The reality of a twenty-something with a specialized degree, or, how I found wisdom on a sandwich shop wall
Name: Jessica Edens
Education: BA in History, Master’s in Heritage Preservation
Occupation: Marketing Administrator for a tech start-up selling business intelligence tools to software vendors
I’m approaching a significant anniversary. Last year, I woke up on August 1 unemployed and with no imminent plans for anything in my life, for the first time ever. It was not by choice. It was terrifying.
The position I’d been in up to then was contingent upon being a student and, as I’d graduated a few months earlier, I was no longer qualified. Since it was also a federal institution, it was under a strict hiring freeze, and still is today.
I would tell myself, and others would reiterate the thought, that this would be a rare moment of peace in my life. Here I was given this unclear amount of time, days or perhaps weeks, stretching into months, to just do less. I was not bound by a job or a degree program to show up anywhere, and any time. My response to myself and others when presented with this lovely idea of endless freedom was that it would be a lot easier to enjoy a two-month sabbatical if I, in fact, knew that there was an end-point already comfortably situated out there in The Future. That there would eventually be some kind of plan, and equally important, a source of income.
I had already spent the first half of 2012 submitting my resume and applications to about sixty jobs, scattered in cities and towns across the country, each selected because I fell into the category of “qualified” or “almost qualified, a.k.a. I’ll-give-it-a-shot.” From these six months of work, I got only rejections, or no response at all. Then in July, I finally got one phone interview with a non-profit oral history initiative that would still be my top choice today—dream job kind of territory. (Oral history is one of the best things about my entire field of study.) And I didn’t get that.
Of course, the market is bad, it’s a bad era for non-profits, and the museum and archival field is facing significant budget cuts. They even threatened to shut down the Georgia State Archives entirely, but enough people reminded the legislature that history, um, kind of matters. So one might easily write all this off to bad timing. This was the reason I decided to go straight to graduate school in 2010, as I graduated with a bachelor’s degree in history facing the worst job market in a generation. I often question this decision. I do not regret it, but I question whether I really made the best call on that one.
But more than a failure of the job market, it felt like my failure. Here I was, always finishing projects and papers early, leading group presentations, working two jobs, and getting excellent feedback from professors and colleagues in the real world about my work, skills, and potential. I never imagined myself unemployable.
And the fact was, I didn’t have the option anyway. My parents ensured, by selling their home and making plans to work abroad in their retirement, that we would be truly independent young adults. We would not be leaping back into our parents’ home after college, waiting for dream jobs or even kinda-good jobs—the far more realistic ones, as every generation learns—to lay themselves at the doorstep, all the while eating free food and paying no rent.
Life would not stop just because I hadn’t gotten a job, and now it was August 1, and no one had expressed any interest in hiring me.
Oh, except for the slew of insurance sales companies lurking all over Monster.com, waiting for job-hunters with liberal arts degrees. There’s no shortage of openings with them.
But in such a moment of quiet panic, I took a look at my skills. I have always sewed for pleasure, though most bags and garments and home decor projects only seem like a lot of work and at the end, it’s obvious I’m wearing a home-made skirt. Quilting is what I truly love, a flat canvas where you make art with fabric rather than paint. My friend at the neighborhood quilt shop was doing some freelance work for another local quilter and blogger, and I inquired in case she needed some extra help. I completed the binding on at least six of her quilts, all of which are featured in her second book, out this September. I spent some time at my home, with my cats, hand-sewing the binding onto these lovely, inspiring quilts, thankful that my circumstances led me to the pleasant work. It was a crucial bit of income, and I would never have even thought of asking, or of using that part of me, had I not been faced with this blank time. (Plus, now quilts I helped finish are being published in a book, in which I'm listed as a resource - pretty cool.)
In the same time, the months of August and September, I also conducted research for a National Register nomination being completed through Kennesaw State University, and archived and digitized an Atlanta society woman’s collection of personal mementos and photographs from her high school and college careers.
Even with these odd jobs, though, the epoch of NO PLAN was extending far longer than I had even imagined when I woke up August 1. People were telling me to check out job fairs in September and October, and in my head I was saying, “Yeah right, if I don’t have a job by October, I’ll be on the street anyway…”
I went to a job fair in mid-September, which lead to a staffing company, which lead to two contract-based, temporary positions that got me through the next series of months.
Finally, by word of mouth, by the strength of an old Kennesaw connection, I got the job I have now. Not in history or museums or nonprofits or anything remotely related, but as a marketer for a business intelligence software company.
An aside here: It is significant to me that in all my job applications, all the cover letters I’ve written, the jobs I have gotten were the ones I was not required to write anything for. [Read: word of mouth is stronger than any cover letter anyway.] This was true of my current position. It makes me rather sad to know that all the hard work I’ve done in two degrees and all former jobs, everything I list on my resume and say in a cover letter, really has no bearing on anyone; if someone will vouch for me, I’m hired.
Anyway, my work now is not anything I envisioned in any kind of “plan” or idea I may have had in mind. But I am tired. I am tired of the time-consuming act of proving myself again and again to no avail. I’m okay with rejection, believe me. And as a person who’s spent decades writing, I am unabashedly confortable with constructive criticism. It’s not these things that have worn on me. It’s the much larger, sadder thing that wears on me. It’s the adult reality of a regular, non-glamorous job that pays the bills but does not relate to what you studied. I am tired of that searching, so for now, I've mostly stopped doing it.
And I also remember that I’m still using relevant skills everyday. Not to mention, I’m now highly versed in all things ASP.NET and Microsoft, write about programming languages and business tips for software companies, and use Subversion and Notepad++ to edit multiple websites. My technical abilities prove essential every day, and I've learned an enormous number of extra computery skills I never dreamed I would know or care about. (I know all software people are so happy to hear me use the word "computery" to describe skills in their field.)
There’s a sign at the Jimmy John’s sandwich shop near my office that says, “Experience is what you get when you didn’t get what you wanted.” Jimmy John’s, a place for more than just a sandwich; now also serving wisdom.
That’s what this year has been. Experience, stacked on uncertainly, smothered with a year’s worth of temporary jobs. Honestly, my favorite thing about my job now is that it doesn’t have an expiration date. I do good work, they keep me around. I’ve heard the line too many times before, at part-time jobs and internships and college positions: “Oh, we’d love to keep you, if we could!” This time, they can.
Last week I interviewed for a wonderful, meaningful position at a suburban, university-affiliated history museum in the area. While doing the intense preparation work for the interview, I couldn’t help but ponder the auspicious time of year, that I could potentially begin this position—if I were to get it—on the very day that I so badly needed a job one year before.
It was almost as perfect timing as the oral history job from last year. It would make a tidy end for this story.
But I didn’t get it, and the story isn’t ending here. This wasn’t an anomaly in my life, a year of unexpected trials and many random jobs. It’s life. That is every day. And that is, really, every job, too. But this year, while interviewing for that job, I already had a job, one where my time isn’t up July 31, and so I was not walking into an abyss of uncertainty and disappointment.
And so the first year of this real life stretches into the second, and I march forward, picking up a little more experience with each step.