Tis the season for all kinds of doe-eyed college-educated young men and women to leave their existence as a student behind and embark on the significant task of finding work and entering adulthood. A job. A career. It’s almost a laughable concept in 2013. Fifty years ago, you chose a basic profession, and you did the damn job for 25 years, M to F, 9 to 5. We all know that doesn’t happen much anymore. One thing you can count on, though: Whatever it is you’re determined to be—a doctor, an astronaut, a writer, an actor or a truck driver—there are hordes of bug-eyed and determined young people obsessed with getting the same job that you want. And if you don’t match their zeal or top it, you’ll be delivering pizzas and sleeping in your parents’ basement for 25 years.
All this isn’t meant to scare you. Well, maybe a little. If you’re graduating from an educational institution, you’re probably smart enough to know that the job market’s a sham. You may have to get creative to do exactly what you think you’re meant to do, what you’ve been trained to do and what you’ve always imagined yourself finding meaning in as a life’s work.
Here are a handful of realities:
1. Internships are a necessary evil. The new thing to do for your first few years out of college is to pursue the ideal internship in the field that you’re interested in, especially in fields that are coveted creative fields (film, media, publishing, advertising, curation, etc.). And if you can snag that high-prestige internship, don’t fuck it up. In fact, knock it out of the park because there will be interns who’ve been interning for way longer than they were supposed to and think that if they hold out long enough, they’ll get a job offer. It happens sometimes. But it’s like finding a unicorn on a walk through the forest. Be realistic that it is entirely possible you could have as many as five or eight internships before you get somewhere. This leads me to the next and essential point.
2. Consider alternative forms of income. Pretty much all of those internships will be unpaid, or barely pay. And you’ve got to figure out a way to live and eat and get to said internship. Snagged that free-drone-work gig at Conde Nast? Congratulations: Now come up with $2,000 to $3,000 a month to commute and domesticate. You just might have to bartend or barista. And you know what? That requires extreme people skills and endless patience. Keep in mind that you’re performing tasks that are not necessarily college-level labor—but meanwhile, you get to play creative-professional for 20 hours a week, and those hours are pure gold. Service industry work’s been enabling ambitious 20-somethings to (eventually) do exactly what they want to do for decades now. Don’t knock it.
3. Applying for jobs is a nightmare. It’s pretty much a full-time job on its own. For a year in New York City, I, no lie, applied to about 20-30 jobs a week via Craigslist, MediaBistro and university websites. I never heard from any of them. Luckily, it was meaningful time spent when flat broke in Brooklyn because of dizzying rent and an oppressive need for an MTA card. In the last four years in Philadelphia, I’ve applied to about 30 different positions each at Temple, Drexel and Penn. Number of interviews? Zero. Moral of the story: Be open-minded about the work you’ll find and reasonably commit to. And if the opportunity arises to interview, treat it like it’s the most important thing you’ve ever done in your life. Be overly prepared, and act like if you don’t get this job, you’re going to starve.
4. Try not to ask stupid questions. Remember how you were once told “There are no stupid questions?” That was bullshit. Thing is, when you’re cold (e)mailing and soliciting for work, the first thing that’ll make you unattractive as a candidate is uninformed or bizarro questions. The Internet’s a double-edge sword. With it, you can know just about everything there is to know about a company, their practices, their problems—hell, you should be able to find the person you’re pitching on LinkedIn and, without sounding stalkery, compliment them on something they’ve done or accomplished. I wouldn’t dream of writing to an editor and simply asking “How can I write for you?” You bring an extremely thought-through suggestion of how their publication is missing something, you’ve got it, and you know how to execute a very specific task. Same goes for every job request. Cover letters where you swap out companies, addresses and positions are going to get you nowhere.
5. Have reasonable goals. It’s true that as you get older, your hopes and dreams will change. If you want to be educational debt-free, married, with child and a homeowner with a 401K by 30, you’ll probably be sorely disappointed. Be willing to morph with the times. Don’t beat yourself up because you live with your parents for a year after college. Don’t fret when it takes five years to start a career in the field you really care about. You may actually go through a different full-time job a year until you find one that doesn’t make you want to kill.
6. Think extra seriously about graduate school. It’s extraordinarily depressing when you read about people who’ve put themselves through law school or an MBA program, can’t find a job, AND are now saddled with massive, near-suffocating debt. Grad school can wait. It’s a lovely little respite from the crippling reality of job hunting. But when you come out on the other end with lifelong debt, and you still can’t find a job, you’re really going to feel like there’s no right or wrong in this world. Sometimes it’s the candidate with the sharpest cover letter, not the prettiest resume, that gets the interview.
7. Despite it all, don’t give up. Endure the punches, and stay optimistic. And maybe rewatch Reality Bites.