friends who are interested in breaking into the legal field. You can generally find a 12-15 week program. It won’t be cheap, but it’s a lot less than law school, and most of the programs I know of have pretty decent placement programs as well. And if you do decide you want to go to law school, it would really give you a leg up on procedure and research.

    There’s no specific degree to be a legal assistant. All the women I work with (and they’re all women) come from different backgrounds. Some have Bachelor’s degrees, some are high school grads. All are highly organized, good communicators, good time managers, and good at not letting the attorneys walk over them too much.

    1. Could you please recommend a specific program? I’ve been looking into my local community college programs and they’re all about 8-12 months long.

  4. Just jumping in to add that if you do want to back to school and want to do the whole employee tuition deduction for a university (lots of state schools do this), also look into development jobs for the university. Most universities have a large need for development assistants and are still hiring for development positions despite the downturn.


    A creative writing major turned executive assistant turned farmer

      1. Where I worked (Ivy League university), the “development” office was the fundraising office. Always fundraising. It also included alumni relations because: fundraising. I don’t know if this applies to other industries though.

  5. I used to work in a Prestigious, Ill-Paid Arts Industry because it was my Passion. I second all the Captain’s excellent advice about how to break into such an industry, and I’ll add two pieces of advice (both slightly trite but nonetheless true):

    (1) When people offer to have coffee with you / put you in touch with someone / read your stuff / help you network, BELIEVE THEM AND TAKE THEM UP ON IT. Those people are how you hear about the jobs first. Those people all talk to each other. Every job I ever got in the Industry, I got because someone made a phone call behind my back and said, “Hire her.”

    (2) Worry more about demonstrating your hustle than your flow. People who hire you for entry positions want to know that you’re going to work hard, not that you’re already a genius, and they actually don’t want someone they think is going to act super entitled about having to fix a broken copier. LW, if you’ve worked retail, you are 1000% ahead of the game on this, because you know how to nod when the boss tells you to do shit you hate.

    I am crossing my fingers for you, LW. I re-started my career way later than advised, and I’m still putting food on the table. I believe you can too!

    1. Hello I’m the LW and I love your advice so I have to ask: how on earth did you get people to make these calls on your behalf? I’m great at making friends but none of them ever seem to be able to help me out on the job front. I’ve had quite a few people promise me the world and then…

      I follow up, give them ample time to respond back to me. I just don’t know what I’m doing wrong.

      Thanks for taking the time to respond!

  6. (I am a hiring manager, FWIW.) TOTALLY agree with the Captain that answering a question about a skill you don’t have with something like, “But I’ve done [similar thing] in the past and would love to learn” is a good answer. Also, formatting your resume in terms of specific skills/quantifying it is going to be good practice for any interviews you get, where it is CRUCIAL to give specific answers. “Tell us about a time you X” really does mean, pick a specific example. An answer of, “Oh yeah, I X all the livelong day” is not what we’re looking for.

    1. Also as a hiring manager, I want to add that if you are asked a question about a time something went badly and how you handled it, don’t try to spin it as a positive. When I ask this kind of question, I assume you’ve made mistakes and had things go wrong on your watch because you’re a person, and I’m asking because I want to hear how you correct and learn from your mistakes when they do happen.

      1. Things I wish someone could have told me six years ago. Eh, turns out that waiting for that teaching job? Not so bad.

      2. I think every interview I’ve had they’ve asked me a variation of the ‘Tell us about a mistake question’. It used to terrify me, but one day I sat down and went through common interview questions and wrote answers and practiced giving them. Although I found the examples I came up with were flexible and could be applied to uncommon questions too. Anyway, the mistake one I usually went for the somewhat humorous example of when I was a waitress and serving some coffee: I placed the tray only half on the table and when I lifted the coffee pot the tray catapulted all over the floor and customer. Then I’d explain how I dealt with it and add in how I never did it again after that!

        Also the ‘What’s your weakness?’ is another common one which often gets spun as a positive ‘ie I work too hard!’. I would normally go with impatience (as I am) but then add how it makes me organised/time keeper as I hate things being delayed due to poor planning.

        1. I never know what to do with the weakness question, because the answer for me IS actually “I work too hard”–and it’s not, in any way, a positive. I get workaholic, I get insanely bored and distracted if I work a job with a lot of downtime, I get resentful when others don’t work as hard as I do, I burn myself out by overworking, etc. etc.

          Maybe I should just come up with something else.

          1. I struggle with this one too, and I think mine is a version of “I prioritize work where I’m accountable to other team members and the urgency of deadline over routine solo work (like filing, organizing stuff) that has no particular deadline or urgency. Unfortunately, that stuff still has to get done sometime, eventually, by somebody. So it helps if I build in periodic “file/organize/wrap up All The Things days,” and have my manager hold me accountable for creating and sticking to those.”

          2. Think of the question as, “Show me that you know what your weaknesses are and that they’re not going to be a problem for me and our team.”. If you’ve got weaknesses but you’ve got strategies to manage that (or you’ve deliberately picked this role because it will help you manage your weaknesses better), that’s great! It’s really about showing the interviewer that you will manage yourself, or that you’ll motivate yourself, even on the things that aren’t your favorite.

          3. I actually hate questions about “weaknesses” because they are stressful AND it’s hard to find an answer that is actually illuminating. (I like questions about mistakes/problems better because they are more specific.) But I totally agree with the Captain’s example and Mary’s take on it — show them that you are self-aware and have some experience learning from your mistakes. It’s a great way to get insight into qualities that are hard to assess, like accountability, attention to detail, self-awareness, stress-management, etc.

          4. I think part of the problem is the phrasing of the question. In interviews they usually just leave it at ‘Tell me your biggest weakness’ when really they are asking what Mary has said. The actual weakness isn’t an issue as long as you can say what you do to manage it. I used the ‘I work too hard’ as I sat in an interview with my old boss and that was someones answer, and they had no follow up to it. That was it. Then there was awkward silence till we asked another question. The rest of the interview was pretty good apart from that one question (ended up hiring someone else though as they had more quals we wanted)

            It’s one of many things I hate about job interviews I hate, that you need to know what they are *really* asking so you can jump through that hoop.

      3. I second this!!! Hiring teachers and administrative assistants for a private school we have had a long string of people who cannot admit they made a mistake or listen to the information they need to correct it, and react with anger at the situation. That question is meant to find out if they can say, “I’m sorry I made that mistake. Thanks for telling me what I need to do instead. I’ll make sure to do it next time.”

  7. I worked my way up to my current position by doing exactly the type of work the Captain describes in the post. Now, after the work experience I’ve gained and the training classes that my employers paid for (because they wanted to invest in me as an employee after I proved myself) I now qualify to apply to take a certification exam in my current field. If I pass the exam, which I will, I will have credentials, all without going back to school. And those training classes? Most of them earned me CEUs, which I can use as qualification to take more certification exams or even go to school. Some schools will even give you credit for your professional experience, if it’s related to what you want to study.

    The most valuable skills you can have are knowing how to use your resources to teach yourself, and the motivation to do it. Look into professional organizations that you can get a membership in – that can expand your network and provide you with more resources. Google the shit out of everything and read a lot. There are skills you pick up working that you’re unlikely to get in a classroom – learn to recognize them and sell them to potential employers, because they’re not employing your degree. They’re employing YOU.

  8. Other people have said it already, but there is a serious disconnect between this:

    “… the problem is I have no real skills.”

    and this:

    “My only bankable skill is my ability to communicate with just about anyone.”

    Even if you have only one bankable skill, this is one of the best bankable skills you could possibly have. It’s valuable for just about anything you could ever want to do, certainly valuable when it comes to interviews and networking.

    I got one of my recent freelance gigs through a networking event. I’d chatted up a couple of people from one booth about what they did and told them what I specialized in; it was a fun conversation. A couple of weeks later, one of them wanted to discuss a new freelance job they were creating — a job that had nothing to do with any of my work-related skills. I met him and the person I’d be replacing, and midway through realized that they’d pretty much decided to give me the job before the “interview” even started. Again, nothing to do with my skills. This person just liked me because of that one conversation. And I’m not even the world’s best verbal communicator; with people in my field, fortunately, I can get by on sheer nerdly enthusiasm.

    All this to say, if you’re good at talking to people (and therefore, by extension, probably getting them to like you), all kinds of doors will open for you that won’t for other people. I’m not saying it isn’t difficult. The economy sucks all around. But please don’t sell yourself short.

  9. Captain, o captain, I so needed to read this. I’ve had to accept that I probably won’t be able to get into a history job outside of volunteering, but I’m chugging away at getting decent office-y skills and trying to access project management jobs sideways through getting experience in finance.
    It’s boringly adult to have to prioritise money and make do and it seems like selling out, but once you’re comfy, LW, you’ll be able to focus more on what makes you happy as a kind of extracurricular thing

  10. Totally spot on, as usual, Captain! I want to make a giant neon-sign with that point about liberal arts majors, since it is true about just about ALL of them. (I don’t know why we talk about humanities majors as career-irrelevant more than math and science ones, since they are pretty similar in this respect. Wait, yes I do.)

    I had been an adult for awhile before I realized that most jobs that exist are the kind that you hear about during small-talk and think “Oh, I’d never thought about that before, but now that you mention it I can see how someone needed to be making that happen, and that person is you apparently. Cool.”

    I wish someone had told me in high school or college that most people were out there in the world doing things I hadn’t heard of yet. I still find that *most of the time* I meet a new person they have a job that’s novel to me. And I don’t think that ever stops, because people do SO many different (and really specific) things and they are always changing.

