I Have a Master’s Degree, Please Hire Me!
I thought I had struck it big. In April, as I was nearing the end of my graduate degree program, I received an email from a hiring manager at a highly respected university on the west coast responding to my application, submitted only the day before, for a job in their online education office. It was the very first application I had sent out, and the fact that this sole effort had yielded an interview seemed promising. The language the hiring manager used in the email was optimistic: “Let’s discuss what role you might play in our organization.”
This, I thought, was proof that the economic recession, into which I had graduated from my undergraduate university in 2013 was over. There were Now Hiring signs in retail windows everywhere. The economy, steadily coming back from where it was in 2008, was now even more productive, reaching 4.1% growth. Unemployment on the whole was 3.9%. Armed with five years of work experience and a graduate degree, I seemed well-situated to leave school and re-enter the workforce.
But then reality set in. After eventually getting a “no thanks” from that job on the West Coast, I kept submitting applications, expecting more interest from employers. First five, then ten, then twenty. By the time I got to thirty, with no responses, I knew something was wrong. I realized that my early stroke of luck had been just that — luck. I learned that the norm was not, in fact, a call back the next day, but rather silence and an empty inbox. Six months have passed since that first bite. I have meticulously applied to over sixty jobs. I am still unemployed.
My work history between undergrad and grad school was, I suspect, much like many other millennials’ who graduated into the recession economy with a liberal arts degree. Near the end of my undergraduate degree I started leasing apartments for commission, but finding the pay not lucrative enough to cover even the cost of the parking tickets I got while trying to make sales, I left that job, eventually enrolling in a TEFL certification program, then moving to South Korea for a year to teach English to middle schoolers. Since then, a number of other jobs have been similarly short-lived or resulted in burnout, done in corporate office environments over the course of a few years in Asia and America, until one day in 2015 I found myself in Melbourne, Australia, working at a catering company as a waiter and prep cook.
In Australia, I was surrounded by people who were similarly far afield — many of them from Europe or South America, all of them under thirty, on temporary “working holiday” visas, earning far more working in kitchens or coffee shops in Australia than they had ever made doing office work in their home countries. These people weren’t backpackers. They were in Australia to work, to send money home, and to make a permanent move Down Under if they could swing it. I made friends from Italy and Brazil and Chile who had been graphic designers and events managers and elementary school teachers back home, but who had had to live with their parents for lack of decent wages — if they could even find work at all. To them, being able to afford a room in an apartment in Melbourne, or even just a bed in a hostel, was freedom. Knowing these other workers in Australia put some things in perspective for me. At least I didn’t think I had to go abroad to find a well-paying job.
Graduate school seemed like the only way out of a career situation that had a chance of becoming as desperate as the situation these people found themselves in. I had to restart my career after working in corporate America. I knew I needed to try to make a difference. I loved teaching, writing, communicating. I was in my mid-twenties, without student debt thanks to a full undergraduate tuition scholarship and some old fashioned upper middle class privilege. I hoped that graduate school would offer a fresh start and an opportunity to find a solid career.
But after two years of grad school, and then months of searching for work, I don’t really know what I’ve done wrong. I attended a degree program that was the most selective program at my university, received a fellowship, taught undergraduate classes, and now I’m struggling to get interviews doing entry level work in universities, though I have taught at a university and am presumably expert enough in a subject to stand in front of people paying thousands of dollars to hear me speak. I had always excelled in school and at work, receiving promotions at previous places of employment, and attending both my undergraduate and graduate institutions on full scholarships. After six months, I have to ask myself, Do these things matter?
In a word, no.
The causes of employment difficulties for my generation are well known, both nationally and internationally. Though the US is reaching record low unemployment and the economy as a whole has added hundreds of thousands of jobs in the past nine years since the market crash, many of the new jobs created are in contract, retail, or other low-wage work, where benefits are scarce, a set schedule cannot be counted on, and where employers systematically deny workers hours in order to withhold benefits. Taking these jobs comes with risk, as being underemployed after completing a degree program often means underemployment long into the future. When taken in the context of these larger structural trends, it becomes clear that my story is only a small part of this narrative — the story of the most overeducated, underemployed generation in American history.
I thought that maybe I deserved this struggle. I had taken a path often mocked for its idealism and naiveté. I studied creative writing, the poster child for what one should not do if they want a job. Though I’m clearly not alone. For many of us in the knowledge or creative economy, it has become simple fact that highly educated, talented people are struggling to find meaningful work with a decent standard of living. Nearly everyone I know has some version of this story, in which they are trapped by their lack of employment opportunities. They range in affect, from humorous to depressingly poignant. The fact that essays like this — in which millennials with humanities degrees describe their employment struggles — have become so common that that they might as well be their own genre is indicative to me of a serious structural issue with long-term effects for the future of work in America. Fed up with our inability to find meaningful work that pays a living wage, tired of the standard hiring practices that are inflexible, uncaring, and insurmountable, we are now looking abroad for a chance to make a middle class life. Like the Brazilians and Italians I met in Australia, Americans have also become discouraged.
