On grad school admissions websites, they lie. They tell you how long it takes to complete the degree–Master’s degree one to two years; PhD, four to five years–but they never talk about the years of career limbo after you graduate.
For me, the longest year of career limbo was after I finished my Master’s degree and was accepted into a PhD program. I had planned on becoming a professor since I was 19. I had spent most of my free time and academic years working towards that goal. I spent the summers reading French literary theory, wrote academic papers in dirty little apartments, collected quotes from Augustine, Freud, Kierkegaard, and St. Paul in a thick journal, and never once took a work co-op or gained any practical work experience outside of my scholar-path.
After a year of deferring my PhD program drop-out, I finally sent the email and cut my self loose. I expected things to change fast. Find that first good job. Move on up with my life. But I had no job specific skills. Worse yet, I thought I had skills. I had an advanced degree! Those are valuable, right?
The marketing firms didn’t buy my “research skills.” The skateboard magazine wasn’t impressed with articles on post-human ethics. So a few months out of grad school, I had to find something.
Out of options, I mowed lawns. People would laugh. You have a Master’s degree? And mow lawns? They laughed even harder when I told them I turned down a generous financial offer to do a PhD in English.
Looking back, I can see that the biggest waste of time was not having a plan of action. I just woke up everyday wanting things to change, but not taking effective action towards any goal. My goal was to find a good job. How or when this would happen was a mystery.
Here is a typical post graduate school week. This type of activity is treading water. And it will never get you a great job. See if you recognize any of your own habits here.
Monday: Wake up at 5:30 AM. This will make you feel productive before you head off to your crap job. Read poetry journals. Try to write a few lines of your own “work” and then delete them. I’d recommend starting roughly 50 poems per month and then deleting them all. Or work on one single poem for a year. Then never try to publish it.
Tuesday. Wake up at 5:30 AM. You should be feeling some anxiety now. Send out three random resumes to three random companies. Try to apply for jobs that require experience you don’t have. Explain in your cover letter that you’ve been in grad school. Try to sound really smart. Employers hire the smartest asshole in the room right?
Wednesday. After work, walk to your neighborhood pub. Spend more money than you have on burgers, pitchers of beer, and shots for your loser friends. Get really drunk. Drop allusions to literary works so that everyone knows how smart you are. Feel good, as you return to your apartment lined in books. Make notes. Make plans for the future. Sleep.
Thursday. Wake up at 6:00 AM. Drink a pot of coffee. Listen to literary podcasts. During lunch, decide that you will really hit the job applications hard over the weekend. Go to a movie after work. Afterwards, point out all the hidden ideological frameworks to your date as you walk home.
Friday. Wake up. Read the New York Times. Pretend to be a writer. Ride your bike to your crappy job. Feel good. It’s Friday. Later, while half-drunk, talk excitedly with your significant other about the future. Make lots of plans. Think positive. You are going to be successful!
Saturday. Watch television. Eat fatty foods.
Sunday. Television. A walk by the ocean. Television. Sleep.
Next week. Repeat. Flush. Rinse. Repeat. At various points, a roaring sense of career anxiety will overtake you. When this happens, simply make vague goals. Apply to jobs you will never get.
Impossible deadlines also help. For example, let’s say you are making nine dollars an hour now. Tell yourself: I will have a 50K per year job, in an office, using my degree within two months. When you miss that deadline, set a new one. “In 30 days,” proclaim to yourself one bitter morning, “I will find a job as a writer at a cool magazine.”
Never work on any practical skills.
Tell employers that you have impeccable grammar. Tell them about your awards.
Be miserable. Snap at your spouse. Resent your friends with lesser intelligence that make more money that you.
Burn your poster of Zizeck.
Blame your stupid English degree.
Start a blog.
And when you are sick of all this, sick of things not changing from month to month to month, take a small, practical step forward. You can begin, today, by taking my 18-week humanities career challenge.