    1. This! I think we get stuck in thinking only of those jobs that are obviously jobs, in that kind of ‘when I grow up I’m going to be a doctor/lawyer/astronaut’ way that’s a hangover from school, and can miss out on all the other things that need doing in areas where we’d really, really kick-ass. I didn’t know my job existed until I applied for it, and it’s such a good fit for me. I’m always a bit wary of people having (and sticking rigidly to) very defined career plans for that reason – I feel like they must be missing out on all the stuff they haven’t thought of yet.

      1. I know! I recently heard about people making micro-maps for vineyards so they can give each section of their fields the irrigation/fertilizer/etc that it needs. How come no one tells you about jobs like that in school?

        1. Yes! Yes yes yes. I am a college prof and students come to me with questions about jobs and I know it’s because I am one of the small set of grown-ups they know who are not their parents but the thing is, to know about most jobs you kind of have to just go out into the world, because most rewarding jobs are jobs no-one has ever heard of. Just the other night I was talking to a lady who has done some kind of internal systems thing for phone/cable/internet companies and energy companies, and she likes it, finds it challenging and interesting, and has risen and risen in that universe, been head-hunted for it, etc. She began with an environmental studies BA. I imagine she began doing the kinds of things that the Captain talks about and went from there. All the caveats about there not being enough decent jobs, but yeah, most of the ones that do exist aren’t things you train for specifically: internal systems something or other for telecommunications and energy companies doesn’t come with a targeted Halloween costume.

    2. <>

      Yes, this. I majored in history and did it in a very eclectic way, with scattered courses in most of the humanities/social sciences departments and the beginnings of three languages. As I approached graduation I kicked myself for “not preparing myself for a career.” Well, a few years later by serendipity I got trained in book indexing, which I had never heard of. It turns out that my unfocused undergraduate career, in addition to giving me critical thinking/writing/communicating skills, was the exact preparation I needed for a job that involves reading and understanding a wide variety of texts in a huge number of fields with words in many different languages.

      I’ve been an indexer for thirty years now.

      So try lots of different things, notice what you enjoy and are good at, and be open to new possibilities! Best of luck to you!

  11. I just want to echo the Captain’s advice by saying that no degree is useless or leaves you without skills. I studied Fine Art – not an obvious route into any career! – but when I break it down for employers, I draw out the key transferable skills it fitted me with, which are communication and problem solving. When you’ve spent for years figuring out how to express the idea of expectation through the medium of elastic bands, or how to hang the pair of life-size Angel wings your classmate made from the ceiling using nothing but fishing line, just telling people things and doing stuff becomes pretty straightforward! Those areas of my skills are super-useful in the workplace, and very valued by my employers. Spend some time working out what specific skills your ‘useless’ degree gave you – you may be surprised.

    Also, I agree with the Captain that in the real world no-one really takes in what you studied anyway. Every now and then when I’ve done some bit of work or another and someone at work comments on it I’ll say “knew that Fine Art degree would come in handy one day!” and they’re usually surprised and interested that that was what I studied – and never disparaging of it as ‘useless’; they’ve just seen the evidence of its usefulness! Just break your degree down to the essence of what it teaches you, and you may be surprised. Good luck!

    1. Similarly, I used to work for a university which had a Performing Arts degree, and we employed a couple of our own graduates, and my *God* those people can team-work. They were just a dream. We had a really recent PA grad in our team who was one of the most junior people there, but she just had this instinct for the right amount of time to throw ideas around, the time to start narrowing things down, and the time to start identifying concrete actions and how much everyone could cope with. She’d end up running half of our team meetings, when there were people in our team with 30 years more experience. Plus all of her organisational and promotional skills from three years of putting on performances and making sure people turned up to them. She was just a dream!

    2. yes, this! Every degree will leave you with Skills, it’s just that those Skills aren’t necessarily valued or elucidated in academia. For example:

      I studied homeland security for four years and dropped out three classes away from my BS. During that time, I picked up two skills that are invaluable to me: how to find and activate the water shutoff valve of a standard American toilet*, and how to (a) accurately guess a person’s politics without actually talking about politics, (b) refrain from talking politics with people I want to continue liking, and (c) work effectively with people who hold opinions so vile** I would not cry were they to come down with the latest panic-inducing highly-fatal infectious disease.

      In job-terms, the second one comes down to: I can work well with people I disagree with and even dislike. (I have maintained a cordial, professional relationship with two people I absolutely loathed in my current job — I thank the universe every day they both quit.)

      * ask me about my favorite professor sometime.
      ** I knew this field was Not For Me when most of my classmates during one of the senior writing intensive classes defended the internment of Japanese-Americans in WWII, and the professor backed them up. Spoiler: he was not my favorite.

      1. One other note, for folks who have “some college” — on a resume, you can list your field of study and your years of study without listing your degree. If you’re asked about it, be honest, but IME the longer you’re in the work pool the less having a degree matters.

        (My original story, after dropping out, was that the degree was “in process” — and at the time, it was. it’s now out of process, and unlikely to ever be completed. I’m okay with that.

        I’m not okay with not claiming the time I spent in school, especially when the three courses that are between me and the degree were gen ed. (including one that was triggering the fuck out of me, for which the school refused to help find any kind of alternative, workaround, or exemption.).

        1. A Y, if you’re still interested in finishing that degree up, I can offer some (totally unsolicited, and free! so feel free to ignore it if you totally have no shits to give at this point b/c that’s completely legit) advice on maybe working with your college to work around them.

          I got invited not to return to my undergrad school, but I was literally two courses (also G.E.s) away from finishing my bachelors. One was a PE requirement and the other was a generic science.

          I negotiated with the dean that I would be given my degree and graduate in good standing if I took two courses approved by said dean at an appropriately accredited four year university and also never returned to my own school. I proposed this, included the specific courses at a nearby in-state land grant university that I planned to take to fulfill those requirements, along with alternatives should I be unable to enroll in those two specific classes for whatever reason, and then completed those classes, sent along the certification to my original school, got my degree in the mail, and got the hell on with putting B.A. on my resumes.

          If I had it all to do again, I’d’ve just gone to the school where I enrolled to fulfill my two G.E. requirements, dang. They were so relaxed and happy to be educating people! It also was way less costly than my fancy private college to whom I am still repaying loans, from whom I receive endless solicitations for donations, and to whence I am no longer permitted to return.

    3. Amen to that. True story: my husband’s degree is in Fisheries Management. He currently holds a Masters of Public Health in epidemiology (paid for in full by his employer at the time) and currently is a Senior Researcher in finance at a major insurance company. He has never once managed any fish.

      1. I love the idea of managing fish – creating development plans, online training, annual self-assessments. “Well, Floyd, it looks like this quarter the returns on your lap pool idea were up 3% and employee satisfaction scores are through the roof. I’d like to set a stretch target for you, though – do you think you can motivate the other fish to swim against the current 20% faster than they do now? I want to see you set yourself up to be a leader, Floyd. Put in the effort and I really think it’ll pay off.”

      2. On the flip side, when I worked with the governmental ministry for environmentI met a regulatory officer whose degree was in psychology.

    4. “I just want to echo the Captain’s advice by saying that no degree is useless or leaves you without skills. I studied Fine Art – not an obvious route into any career! – but when I break it down for employers, I draw out the key transferable skills it fitted me with, which are communication and problem solving.”

      This, this, a thousand times this. I am history major turned project manager, and I have come to realize that, in many ways, my history major gave me a lot of great skills for this role. Writing a thesis meant that I learned to manage my time, organize many moving parts, keep track of big projects. Being a history major gave me a strong background in writing, as well as research, analysis, and synthesis. An internship at a history museum gave me experience in staff development and event planning.

      Every “liberal arts” (or whatever you want to call it) degree comes with skills as well as content knowledge. I have found my project manager’s job to be very fulfilling because I am able to use the skills from my history degree. My love of the content can be nurtured on the side. But I think that is the crux of the matter: your degree gives you skills and (outside of the current challenges of the job market/other logistical challenges you may face, which I do not mean to sweep under the rug) it’s largely a matter of finding a job that allows you to continue using the skills and doing the kinds of work that drew you to your undergraduate major in the first place.

    5. Fine Arts always reminds me of a story a friend told me once about a job she had that she got because during the interview the boss misheard her as saying she had a degree in Finance. She actually stayed in it for quite a while after they realised the mistake, too.

  12. My advice would be to look ahead, find a job you think you would love and work backwards. It’ll save you working your way up the ladder with no real goal, then finding out about a job that sounds right for you only to realise you don’t have the right qualifications for it and will have to backtrack and get some more credentials to get there. Which isn’t the end of the world, but it can be an unneccesary waste of time/effort/moneys. Do some online career tests and general careers research to get an idea of some jobs you might want to end up in. Talk to people in those fields to find out what the work is like and whether it’s for you. Then find out what qualifications you’ll need to get there. There’s nothing wrong with doing some general courses/training/skills development as well, but it’s also good to have a goal to work towards.