My own height of discouragement came after I got a bite on a job back on the west coast. I had moved back in with my mother in a suburb of Chicago, and I spent my own money on a flight back to the west coast to interview. It was a temporary position, and the night before the interview I received an email. They had made a mistake and forgotten to tell me that I was supposed to prepare a 20-minute presentation about my work. Could I still prepare the presentation? I said, yes, of course, and spent the rest of the night making a powerpoint instead of sleeping. I thought it went okay, and I returned to my mother’s house for a protracted period of waiting, during which I continued to apply to more jobs and get no responses. After a month had passed, and a few emails wondering why it was taking so long for a response, they finally told me they weren’t interested in hiring me. This for a temporary position. I broke down in my mother’s kitchen after that happened. I had spent months doing little else besides trying. It just seemed so futile. Why apply when you are becoming increasingly certain that you will not get even a temporary position in your field?
My situation has forced me to learn some new lessons and to relearn some lessons that I already knew. I’ve printed out three rules for myself and put them next to my bed so I see them when I wake up:
1. Networks matter more than anything, and not just for finding work.
It’s a demoralizing reality that the only way to get a job is by knowing someone. It limits a person’s potential to the people they know and the social milieu into which they were born and matriculated. But there’s also opportunity in this. Knowing that I will most likely need an in to get work has empowered me to talk to my friends, parents’ friends, and others, and just ask if they know of any open positions. In my experience, people are often more than willing to help. After telling a college friend who is a recruiter about my struggles, she offered to look at my resume, made recommendations, and even reached out to former colleagues on my behalf. Another friend set me up with an interview at his company. Their responses were highly encouraging, not just for my job search, but also for these relationships.
2. Don’t be afraid to reach out to strangers.
One of the interviews I got was because I sent an email to someone I didn’t know and asked to do an “informational interview.” I might as well have been asking for a job. A few weeks after I went to speak with her, she sent me an email saying there was a job opening up and I should apply. I didn’t get the job, but I was emboldened by the connection I had made through no force other than my willingness to reach out. As one friend put it, “It’s okay to be thirsty.”
3. Be able to distinguish between personal worth and pride.
It’s totally unclear to me when my expectations are reasonable or unreasonable. I never know when I should demand more money, or when I should apply for higher level jobs, and the question “am I qualified?” does not have an easy answer. But it helps to be aware of when I’m not open to a position because I’m afraid it is beneath me. I have to remind myself that there’s no such thing as being too old, too educated, or too smart for certain forms of work. After a former coworker posted about a job for which she would be the supervisor, I applied. We had been equals at our previous workplace, and she reiterated that she would be my boss, and it might throw our relationship out of whack. But ultimately I was encouraged because I would rather work under a friend who cares about me than a stranger.
Though by far the most positive experience in all this has come from talking about my employment struggles with other people — friends, family, past colleagues. When my father was laid off from his job of twenty-five years in 2008 and couldn’t find work, he said nothing of the personal toll it took on him to be unemployed and then forced into unplanned retirement. He didn’t ask for emotional support, preferring to bear it alone. It’s difficult to open up about these things, and it helps to simply be reminded that the hiring system is loaded with bureaucracy and the overall priorities of the economy disdainful of those who would try to defy them. “The old United States doesn’t exist anymore,” my dad recently said to me, referring to a bygone economy in which education meant job prospects and a middle class life. He has two master’s degrees, and were he in my position, he said, he’d start looking abroad for work.
I don’t apologize for studying the humanities. Because of it, I am a better communicator, more empathetic to the people around me, able to tell a story. These are skills often listed in the “desired qualifications” sections of the job postings I see every day. But are these skills really as valued as employers say they are? Or are they mostly for marketing purposes, more of the narrative in America that we care about people over profit and making a difference over making money? Maybe the reality is far simpler than any of that, that we simply don’t need this many educated people.
I’m writing in the hope that this is not true. I certainly believe that education of people, young and old, is a good thing for the world. I’m also writing this with a weird hope that someone will notice me, and this is a kind of cover letter to that end. Twenty-seven-year-old seeks quality employment. Five years teaching and instructional design experience. Proficient in writing cover letters and willing to do redundant tasks like entering information from my resume into digital entry boxes. Works well in teams. Please, someone, give me a job.