Ah, yes, the “useless” degree. The bachelor’s in philosophy, underwater basket weaving, photography, interpretive dance, basically anything that’s not a STEM major or business-related. People have been making Starbucks jokes to you for four years, which you have come to realize is the college equivalent of making McDonald’s jokes about people who aren’t good at high school. But despite the economy, you want to prove those suckers wrong and come out on top. Or maybe you missed the application deadline for a master’s program in medieval French poetry and you need something to do after graduation, STAT. Anyway, coming from someone who studied English-Creative Writing and Visual Arts as an undergrad and is now gainfully employed, here is what I learned about the—dun dun dun!—post-grad job search.
1.) Network like the wind!
Bite the bullet and write on social media that you’re searching for a job. You’ll get the snarky, “Lol, try Starbucks, you humanities major!” comments from your smug-as-hell peers, but you’re used to those by now. Even if you don’t want to say “I’m looking for a job” outright as your status, make coy references along the way such as “Putting final touches on this cover letter!” Your best friend’s sister’s boyfriend’s brother’s girlfriend could have heard from this guy who knows this kid who’s going with the girl who might be able to hook you up with something. Really try every personal connection avenue you can think of: family, friends, family friends, professors, the career canter, former bosses, British royalty . . . Oh, come on, we were once colonies of England, what do you mean you don’t personally know Prince Harry?
One caveat: beware of “networking” events sponsored by your school’s career center. Go to them only if you want career advice. If you go to establish professional connections, aka actually networking, what will happen is you e-mail the address that your potential connection listed on her business card, and she responds back with a much more politely worded version of, “Wait, which graduating theater major were you again?” If you’re a highly skilled e-mail composer who can remember minutiae of the career-advice conversation you had with the connection (you DID remember the conversation, right?), then this could work for you, but otherwise, take the career advice and run with it.
2.) Get over yourself
Remember the smug-as-hell peers I just mentioned? Yeah, don’t be them. You never know who will give you a job. When I was laid off from my last job, I interviewed at a political organization and my interviewer and would-be supervisor was a girl I recognized from an art class I had taken. I had been kind in critiquing her paintings, thank goodness, but in both my art classes and creative writing classes there were some students who thought “critiquing” meant being snotty and unnecessarily cruel. It came from a place of believing that their own writing or art was superior to the author’s writing or the artist’s art. If I was in a position to hire some of these people, I wouldn’t hire them because their rude comments in the name of “constructive criticism” would show me that they wouldn’t work well as part of a team, nor would they be able to take actual constructive criticism about their performance.
We all know the narrative of the bullied nerd whose bullies eventually worked underneath him, but in reality nerds can be some of the meanest bullies out there. If you can prove on paper that you are the smartest or most talented person, great–but if you can’t be nice and accommodating as well, no one will want to hire you. Contrary to popular belief, job searching is not about stepping on the competition but about finding those who can give you a leg up. When you’re a senior in college your ego is inflated but the college seniors who are deep into the job search know that anyone and everyone could be of use to you. The job search is going to make you humble really quickly, so work on humility before you have to search for a job.
3.) Instant gratification is not just for business majors
Tough-love time: you signed away your chances at knowing you had a stellar job after you graduated by September of your senior year the moment you decided not to study business. And I’m not necessarily talking about as your major either. We all want to believe that the kid who graduated with a consulting job with a major corporation is a lucky son of a bitch—and he very well may be—but these smug bastards are not all business majors. Frankly, I’ve known English and sociology majors to get cushy consulting jobs upon graduating as well. It’s all in how you apply and brand yourself. I just mentioned how you should view people through the lens of what they can do for you, but you should also view yourself through the lens of what you can do for other people. In job searching, you’re essentially a salesman, for yourself, and not in a sex work sort of way. What skills of yours can you sell to people?