    1. I like this advice a lot. LW, if you can, think about your undergrad career and find the thing(s) that made bells and whistles go off in your head. The thing that made you feel totally competent and satisfied. Is there one? For me, it was there all along, but I had to step away from our goal- and achievement-oriented rat race to figure out what it was. Turns out, it wasn’t the painting and building of sets I did in undergrad, though I loved it. It wasn’t the painting and building and stage managing I did during grad school. It was those moments in the scene shop where the Tech Director said, “PL, this is New Student. NS needs to complete her shop hours. Teach her how to work the bandsaw/build a flat/paint wood grain/find a hand prop.” As much as I loved all the other stuff, I loved being the one imparting my wisdom, such as it was, breaking things down into smaller parts so that the students who didn’t know how could figure it out. And I went backwards from there. I got a job as a substitute teacher, then as a classroom aide, and fast forward to today, and I’m going into my fifth year teaching art and theatre to high schoolers. And I love it so much I couldn’t see myself doing anything else. It took trying for years to develop a theatre career that ended up making me miserable, and trying to parlay that experience and skill set into another career…but I think if I’d been honest with myself from the beginning, I’d have become a teacher.

    2. Yes but… It can be hard to know if you will like a job or industry without doing it (or at least being around people who do it). Also, if you go out and just work in a new fields you will encounter jobs you’d never heard of or considered that are appealing.

      So I would say – pick a goal in broad terms, and work out what you need to achieve it, but just showing up for an entry level role in a new field tends to teach you heaps about what you want and where you could take what you’re doing.

  13. I left a UK university you will have heard of with a liberal arts degree in the early 90s during the depths of that recession. I worked retail; I checked the addition of marking on exam papers; and I applied for a lot of jobs and never heard back. The (low-paid) secretarial job I got was because I wrote an impassioned statement about how much I believed in the importance of adult education, how much it had benefited my mother, and how I would love to work in the university’s adult ed department for the short period of the job (it was temporary cover) to help other people. That, not my minimal skills, got me through. And then temp cover turned into a permanent position, which turned into a better-paid, admin position. And so on.

    I hire people now, and I look for interest in our company; show me that you’ve checked out our website, read some media stories about us, identified some positive and specific details that make you want to work here. Be engaging; tell stories of your experiences (good and bad); convince me that you’re going to work hard and be pleasant to spend time with. Look at the skills we’re asking for and relate your skills to those; don’t make me do that for you.

    Good luck.

  14. I am a careers adviser, and I fully endorse everything the Captain has said!

    The one thing I would add is to spend some quality time figuring out what motivates you. I’m guessing that you don’t have many Really Good Days in your current job, but if you ever have had them, or you’ve had a Quite Decent Day, Considering, Except For That One Thing, figure out what that looked like and work out what it was about that day (or that role) that was good. You say you’re good at communicating with people: as well as being good at it, do you enjoy it? What types of communication do you enjoy? What kind of questions do you like asking? If retail/sales-type communication is kind of boring, what would be less boring? Managing people? Advising people? Teaching or training? What kind of people? What kind of activities give you a little kick afterwards of, “yay, I did that!”

    I have a first-class degree in English and a PhD, and I’m a “good writer”. That is, I can produce copy for websites and things that is accurate, interesting, easy to read, and correctly spelled and punctuated. However, it took me until my early-mid-30s to work out that I can’t bear writing. I mean, not that I can’t bear it, but it just doesn’t motivate me. The process of sitting down to Produce Words is excruciatingly boring and stressful for me, and I will procrastinate like mad about it and whine and complain. Whereas if you put in front of a person or a group, I just wake up and get on with it. But because I *can* write – in the sense of being able to produce something decent *eventually*, even though I suck at the “sit down and get on with it” part – and writing/text was a big part of my academic experience, there was quite a long period where I kept expecting to like jobs involving writing or editing text. Nowadays, I’ve accepted that I find it really hard to motivate myself to do stuff like that, and when I do have to write blogs or articles, I am careful to have strategies to motivate me and I make sure it’s never more than 10% of my full-time job and that most of what I do involves interacting with people directly.

    Think really hard about what motivates you in your working day and your personal life, and make sure you aren’t falling into any of those kind of traps: “Oh, I enjoyed my degree in History, so obviously I’ll like working in museums, because that’s the past, right?” – when actually, you still enjoy reading about history, but the bit of your degree that really got you going was the analytical side, and data-crunching (or, say, being the interface between the hardcore data-crunchers and the people who need to know what the data says even though they don’t really get the data?) All that kind of stuff can take a long time to figure out for people with the general arts background, but when you get there, it’s *fab*.

    Good luck! Also, talk to a careers adviser if you can. As with any kind of therapy/counselling/advice, I can’t 100% guarantee that they’ll be able to help, but we quite often can.

    1. *says she can write, forgets to read-over and misses out the end of a sentence*

      Think really hard about what motivates you in your working day and your personal life, and make sure you aren’t falling into any of those kind of traps: “Oh, I enjoyed my degree in History, so obviously I’ll like working in museums, because that’s the past, right?” – when actually, you still enjoy reading about history, but the bit of your degree that really got you going was the analytical side, and data-crunching (or, say, being the interface between the hardcore data-crunchers and the people who need to know what the data says even though they don’t really get the data?) would suit you much better.

  15. Oh my word, this was fantastic. Captain, this is similar to how I got my ball rolling.

    But I want to take a moment for those people who say, ‘Going back to school isn’t worth it’.

    Fuck those guys. For real. I live in the UK where it’s not getting as bad as many places in the world for fees, BUT:

    I have just finished my masters in an engineering and arts design area.

    I was forced out of my first undergrad degree due to a lack of disability support. My second undergrad place was a dream to study at.

    Lots of people, mostly white dudes* said I should just drop out entirely along the way.

    When I got further into what I do, I realised that it was really common for people who do what I do to have two masters degrees, but shit, the other thing I didn’t realise is there are a lot of stop off qualifications in engineering and law and more degrees. People who are really far in their careers in some of these areas have qualifications out to here because they wanted to do something and they just did it.

    It doesn’t work for everyone (I mean, it can’t, everyone has different experiences) but saying something it’s worth it to someone who knows one of the damn barriers is a piece of paper? That’s unfair.

    *White dudes who seemed to be taking engineering and design for the bottom dollar and the credits it would get them in Shoreditch. I was never sure why, as they never enjoyed it and I know many of them switched to finance. I don’t talk to those guys now.

  16. Also, just because I forgot about this- I do a lot of drawing/film/photography that has got me jobs but one of the things that helped me was just doing them and asking people if I could help with their projects. You can then put that experience into a portfolio and CV and it counts! I’m a great believer in getting out and just seeing what happens, because in either case you learnt about it and someone almost certainly noticed.

  17. Just seconding everything Captain said. Even if you took a degree in a subject that WAS career-oriented–had a lot of actuary science and human resource majors in my classes when I TAed–you would still have to spend a few years in entry level jobs, learning the business.
    Also, the job you take now is not going to determine the rest of your life. People don’t really go up career ladders these days, they zigzag, picking up skills in various fields if necessary.

    On my blog I have a couple of what-color-is-your-parachute-style activities that helped me a lot when I was transitioning from grad school to fulltime work: http://scribaltattoo.wordpress.com/resources-for-writers-and-jobseekers/two-exercises/
    They double as exercises to help build up your cover letter and interview game, if that helps.

  18. Hey LW – fellow late bloomer with a wonky career path here.

    What worked for me was picking a job I thought I wouldn’t hate and was in demand, even if it wasn’t my passion, and then going after that. This is how I ended up working as an IT Sysadmin with an honours degree in Psychology. I realised as much as I enjoyed studying psych I didn’t want to work in the field, and after flailing around for a while I did a six month IT course and went off to work on a helpdesk. IT is a broad field with many different oportunities, and I’m now doing completely different IT stuff to what I first imagined going in. I now genuinely enjoy what I do.

    Something I have discovered along the way – my degree has worked in my favour even though it’s in an unrelated field to the one I work in. It says I’m capable of getting a degree, which is sometimes all they want to see. Don’t feel embarrassed about yours.

    That said, further degrees will have an impact on your finances ranging from mildly negative (time spent not working) to catastrophic (astronomic debt that will haunt you for the rest of your days) depending on where you live. If you can find a way to change jobs without retraining, even via a low paid entry level job, take it. Also consider certification courses that take only a few months, or even graduate diplomas. I don’t know what grad dips are called outside Australia but basically they’re year long post graduate courses you do when you’ve already completed an undergraduate degree. They’re usually pretty vocationally focused. Something like this can divert you into a new field without spending three pluss years and many thousands of dollars.

    Don’t let all this practical stuff stop you from following your dream if you’re clear on what that is, but in the absence of a passion to follow this can get you to “pretty rewarding and full of future oportunities”.

    Finally… I too know a few lawyers and it is a pretty brutal profession. It’s lower paid than you think at all but the highest levels, the hours suck (like really really suck) and it can be really challenging in terms of workplace culture. Of the three lawyers I know only one likes it. The other feels trapped in it, and the last one quit working in it to do something else. Go into it with your eyes open.

    1. I believe the USA equivalent you are looking for is a thing called a “Certificate of Advanced Study.” They are graduate level programs that generally take somewhere between 1/3 and 1/2 the credits a typical masters degree requires.

  19. Depending on whether you’re American and what state you’re in, you can become a lawyer without going to law school. You may want to look into that, because it’s the kind of situation where you’ll have job training rather than school training, and you get paid rather than paying.

    1. IIRC the only state where you can still take the bar & practice law without a JD is Vermont?

      1. I thiiink Virginia has an apprenticeship thing, but I don’t know how often it’s actually utilized.

    2. Be careful about this stuff, though. Different states have different laws regarding apprenticeship, and some require that you NOT get paid. Plus, it takes 4 years to apprentice, and the pass rate for the bar is very, very low compared to people who went to law school. It’s an option, sure, but it’s not as though you just get job training and then become a lawyer.

