how to crush someone’s dreams without being a jerk

A reader writes:

I was contacted by a recent graduate of my alma mater asking for advice on getting into my industry (publishing), and we’re having coffee later this week. I get these kinds of emails every so often, and I’m sometimes torn over how to respond. Because the honest truth is that most people should not get into publishing — especially the people who *think* they want to, i.e. English majors. These kids contacting me generally think that they’ll be having hours-long lunches with their favorite authors discussing literary theory. In reality, they will be working 12-hour days for little pay doing all of the worst tasks, only to some day, if they stick it out, get to be focused on generating sales, not on discovering great literary talent. I’m sure this isn’t a surprise to a lot of people, but it often is to recent grads with little job experience (and who majored in English because they *don’t* want to work for a big corporation).

There are some great things about the industry and I love my job, so I don’t necessarily want to crush their dreams — but maybe a little dream-crushing is needed? What is the best way to crush someone’s dreams without coming across as a complete jerk? I should note that in the past I have referred some younger people who’ve contacted me this way to jobs, and they’ve been really unhappy there even though I tried to be honest about what it’s like.

Be straightforward! Don’t think of it as dream-crushing. Think of it as guiding someone in the dark who thinks they’re about to step on to a delightfully cushy rug, and you’re letting them know that actually, they’re about to step on to a very crumbly patch of flooring that might cave in. Yes, maybe they have dreams of a luxuriously cushy rug (who doesn’t?), but they sure as hell would rather be warned that it’s not what they think it is.

Why not say something like this: “I’ve found that people often have misconceptions about what the business is like and how they’ll be spending their time, and I’ve seen a lot of people end up very unhappy in publishing when they go in without a very accurate idea of what to expect. I’d like to try to give you a clear picture of what you can expect so that you can decide whether it’s still something you’re interested in pursuing or whether you’d rather look at other career paths.” And then tell them what they need to know.

Of course, tell them about the good parts, too — because publishing might actually be right for a small number of these people, and you don’t want to steer them away in that case.  So present the whole picture — not just the good and not just the bad, but the full picture … although probably with a bit more emphasis on the bad, since that’s the part people are most inclined to tune out.

Also, keep in mind that you’re not responsible for forcing the blinders off people’s eyes, if they’re determined to have them. All you can do is to present a clear and honest picture. What they do with it is up to them.

{ 299 comments… read them below }

  1. Janet*

    “Also, keep in mind that you’re not responsible for forcing the blinders off people’s eyes, if they’re determined to have them. All you can do is to present a clear and honest picture. W”

    Very much agree with this. Back when I was in college I very much wanted to be in broadcast journalism. Graduates would come and speak to the class and would be like “Hey don’t go into broadcast journalism, the pay is low, the hours are long, it’s controlled by the sales department and there’s so much competition it’s hard to move up.” but we all collectively were like “Nonsense!” and most of us stupidly believed that they were telling us bad news so that we would not be the younger competition to them. We were delusional and nothing could change our minds.

    And then eventually in time I got the job in broadcast journalism . . . and hated it. Why? The hours were long, the pay was low and it was way too competitive. That being said the experience was good and I am glad I had it even if it didn’t work out. They’ll probably feel the same way. You just have to lay it on the line and be honest but realize you’re not going to change anyone’s mind.

    1. jennie*

      Janet, this was exactly my experience in broadcast journalism. A family member was extremely successful in radio so I thought it seemed like a great job. Little did I know until graduation that entry level positions pay basically minimum wage, have terrible hours and I’d have to move to Canada’s far north to even find a job. In a dying industry no less. But I’m not sure I would have changed my mind even if someone had been honest with me. Finding out myself was pretty valuable.

      1. Britanny*

        …and in the small papers there are maybe three to five people on staff and you get to be reporter/copy-editor/photographer/website manager/office supply person for that low wage, in the boonies. :)

        1. Natalie*

          Ha, so true. One semester as the EIC of my small college’s newspaper (a weekly, for that matter) was all I needed to decide the print journalism was likely to lead me to a life of alcoholism and ulcers.

