Wednesday, May 18th, 2011

Some Advice For Young Grads

It's college graduation season, and with the blooming of the cherry trees comes that cherished annual journalistic tradition: telling new graduates they're screwed in a way that no one else in the history of the world has ever been screwed. When it's actual recent graduates doing this fretting, I can understand, since being forcibly thrown into a job search is always a scary situation. But for their elders to be doing this worrying—elders who presumably have found some success as they got on in life—it strikes me as petty, self-serving fearmongering. So from someone back in academia after a decade at an office job, here's some real talk.

Your first job is probably going to suck.
That’s OK! Having a shitty job that’s not good for your career is going to disappoint your parents, sure. But you know what? It gives you more money than you’ve had before, money which, if you don’t care about your job, can be used for having just tons and tons of fun. You are now an adult, which means it’s OK to be naughty! Get drunk, take drugs, sleep with strangers! Having a shitty job means you don’t have to worry about the ramifications to your career if you show up at the office still drunk from the night before and vomit in a trash can, or bang the hot intern at the Christmas party, or do coke off your boss’s desk. Go nuts!

The point of an undergraduate degree is not to get you a job.
Sorry! We would’ve told you this before, but teenagers are kind of stupid and have a hard time grasping nebulous goals like “improving your character and/or life skills” so we have to give you concrete economic reasons to do stuff. Don’t get me wrong—statistically speaking, you will get paid lots more with an undergrad degree than without it. But did you really think all those psych classes were job training? Look, if we wanted to train you to do things, we would give public universities enough funding so that students aren't forced to spend all their time in 450-person lecture classes. Your undergraduate degree wasn't about learning how to do a specific job. It was about learning how to do a job in general, and how to be a decent human being. Beyond that, don’t expect anything.

A college degree has almost never guaranteed anyone a job.
There are some exceptions to this (Ivy Leaguers becoming traders/consultants; lucking into a temporary short supply of workers as happened with computer programmers in the mid-'90s), and some of your more skills-focused degrees, like accounting and engineering, will always give you a reasonably good chance of getting hired. But you shouldn’t pick these majors unless they actually interest you! Having a career straight out of undergrad that you hate is not better than not immediately having a career, trust me. You will just end up switching careers later and then instead of having a fun post-college experience, you'll feel like you missed out.

Grad school is great, but only if you like it, and never right out of undergrad.
I love grad school! I think people who would be good academics should definitely go to grad school. But here are some things you should know about me: (1) I write papers for fun; (2) I enjoy making graphs; and (3) I make $14,000 a year. It’s not really more secure than being unemployed, and it’s way less fun than having a shitty job (see point #1). Please, please go enjoy your 20s and build up some actual life experience and independent ideas that you can then use in your research—this has helped me as an academic more than I can ever say. And then only go to grad school if you want what grad school is offering, not because you dislike the uncertainty of a job search. You’re just going to have to undergo an even more stressful job search at the end of your post-grad career anyway.

Building up debt in your 20s is the economically responsible thing to do.
You are funding job training that will get you paid more in the future! Your credit card loans are allowing you to get in on the ground floor while also not starving/living in Canarsie. Accept this, and instead of accidentally building up debt while feeling guilty about it, build up debt deliberately and with a plan for how it’s going to help you. You’re going to rack up tens of thousands of dollars in debt anyway; at least do it in a way that benefits you in the long term.

Panic about college is almost always humanities majors having hard-science expectations.
I don’t know where this idea came from that doing well in college sets you up for life, but remember all those stories about starving poets and broke academics? Those are the humanities and social-science people! Sure, the hard-science people have labs and government funding and stuff, but you’re not going to be able to get that kind of bank unless you're the kind of person who’s truly interested in hard-sciences stuff to begin with. If you’re a humanities person, then you’re going to be kind of broke for a while. Again, sorry we didn’t tell you that before, but it’s not unusual. At least you don’t have any responsibilities!