    3. It is possible, but by no means an easy path to success. Talk my advice with a grain of salt because I am a practicing American lawyer who went to a fairly prestigious law school, but I anti-recommend trying to become a lawyer without going to law school.

      And as others have said. passion about your work is seldom a benefit of the practice of law (and the job market is not strong).

  20. LW sounds…so much like me.
    What worked for me was finding part time work that, while deadly boring, was for a company where I got on well with the full-time staff and management. Then I met a big boss, and talked enthusiastically about what kinds of full-time jobs I was looking for…then he phoned me a few months later because he was creating a job that I could fill.
    I’m not quite where I want to sit long term, just yet; but I am doing interesting work, for people I like, and building my skills.
    Best of luck, with a fist-bump for fiancé(e)-based location.

    1. Being able to get on with your colleagues is such such a big thing – after all it’s so often now not what you know (at first) but who you know.
      You just need to get your foot in the door and then dazzle ’em. Various different fields have the same core values and skills at heart – a huge part of that is simply the ability to work hard with honesty and personability.
      I managed to get in at my work at Uni finance because they were having a meltdown (2 senior members off suddenly with an already overworked team) and needed someone to catch up the filing. I was non contracted but kept the same ethics as any time and made sure to put myself in positions where I offered to take on more responsibility and learn more skills. People are always glad for help! Within 5 months I had a permanent contract and a pay rise and was handling my own projects (with real money etc), and a year as a half in I’m looking at (-touch wood-) a possible promotion, knowing that I’m valued.
      If you can find something challenging with a group if nice hard working people you ‘ll be surprised how often people will try to root for you and nudge you towards opportunities if they can

    2. So much yes to this. Getting along with your coworkers and boss is the golden ticket to better jobs. When people like you they want to help you out, especially if they know you’re reliable.

      My story:
      I started working part time at the dump sorting garbage. My boss and coworkers decided I was a friendly, dependable person. Since then they’ve put me in charge of an entire program, given me some specialized certifications, and offered me TWO full time positions doing stuff like grant writing. I had to decline both since I’m still in school, but they’ve said they’ll wait.

  21. Maybe the LW has already thought of this but I work for a software company and the sales people here are making BANK. They also get to travel/go to conferences on a regular basis. It is a very specialized and specific type of learning software, so it’s not the type of sales job that gets loads of applicants and they are usually reaching out to people from other service type fields. I’m sure there are other companies doing the same.
    The LW said they said they hated retail, but sales skills can get you really decent money if you are a good talker (I am not). I know it might sound slightly boring but finding a more specialized sales job (at least temporarily) might mean you could take a step up from paycheck-to-paycheck. Being able to talk to people is a very valuable skill.
    Also, also, the power of networking is ultra valuable. Talk to all of your friends about how you are looking for something new, find a volunteer opportunity in the area you are interested in. I’ve helped several people get hired at my company, and gotten a number of freelance jobs from that kind of thing.

    1. I’ve worked for NFPs that made learning software, and while not a super well-paid job, it seemed like a much less soul-draining sales job. (They weren’t even called sales; it was something like enrollment specialists/coordinator/some such.) Most of their job was just talking to schools and principals and teachers and school boards about how the software works and how it could help their school, not really any hard selling at all.

      And I second the Captain’s advice that NFPs are ALWAYS looking for people with sales experience to work in fundraising/development. It’s its own kind of special, but very different from hard sales.

    2. Sales is different depending on what and where and who. VERY different, sometimes.
      Selling retail items to the public can be soul draining. You are mostly in a public space with little recharge time off the floor, and while individual people can be lovely, when I worked retail my opinion of people at large went down, tumbling down, plummeting downward.
      I have also done customer service at a company that was selling machinery to other companies. This was so much better than my retail position. I was in an office, with a desk, and a chair(I love you, chair!), and cubical walls. The phone calls and faxes were from other people working at companies, and the companies were the customers. People behaved so much better than the general public, and, if someone was rude to me, my bosses had my back(company to company sales is better than retail, but, not perfect in this. Hazards vary). I didn’t have to be “on” all the time. Dress code was business casual in the office. Inside sales is often an entry level job to the next level along, depending on the company. If the company is promising the moon and stars, though, look for the catch. Inside sales covers a LOT of things, and a lot of setups.
      My late husband was in a sales position selling to other companies. He was outside sales, and he drove around lots to job sites to meet customers and see the problems that his products would be fixing. He did have to dress up more, and keep his company car shiny and presentable. He ate fast food for lunch all over the county, and there was very very little routine about his job. He did have to approach new customers and he made presentations occasionally. There were annoying things about his job(unrealistic sales expectations, like expecting phenomenal growth always, even in a mature market), but, what he liked to focus on was solving his customers’ problems. An outside sales job often includes commission on top of salary.
      More specialized sales jobs might be like the outside sales job, but, with a more detailed and technical view of one particular product, and probably a much larger territory covered not by car, but, by plane. The dress code and travel requirements tend to ramp up. The ability to hit it off with people right away or communicate really well by email or phone becomes essential. You may need to be able to teach(possibly teach groups) or trouble shoot on the customer’s site. You will probably have someone to help you coordinate back at the home office, but, that person may be supporting a team.

  22. The Captain gives excellent advice here (love the part about how it’s 15% writing/editing resumes and 85% moral support/career encouragement–so accurate) and would be an outstanding career counselor if she chose to enter the field. Given the LW’s retail experience and ability to talk to anyone, I concur with those who have said to explore development, whether university or nonprofit or wherever. I think it’s critical to suss out a cause or issue or topic that the LW finds engaging or interesting or important. Sales (because that’s what development is) can be much more rewarding and much less draining if one believes in the product/service/mission one is selling. In a fairly long career, I’ve only encountered a handful of what I would call “pure” sales types–those who could sell anything to anyone (ie, balloons to a porcupine), because it was the challenge of sales itself that they dug. Most people in my experience tend to be more effective (and fulfilled) if they’re selling/persuading something that they care about or otherwise believe in. If the LW can figure that out (individually or with a career advisor or other trusted person), that may help.

    Finally, the liberal arts background is a credential only–it’s the skills you acquire during (and perhaps sometimes despite) that education that one needs to be able to articulate to a prospective employer. Good luck to the LW!

  23. And this is why I ended up joining the Air Force after a year of flailing around after I got my bachelor’s. But I think it’s a good career move for me, and it can at least get me established on my own feet and the fuck out of this flyover state I’m in.

  24. As another person from a tiny school that no one has heard of, it does get discouraging when people ask where you went and respond with “huh?” Whenever it comes up now, I end up mentioning it with a few sentences that are pretty much something that excited me about being there as a student. So, depending on social context, I would mention how much the music classes helped me develop, or that we had a frog pond in the library, how it was the first place I encountered regular political activism and started seriously checking my privilege, or, in really informal conversations, awkward stories that come from seeing everyone who attended every day. This is only really for more friend-like or maybe networking conversations, but I think working on describing your school positively might help you worry about it less. If nothing else, in the short term it makes for a more memorable answer.

    1. THISSSS. I am another person from a tiny school that (almost!) no one has heard of, but there is a very small, fiercely close-knit and proud alumni community grounded in a sense that it is a unique and amazing school that does liberal arts education fundamentally differently from anyone else. (And it really, kind of, does. The school is not quite as actually unique as it thinks it is, but it’s definitely radical and innovative.) The reactions I get to the name of the school are about 95% “…where?” and about 5% [widened eyes] “Oh, awesome!” I own it partly because hey, there’s always the possibility of connecting with the 5%, and partly because the same qualities (in myself, and in the institution, and in the temperamental compatibility between the two) that made me thrive at that school are things I’m looking for in my quest for a workplace where I will thrive.

      I’m not sure how helpful this is for the LW, because zie talks about a bad experience, but I wonder how much of that is filtered through the current lense of frustration and discouragement.

    2. …Just out of curiosity, was your school mascot the llama?

      For the LW:

      The first five years out of college, I worked as an ESL teacher and a caretaker for developmentally disabled adults. When I started moving into computer-science-IT-ish stuff, I found to my utter surprise that my first two careers had given me a bunch of really, really useful skills for my dream job. I could break down a complicated task into pieces a computer could understand because that was something I did on a regular basis for my clients.

    3. I went to one of these places too! (no llama mascots or frog pond libraries though). But yeah, interviewing for grad schools was depressing, because so many of my fellow interviewees went to Big Well Known State U or Famous Top 20 School and outside of one program I interviewed at with regional proximity, no one had heard of my <1500 student obscure but super cool and innovative liberal arts college.

      (for the record, there were other people from obscure little colleges, too, so don't have your takeaway from this story be "people from obscure liberal arts colleges can't go to grad school").

  25. “But you have skills, and I think you can stop underselling them and I think you can let go of the idea that you have failed somehow if your school wasn’t a direct launching pad to exactly the kind of work you want to do.”

    So much this. Captain’s point about marketing yourself for the skills that you have (because LW, you DO have skills) is spot on. Find ways to call out skills you learned while getting your BA. Organization, Microsoft Office, time management, communication (WHICH IS HUGE!!!), etc. Worked on group projects? You can communicate well with others and see a project to completion. Wrote research papers? You can use multiple tools to conduct research, analyze the results and write with organization and clarity. Stuff like that. Many entry-level employers just get excited that you have experience with Word and Excel, TBH. And for my state government, just having a BA regardless of major makes you eligible for a slightly higher-paying entry-level analyst position. So all is not lost! Best best best of luck to you!

