Getting the Cool Job

Right around September, a lot of last year’s graduates from liberal arts colleges are discovering that they appear to be qualified for approximately none of the jobs that they might actually want to have. There are exceptions: students who have graduated with very strong, specific technical competencies (usually science and engineering majors) tend to find that there are at least some interesting or financially rewarding jobs to be had.

There are also big companies that passed through last spring hiring graduating seniors into reasonably well-paid entry positions in sales, marketing, investment banking and so on. Those jobs aren’t probably particularly fun or intellectually engaging for a lot of the graduates who get them, but they can pay fairly well and often lead to more interesting opportunities in management and business.

But this is the point where a lot of graduates, particularly those with strong interests in the humanities, start to get restless and think that maybe going to graduate school in the coming year will give them some kind of definitive direction. I think my view on that subject is pretty well known.

The problem on the other side of things, though, is that just about every Cool Job that appeals to folks with interests in the humanities and social sciences seems completely impossible to obtain. When you quiz people you know who have Cool Jobs, they seem to have gotten them in ways that are utterly impossible to duplicate–they were in the right place at the right time, or had a good social/familial network, or had a mentor that they happened to click with. The stuff you see in the newspaper want ads, for the most part, is the Nasty Leftovers.

The bad news, and I’m not sure liberal arts institutions are always as forthright about saying this as they could be to their current undergraduates, is that the significant majority of immediately post-graduate employment experiences are going to suck. Dilbert’s office would be an improvement over quite a few of the ones I’ve heard about. I think my favorite job experience I’ve heard about in the last six years was the non-profit community group that paid $15,000 a year for a 55/hr week with no benefits or vacation time and was run by a near-psychotic incompetent. But there’s lots like that to go around. I do think we promise payoffs in the longer term from “critical thinking” and the like, so any student who’s listening carefully probably understands the implicit point being made when that’s said.

Thinking about people I know with Cool Jobs who are not academics, broadly speaking I can identify a couple of ways that they got there.

Route 1 to a Cool Job is applying to a Nasty Leftover job and then proving yourself with diligence and creativity to be a Cool Person and being promoted upwards to the stuff in the same workplace or organization that’s satisfying and interesting.

Route 2 to a Cool Job is going to graduate school but in a specific professional field, aimed at very specific technical proficiencies, skills and credentials, NOT a doctoral program aimed at becoming an academic. You’re looking for something that goes straight into a profession or field of employment outside of academia, preferably a program with a strong, proven track record of placing its graduates in employment. The shorter the program, the better.

Route 3 to a Cool Job is making a nuisance out of yourself in a way that feels very very difficult for a lot of folks (including myself)–basically exploiting your family and social networks, writing to strangers, showing up at lots of events and aggrandizing yourself in various ways, brownnosing if necessary, being gutsy and unafraid, jumping into strange situations without looking. The problem with this is not just that it is difficult to do, but that it takes a certain kind of personality and judicious ability to size up social situations to do it successfully. Somebody with the wrong personality or with a consistent inability to judge when and how the moment has arrived is going to do themselves way more harm than good following this strategy.

Route 4 is hanging out your own shingle in some fashion–if you’ve got a serious technical skill, some special area of knowledge, some ability to do creative writing, anything of that kind, you go into business or do consulting or sit down and write. Anything that either produces a concrete output (artwork, writing, programming, technology, a successful small business) or that serves as an effective entree to some larger institution by proving yourself is a good thing. That is, providing what you’re doing doesn’t suck–bad art, lame writing, or technically incompetent independent work isn’t going to help you any, and parasitic just-one-step-above-confidence-man kinds of consulting work may alienate rather than ingratiate. May require a significant other and/or parents you can sponge off of for a while.

Route 5 is basically paying lots and lots of dues, about ten to fifteen years of painfully bad or frustrating jobs where the next job is somewhat higher paying or more responsible than the last job, but not really a Cool Job or even a particularly good one–and then taking the accumulated reputational and professional capital from that and cashing it in to grab a Cool Job.