This is all really normal.
If you're graduating college right now, there's probably a great temptation for you to feel sorry for yourself. Don’t! You are, I swear, in the exact same position college grads have been in since we started sending everyone to college a few decades back. If you see people in their 30s and 40s who are doing well, then have faith you can get there too, because these Olds started at the same place you are right now: just out of school, unemployable, and broke. You aren’t being deprived of anything you’re owed, and you haven’t been screwed over by the unfair hand of fate. You’re just 22 and totally lack any job experience. You have to start somewhere. Just try to have fun while you’re doing it.

Mike Barthel finished his BA in creative writing and politics in 2001, spent seven year as an accountant and musician in New York, got a master's in media studies, and is now getting his PhD in political communication while teaching undergraduates about the Internet.

54 Comments / Post A Comment

deepomega (#1,720)

Just about everything on this list gives me both the heebies AND the jeebies. Further proof (because I needed it?) that I am 35 year old man in 24 year old's body.

deepomega (#1,720)

And I'd add that the "go ahead, build up debt!" thing is not quite right. Because I know people in grad school, in LA, on a grad school salary, who are totally avoiding debt through sheer force of will. The line is not between "having debt" and "being unable to feed yourself," it's between "having debt" and "being unable to own a car for a few years." If you're not willing to make that sacrifice, ok! But let's not pretend that there are no choices or priorities being made?

MikeBarthel (#1,884)

@deepomega I guess I could've made this more explicit, but I agree that you shouldn't attend a non-professional grad school program unless you can do so mostly debt-free. (Having a significant other with an actual job helps a LOT.) But if you can attend a professional master's program that WILL ACTUALLY GET YOU A JOB (hint: do lots and lots of research, and then do more research!) you should, even if it requires you to get loans, and if you need to spend some money to kick-start your career, do that, too. Just decide to do it in advance rather than by accident!

@deepomega I didn't build up debt because I got a full scholarship. Now I'm in my 30's and have no credit. Debt, as long as you keep up with paying it down, really is good for you.

deepomega (#1,720)

@jen325: You're not describing debt, you're describing "controlled spending." I got a credit card from my bank, and I use it and pay it off monthly. There's no interest, it's just a delayed debit card that builds up credit.

jaimealyse (#647)

Oh my god PLEASE tell me you are kidding about accumulating debt! Credit card debt as a good thing? I don't think that's possible.

I built up a nice load of credit card debt while being paid in saltines to work at a talent agency for my first two years after college, and it has haunted me ever since. (I'll FINALLY be paid off at the end of the summer, just in time for my grad school debt!)

Don't live beyond your means. DO NOT GO INTO CREDIT CARD DEBT. Please.

Art Yucko (#1,321)


Matt (#26)

Hmm. So what you're saying is kill people, burn shit, fuck school? Am I reading this right? (NOTE: Had to Google that to make sure I was quoting it right, still haven't heard a song.)

Art Yucko (#1,321)

Take this education 'n'shove it. I ain't readin' here no more.

Brad Nelson (#2,115)

Not everyone knows how to say "BITCH I'M A GOBLIN"

roboloki (#1,724)

shit rolls down hill.
you get paid on friday.
the boss man is an asshole.

Art Yucko (#1,321)

Jack Daniels, If You Please.

MollyculeTheory (#4,519)

TAKE TIME OFF BEFORE GRAD SCHOOL. YES. THIS. When you're 21, you may think "Oooh, I'll get my PhD when I'm 26 and be a precocious little flower." Then you do, and it doesn't matter, and you just missed the last year for the rest of your life that you have no responsibilities.

In practice, "hard science expectations" basically goes as far as "not starving in a garret."

jfruh (#713)

I double plus endorse not going to grad school right out of college. I did this because I was all like "hey, I was pretty good at college and didn't seem like that much work, maybe what I want is … MORE COLLEGE?" But grad school isn't more college! It's a job, a job that pays so, so badly! You have to really want the end result (i.e. academic nerdery). Plus if you come back five years later you will have a certain savvy and je ne sais pas that will get you laid, for real. (Assuming you want to have sex with other grad students, which is another question you should ask yourself before going to grad school.)