  26. “What strategies have worked for you all in changing careers and figuring out what you want to do?”

    Learning the lingo. I’m a Business Analyst – I never, *ever* knew what that was until I read a description of the job posting for the position I have now. I thought to myself, “This is actually a THING? This is a real job?” You see, I fix stuff. I improve the way people work. That’s called Process Improvement and I’ve been doing it forever in a day at every job I’ve ever had where I complained about how inefficient EVERYTHING was. I just didn’t know what it was called and that there are 1,000,000 books written on the subject. *Check. Yep, part of what a BA does. I also write. A lot. And I explain to other people how to do stuff. How to do their jobs, step by step… what the best methods are… and how to use our company’s software, etc. Technical documentation skills? System Administration? *Check. Yep, also part of what a BA does. So it will come to you in time, once you find an area you want to work in… but learning the jargon was more than half the battle for me. And every single industry has its own “What, that’s a real thing people get paid to do?” job… and you’ll stumble upon it and you’ll love it.

    Take a serious inventory of what you do _well_ and I swear there’s a job out there that uses all of it.

    1. To LW – I should mention that I majored in art history and ceramics. Working for a bank now. But I’ve also been a production designer for film and theater. Listen to The Captain… one does not necessarily have anything to do w/the other! I still love tapping into my art background, but I went to school to *learn* – the BA stuff pays the bills and still makes me happy. Good luck in your search!

    2. YES. ME TOO. BA foreva. You mean I can get paid to tell my boss why he is bad at his job and why he should do things my way? This is an actual job description? Not just something I get it trouble for? No, something you actively want me to do? Mind-blown and career=identified.

  27. I don’t want to leave my detailed work history here, because it would identify me in a heartbeat. Suffice to say:
    * I got a fairly technical bachelor’s degree with no clue what I wanted to do with it.
    * Taught for a year in that field, because I thought teaching would be rewarding enough to stoke the fires of my passion.
    * Taught for a while longer in a different, wholly unrelated field that I happened to be qualified in at a time when that field was needed; see above.
    * Bailed on teaching, went to grad school in my initial field despite no passion for it whatsoever because it was a parents-acceptable way to quit teaching while I figured out what I actually wanted.
    * During the course of winding down teaching and grad school, did some side projects I *was* passionate about, and when I burned out on grad school, figured out how to parlay those projects into a career, at which I’ve worked, off and on, for over a decade.

    LW, there is NOTHING wrong with taking a job you aren’t 100% sure about if you aren’t sure what you want to do. I don’t regret my time in the academic trenches, even though it turned out to be a blind alley, because going down that alley gave me the time to learn what it was I really wanted to do, and gave me the freedom to pursue that path when it opened up in front of me (a path that would NOT have been open years earlier).

  28. I did a science degree, but am currently a customer services/copywriting minion in a web dev company, so I have some ability to talk about changing careers.

    I am lucky in that my area is a hive of tech start ups, so I got myself into the community (there is some form of geeky/techy/startup thing going on every day where I live) before getting a job and that helped me a lot. Of course, I wasn’t working your long hours, so I can totally understand if you get home and go ‘ugh, nope’.

    You have so many transferable skills! I definitely agree that you could probably re-jig your resume/CV to focus on your ability to deal with retail and the 60-hour a week job you do right now, and the things you’ve achieved there.

    The communication with everyone is an awesome skill! I worked in a pharmacy, so that is my super power too, and I mention it all the time. Admittedly, I enjoy doing customer support (I’m a helper), so that’s how I spun it? But you can definitely use it to your advantage!

    Things I’ve learned from Ask A Manager that I honestly think got me this job – the cover letter is your place to shine. Make suer your cover letter gets across why the job you’re applying for is awesome. You don’t have to be really formal, she advises to write your cover letter as if you’re writing to a friend or family member about this awesome job, rather than a more formal approach.

    Everyone has left brilliant comments on various career paths, and I hope you find something useful, LW!

  29. LW, have you already sought out informational interviews with people in the fields you’re considering? That’s a good first step if you want to break into a field and you don’t know where to begin. Talking to someone who’s established in a career will also give you some good information about what the day-to-day tasks in an entry level job will look like; you may find that the first steps of your career path will look very similar to what you’re already doing, or you may find that you’ll need to learn new skills just to get started. If you can’t find anyone in your area to speak to, that will give you some important information too. I’ve heard that film jobs tend to cluster up in certain cities, and other industries that need to draw from a pool of highly trained people also tend to be limited geographically.

    It’s also perfectly all right to be unsure about what you want to do for a long term career, even if you’ve been out of school for a while. If you need to take more time to decide which career path is right for you, that’s ok. Many of the people I know with fulfilling careers got started their fields without believing they’d ever find a “dream job” there.

  30. Freelancing! Elance, 99Designs and Fiverr don’t pay a lot, but if you have interest in anything creative and any skills related to that, you can make some money copyediting/writing/designing posters/providing voiceover/filming and editing 1 minute videos/whatever. And then you have a portfolio of work, which is 1,000x more valuable than a degree IMO. I say this as someone with a film degree and work experience who now petsits dogs, writes/publishes short stories, and designs book covers. If you own a computer and have 30 minutes a day, there are a lot of things you can do that will help you a) make money and b) gain skills.

  31. Others have commented more knowledgeably than I can about the US legal jobs market. I just wanted to add that I became a lawyer in my forties (I studied part-time for my law degree while doing a very boring job which I detested but happily was both well paid and had flexible hours) and I absolutely love my work. I wouldn’t say however that I have ever felt ‘passionate’ about the law as an abstract concept and I don’t engage much on an everyday level with big-picture ideas of justice nor do I orate in court (oh to be given enough time by the judge to actually make a speech!). But I also don’t spend my time pushing paper. I love my work because it there is plenty of variety, I meet a lot of different people, I have a lot of control over how I manage and approach my work and a lot of responsibility for the outcomes, but mainly because I get to solve interesting problems which have both an intellectual and personal/emotional component (I believe the ability to deal with both aspects of an issue is my main go-to mad skill). I also like the autonomy and the people I work with but the main source of satisfaction is feeling like I have helped someone sort out something really important to them (their divorce) in a constructive way and made them feel supported.

    I am earning less than half of what I did in my previous career but am much happier. What I hated about my previous career (in public service) was the feeling that I couldn’t get anything done because ten million people had to agree to any policy change and the meetings:decision ration was about fifteen to one. I could still be there now, nearly five years later, and I would have achieved nothing. As others have said, analysing what really satisfies you about a job is so important, but you need to gather real-world information about what the job is like to do day-to-day.

    I also think it’s essential to give yourself permission to let go of all the ‘shoulds’ about a job or career. We get so many messages about this and it can be hard to drill down through the social crap to find out what you really want out of a job. Goodness knows I wasted quite a bit of time convincing myself that I should love *this job*! It pays well! Great prospects! Other people would be so grateful to to have my job! I have so much experience in the field, I can’t start again! ALL SAID THROUGH GRITTED TEETH COS I HATE HATE HATED IT.

    Finally, throughout a 25+ year career, I would say my ability to get stuff done (that is, plan, prioritise, problem solve, coordinate, set and meet deadlines and get other people to do the same without pissing everyone off in the process) has got me more jobs/promotions than any kind of technical or academic skillset. You sound like you could do that just fine and it’s surprising how many people can’t so don’t underestimate how much the practical stuff matters. Good luck whatever you choose to do next!

  32. Oh my gosh thank you so much for publishing my letter! There is an abundance of great advice here and it’s going to take me some time to get through it all. I know I am a little too hard on myself when it comes to this stuff but my confidence has really taken a hit after failing so many times. However, This response has given me great hope knowing that pretty much everyone struggled like this at first and that I’ve got to be more forgiving of myself. Thanks again awkward army!

    1. I really appreciate you sending this letter in, because while my experience isn’t *really* along the same lines, I feel like I’m daunted by a lot of the same things you seem daunted by. I’m glad it’s helping you!

    2. This response has given me great hope knowing that pretty much everyone struggled like this at first

      This is one of the key messages I wish I could get a across to students as a careers adviser! I can’t speak for North America, but certainly in the UK, the “couple of years of flail” has been a reasonably common part of a graduate career path since the early 80s or late 70s, and possibly earlier, particularly for people who have a general degree rather than a vocationally specific one. I used to see so many graduates who would look at people 15 years older than them and be convinced that they’d walked straight out of university into secure, exciting, challenging, intellectually satisfying jobs, and it’s just never been true. (Even when only a tiny minority went to university and they pretty much did all go straight into jobs, they certainly weren’t necessarily “exciting” or “intellectually satisfying”.) It takes most of us a good few years to work it out.

      Good luck, LW!

  33. I really liked the Captain’s list of things she was paid to do early in her career and want to highlight one take-back. And that is…most jobs suck for a fairly long period of time because it normally takes institutions a long while (sometimes 5 or more years) to be convinced that you will not screw things up. And this is because in business, the stakes for messing up are real. Send someone a memo with the wrong number in the wrong place and the company may be liable to honor a lower price than intended. Which is to say that even though what you are experiencing may be depressing, it is not the case that all of your peers have miraculously soul-nourishing, highly-paid jobs.

    I’m a person who likes a learning curve and gets bored once I’ve figured out an job/organization and have therefore switched around a fair bit. I would suggest being in your current job long enough to build a reputation as a valuable worker (at least one year) and then look to move in one of two ways: change industries, not jobs (for example, you continue to do sales, but now sell film rights) or keep the industry, change the job. Move to a competitor or similar firm where the duties are more to your liking.