          1. Marly King*

            I worked for a business newspaper for my first “real” job — the hours are long and absolutely bizarre! I had to be attached to my phone at all times to follow up on sources, placate my editor, harassing PR people, conduct out of state interviews, etc. The pay is low, too, but what really caused me to burn out was the negative/cynical attitude of my fellow staff writers. I

    2. ExceptionToTheRule*

      Ah yes… everyone wants to work in broadcasting… until they’ve been doing it for 6 months and realize that they’ll be working nights and weekends and holidays indefinitely. With 15 years in, I’m still looking forward to a 12 hour shift on Christmas Day.

      1. majigail*

        My best teacher in broadcast school spent a whole class on what life looks like on an entry level reporter salary. He started with the salary, deducted rent, gas, electric, groceries, etc and we ended up with just about nothing. Most enlightening class I had in college.

      2. jesicka309*

        My family is still convinced that one day I will be reading the news…. *sigh* Unfortunately it doesn’t work like that. That’s not a career track you can plan, it’s more of a ‘right place at the right time’ thing. And I am no where near the right place. :(
        It doesn’t help that in Australia you get people like Grant Hackett (swimmer) reading the sport or Leila McKinnon (wife of the station’s CEO) reading news bulletins or hosting the Olympics coverage…so even if you have worked your ass to get to the top, you still might miss out to the bosses wife.

        1. Janet*

          So glad I wasn’t the only one! I mean, granted, not everyone hates it. I still have friends who are in it and love it. For me? I was tired of living in a small town miles away from family and friends making $17,000/year and working on Thanksgiving, Christmas, New Year’s, etc. Plus, the endless ongoing fear that someone was going to have a baby or a wedding during sweeps month and I wouldn’t be able to go. I lasted a little over 4 years and got into PR.

    3. Kou*

      Absolutely. I owe so, so much to the head pastry chef at one of the poshest restaurants in my hometown for telling me in high school that I did not want to go into pastry unless I wanted to work nights, weekends, holidays– ALL nights, weekends, holidays, forever and ever. She was like, “there is no magic way you get to my level and then get to stop doing the rough parts. You always have to do the rough parts. If you don’t like the rough parts, you’ll hate it.”

  2. Jamie*

    This make me wonder – how many of us would encourage other people to enter our fields?

    Competition aside, I wonder what percentage of us love what we do enough to want to bring others into the fold.

    1. Thomas*

      I work in telecom, and I find most of the people here didn’t set out to work here.

      As a flip side, when I was in college, I wanted to be a professor, and my professors were very supportive. They actively encouraged people (who would be good at it) to go to graduate school). Now that I’m out academia, I miss it, but I’m glad I didn’t go to grad school. Being a professor might be great, but it runs the risk of economic suicide–seven years of prep to get a job (adjunct) making as much money as you could have with your BA, all too often.

      1. Anon*

        I had a professor who begged me not to graduate school, and tried to get me to give her a really good reason why I should do it. She had a comeback for every reason I had, and I still ignored her. And went to graduate school to be a professor. And hated it with a passion of a million burning suns and left my program within 2 years.

        She meant well and tried to save me from myself, but at 23 you know everything, right? OP should just be honest and let people learn from their own mistakes.

        1. Katie the Fed*

          I tell everyone considering graduate school (at least a PhD in the humanities/liberal arts with a goal of working in academia) to read the blog 100 Reasons Not To Go To Grad School.

          It’s alarmingly accurate.

          1. Ellie H.*

            Interesting! I just checked that out. A lot of them are valid concerns but also, a lot of them (social ineptness, procrastination, unstructured time, having to answer “what do you do all day”) are kind of random psychological things that an organized and productive person wouldn’t necessarily have marked trouble with. And some things (grading is tedious, it’s hierarchical) are problems that likely have analogs in any other field. Thanks for the link though, it’s an interesting read. I’m planning on applying to Ph.D. programs next year. I work in graduate school administration and both my parents are professors, so hopefully I have a more clear-eyed view of what it entails.