On a similar note, I know a lot of creative types are worried about “selling out” because they’ve watched “Rent” too many times or something. At this point in your life, you should really despise the character of Mark from “Rent,” because that insufferable bastard has privilege oozing out of his pores and a strong support system in the form of his family, but he rejects it for his art. In our recession-tinted glasses, that’s not artistic integrity, that’s arrogance. So, I ask again, what skills of yours can you sell to people? If you’re an actor, you can sell the skill of public speaking. If you’re a visual artist, you can sell an eye for design and composition, which companies are interested in because they want aesthetically pleasing websites and other platforms that put customers at ease. You’re not “selling out” if you can use skills learned at your job to build your art. If you’re worried that having a “real” job will take away from your art, learn how to budget your time outside of a 40-hour workweek to build your art. Yeah, it won’t be easy to force yourself to create when Netflix is so appealing, but if you wanted something easy, you would have become a doctor and not a creative type.*
4.) Consider non-profits and volunteer organizations
You might have heard the terms “Teach for America” and “Peace Corps” flutter about, but those programs are not right for everyone. That sounds bad, but this reflects on you more than it does on them; you may hate kids or not like visiting countries with diarrhea-water problems. Plus, two years is a big commitment to ask from people, even young people with seemingly few things to tie them down. Look into AmeriCorps if you like the idea of the Peace Corps but want to stay domestic; AmeriCorps also has 6-month and 12-month positions if two years seems too long. You may already know that Teach For America is an AmeriCorps program, but AmeriCorps goes much further than helping kids. You can volunteer with the homeless, veterans, adults looking for work, the environment, etc.**
If applicable, volunteer a little while you’re searching for a job. Hell, volunteer because it’s Tuesday. You know that volunteer positions are good things to add to resumes, and this is the opportune time to add good things to your resume. Plus, helping others and all that fluffy stuff. The only thing you lose from volunteering is some time. Time that could have been spent looking for jobs? Admittedly, yes, but if you also use your volunteer time to build a positive relationship with a supervisor, you could ask her for a recommendation. Which brings me to . . .
5.) Be kind to your references
Every application requires a reference, because why would someone just take your word for it that you’re wonderful? I will tell a story on myself so that you do not repeat my mistakes. But first, a little background information: I hate asking people for help and/or favors. I always have. I’ve always been independent, and to me asking for help means I can’t handle something on my own. Asking for favors seems selfish to me. So you can imagine the fun I’ve had asking people to be my references on applications.
I applied to a lot of places before I landed the job I have now. I had a handful of references in my back pocket, but I was applying to so many places that I decided to expand my repertoire a little bit so as to not overwhelm my current references. On one application for a teaching job, I sent a survey-type reference form to a former English professor of mine. Whom I had barely talked to in two years. And the survey was due the next day.
Rightfully so, she read me the riot act via a Facebook message the next day, saying I should give people more warning, how dare I assume that she would drop everything for me, professors have things to immediately attend to as well, etc. She completed the form for me because she’s a saint, but I was mortified.
I don’t like to ask people for favors because I’m slightly insecure and don’t believe I’m important enough to intrude on people’s busy schedules. In this case, this belief led me to procrastinate in inviting this professor, which, ironically, came off as exceedingly arrogant. This professor is absolutely right, though: never assume that your references, even if they believe you hung the moon, will stop what they are doing to talk about how great you are. And potential employers DO call your references; they want to know from previous bosses or people you’ve worked under if you have the basics of a good worker: are you punctual, are you good at following directions, can you take criticism, etc. I tell this to graduating seniors and I’m a little worried when they seem surprised that employers contact your references. Do they have visions of that scene in “A Christmas Story” where Ralphie’s teacher is so moved by his essay that she writes “A + + + + +!” on the board and the students carry him out of the classroom on their shoulders, only replace the teacher with a potential employer and the essay with their resume?
6.) Do part-time, unpaid, online internships/freelance work while you look
I came across a lot of unpaid, work-from-home internships dealing with writing, editing, web design, and graphic design in my job search. To which I say, why not do them? Applications shouldn’t be taking up all of your time, plus you’ll gain experience and possibly a reference. Same goes for freelance, because a pleased client could turn into a reference, and also experience. People may worry that you’ll get caught up in the work of the unpaid internship or freelance work that you’ll hold off on getting a “real” job, but they’re missing the point, and also sort of insulting you, saying that you’re easily distracted and don’t have drive. My dad said he got a piece of advice in law school that went, “The lowest-paying job in your field is better than the highest-paying job not in your field.” If you gots bills to pay (improper grammar used on purpose), apply for another paid part-time job. I know this advice sounds nuts (“I have to apply for TWO jobs now!?”), but remember that the end goal is experience in a field that you like to prepare you for a “real” job in that field. As Tina Fey wrote in “Bossypants,” and I paraphrase, “the only two jobs where inexperience is valued is politics and sex work.”
7.) Forget about “fields”
I bet you read ^that numbered heading after the last point and are now like, ” . . . what.” If you’re not going to take the advice of the last point, you’ll probably have to take the advice of this point. They’re polar opposites, I’ll admit. “Fields” are things that career counselors and your parents worry about because they want to make sure your education in your major was worth every penny. While my dad’s advice from the previous point is good (it always is), if you’re a creative type the “lowest-paying job” in your field is probably the lowest-paying job of all: an unpaid internship. Nothing inherently wrong with those, re: my last point, but gotta pay those telephone bills and auto-mo-bills. I recently read an interview of a lady who majored in biochemistry in college who is now a renowned fashion blogger. My fiance’s former boss interned in radio technology as an undergrad and now works in student affairs with a Ph.D. in Asian cultural studies. One of my fellow Creative Writing majors was actually a pre-nursing student. You are not married to your undergrad major. In fact, career counselors make such a big deal about alumni finding jobs in their “fields” because it’s so hard to do.