Another piece of concrete advice I would offer would be temp rather than intern. You get paid (even if only a little) and get more self-respect.

jfruh (#713)

@jfruh Augh, I meant "je ne sais quoi" obviously. (I took a semester of French in grad school, you can see how much good it did me.)

SeanP (#4,058)

@jfruh unpaid internships are getting less common anyway – the Labor department has been sort of cracking down on this.

LolaLooksFrench (#12,794)

@jfruh Not if you're a writer! No one wants to pay writers. I worked 2 unpaid internships last summer… slave to my resume!!

MaggieL (#3,424)

I would also add: If you know where you want to end up, in one of those competitive "creative" jobs that humanities majors crave, just take any shitty low-paying job in that industry. You will be broke, but whatever. You will do that job for a year or two and then you'll look up and *you'll be in the industry you want to be in* and the next step after that will be in the right direction and you'll never have to do that shitty job again. I promise: A year or two at most doing the grunt work, as long as it's in the general industry of interest. Just don't take some other job because it actually pays or anything, b/c as Mike says, it will suck no matter what. If you're lucky enough to know what you want, use those two years!

jfruh (#713)

@MaggieL YES YES YES THIS (and I swear, temp jobs kind of count, if you're good? my whole current career sprung out of temping!)

deepomega (#1,720)

@MaggieL: Yes, a thousand times yes. Also if there are any SUPER young awlers here, e.g. just starting college, maybe consider doing this earlier! If you really love the field, it will pay off tremendously, promise.

hapax (#6,251)

@MaggieL I'm kind of crazy uncomfortable with this advice, if only because I've known a lot of people who took a shitty job in, e.g., some publishing house, with dreams of becoming an Editor one day, and who are now like 46 and still basically making a retail salary with no real responsibilities (least of all editing ones) and no benefits or retirement savings either. I think there are some glamorous industries, like publishing, journalism, athletics, acting, music, and yes, academics, which sell the false false falsey false falsecakes promise that "if you're good you'll make it and get that record deal/tenure-track job/etc.", but which'll keep you temping/adjuncting/answering phones forever if you're not either very lucky or carnivorously ambitious. In fact, I suspect that might be true even for some not-quite-as-glamorous industries. A good friend of mine was a vet tech at minimum wage for YEARS — literally minimum wage — just because she grew up "wanting to work with animals" and was cynically exploited by an industry that used her idealism to their advantage. In fact I am suspicious to the point of swivel-eyed paranoia about any career path that's built on "it's not about the money/you're doing it for the love". I think that attitude shames a lot of young people into not charging what they're worth and not taking their own skillset and education seriously.

Which is not to say that money should be our primary concern or that we should all turn into corporate sharks or whatever — man, if you knew me, you'd know just how much I would never ever say that. I'm just uneasy with how many idealistic young people end up deferring, for many many many more years than they should, the hope of a "better job" in the industry they've dreamt of, and who grow old punching tickets at the Met thinking that their big break as a violinist is just around the corner. I doubt y'all wanna hear my big conversion story, but I'll just say this: when I realized that there are lots of cool things to do besides being a rock star (for whatever value of "rock star") and that it's not "selling out" to do those things if you're doing something interesting and getting paid for it, I became much happier.

(This comment brought to you by a week of mainlining Party Down, which is basically a series about my comment.)

melis (#1,854)


you called publishing 'glamorous.'

MaggieL (#3,424)

@hapax From personal experience and observation I still disagree; I think if a person is 46 with 20 years experience in publishing or whatever they should be able to procure themselves something better than an entry-level job just from the fact that they have 20 years experience.

What I'm talking about are the "creative careers" — so not violinists or rock stars or writers, but working in a theatrical production office or the record label or the publishing house. Those are generally underpaid at first but eventually you can make a living doing that type of thing. So I don't think the tearing tickets to become a violinist example applies.

Real artists? Rock stars/violinists/writers? No idea how you do that.

Don Is (#10,212)

@hapax I'm glad you put that parenthetical in there because, as I was reading your comment, I kept hearing the voice of Ron Donald, and I was like, man, you have been watching way too much Party Down lately.