            1. Katie the Fed*

              I agree, but you should definitely know all of that before you get into it. I AM a procrastinator so giant blocks of unstructured time = bad.

              The systemic failings of supply vs demand for PhDs and the move toward non-tenured positions is even scarier.

              1. Rana*

                Yup. I rode that carousel horse for a few rounds, and was incredibly relieved when I gave myself permission to finally step off and do something else.

                And I actually liked grad school and academia, demanding and stressful as it could be. When it’s good, it’s very, very good, but… when it’s bad, it is indeed horrid.

              2. MentalEngineer*

                What does it say about my sanity that: a) I’ve read all the horror stories, b) I’m a philosophy major, c) consequently, I will never ever have tenure, ever, and d) all of this somehow makes me want the job more?

    2. Xay*

      I don’t have a problem encouraging people to enter public health because the field is so broad that you can find your place.
      I discourage the people who think that they will earn a high income either a) quickly or b) while doing grassroots, on the ground public health.

    3. K*

      I love being a lawyer and don’t regret going to law school for a second, even given the crushing student debt load. There is a certain type of person I will recommend go to law school; for most people, however, the risk that they’ll either hate the work, won’t be able to find a job, or both is just too high.

      1. Naomi*

        What kind of person would you recommend it to? I’m considering going to law school and trying to get as much information as possible before I make a decision.

        1. Tax Nerd*

          +1. I’m thinking of going to law school, though I’ll admit that I’m more interested in being a CPA that happens to have a J.D. than an attorney that happens to be a CPA. (Being a CPA pays less, but seems to have far fewer hours, which is a tradeoff I would take. I don’t know that it’s worth the student loans and/or trying to work my way through law school.)

          1. K*

            I don’t know much about tax; the tax lawyers I know do seem to be a pretty happy group, but I’m not sure what the comparative advantages with being a CPA are.

            1. Josh S*

              CPA = Certified Public Accountant, which is the certification necessary to do accountancy (which is akin to necromancy, only with more numbers involved).

              JD = Jurisprudence Doctorate, which is the degree you earn out of law school that allows you to sit for your state’s Bar Exam and practice law.

              The difference between being a CPA with a law degree (or vice versa) is mainly one of emphasis. The CPA with a law degree would be mainly dealing with accounting stuff, while also being legally able to dispense legal advice (eg. “Yes, you can use that tax shelter, and given the way case law has shown it appears to be legal.”). The lawyer with a CPA would focus mainly on setting up legal trusts, etc, while having the background to inform clients of the things that would be most beneficial financially.

              1. Anonymous*

                Off-topic, but note that, the JD isn’t actually a “doctorate” like a PhD. Outside North America, the equivalent of the JD is the LLB – Bachelor of Laws. Thus, someone with a Master of Laws (LLM) actually spent more time in school than someone with only a JD. The doctoral-level law degree is the SJD – Doctor of Juridical Science.

                1. Blanziflor*

                  Indeed – as was discussed a week or so ago, medical doctors in the US also benefit from a similar form of grade inflation, with MDs being handed out.

                2. Melissa*

                  Well, it depends. You can do research with a JD, and many postdoctoral programs in the social sciences are open to JDs like they are open to a PhD or MD student. And most law professors in the U.S. have a JD, not an SJD.

          2. Joy*

            I’m in the middle of my second year at a top 20 law school, and I’ve been fortunate to have excellent grades and an impressive resume. I’ve got a job lined up, but most of my classmates and many -if not most- of the third year students I know don’t know if they’ll find work at all.

            If you don’t want to be a practicing lawyer, don’t go to law school. Often a J.D. just leaves you looking overqualified for positions outside the legal field. Do research on the kind of debt you’d be taking on and on the employment statistics of the schools you apply to.

            I would only recommend law school for someone who (a) really, really wants to be a lawyer – and knows exactly what that entails, (b) has a full ride or financial support from family that will cover expenses, or (c) can get into a top 3 school (Stanford, Yale, Harvard).