There is no better time of your life to experiment in your career. To sound like your mother when you’re presented with a strange vegetable dish, how will you know you won’t like it if you haven’t tried it? My “field,” as I claim it on my LinkedIn profile, is writing and editing. Granted, I am currently working in my “field,” but I applied to jobs in insurance, politics, broadcast journalism, social media, tutoring, teaching art, graphic design, animation, publishing, teaching science, cable television marketing, and freelance illustration. I am more than what my major was, and you are too. Your passions and talents, both physical and esoteric, are so much more than what your major was.
8.) Hold off on the dream of “The Perfect Job”
You came of age during a recession, boo. You probably already know, and have been telling your needling parents, that you won’t get a job with great benefits like health insurance, a 401k, and a vacation right out of college. But lower your expectations, too. When I started the job hunt, I thought a lot of things were “beneath” me: unpaid internships, part-time jobs, jobs not in my field. I applied to the “perfect” jobs for me: the 6-month fellowship with Nickelodeon animation studios, the salaried copy-editing position with a major local magazine, the year-long fellowship with my school’s arts department. Then the no’s started pouring in.
Don’t get me wrong, after that I still applied to those perfect jobs—missing the moon and landing among the stars and all that—but I also applied to almost-perfect jobs and jobs that I didn’t think I would like but that I knew I would learn something from that I could then apply to a “perfect” job. Because, frankly, I didn’t get the “perfect” jobs for all the same reason, if they were nice enough to tell me: I didn’t have the applicable experience. I won’t get into the “should you go to college or have job experience instead?” debate, but the truth of the matter is, even if you had a million internships while in college or held jobs in your preferred field, you are up against people who have been out of college for years and have gained tangible experience, i.e. have not had to fit classes or a school calendar into their work schedule. Have a perfect job in mind, certainly, but when the listings are grim, think about the experience you can gain from these not-so-perfect jobs.
9.) Learn how to code
Trust me, you won’t regret it. Yeah, you might not be able to code the Next Great App of Our Time before graduation and be set for life, but even “simple” coding like HTML and CSS for websites is valuable. You could be even more against technology than your grandfather and still land a job after graduation if you know how to code.
10.) Apply everywhere
Second semester of my senior year of college I treated applications like some writers treat their manuscripts: I sent my resume and cover letter (tailored to the specific job to the best of my ability, but I do have a few “derp” moments I will address later) everywhere, assuming they would land in HR’s slush pile. While I recommend this method of application, applications are not like manuscript submissions in that editors will not call up people who have read the draft of your novel and ask if it is worth their time. Essentially, the manuscript does not have references. I mentioned a little earlier about treating references with kindness, but my fiance gave me a piece of advice applicable here as well: warn your references that you’re applying to a lot of places. They may not like it, or may even tell you they can’t be your references after hearing that, in which case you’ll just have to find some new ones.
To elaborate on the resume and cover letter portions of sending out a lot of applications, don’t have one “standard” cover letter. Have about five standard cover letters, one for each field you are applying for. You can tailor the cover letter to each specific place you are applying to (by looking on the company website and looking at the tone and language they use for what they want in applicants), but you don’t have to build the whole suit from scratch every time. There’s no shame in a little copy-pasting if you don’t feel like writing “I want to be a teacher because . . .” dozens of times. There IS shame, however, in not proofreading your copy-pasted Frankenstein’s monster cover letter. In my job search, I applied to a well-known local science museum, twice in the summer for two different positions they had available, and both times I applied, in my cover letter was the sentence, “I really want to work at [place that is not science museum] because . . .” and I only realized this AFTER I sent my application, resume, and cover letter to them. TWICE this happened. Herp a derp a derp.
So, there you have it, that’s my advice for how to get a job after college with a “useless” major. My final piece of advice is: be lucky.
I’m sorry, but that’s the world we live in. I could give you all the advice in the world but the reason why I am employed is probably only because the stars aligned. But do feel free to ask me questions/ tell me how wrong I am about everything.
^That gif is entirely too applicable to my life.
*To those studying to be doctors: I was being sarcastic, obviously. To creative types: I sure as hell wasn’t being sarcastic.
**Disclaimer: I was not endorsed by AmeriCorps to write these wonderful things about it, although I wouldn’t turn down compensation, hint hint.