Bittersweet (#765)

@MaggieL: Not sure how you do rock star or writer, but the way to be a professional violinist is practice. And play a lot of gigs. And practice. And take a lot of auditions. And practice.

myfanwy (#1,124)

@MaggieL This is what happened to me. BFA visual art, took crap job out of university as shit-upon designer, now have same job (at different place) with more authority and responsibilities. Glamorous painting career, however, is developing slower than I'd like.

krisisisipoo (#12,788)

@hapax I'm 22, less than 1 year out of college and working in publishing; already I'm out of my shitty "assistant" job and I'm a *gasp* full-fledged publicist (with health benefits! and a salary that afford me New York living!). Because I worked hard.

…and (arguably more importantly) I already had my foot in the door in the industry.

HiredGoons (#603)

There is one thing in here that hit wayyyyy to close to home.

@HiredGoons The whole damn article hit home! I am OLDS.

mishaps (#5,779)

- Do not go to grad school in the humanities until you are AT LEAST 25, and even then, only if you burn with a fever that makes being an academic teaching four classes a semester as an adjunct in East Nowhere, Arkansas, seem like the only thing in the world you want to do.

- Your first job will TOTALLY suck. MaggieL and jfruh have good advice.

- Even if you end up in the industry you think you want to work in, you will be disillusioned. It's part of life! Find a job worth doing in that field, or look around for another one. Changing career tracks wildly in your 20s is totally normal, and can actually be a plus in terms of giving you a wider set of skills in whatever job you finally end up in.

Bittersweet (#765)

@mishaps: Even if you end up with your freakin' dream job, at a great company, making a good salary, you will be disillusioned. Because you'll have to work with other people and deal with their BS and company rules, and, well, Sartre and everything.

Lockheed Ventura (#5,536)

What exactly is a "credit card loan"? I hope you are not recommending that recent grads WITHOUT JOBS take out loans offered by credit card companies! Jesus, no offense, but that is fucking stupid advice. The life experience advice is spot-on, but you don't take out loans from a credit card company, ever, but especially not to support your "lifestyle".

And NO, THIS TIME IS DIFFERENT. It is the worse job market in decades and there is no evidence it will get better soon. Most likely, it will get worse over the next year. The economy is going through long term restructuring, especially the labor market, to think otherwise is foolhardy.

ep (#8,509)

This is all good. I would only add the very, very, very important: no matter what happens, pay yourself first.

It's hard to imagine upon entering the workforce that you're really not going to be there long. But really you're not. You'll be one very lucky duck if you manage to work steadily until retirement age. An amazing number of people end up sidelined along the way — by being let go, by raising a family, by health issues, by some form of personal trauma, by being out-hustled by cold-hearted SOBs, by not paying close enough attention to office politics (which incidentally is WAY more important than being good at your job), or a million other things. Sure, don't panic but also don't forget that for even the luckiest among us the working portion of life goes by quickly. Middle age comes fast, old age faster.

David (#192)

It is inelegant to suggest that "building up debt in your 20s is the economically responsible thing to do." That's BS, and isn't good advice standing alone.

For the borrower: be sure you can keep all of the agreements you make. That is, always pay the money you owe back on time, and as agreed, even if you have to eventually the agreement. All loans come at a cost, and you should work at calculating when leverage results in a gain, not a loss– and borrow when there is an upside (aside from just consuming more goods or services).

For the lenders out there: Keep yourself in a position where you get your borrower to acknowledge the debt. That way you can expect to be repaid– so long as the borrower is paying SOMETHING (however a small amount) on a regular basis– until the debt is satisfied.

fjordal (#12,680)

So, I'm not old enough to look back on going to grad school right after college and rue what a terrible decision that was (2 years in), but I was given the impression that waiting a few years isn't an option because admissions committees will figure that any post-college activity (other than another grad program) will entail forgetting how to do hard math. Clearly this could only be the case in math-y fields, but was I misled? And are there not analogous skills considered to be in danger of atrophy in other fields?

tiny dancer (#1,774)

@fjordal Haha, ugh. I'm currently a grad student that worked for some years between undergrad and now. I definitely ran into the math problem, but one can prepare for that with books or classes if needed. Ultimately I'm happy that I worked for quite a bit because it allowed me to figure out what I actually liked and gave me a good research focus.