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15 Responses to Getting the Cool Job

  1. I think my favorite job experience I’ve heard about in the last six years was the non-profit community group that paid $15,000 a year for a 55/hr week with no benefits or vacation time and was run by a near-psychotic incompetent.

    I had this exact job when I graduated with my elite liberal arts degree. Are you telling my story, or did somebody else take my old job in community arts administration?

    I think it’s unfair to give hotshot kids at liberal arts colleges the idea that they’re qualified to leave and have every job they get be supremely rewarding. In some areas, they might be able to go out do something fulfilling immediately. But usually, there’s a good reason why you still have to learn a few ropes. Even if you’re smart and able, most workplaces have internal politics that most of us are unprepared to navigate without guidance when we’re 21 or 22.

    So, let ’em work one crap job for an insane boss. (I had to!) The fortunate thing for these elite students is that if they live up to anything remotely close to their potential, they’ll be able to make the system work for them in no time.

  2. back40 says:

    . . . those with strong interests in the humanities, start to get restless and think that maybe going to graduate school in the coming year will give them some kind of definitive direction.”

    Some say that since humanities degrees have been devalued that the cool grad school move is law. It’s better than an MBA or further work in humanities so far as employability is concerned. It isn’t that you switch and become a lawyer, it’s a bit of polish for your undergrad degree.

    It seems to make some sense though I can’t confirm it.

  3. Timothy Burke says:

    Sadly, not your story, Daddy!

    I don’t mind saying, “Look, some dues-paying is coming”. In fact, I think you could say that has the same usefully humbling/perspectival effect that going off and doing the Mother Theresa thing somewhere else has: that the world doesn’t revolve around you, when you’re not paying for it to do so. It’s a bit at odds with the “You are TOMORROW’S LEADERS” thing that we sometimes peddle.

  4. jim says:

    Route 1 is a delayed version of being in the right place at the right time. If you take the wrong NLJ, it ends up being Route 5.

    The daughter of a friend of ours went for a law degree and is now unemployed (well, doing some volunteer paralegal work in the hope of getting some experience).

  5. Western Dave says:

    Maybe things changed during the go-go 90s but during the 80s we were all acutely aware that short-term liberal arts were not going to lead to good entry level jobs. My spiel in the 80s as a Swat tourguide included a tidbit about how, yes after graduating you might work in a coffee shop but after 10 years you were likely to be far more successful than someone with an BBA, accounting degree etc..

  6. Timothy Burke says:

    Yeah, I didn’t really expect a Cool Job after graduating, though I actually kind of got a Semi-Cool Job by accident, working as a cook and salesman at a lovely little restaurant in Connecticut. I think most of my friends were clear that not much was going to be coming down the pike in the next five to ten years of our lives. But I do feel now that I have some students whom I think are really talented and smart and capable who get out of here and experience some pretty harsh feelings of disappointment and confusion about what to do next.

  7. dsalo says:

    This post rules. I know a lot of people I wish had read it sooner (including myself!).

  8. Mary says:

    One note on Door Number 3: if you pace yourself at it — that is, start doing it while you’re still at school, and not when the “must find food” bells are ringing — it’s do-able by normal people, field dependent. The crucial thing a field needs to allow this to work without major crazy social effort on your part is groups that you can be a big part of as a student.

    I don’t know how many fields this is true of, but in software and systems admin it’s possible: Free Software development groups, user groups, that kind of thing. If you’ve been an active volunteer in one of these groups for, say, a year, long enough for people to know your name and something of your work ethic, they can be very helpful in getting you into at least only a Somewhat Leftover job, and remain good people to be in touch with after a couple of years when you have your dues at the bottom of the ladder (in computing, in my geographical area, a year or two is still enough) and want in on something Cooler. There’s still an awkward moment when you go from “so how’s that code coming along?” to “so… anyone know of any entry-ish-level jobs?” but at least you’re not talking to strangers.

  9. Whaddaya know–end of August in the year after my graduation, and that was exactly what I needed to read right now. Thanks.