    It’s much easier to convince not particularly creative thinking hiring managers to take you seriously if you can offer substantial experience in either the skill-set or the market. You may have to have an interim job before you get over to your goal, or you may find out that you are even better at other things or have a preference you didn’t realize until you tried it. The main thing is not to get swallowed up by your organization (keep your eyes on what you really want/where you want to be) and keep being a good worker. The world is smaller than it seems and LinkedIn will keep you up to date on who is where. You may find that in a year or two a colleague or a boss leaves and moves to a company you would like to work for, and because they know you as a great employee, you have an easy in.

    Establishing yourself at the beginning is hardest, but it’s handy that it hooks up with the time in life that you also have the most free-flowing social life. Later in your career the work will be a lot more interesting but typically you have a lot less time and energy commiserate with friends after work.

    Good luck LW!

  34. As I understand it, the *only* good reason to go back for a second degree (aside from just wanting a degree in that subject) is to get a STEM degree. I see a lot of people doing that. But if your goal is to increase employment opportunity, a degree in film is not going to help you. An undergrad degree in law wouldn’t help either, but fortunately you don’t need an undergrad degree in law to go to law *school,* so you could do that if you wanted. I think the Captain’s advice is best, though.

    1. STEM degrees are only useful for people who have an interest and aptitude for STEM. Sorry, reacting to the “well you should have gotten a STEM degree then” comment that is part of every higher ed discussion.

      1. …or, you have the interest and aptitude for the education but less interest in the job that is supposed to follow. That was my problem. I don’t regret the education, but yeah, it didn’t lead me to directly to employment.

      2. That wasn’t what I intended my point to be; I’m sorry it came off that way. It’s just that most of the time, the important thing is having a bachelor’s, not necessarily what your bachelor’s is in. This is different for STEM fields, in which you need a STEM degree, or so I’ve been told.

    2. Eh, sometimes there are jobs that you actually have to have a specific degree to take (or one of a small handful of specific degrees) either because a professional license is tied to it or because there is some other legal thing that says “you must have this background to do this job at all.” Sometimes it actually is “must have THIS degree” but sometimes it is “must have X credit hours in Subject or Combination-of-Subjects” so if you’re looking for a job that seems to work on that basis you might need to know what is actually a big deal for legal purposes. Check your local listings.

      (I work in the budget office of a government agency that does a lot of human services contracting. The definition of things like who may be considered a “Qualified Intellectual Disability Professional” for Medicaid funding purposes is something I spend a lot of time with.)

      1. Oh yeah, sure, there are exceptions, but most of the time, the important thing is having *a* bachelor’s rather than having a specific bachelor’s. Like the Captain mentioned, a bachelor’s is supposed to teach you how to think in ways that will be useful in a job that requires that kind of thought, and it also demonstrates the ability to stick with one thing and finish it without the kind of help most people get in high school. That’s all I was trying to say; I’m sorry it came off as another “should have gotten a STEM degree” comment. I know those are worse than useless. STEM fields are just uuuuuusually the only fields that require a specific degree. Not always, but usually.

    3. I am nearly done with a science degree. So far, I have made more money doing art than doing science. I don’t expect that to change any time soon.

  35. LW, maybe my story will be useful to you: I wanted to work in film and TV, so when I graduated college, I started out as a production assistant, then progressed to production coordinator, then production manager. I hated my life and everything about my job. But I learned a valuable lesson. Wanting to “be” something is not the same as enjoying/being suited for the actual day-to-day of that particular job. In order to find a field that you can enjoy and excel at, I think it’s really important to think and explore the minutia of your own personality and what types of environments make you flourish or wilt. For example, a production manager needs to not only be skilled at managing money and keeping things organized (an obvious requirement of the job), but they also need to be able to say NO to people, to push back, and to constantly be arguing and negotiating over money. Although I posses the technical skills required of a production manager (organization, experience with the position, etc) I absolutely do not posses the ‘personality’ of a production manager – I’m a people pleaser, I hate saying no, I hate arguing, I hate negotiating, etc. I discovered that I absolutely have the right personality for a casting director – a casting director spends a lot of time chatting up many different people and making them feel at ease while privately analyzing them. That’s a quality that comes to me naturally. I’m now working in the same field but in this different position, and I’m so much happier. It takes time and patience to figure out, not just what you want to BE, but what type of day-to-day routine and working environment will suit your personality. So for this reason, i think the LW would do well to try out as much as they can before going back to school. The captain’s advice is good – try getting a low-level job in a law firm or on a film set and just see how you feel about it. Do the intensity and the long hours make you feel excited and alive, or burned out and resentful? I know plenty of people who quit the film industry because they’re unhappy unless they’re home by 6pm to cook dinner with their partner, and there’s no shame in that. I know people who dreamed of being documentary filmmakers who now find that they’re much happier working in reality TV because the gigs are more predictable, and they value that. Figuring out what you want to “be” can be a very abstract process, but figuring out what you’re personally suited for on a very small, very day-to-day level is perhaps more manageable, and possibly more valuable. I would start by asking myself the following types of questions: am I introverted or extroverted? Do i thrive when working alone, one-on-one, in small groups, or when directing large groups? Do I like working in an office setting or would I rather work outdoors/with my hands/etc? Do I like doing the same thing most days or do I crave difference in routine? Do I want money purely to cover the basics or do I desire wealth? Do I prefer to lead, follow, or work alone? Is traveling for work a positive or a negative? Do I want work to be my life, or do I want a ton of time outside work to pursue family/hobbies/whatever else? What are my skills? What types of situations make me anxious/unhappy? Etc, etc etc.

  36. I second and third and umpteenth all the commenters here saying Do Not Go To Law School, unless of course, you have an reeeealy good idea of what the practice of law actually looks like, and you are passionate about what that looks like.

    Because you know what lawyers do? Lawyers are Customer Service Represenatatives for the Law. You know those folks at AT&T or worse at the local utilities company you have to call when your shit breaks or something doesn’t work. Or even better, your internet company. Yeah, you don’t really like them, do you. But you have to deal with them. They’re there to serve a specific purpose you need served, to solve your damn urgent and messy problem with all expeditiousness and a modicum of sympathy, and then make you feel appreciated for the chance to serve you. Well, that’s what lawyers do. As a class of professional servants. For the law. Because no one understands the law, we all need these specially trained advocates to access it for us, and we go to them in our times of need, not because we just really love hanging out with these people.

    If you’re ready to be that person, and to have a sales aspect on top of that (c’mon, get out there and find more people or more businesses who need our special customer servicing for the law, yay rah, business development), then you’re ready to be a lawyer. Or to work at a call center. Because it’s essentially the same thing.

    I say this as a hard working paralegal who majored in Poli Sci and English and who was going to go to law school, until a family friend told me, “Work at a law firm for a year.” I rolled my eyes until he said, “It will look good on your law school applications.” So I did it. And I realized, oh hell no, I don’t want to be a lawyer!

    I have great respect for many of the attorneys I’ve worked with. And great sympathy for their monstrous student loans, and the fact many of them didn’t really want to end up being a special professional servant class for distressed people or for poorly organized businesses. It’s a brutal profession, really. They work until 11:00 pm or 2:00 am on the regular. At least I get to go home by 8:00 pm. It’s not pretty. And there are too many attorneys on the market. As a paralegal, I am now competing with J.D. Paralegals. That is, paralegals who went to law school, earned their J.D.’s and now can’t find work as attorneys, so they’re willing to do anything approximating substantive legal work, even if that means being a paralegal at $50k a year instead of an attorney at $150k. Just try paying your student loans on that. They market is severely oversaturated.

    And all the attorneys I’ve worked with laugh ruefully when I bring out my Customer Service Rep for the Law analogy. Because they know it’s true.

  37. Depending on where you live community colleges might be a good resource job-wise. Sometimes they have individual courses that you can take without enrolling as a full-time student, which would be good not only for exploring your interests and padding your resume but also for networking. The community college here partnered with a bunch of businesses to provide IT certification courses on the cheap, and I ended up getting an entry-level job much cushier than retail because I impressed the teacher. It was free for me because they waived the fee if you were under a certain income level.
    Keep your chin up, OP. Being able to deal with and persuade difficult and demanding people is a serious skill. If you can do that you can make a lot of things happen for yourself. I hope you’re able to find work that you love that sustains you.
    Sidenote: why is it that whenever ‘I want to go back to school’ comes up there’s always someone who goes ‘that is a terrible idea and you will regret it’, like the asker doesn’t already know the risks? (That’s rhetorical, I know why that is, it just deeply annoys me.)

  38. Also check your local library and ask the reference librarians for info on financial awards/scholarships. You will not BELIEVE some of the scholarships available! When I was working on my Master’s degree for Information Sciences (librarian) they offered scholarships and awards to folks who were minorities, or folks who were interested in Special Librarianship, or folks who were interested in Medical Librarianship, or folks…you get the idea. Even if your local library doesn’t carry many of the Scholarship handbooks that are published every year, they might be able to borrow one from another library or tell you which library owns one so you can go make photocopies.

    Community colleges are a marvelous resource, too. I’m a librarian at one and our institution prides itself on predicting job needs. For instance we have degrees/certifications for Surgical Technology and just started a program for Somnology technicians (sleep study techs). With an increasing Baby Boomer population with a corresponding increase in medical needs these were just two areas that are exploding!

    Go talk to your librarians, and if one is massively unhelpful (unfortunately it happens), go during a different shift and talk to someone else. Don’t give up!

