Confession time: I dunno how this week’s column is gonna turn out. Not because the question is too hard or weird or out-there, but because it’s almost too relatable. It’s something I personally am still struggling with, along with a lot of my fellow Overlords — something I’m sure we’ve all faced at one point or another, in some way or another. Careers, ya’ll — how? And also, why? And if we really had the answer, do you think we’d be here answering your questions for free?
[Reminder: you too can trigger our inadequacies and existential dissatisfactions! Just send your thoroughly reasonable questions to advic[email protected] and watch as we try to answer you… and ourselves. Or, you know, you could cut us some slack and ask about types of gravy or something. Whatever floats your gravy boat.]
So, let’s pull up our business socks and do this:
Longtime lurker here. I am hoping your wise and experienced writers and commentators can help me with my professional life. Specifically, I need help actually moving from having jobs to having a career.
I graduated from college in 2006 with a B.A. in English and a vague idea of being an editor of some kind while trying to start a writing career on the side. When I had not found anything after 4 months, I took a retail job in order to have money coming in while I continued my job search. The recession hit, the few job openings in my area that had been available all dried up, and I was too afraid to move elsewhere in an unstable economy. I stuck with the retail job for (far too) many years because I had healthcare through them. I moved up and down the corporate ladder, but any time I found a position I actually enjoyed, it got eliminated due to restructuring. I continued to apply for positions at other companies but never got hired anywhere else.
I finally left that company when they cut my healthcare with the passage of the ACA. Since I still could not find another job, I decided to go back to school and earn a more “practical” degree. As of last year, I have an Associate’s Degree in Computer Programming, and I am still stuck in the same cycle. I apply for jobs, but no matter how far along in the hiring process I get, I never manage to make it all the way. I do not know what the problem is since my rejections are always vague “we went with another candidate” stuff.
I feel like I’ve spent my entire life looking at job descriptions, and they are all starting to blur together. Neither of my degrees is helping me at all. All of my job experience is in customer service, which I hate. Currently, my options as I see them are:
1) Moving to a different city/state with more opportunity. I am not the frightened 23-year-old I was. I am willing to move anywhere. I have been applying for openings all over the country, but I feel like companies would be more willing to consider me if I were already in the area. I am still a little hesitant to do this thanks to my long history of bad luck.
2) Going back to school again and turning my Associate’s Degree into another Bachelor’s Degree. A lot of entry-level programming jobs have a B.S. or equivalent experience as a requirement. I do not know how to get the experience, but I could get the degree. I am hesitant to do this because I do not really want to go back to school again, and it would mean investing another 2-3 years before I start earning anything with no guarantee that it will be any more successful than my other degrees.
3) Keep doing what I have been doing and hope something comes up. This has not been successful so far. Additionally, I absolutely hate my current gas station job and want to leave it as soon as possible.
4) Go to work for Foxconn when/if it opens. I am kidding of course. There is no way in hell.
I am open to any advice you can offer as well as other options I have not considered.
Dear Longtime Lurker,
Hey, boo! Thanks for writing in! And I feel your pain. I’ve written before about my decade-long slog through jobs that weren’t quite right, because I chose having health care over chasing my dreams. Time passed while I was led further and further astray from my goals in pursuit of money and benefits. And in the end, when I realized my jobs weren’t leading to the sort of career I had hoped for, I took the opportunity to move to a new state and start over. Full disclosure: I’m still working on it. I love what I’m doing, but I wouldn’t say I’ve got this whole writing gig pinned down as a sustainable career just yet.
But fuck my story — the piece you should REALLY read is the one that TK wrote about what he looks for when he’s hiring, because THAT’S some real practical advice on how to make yourself an appealing candidate. Read it, learn it, live it.
You’re not the first person I’ve talked to who has attempted the pivot into computer programming, and it makes sense! It’s a field that’s highly in demand, with a lot of different roles to explore. But it’s also a field with a lot of candidates and competition. Instead of racking up more debt by getting your Bachelor’s degree, I’d say you should look up some targeted online courses — train up on a new programming language or exercise your problem solving skills, then you’ll be able to put those on your resume. Here’s an article from an engineer I know on how to develop yourself in this field — in addition to specific books, authors, and platforms like Coursera and Exercism for taking online courses, he also recommends attending hackathons and conferences to meet people and learn from them as well (and maybe even network for a gig?). And it makes sense, if you think of the difference between a job and a career as being a degree of passion. If you truly want to make programming your career, then it should be something you are interested in and want to grow with. And if you pursue it with that level of interest, it’s something you can demonstrate in cover letters and interviews as well. It’ll make you a better candidate, because you’ll have material to talk to other engineers about — especially the ones who might be hiring.