            And (a) comes with the caveat that you’re SO sure you want to be a lawyer that you’re willing to start a solo practice or do document review if that’s the only way you can break into the field. And (b) comes with the caveat that you should be careful about scholarships at some schools, because they can be conditional on grades to the point where you have to be in the top 1/3 of your class to keep them. And (c) comes with the caveat that you plan to do something with your prestigious education (at least temporarily) that pays a lot of money, so you can pay off the huge loans.

            I guess I’d also tell someone to go ahead if they have a job waiting for them at a relative’s firm or something like that – 100% guaranteed employment.

            Anyway, I have a lot of classmates who already very much regret coming to law school and/or who have realized over the past two years that they wouldn’t actually be happy as an attorney. So do a ton of research and self-reflection and (if you can) job-shadowing before applying to law school.

            (All of that said, tax lawyers do seem to be the happiest lawyers, IMO, and a recent study of big firms backs that up!)

            1. Poncho*

              Very credited response. I would add that even if you THINK you’re sure you want to be a lawyer, you need to (1) make absolutely sure you actually want to do this kind of work by working as a paralegal/legal secretary/law firm gopher type intern and (2) absolutely minimize your financial exposure so that you can still be a lawyer after law school even if you aren’t able to secure well-paying work (and in all likelihood, you won’t be able to do so).

              For reference (sorry if there’s a no-link policy, feel free to edit):

        2. K*

          I think there’s two key things.

          1) The interest factor. You should want to practice law and have done the work to know what that entails. A lot of people end up in law school because they hear it’s a good step towards other things, or because it seems interesting, or because they don’t know what else to do. It can be a good step towards other things, but what law school really prepares you for is to be a lawyer.

          So I think that it’s pretty crucial to work as a paralegal, or intern pretty extensively in a legal organization, or take some actual legal classes (preferably two out of the three). If the type of reasoning and analysis and the work itself don’t click with you, law school is probably a bad bet.

          2) The employment prospects factor. There are a lot of law schools out there and most of them have bad employment prospects these days. Unless you have the money to pay for it up front, I wouldn’t go to law school unless you get into one of the top 14 schools or unless you have a scholarship that seriously reduces your loan burden to a level you can comfortably pay back on, oh, $50k a year (since odds are that’s the job you’ll start out with). And the scholarship shouldn’t be contingent on being in the top 10 or 20% of your class; everyone thinks they’ll be there and 80-90% are wrong. And schools have been known to give out scholarships to more than 10 or 20% of the class since it’s a mathematical certainty a lot will lose them the next year.

          1. Josh S*

            “And the scholarship shouldn’t be contingent on being in the top 10 or 20% of your class; everyone thinks they’ll be there and 80-90% are wrong.”

            Funny how math works, isn’t it?

        3. K*

          Also, not to write a novel or anything, but I think my first comment understated the importance of really thinking about whether the analytical framework used in legal work clicks with you or not, and I wanted to emphasize that. Because it’s why I love my job; I think legal work is like getting to solve puzzles all day, with a fun advocacy twist. But a lot of people absolutely hate it. For some, it feels dishonest – and I do believe it’s possible to be an honest lawyer, but you have to believe in the process in a certain way or you’re not going to feel good about it. Or it feels dry and boring. And if one of those things is true for you, it’s going to be extremely hard to enjoy being a lawyer.

        4. Maria*

          Naomi- I went and am trying to get away from law into something else (which I’m here to tell you is harder than you would think). You also need to think about what you envision for your work and personal life (as in, if you want to work less than 50-60 hours a week minimum, it’s not the career for you). I would say only go to law school if you are very passionate about it, and can only see yourself doing that, because you will make the best of wherever you end up and won’t resent your loans.
          A lot of people go to law school because they don’t know what else to do (me), they think it will be a good living, etc. and it has little to do with the actual work. It’s a very tough job market for lawyers now, and the pay isn’t good, so that coupled with a lack of a passion for something can make for a very unhappy work life. I have classmates working 70-80 hour weeks for 30k. You’ve got to really love it to do that. I also got married and realized I wanted to be able to spend time with my family, and the profession demanded too much time.