  10. Doug says:

    Then there’s being in enough different places at enough different times that something interesting comes your way, and having the gumption to grab it when it does. That may be related to #3, but without the implication that going out and meeting people is inherently a nuisance.

  11. Jacko says:

    Some observations:

    Being successful in Route 4 (Hanging out your own shingle) is likely to involve many of the same activities as Route 3 (Being a nuisance) and therefore involve many of the same risks. By the way, many folks might be energized by these activities. They are often called born sales people, which brings up an omission in your article; people’s personality in helping them get ahead in life and generally how suited they are to any given profession despite their formal training.

    I believe younger folks especially don’t in general use a very powerful version of Route 5: Get a job (almost any one) preferably in a company with potential in an industry you would like to build your career in. Get promotions and be ready to move to other companies often to move up the ladder. Assuming you are good at what you do, you will be very successful in less than 10 years. The labor market is tight and will be for years. Use it to your advantage to move around and therefore up.

  12. zp says:

    I love this smart, generous, honest post. And I agree with daddy democrat. And maybe you could tell the kids but not their parents?

    I’d also recommend a short detour through route 1 before route 2 so that the unworldly undergrad can sample a few different venues in which she might want to develop her “very specific technical proficiencies” before she commits time and money to developing them. She might, in addition to that initial detour, even detour all the way through an academia-type grad school program if she was realistic about needing some professional training afterwards to return to creative and practical employment.

    The other only thing that might improve this post is if it were written advice column style – as in “Grandpa Burke Tells the Rest of the World What to Do, Dammit!” (You said it, I didn’t . . . )

  13. laurel says:

    Route 6: volunteer with a Cool Organization that you’d be interested in working for, even if you’re flat broke and they have no job opportunities in the next 50 years. You end up meeting other Cool People who do similar work, and if the organization has a good name in that field, your volunteer work there can be the card that gets you a job you want. You also get the chance to establish yourself as a Cool Person and put the word out within that field that you’re looking for a Cool Job.

    That’s basically what I did after college: didn’t have a job, worked some crap (paralegal for a bully) and less crap (cooking, small-time organic garden work, grant-writing) jobs, all of them part-time, tutored physics, raked leaves, dog-sat, and meanwhile volunteered with one of the only 2 outdoor ed programs in Philadelphia. Eventually, I got a job with the other one because they knew Woodrock’s name.

  14. Timothy Burke says:

    I think that’s a combination of 1 and 3, in some ways. You show up to do something, maybe on an internship, get to know people, be involved, try to make sure that people know you’re around and that they see what you’re capable of. If you have a choice between volunteering for an organization that might be connected to something you want to do and making sub-poverty wages in a dead-end position, if there’s any chance at all that you can keep buying food and paying rent for a while doing the volunteer thing, that might be better than a job that pays almost nothing, uses up lots of time, and goes nowhere.

  15. laurel says:

    yeah, I guess you could think of it as a combination of 1 and 3. my personal route was to both volunteer for an organization I liked and make sub-poverty wages in two dead-end positions. Most people I know, not being able to buy food and pay rent without some kind of job, did something similar. I wish I’d known when I graduated how valuable a part-time crap job – the kind you don’t mind quitting on 2 weeks notice, and could quit immediately if necessary – can be. I also wished I’d known that you don’t need an internship to volunteer. Honestly, just showing up can be just as valuable: if you do good work, people will still think you’re cool, respect you, and put you at the top of the list if they have hiring or referring to do. You don’t need a title. That can even be true if the organization doesn’t think it needs volunteers: you can show up, do grunt work, and eventually say, hey, it seems like we need some funding for whatever. Why don’t I write a grant proposal? Why don’t I figure out a way to make this other thing work better? That puts you way, way up at the top of the list.

    Another thing I realized after college is that living? especially if you avoid NY/SF/DC? it doesn’t have to be that expensive. I lived in Philadelphia on $11,000, and while I was broke all the time, I also ate organic vegetables and drank decent unfancy beer and lived somewhere I liked and did not rack up credit card debt. I also had certain kinds of luck, but I don’t think it’s impossible to replicate – many, many people live in Philly (and other cities) on less than that.

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