A flood of new graduates possessing degrees in the humanities are asking themselves what they can do with the piece of paper they worked so hard for.
I don’t think I asked myself that question as an undergrad. When I declared my major as a freshman—I didn’t have to declare until junior year, but I was so sure at 18—I knew I wanted to continue my study of psychology in graduate school, ultimately obtaining either a PhD in counseling or a PsyD.
I’ve since determined that it’s ludicrous for college administrators, parents and future employers to demand that anyone between the ages of 18 and 24 know what she wants to do with the rest of her life.
After internships in counseling establishments for children and for adult men, a research practicum on gambling addicts, an independent study spent developing characters for clinical psych students to diagnose, and the opportunity to, through my writing, debate, inform and entertain my favorite professors in my favorite Latin American and African American studies classes, I no longer wanted to pursue psychology.
I was 21 and walking away from a top school with degree in hand and debt waiting when it occurred to me to write for a living. Eight years later, I’m finally doing it, and I’ve broken all sorts of rules to get here.
Rule #1: Have a clips package full of articles you wrote or edited for your university’s newspaper. I have loved the written word since childhood, but in college, I applied my talent to my major, my minor and the other classes that required written work. My only formal education in creative writing came after I graduated: I attended UCLA’s Professional Screenwriting Program. I volunteered for an organization that needed writers for its newsletter. I continued writing in my journal. And when I was laid off, seeking a new career and figuring I had nothing to lose, I took my newsletter clipping and asked the editors at a publication to give me a chance. About 18 months and 30 published stories later, they’re still giving me assignments, and my regular column in another publication adds another 14 clips to the growing collection.
Rule #2: Applicant must have a bachelor’s degree in English, journalism, marketing, creative writing, or communications to do this job. I didn’t exactly apply to be an entrepreneur, but hey, no one was hiring me to do the jobs I wanted to do with the degree that I have, even though my experience had converged around writing and communications longer than it had around psychology. (I find it odd when I see that list of degrees in the job requirements for a marketing and communications position. The more writing I do, the more I understand how different all of it is, and the more easily I can see how an objective journalist would have difficulty spinning a product or service for marketing purposes.)
Rule #3: Have at least two years of income saved up before you start your own business. I was laid off after a year-and-a-half, so it was impossible to follow this rule. Unsteady income is a wild, sometimes nauseating ride, but I thank God for the doors he’s opened for me on this journey. I enjoy my work. I use my talent that became a hobby that became a skill that became my sole source of income. I use my screenwriting certificate. I use my degree. Every day.
In this recent NPR story, I heard a young woman with an English degree ask the, “What can I do with this?” question. Her mother advised her to write as a backup to her plan of becoming an actress. In hindsight, I’m sure they see that was not the most logical path to take.
I can tell them what will happen if the girl in the story doesn’t return to her previous job as a cashier, which is among the jobs she’s pursuing now: She will likely end up working for various people who aren’t as smart as she is but who need her writing and critical thinking skills to make them look better in front of other business people. She’ll write for pleasure on her own time, or even sneak writing breaks into her day. Either she will cave in and go to graduate school, or she will compile her pleasure-writing into a manuscript and maybe get a lucky break. Or she will find something, through desperation or through lateral moves within an organization or company, that has nothing to do with her degree. And she’ll feel bad for liking it.
Or she might think out of the box and break some rules. If she follows my path, she has only one to break.
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