          1. Blanziflor*

            The time thing for sure – my spouse was told that 1800 billable hours a year was “part-time.”

      2. littlemoose*

        +1 to everything K said here. I’m a lawyer, and frankly the job market is pretty dang terrible, and probably will be for a while. The earnings expectations most people have for lawyers are pretty unrealistic, even without factoring in the school debt (which is significant; I have a lot despite having no undergrad debt and a partial scholarship to law school). A lawyer friend’s first job paid under 30K. That’s absolutely on the low side, but people tend to think all lawyers make six figures, and that is not true. And whether you work at a big firm or a small firm, you will probably put in well over 40 hours per week. Depending on the firm, you may also have to worry about bringing in clients, in addition to billing your hours. As for the daily work product, it depends on what you do, but you will have to be a solid writer and good with dealing with details. You will also probably spend a lot of time on phone calls, client correspondence, etc.

        I realize I made this sound pretty bad, and it’s not. I think law can be a great field, as long as it’s the right fit. I just try to disabuse people of a lot of the common misconceptions. I know I had them myself, and yeah, there is a definitely an early-20s tendency to be naive and assume you will be the exception to everything you’re being warned about. I fell prey to that too. But when you have done well in school, have put together a decent internship/work history/resume, you tend to believe you will be that exception. I think everyone here knows that itself is not enough.

        And as for me, I actually work as a lawyer at a government agency, so my experience is fairly different from most other lawyers.

    4. Elizabeth*

      Health IT? All the time. Right now, there is a lot of money washing around the field because of ARRA, and there are a fairly limited number of people who can do what I do, in comparison to the number of people needed to do it. (It involves being able to think Small Picture, Big Picture & Whole Picture at the same time, and understanding how tweaking the Small Picture affects the Big & Whole Pictures.)

      Healthcare in general? Not so much. For all the little CNN blurbs about healthcare being a recession-proof career, it isn’t. We just went through layoffs that affected a lot of clinical staff, because people who don’t have health insurance don’t seek out healthcare, at least not if they can possibly avoid it.

      Our staffing numbers in IT aren’t based on the number of patients; they’re based on how many devices connect to the network. That actually went up when staffing went down, because every room has its own computer, rather than having to push carts up & down hallways. And for us, IT does include printers. *snerk*

      1. Jamie*

        Ha – you had me up until that last sentence.

        (Note to self – change self eval form from pointing out number of users supported to number of devices supported…that number just tripled)

          1. Blanziflor*

            An even better idea: change it to the number of IP address supported. And then put each user on their own 10.*.*.* subnet….

        1. Jamie*

          I’m curious about this as well – just for the sake of general interest.

          I can tell you how to get into manufacturing IT, though. You drive through a manufacturing district of any city and look for the person storming out and crying and/or swearing viciously under their breath as they walk to their car. If you hear the words “f’ing endusers” (not abbreviated) then you know you’re following the right person. If they are over caffeinated with bags under their eyes all the Cindy Crawford infomercials can’t remove then jot down the name of the company and shoot your resume to HR explaining how you’re an IT generalist very excited about working in a production environment.

          Assuming you look naive and robust enough to last a good couple of years you’ll get the job as long as you don’t start to weep at the words “ERP version upgrade.”

          Oh, and put the Hello Kitty toys and my lip gloss in a box for me will you? I’ll send someone to pick up my stuff.

        2. Elizabeth*

          Right now, having some background in IT of any sort is useful. Or, having a healthcare background with the ability to use a computer. Being able to learn quickly is a major plus. Critical thinking ability is just as important. (I’ve got a co-worker horror story that I’ll share sometime, about someone who didn’t have either ability, what it took to divest myself of him, and what all of it led to.)

          Part of the HITECH section of ARRA specified that the Department of Health & Human Services would work with community colleges to develop programs for health IT education & certification. Every state has at least 1 community college that has been tasked with providing education to assist people from a healthcare background (practical nurses, nursing assistants, office managers, etc) so that they can assist physician practices and health clinics with selecting, purchasing, implementing & using electronic health records.

