The problem of a useless degree is a growing one. While the job market for experienced workers has begun to swing back to the way things were before the great recession, new grads are still having difficulty landing their first entry-level jobs. This is made all the more difficult by a “useless” degree. Trust me, you’ll know if your degree is useless pretty soon after graduation, and if you planned ahead, you would’ve known even before you took it, and all that student debt as well.
But there’s not point in assigning blame. People who graduated with useless degrees did so for a number of reasons. Maybe it was because you were really passionate about something, because you wanted to do some good in the world. Maybe it was because you didn’t really know what to do after college, and all those years of classes never gave you any clarity. Maybe it was even because someone told you to. It doesn’t matter. If we could go back and change things, many of us would. But for the present, we have to work with what we got.
I graduated college with roughly $25k in public loans, a liberal arts degree in English, and two aging parents that I had to support. Woof, that’s a lot to worry about for someone just entering their 20s. Money isn’t everything, and certainly I never thought of myself as someone who could be described as money hungry, but I needed to pay the bills and keep food on the table. I didn’t have a whole lot of family support and about $500 in the bank. I haven’t worked a non-retail job in my life.
Yet, thanks to some luck and a lot of hustling, within 6 years I was making upwards of $110k.
There’s no scheme here, no trick or secret. If you were hoping that I would impart some hidden gem, then I’m sorry, but the real answer was that I worked like a mad dog to get to where I am. There’s only one truth to success: you must first try, and you must be smart. Everything else is just background noise.
When I graduated I spent four months looking for a job. At first, I looked for jobs that specifically dealt with writing: copywriters, technical writers, etc. Every single one needed at least three years of experience, and I was discouraged. I applied anyway, but none of them went so far as to give me an interview. Next, I started looking jobs roughly in my field: copyeditor, proofing, social media writing. Very basic entry-level stuff. We’re talking $12/hr with no benefits. Still nothing. So I started applying to practically everything.
I got my first job at $10/hr as a copyeditor. I had made more as an intern in college. Oh well, I went to work every day and tried my best. The job was little more than data entry, but that was okay. It wasn’t that bad, just a bit boring, but it gave me time to reflect. I started looking into ways to expand my income outside of a day job. If you like buying and selling things, opening up a seller account on Ebay wasn’t such a bad idea. Freelancing as a content writer was also pretty big, so I gave that a try as well. I didn’t make a whole lot of money doing either, at least not at first. It took a lot of my time, time that could be spent with friends, playing video games, or just doing whatever instead of sitting in front of a computer screen, packaging up whatever knickknacks I was selling on Ebay, etc.
It was a grind, and I hated it because at the end of the day I was making so little money. At the end of my first year as a working professional, I pulled in little more than $21k in pre-tax income. Okay, I wasn’t living on minimum wage or anything, but I had maybe $20 in discretionary spending per week. That included work lunches.
If it wasn’t for my lovely girlfriend, I might have driven myself crazy during that period.
Then I got my first real promotion, was switched over to a salaried employee, and earned a few more bucks an hour. Okay, whatever. The next year after that passed in much the same way. I scrimped and saved while all my engineer and developer buddies spent $200 a night out on the town. On the other hand, all my friends in creative fields were stuck in the same boat as me, if not worse. The weight of rent, debt, and supporting my parents was crushing.
So what was the turning point? When did everything finally click? It’s hard to say. You see, for me there was never a definitive moment when my luck changed and everything fell into place. By working hard, making the right kind of connections, never burning bridges and generally being an okay guy, I found myself inexorably driven towards success. I was recognized as reliable, I made friends with everybody even though I was an introvert. Nobody could really say an ill word against me, and most importantly, I never microwaved fish in the office kitchen.
I was promoted to management in my first job, learned everything I can, networked as hard as I could, and then I jumped to a higher-paying position at another company. Those connections I made paid dividends. I knew plenty of people with a lot of money and needed a content writer, an editor, an advisory or a consultant. I ghost wrote books, I developed content for blogs, I did copywriting. By my fifth year my freelance income was nearly half of my salary, and when I made the jump to another company in my sixth year, my freelance income just about doubled. You can see the chart I made below:
I don’t intend for my own life to be a roadmap for others, but here’s what helped me:
Don’t be afraid to start at the bottom, as long as you start
I was lucky enough to get into the field I studied for, at the absolute rock bottom. That’s okay, that’s why there are entry-level jobs. Those are supposed to be for new grads. Don’t be afraid to apply for anything under the sun, even if your degree isn’t related. Send out hundreds of resumes. Ask your friends for tips. Most importantly, get good references.
Learn everything you can
The early part of your career is for learning. When you get into an industry you like, study the hell out of it. If you’re in a job with no future, still learn everything you can from it and apply it to your next job.
The most important component of success is the will to work for it. This is really the only element 100% in our own hands. You can’t control how lucky you are, how wealthy your family is or what connections you have. You can absolutely determine how hard you work for something.