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
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.
LOOK HOW GOOD YOU ARE, YOU CAN TOTALLY DO THIS…WITHIN THE CONSTRAINTS OF OUR EFFED UP CAPITALIST SYSTEM THAT EATS ITS YOUNG.
What did I miss? What strategies have worked for you all in changing careers and figuring out what you want to do?