How to Survive With a Humanities Degree (or Two)

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Today’s guest post is from Meghan Florian.

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In the last two years, I have on various occasions been called a “scrapper,” told I know how to “hustle,” and asked to share my “wisdom” about how to find a job with degrees in Philosophy and Theology. I’ve had enough conversations about this topic that I sound like a broken record, if only to myself, so in hope of keeping future discussions to a minimum, I’m going break it down for you here.

Be forewarned: I am not going to tell you how to get the “job of your dreams” (whatever that phrase means) or a sought-after teaching position. I am, however, going to offer what advice I can based off of two years of getting by, relatively happily, doing whatever needs to be done in order to pay the bills. I am not some sort of career specialist, job coach, professional resume writer, etc. I’m just a hard working woman with a middle class background trying to find a way to do what I love and not starve in the meantime. I’ve had some sort of job since I was 12. I guess you could say I’ve picked up a thing or two along the way.

The first thing you need to do is going to be difficult for most of you. Are you ready? Take a deep breath, my highly educated, privileged friends. You have to admit that part of the reason you don’t have some sort of job yet is that there are certain jobs you consider “beneath” you. Yeah, yeah, I hear your excuses. “No, no,” you say, “it’s just that if I’m spending all of my time working as a server I won’t have time to look for a real job.” A “real” job, eh? Let me tell you, food service is no walk in the park. The phrase “real job” is just thinly veiled classism, and for the record, even if you’re working 40 hrs/wk as a server, you have time to apply for other jobs. It is completely impossible to apply for jobs all day everyday. There are simply not enough job openings in existence to keep you busy for that long. I know. I still check job postings regularly.

If you really need a job, you take what you can get (even if you keep looking for something else in the meantime). You go into an interview – whether it’s for a hostess position, barista, sales clerk, whatever – with your game face on, because you want – need – that job. You take it as seriously as if this was the job you went to school for, because it’s the only thing standing between you and your parents basement. If you can give me even one reason why you shouldn’t take a job bussing tables, I’m convinced you are not as desperate or “poor” as you think you are. Poor people do what they have to do to survive. You, on the other hand, have safety net, or else you’d be out their busting your ass to find something – anything – to pay the rent.

Now. We can get on to common sense aspects of finding yourself a job.

  1. Don’t be afraid to use craigslist. More and more businesses, churches, and nonprofits post openings here, and it’s a very efficient way to see what’s out there. Restaurants and retail locations in particular, I have noticed, rely almost exclusively on craigslist, so if you have a non-marketable degree in the humanities you should probably head on over and see what’s up.
  2. Other online job boards: idealist.org, jobs.ncnonprofits.org, monster.com, careerbuilder.com, classifieds.indyweek.com. I’m sure there are others, these are simply the ones I use most often. Check them every day or two, but no more than that, and apply for the jobs that interest you as soon as possible after they’re posted.
  3. Learn to write a kickass cover letter. Forget the reusable form letter that just reiterates your resume – be professional, be relevant, and get their attention. Oh, and work those connections you’re hopefully building with all that spare time you have.
  4. Are you currently unemployed or only working part-time? Don’t sit around all day doing nothing. Go volunteer your time doing something that matters. Show a little initiative. Keep yourself from getting all narcissistic and depressed. I don’t feel bad for you and your luxury degree, and you shouldn’t feel bad for yourself, either. Now get off your ass and do something (and no, studying for the GRE doesn’t count).
  5. Join the email lists of local organizations whose work you are interested in and who you might want to work with, should they ever have an opening. Show up to their events. Meet people. Educate yourself on the issues they’re working on. Watch for that job opening, and when it comes, your resume will be far more likely to make its way to the top of the pile. And you know what? Even if it doesn’t, you’ll have used your time and energy wisely by being involved in something worthwhile, instead of watching Hulu all day. Isn’t that why you chose an impractical major to begin with? Because you were more concerned with “making a difference” than getting rich? Okay. Now is your chance. Prove it.
  6. When you are asked in an interview how long you intend to stay at the position, should it be offered to you, know that you are under no obligation to tell potential employers that you may or may not move on to something else a year from now. Guess what? You have no way of knowing for sure where you’ll be in a year, and they have no right to expect you to be able to tell them. Even if you think you want to be a barista for the next five years, who is to say you wont have a family emergency and move home in six months to care for an ailing relative? For that matter, who is to say that after a month your employer isn’t going to call you into the back room and tell you things “just aren’t working out,” huh? (Yes, that happened to me). Or, what if you fall in love, get married, and need to move across country with a spouse? And sure, maybe you applied to PhD programs, but you don’t know that you’re going to get in, and if you don’t, you’re going to want to keep this job for awhile.

I’m not telling you to lie. Don’t say you’ll be here forever; everyone in the room during your interview knows that’s not true. Give an honest but vague answer, because really that’s as much as you know anyway. Don’t expect someone to give you a job if you tell them outright in the interview that you intend to leave as soon as grad school or a “better” job comes knocking. They absolutely will not offer you the position. With that one sentence you’ve already told them all they need to know: you think you’re too good for this job, and you’re not sticking around any longer than you have to. Why would they waste their time training you, when they have a stack of resumes from people who need this job way more than you seem to?

7. Remember that sometimes a job is just a job.

Am I depressing you? I don’t mean to, but I need to tell it like it is if I am going to be any help to you at all. Sooner or later you have to understand that what you do to make a living is not the sum of who or what you are. Your job is not your identity. The vast majority of ordinary working class people probably already know this on some level, but a generation of college and masters level graduates who’ve been told they should be able to make a living doing what they love don’t know who they are without a prestigious title.

You want to talk about titles? Here are a few I’ve held since graduating:

  • Chapel Attendant
  • Wedding Assistant
  • Nursery Attendant
  • Hostess
  • Retail Associate
  • Intern
  • Administrative Assistant
  • Academic Mentor
  • Tutor
  • Teaching Assistant
  • Nanny

Some of these I’ve liked a lot; some of them I hope and pray I never have to revisit, ever. Some of these are connected to things I care deeply about and hope to continue doing; some of them are as far from that as possible. The point is that throughout all of these interwoven part-time jobs, I continued to be Meghan. I will always be Meghan, and Meghan is a lot of things besides her job.

Ask yourself, too, if perhaps your worries about your own job title indicate something about how much respect you have (or don’t have) for the work of others, particularly those in manual labor and service positions. Though we might like to talk about equality in our humanities classrooms from time to time, when push comes to shove most of us probably still have a lot to learn, and a lot of biases to break down. Start with your own, and move forward from there.

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