SeanP (#4,058)

@fjordal I did a physics undegrad and an applied physics masters degree, with a gap of like 5 years between. There was an issue with "forgetting math", but I was able to do some remedial courses and get caught back up without much issue.

Long time reader (egad, have I been following Balk and Choire for the last four years of my life? Time well spent?) first time commenter, etc. etc. My nervousness about commenting knows no bounds!

ANYWAY, I had no choice about going straight into humanities grad school right after college due to a sweet scholarship that was only available to graduating seniors. To other people in my situation, do not fear the medical leave of absence. I used it in my undergrad to get out for a little bit, and I foresee myself using it again.

GoodFriday (#12,723)

@armagnacforbreakfast I've also been following Choire and Balk for the past four years of my life and am commenting for the first time! ANYWAY, I went straight into grad school because of the scholarship thing and just finished my first year. It is a professional program in a field that won't be going away/changing anytime soon and I can't see any downsides to it. I'll be done at 23, won't have debt because of grad school, and thanks to having the time while in school to volunteer and intern, I should be set to get a decent job at the end of it all. At the end of undergrad all I had was a humanities degree and a job as a waitress. I think if a person wants to go to grad school right away and has the means, they should. I definitely feel like a baby at life compared to the people in the program that waited a couple of years, but it isn't too big of a deal.

(Just wanted to poke in and say: WELCOME.)

Leon (#6,596)

Great advice. I spent my first two years out of college doing substitute teaching in a horrible neighborhood just often enough to pay rent and get fucked up, then another two years doing construction work – and it was actually kind of awesome. Then I just kind of took whatever desk job they'd have me at on Craigslist, and I've got a solid job now, but I also learned that work can just be a thing you do to fund the rest of life! Just be proud of the fact that you work hard and love your time w/ family and friends (and random ladies you make out with in bars).

BirdNerd (#4,196)

Scientists: Take any job, anywhere, for any pay. You'll find out real quick if you're cut out for this shit. I lived out of a tent on the eastern plains of colorado conducting migration surveys on waterfowl. Ate ramen and bologna. LOVED EVERY MINUTE OF IT! It pays off in the end, I promise.

katiechasm (#163)

I hope you don't use so many exclamation points in your real papers.

The comments are helpful though.

We're not exactly overflowing with available "shitty jobs" right now.

justin365p (#12,713)

Great, as of now I am planning to look for a job that fits to my personality.

ehcotton (#358)

I'm 28. Is it ok for me to still be in my idgaf about this job and get drunk and take drugs on weekdays stage? And meanwhile the other people at this job are pretty set on being here for the next 40 years?

jerseyoutwest (#8,631)

@ehcotton Having showed up to work on Friday possibly still drunk, in a quasi-management position, and being 33, allow me to say: YES.

This is terrible, outdated, and completely wrong advice – particularly the part about "good debt." Where has this man been for the last 10 years? Because he obviously isn't making much use of whatever critical reasoning, research, and analysis skills his school tried to give him.

BamaBlogger (#12,750)

Good debt isn't good unless it's business debt totally written off the taxes. New grads need as little debt as possible.

jlbrooks008 (#12,783)

Hate to say this but the truth hurts. Having a college degree won't guarantee you get the job you want. Its all up to the person applying for the job. Do everything to improve in all aspects and be mature enough to face each challenge. This will enable us to grow and eventually be the boss of our own business.

It is a great achievement to graduate from college but it doesn't end there. It is just the start of the race of life. We have to bear in mind that the success of a person is not based on what he finished in college but what he achieved there​​after…

bootsy69 (#12,811)

All I have to say is I learned everything I needed to know in Kindergarten. The rest is just for fun.

As evidence in support of "This is all really normal," I submit the movie Reality Bytes, proof that it has been such since at least 1994.

If you want to go further back, there's always Ecclesiastes.

Post a Comment