But speaking of passion: have you fully given up on writing? Sure, it’s not something you can just pivot into and make a living off of immediately, but it is something you can start doing on the side while still working your bill-paying job. Before I moved, I spent a good year writing nights and weekends to start laying the groundwork, making connections, and building up some writing cred for my resume. Even if you’re writing for free, for your own website, you’re generating clips you can use to demonstrate your skill. It’s also a great way to try different kinds of writing and see if anything sticks. Even if you want to write the great American novel, you can do some copywriting for the paycheck in the meanwhile! Or maybe it can be something you just do for yourself, for your own sanity — something to sustain you personally while you toil through the unfulfilling jobs.
Hell, it doesn’t even need to be writing! Just find something — a hobby, a side hustle — and invest your energy and passion in that. Because the fact is, jobs and careers aren’t what they used to be anyway. People don’t stay with a single company for their entire lives, racking up that sweet pension to see them through their golden years anymore (“Pension”? What even is that?). And companies often have little to no impetus to keep their workforce, because they can find someone younger and cheaper to do the work anyway. Millennials are notorious for “job-hopping” — and in fact studies show that millennials who stuck with a job for more than two years suffered for it, costing them 50% or more in wages over their lifetime (check this Forbes article for more on this topic). And look, I’m not trying to say the pursuit of a career is hopeless. It’s just that a “career” these days seems to be composed of a lot of jobs that don’t quite fit right anyway. What you are experiencing is, sadly, pretty normal. So maybe there are ways you can make your overall life more enjoyable, even if your work-life isn’t that interesting?
But back to your questions. Relocating is viable, but tread carefully. Pay close attention to the costs of living and the job market in the areas you’re considering (are there even companies hiring for the kinds of positions you’d want?), and I’d recommend building up a fat financial cushion before taking the plunge. Maybe also pick a city you have friends or family in, so you always have a couch to surf should things get tough. Genevieve also points out that you can use their address on job applications (with their permission!) and start applying early — then “update” your address with HR later. Employers don’t need to know you aren’t local, if you can avoid it (and if you can get there for an interview if asked). You could even just put an email and phone number on your resume and see if they ask. If you can get a gig before you move, that’ll give you the sense of security you were missing!
It’s a fine line to walk, but you could start asking for feedback when you hear that you haven’t gotten a job you’ve been in the pipeline for. Don’t badger them, and accept gracefully whatever answer you get (“We decided to go another direction” is a common, unhelpful one), but you might get something useful from it. Specific skills they were looking for, or something you could have improved on your resume or interview skills. But even if you don’t get feedback, you can still be proactive about improving how your present yourself as a candidate. Show your friends your resume for advice, or research tips on how to improve it — make it concise, informative, attractive, and, you know, correctly spelled. Then ask someone to help you practice your interview skills! TK says: “There’s a trick to being an effective interviewee, and you may not even know that you aren’t, but it’s going to end up sabotaging your chances. Dress well, make eye contact, firm handshakes, be clever but not too funny, be confident, ask good questions, and don’t hog the interview.”
All of which is helpful, but frankly — there are no guarantees. For every interview I’ve bombed, there was one I thought I nailed and lost anyway. You can be an excellent candidate, and maybe there was someone who was just a little bit better. All you can do is keep trying, and keep improving yourself, and sure — make yourself sound even better than you really are. But whatever you do, don’t let your track record or past disappointments defeat you. Confidence shows through to employers, as does that magic word: “passion.” Sure, we all may apply for jobs as an escape hatch from wherever we are, but in the moment you need to also be able to show that you don’t just want the job — you want to DO the job, because you’re interested in it for what it is, and can maybe bring more to the table besides.
Good luck, lurker. You’re not alone. We all just need to find a box of money and retire, really.
Header Image Source: 20th Century Fox