  39. Temping is amazing. Just saying.

    When I was in high school and college, my dad really really really wanted me to become a lawyer “because I like arguing.”

    I recently was fired from my sales job (primarily because I hate sales) and signed up with a temp agency.

    I got a temp two-week placement at a law office even though I don’t have law experience because my typing skills are pretty good (thank you, Mavis Beacon).

    That two week temp placement has turned into a temp-to-possibly-perm placement as they kept extending the contract. At first, I was really glad that I didn’t go to law school, because the current field I am working in is way more paper pushing and sad than I could deal with as one of the lawyers. But! I have been doing my research by talking with paralegals in the office about their experiences, since most have worked in other fields of law. They had some great suggestions for me about where I ultimately might want to 10-year-plan my career.

  40. On getting further credentials: don’t take another degree unless you’re really sure. It’s just too expensive. However, if you think learning in a formal setting could help you, consider other types of diplomas and certificates. I don’t know what it’s like outside of Ontario, but when I completed my degree and didn’t want to work in the field I’d trained in (it was, actually, a professional degree, so there was an obvious type of job I was supposed to be looking for,) my friend suggested I look at graduate certificates, which are programs open to people with a degree to build skills in the professional realm. Ultimately, I realized I was a maker, and took a diploma course that trained me for a specific job that is sort of like a trade. It cost much less in time and money than a degree. That’s what I do now. It’s a small field (which is why I’m not naming what I do,) so I don’t expect to do it forever. I have reasons to stay put geographically and there are a limited number of jobs in my city doing what I do. However, I’m confident in my maker skills, and ability to pick up new maker skills, so I’ll probably move on to other maker-type jobs when my time in my current field is up.

  41. I love this thread! LOVE. There is far too little discussion of the practical issues around finding a suitable job track and the means to getting on said track. Honestly, one of the very best things I ever did was to go find people who did cool things and then contact them, even if they were strangers. When I decided to go back to school, I researched a bunch of masters and Ph.D. programs, looked at their alumni lists (nearly every school publishes somewhere on a website a humblebrag list of each year’s graduates and where they are now– I recently just filled out such a survey from my alumni association). Sometimes those lists have emails. Or I just found people at organizations I like with cool- sounding jobs. I had a nice, short form email explaining that I was interested in their field, they seemed to have a great career, and whether it would be ok if we had a short email or phone conversation so I could ask them about their grad programs and jobs, and any advice they might have for an eager young person. I was really amazed at how many people were willing to give me a half an hour or so. I learned a lot about which grad programs were well-funded, which had evil advisors who turned a two year masters into a five year purgatory, what programs had active career services offices, and whether people felt like their degree prepared them for the job they wanted (that was a really useful question, actually). Sometimes, these people became contacts who I referenced in my job applications.

    Also, for what it’s worth– film and law are two very intensive, demanding callings (and I think they kind of need to be callings in order to have any sort of career longevity, even if you have an intense calling to read case laws and analyze them). As a former theatre student, I would really suggest you try out the law and film stuff before signing up for a lot of student loans. Loving film does not necessarily mean you will love 15 hour days and days spent in the editing bay, and cajoling people into doing what you want, potentially all on your own dime. You might find that you love these things but that they are not really livable for you in the day to day. If you could think of a really great day, one that felt really fulfilling and happy, what would that day look like?

  42. There is another option: why not try to NOT get a new job? You already have a job, even if you hate it. Who says you won’t get a new job and hate that too?

    Stick with me here. I’m not suggesting quitting your day job. But you can try and find stuff on the side that makes money. Write a little 99cent eBook about something you love, publish it on Amazon, and see what happens. Buy some vending machines, place them around town and sell rolled up poetry in them. Start guest blogging about [insert passion here] and see if you can eventually turn your posts into a book, or start getting paid to write. Invent a widget, then find the people that can help you build it. Offer a fivver project. Try doing a Kickstarter. Start a band. Figure out enough coding to throw something up online or make a phone app and sell it in an App store. Start your own home business. Even if none of these work out, at least you’ve got experience to put on your resume.

    Then, if one of these ideas starts to getting you money, you could start cutting down on your hours at the day job and start doing you passion thing. You may even get lucky, and stumble upon a genius money-making cash cow and be able to quit your day job.

    1. As someone who did not quit her day job, started a business as a side project, misfiled a tax return and had her state’s revenue office believing she owed them $30,000 (on a business that lost money) for two years while they put a lien on her income… if your freelancing starts making money, you will have to figure out your taxes. This isn’t impossible! But it is a necessary step. And it may be too stressful to deal with freelancing tax paperwork while also working a day job–it was for me.

      I’m not saying don’t follow your dream. I’m saying look at all aspects of your dream and plan for what you’re up to, then follow your dream.

    2. “Start guest blogging about [insert passion here] and see if you can eventually turn your posts into a book, or start getting paid to write.”

      Even if blogging about [passion] does not lead to a book or a paid writing gig, having your Internet presence/identity include “writes knowledgeably about [passion] regularly” looks really good when trying to get a job related to [passion]. Answering questions on whatever Stack Exchange site applies to [passion] is good too. (I didn’t see one for law but there is one for video production.)

      “Figure out enough coding to throw something up online or make a phone app and sell it in an App store.”

      Fair warning: This is going to cost some money and if you have no programming experience it will not be easy. I’m not trying to scare the LW away from doing it but they shouldn’t think that they can just knock it out in a weekend either.

  43. With skills, there are two MASSIVE BEAR TRAPS you can fall into. Bear trap #1 is thinking the things you can do are the only things worth doing and people who can’t do similar things are useless. Bear trap #2 is thinking that the things you can do are not worth anything. These can both stem from the typical mind fallacy: i.e. that the things you find easy are the things everyone finds easy.

    You say you can communicate with “just about anyone”. Does this include children? People with disabilities which affect their ability to communicate? People who are currently scared/angry? Because these are skills that are massively useful and that people are willing to pay for. You could become a social worker with those skills. Or a teacher, political adviser, business consultant… The possibilities are endless.

    I don’t know if you have something similar in your country, but in the UK we have a thing called the Citizen’s Advice Bureau. Anyone can go there and get free legal advice. When you start working/volunteering there, you mostly staple things, and when they’re convinced that you’ve not cocked up the stapling enough times, they start to train you to talk to people and advise them (or at least send them to the right place to be advised). If there’s something similar, then you could do legal work without needing a qualification, use your communication skills and do something that makes a difference. Or you could burn out because there are some people you just can’t help. It all depends.

    And finally, some things I’ve learned in my (relatively short) job hunt (in another country):
    – Job descriptions are written in about 3 minutes (one offered 23,000/day because nobody had ever proofread it)
    – Companies ask for more qualifications/experience than they actually expect, just in case it works
    – Any job experience is useful
    – If you have kickass results for some of your degree courses, you can list them on your CV. I credit every interview I’ve had with those two lines that say 96%. Perhaps less relevant than 8 years of customer-facing experience though.

  44. I have a BA and an MA in Communications — a routinely mocked career field (seriously, Dave Barry, the Simpsons, countless others…). I didn’t know what I wanted to do when I went to university, and I applied to communications because it sounded interesting and also easy (I was 19, I was a moron).

    I’ve always loved to write, and I always thought I would grow up to be a writer — one day I still hope to do that. My job involves taking language and making it palatable for the general public. I write speeches, I do media relations, I write news releases, I provide advice to people on what might be good things to say or bad things to say… in short, I communicate.

    I never would have dreamed I’d have the job I have, and for the first few years of my career I wasn’t sure if this would be my forever field. Then I found a job where I was treated with respect and valued, and I decided I could probably do this long-term. There have been ups and downs, and right now the field isn’t in the best shape, but we’ll see where things stand after the next election, I suppose.

    Anyhow, all of that to say, just like the commentor whose husband’s degree is in fish management (awesome, btw), a ‘useless’ degree doesn’t have to be. Not everyone I work with has degrees in communications — there’s a lot of literature, English, French, public relations, public administration, journalism, etc., — and a lot of the job is learned by doing, but the degree is a starting point for the field.

    If one of your strong skill sets is communicating, don’t knock it. When you work with people who write/communicate all day every day, you quickly learn to suss out those who are actually good at it from those that aren’t. Or those who can think strategically/provide good advice — again, another important skill set.

    And finally, my MA’s research paper was focused on semiotics, masculinity and the Hero’s Quest of Spike from Buffy the Vampire Slayer… I can promise you that’s never been relevant to my professional career. More’s the pity.

    1. Jen, your research paper sounds awesome! I’d read the hell out of that.
      LW, I’d like to second all the excellent advice from the Captain and people above. I wish I’d had it when I graduated! In the UK there’s a disparaging nickname for ‘useless’ degrees – the Mickey Mouse degree. So when I tell people that I did American Studies…well. The crap jokes, I’ve heard ’em all. It’s also key to think about what kind of ‘life’ you want, as well as what kind of ‘job’ – do I want to be able to work from home? Travel? Work the 9-5, and leave work at the door, rather than taking it home with me? That sort of thing.
      You sound like a good egg and I wish you every success.

  45. I had several years of jobs I felt meh about out of college, where the question of What To Do With My Life just generated serious anxiety and no forward momentum. I ended up with a long train commute for several months and committed to spend that time each day addressing the question head-on. I ended up working through a book called The Pathfinder, and even though it seems really cheesy, it changed my life. The exercises tease out what’s important to you about a job, and then how to go find that job. Things like whether you want to work independently or in groups, how much value you place on money/prestige/good hours/Doing Good, etc., which skills and interests of yours leave you feeling dissatisfied if they aren’t used, and much more. I ended up with some ideas about possible fields and jobs, doing a bunch of informational interviews and ultimately going back to grad school. I’m still there – I’m loving it, and I have a realistic (I think) idea of the types of jobs I’ll be able to get when I leave, good internships and professional connections, and most of my degree is paid for by research grants.

    I had a huge amount of trouble motivating myself when thinking about career stuff just created amorphous feelings of dread and angst. Once I found the spark of “Hey, I want to do that!,” figuring out how to make it happen was a lot of work but very doable, because I was actually excited about the possibilities and even the steps along the way. Finding that spark took forcing myself through some steps that I thought were dumb or unpleasant, but The Pathfinder really helped. And I’m not affiliated with the author or publisher, I swear!

  46. I don’t have time to read comments now (alas) so this may have already been brought up, but: a cover letter is going to be your best friend here. Because most people have the basic skills that are required for an entry level job, and most people have unrelated degrees, so there’s a ton about how you present them on your resume, but with a cover letter you can get specific to each job. You can look at the list of General Unexciting Skills You Have and figure out specifics of how they would come in handy in each role you apply for.

    You did the scheduling or ordering for Awful Retail Job? “When I worked at ___, I was responsible for maintaining the schedule, which taught me how to keep track of different moving pieces to make sure every one was accounted for. The organizing and prioritizing skills I learned doing that will help me handle ______.” (Where that blank is something required in the job listing.) You may not have experience in that field, but the experiences you do have will still apply somehow; if you can draw that connection to them in a clear, well written manner, it’ll stand out.

  47. I think that not knowing what you want to do a year or so out of graduation is pretty common, and not that huge of a deal. I did not really know what I wanted to do right out of college. I started temping after I graduated college for a variety of reasons completely unrelated to the job I was doing and ended up working in that field for 10 years, after which I went back to school. I am now in the middle of a PhD in the same general field as where I ended up working.

    I think you are selling yourself short a little bit when you say your BA is worthless and you have no skills. The ability to communicate is a skill. Sales is a skill I will never have. A BA is a worthwhile thing to have, even as a credential, even if you have no further interest in the subject and its not directly applicable to any job. A BA, regardless of subject, will communicate to an employer that you have at least the ability to pay attention and follow directions, which is a skill too.

    I think it would be worthwhile to think about the life you want to lead. At least among my friends, most people I know that didn’t have a burning passion for a particular subject but also wanted to eat ended up as paralegals or administrators of some sort. It seems like a kind of persistant myth that there is One True Job out there for everyone, and you just have to find it. Its ok to not have a huge passion for something and to go out to find a job that pays the bills with the least amount of soul sucking. My experience is that most employers are looking for people who are easy to get along with and won’t make problems, and skills come more or less second. Technically brilliant but difficult to work with people make for good novels and TV but seem to not be all that successful in real life (at least in my experience). Good luck!

  48. When I was in your position (Fine Art degree, ’nuff said), I did a successful life reboot by getting a Masters in Library and Info Science. You don’t have to want to work in a library (though if you are good with people, you may enjoy it) – but the degree gives you a background in boring yet marketable things like information management, databases architecture, staff management, organization evaluation practices, and any access to any tech skills (learn HTML, at least) you might want to pick up. It goes well with any BA, and gave me access to careers in libraries, schools, museums, publishing companies, educational institutions and education related companies and non-profits, any corporation large enough to have a database or internal library. To the right employers, it’s extremely attractive, and easy to get (just… maybe don’t choose a school as expensive as I did, because loans are no joke.)

    Maybe it won’t appeal to you, but if you’re looking for a good, marketable degree that isn’t law or business, I would humbly suggest it as an option.

  49. Marketable isn’t always the way to go. I earned a very marketable degree- Information Systems in the late 1990’s was THE hot career. But I didn’t really like a lot of the day-to-day environment. Luckily, I fell into a student job as a peer advisor, which led to a career in academic advising- something I never planned on doing.
    It wasn’t my coding skills that got me my job, it was my ability to learn policies/procedures and communicate well. The degree was the baseline- to be in my field, you need at minimum a bachelor’s degree, and which one doesn’t really matter.

    As someone who is currently happy in a university environment, I definitely recommend looking there for careers. Development, fund raising, public affairs, records and registration, academic or financial aid advising- there are lots of opportunities for a good communicator.

  50. I run my own business now, in the visual arts, but for the first five years of my “career” I had a series of full-time and part-time jobs (while I did my own artwork in spare moments, late at night). I was insanely lucky that all of those job titles were at least tangentially related to my degree and desired field. And they had the added benefit of giving me enough stability to pay off my student loans.

    The job titles mattered little, though, because what I actually did for pay was pretty much everything on the Captain’s list of marketable skills. (Oh, the things I unfucked!)

    Now that my business is stable enough to be my “day job” (and night job and weekend/holiday job, all at once), guess what I do with the majority of my working hours? Answer emails. Fulfill orders. Unfuck equipment. Facilitate meetings. Answer client and customer questions. Schlep boxes. Man booths at craft fairs for hours. Resize images in Photoshop. Send files to printers. Run errands. And write. Write, write, write—sales copy, marketing newsletters, grant applications, blog posts, speeches, teaching plans, descriptions for public-art plaques, and a whole host of boring stuff. Reams, scrolls, libraries of it. Actually making art and drawing pictures makes up a pretty small percentage of my time—and many days I don’t get to it at all. And when I do? The boring production stuff I learned at my entry-level jobs is actually a huge component of the process of making artwork!

    I think it’s because my job description is “artist,” people think I spend every minute of my life smearing paint around with my fingers with a beatific smile on my face while I commune with the Muse…or something. People say things to me all the time along the lines of “Oh, how wonderful it must be to create all the time” or “Wow, you’re lucky not to have to do any REAL work.” And yeah—I love what I do, I’m passionate about my work, and being able to make my own work for even a small portion of every week makes it all worthwhile. But it’s work, not play—hard, often dull work. I’m not “living my passion.” I’m not “making use of my degree.” I’m just doing what needs to be done to keep my business afloat and meet my deadlines and get my projects finished—exactly as I would, and did, as an employee of just about any business on the planet.

    I guess I’ve survived at this long enough to be taken semi-seriously, because now I find myself doing interviews and things where I’m asked to give advice to young artists. And what I always say is that nothing you learn along the way is ever wasted. Even if you can’t see where you’re headed yet, knowing how to answer phones and plan meetings and write copy and unfuck equipment is going to serve you well, somewhere. It might even lead you to the job or field you love—you just don’t know it yet. And you won’t know it or find it until you rack up some run-of-the-mill experience first.

    So…yeah. What the Captain said, LW. This isn’t about finding the perfect career, the one right job. This is about beginning on a path—any path, really. It will lead you in the right direction, and the “career” will follow behind you as you go.

  51. Once I medicated my depression brainweasels into submission at age 34, I was finally functional enough to consider postsecondary education. In the meantime, I had survived any number of lowish-paid and/or soulsucking jobs out there, including working in a cellular network call center, front desk as at urgent care medical office, a cake decorator at a certain Mart associated with the Walton family, and as a professional vampire/phlebotomist.

    When it came right down to it, I wasn’t sure if I should go into health care in some fashion or follow my other passion into teaching history (reenactor geekery ftw). So I sat myself down and decided to get ruthlessly practical with myself. While I loved the idea of teaching history (a year degree) the job market wasn’t precisely confidence-building. Meanwhile, going into nursing would involve a 2 year degree, with extremely likely job prospects with a living wage and a lot of options for career advancement…besides which, practicing history stuff on the weekends is a hobby, while performing medical treatments on the weekends unlicensed is a felony. 🙂

    So I chose nursing.

    It turns out, nursing feels so natural to me! I work as a psych nurse, and my varied career experiences help me connect with my patients in a way I would not have been able to had I gone into nursing straight from high school. While you may not be interested in patient care, you might be interested in medical sales or medically related companies who could use “people” people. Best of luck to you, LW!

  52. Considering you have no real professional experience in film, I think you’re the last person to suggest that editing and/or sound recording are easy ways into a career. And please don’t tell me about your shorts or some low-budget unseen indie you “worked” on.

    1. Ok, wow. Have we met? Do you hate me from real life or something?

      I don’t think there are any easy ways into a career in film, but after 7 years of teaching hundreds of students (who work everywhere from NBC/CBS to HBO to Nickelodeon and who have definitely surpassed the humble credits of their teacher) I know that location sound people and editors with a lot of sound design experience especially often start working for money on commercials and TV shoots here in Chicago while they are still in school. It’s one of the quickest paid paths onto a set working higher than the PA/Intern/gofer level for a motivated person with some skills and some gear. It’s not for everyone, but I don’t think I’m harming anyone by saying “look into it”?

      There is no safe or even safer career, in film or anywhere else, so I apologize if I implied that there was. If you’d like to give an alternate perspective for the Letter Writer without the personal insults, please do! The beauty of a comments section is that there can be multiple perspectives. If you are going to be personally mean to me about my work, or, “work” then I’ll need to see your IMDB profile so I can be properly awed by you and sufficiently deferential.

      1. Holy shit. Genuflect and kiss the ring! I swear I thought I was misreading that post above because it’s 1:45am and I’m hopped up on Benadryl and Vicks Vap-O-Rub. Hail to you Captain, you giveth sound advice!

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