          That’s a starting point. I got my job by being the go-to person in the registration area for everything related to computers, and the guy responsible for the computer system at the time noticed. I learn very quickly, and I strive to be easy to work with. At the time, sadly enough, the fact that I was willing to work for at least $5/hour less than either of the others who applied for the position had an impact.

          If you already do networking (routers, switches, etc), server maintenance, or PC hardware, there are positions open in virtually every hospital and health system. You just have to be willing to put up with the 2nd most regulated industry in the United States. (We’re gaining on nuclear power, but it isn’t because they are loosening up any of their compliance requirements.) My husband won’t go near a healthcare position, and he’s a top-notch network engineer. He like the freedom of academia. I, on the other hand, love the structure and puzzle-like nature of what I do, and I honestly can’t imagine doing anything else.

          20 years ago, my field didn’t really exist. My degree is in interdisciplinary social sciences, with an emphasis in geography & history. Today, I probably couldn’t get the job I have with that degree.

          1. Anonymous*

            Speaking of degrees, there seem to be a lot of “health informatics” or “eHealth” masters programs cropping up these days. Do you think these are a worthwhile investment for someone with a computer science background (assume no healthcare experience)?

            1. In IT Healthcare*

              I just changed jobs to work in healthcare IT for the first time, and I’m loving it. How I got there was to become very good at what I do — I specify systems (requirements and design) for companies of various industries. I used to work mostly for finance and IT companies, this is my first time in the health field, and let me tell you, here IT has much more money to invest in systems and infrastructure, which makes my work more fun.

              There is also a lot of pressure to equip doctors and nurses with useful applications that they can access mobile devices, integrate a variety of systems from disparate vendors, and so on.

              If you have good IT skills, they are transferrable to the healthcare industry. It’s just a matter of start looking for opportunities there!

              1. Anonymous*

                Thanks! I’m actually an undergrad with some experience in mobile development (basically due to blind luck – as you know, the mobility field is really growing right now), and I do see myself working as a dev after graduation. My interest in eHealth stems more from the fact that they have deep pockets to fund the interesting work you mentioned (and also it’s in the news pretty regularly nowadays) – that really isn’t a good reason to go to grad school!

            2. Josh S*

              Without any firsthand knowledge, I tend to be skeptical of ‘newer’ programs that crop up in order to meet a targeted job/career path. Instead, I’d default to a well-known and well-respected program for the next step up the hierarchy, and look to take coursework that emphasizes the niche you’re interested in. It allows you to have a more well-balanced ability to enter the market, and avoids the places that give you a degree but little practical knowledge.

              So, instead of “eHealth” or “Health Informatics” masters programs, go a step up the hierarchy to a well-respected “Information Technology” or “Systems/Network Administration” program, and see if you can work eHealth coursework into your program of study.

              The programs that rely on industry buzzwords tend to be the ones that need the marketing gimmick or the promise of “future employment” to get students in the doors, rather than relying on the actual knowledge/expertise conferred. But then again, that’s just my opinion, and since I really don’t know much about these eHealth-type programs, your mileage may vary.

            3. Elizabeth*

              So far, most of those programs are from for-profit institutions, which I’m skeptical about out of general habit.

              If you can find one that is from a private not-for-profit or public institution, it is more likely to be of value. The HHS/community college partnerships look really good, but they are required by HITECH to be face-to-face instructional programs, so they may not work for you. I tried to get into the one in our state, but it’s 100 miles each way for me to get to it, and all of the classes were/are being held during the work day.

              Take a look at He’s an industry insider who knows almost everyone, and just about everyone who has information talks to him.

            4. Xay*

              If the Health Informatics program is affliated with an accredited, not for profit university, go for it. ARRA/HITECH funding was made available to several universities (Johns Hopkins, Emory, University of Illnois-Chicago are the ones I know off the top of my head) for these degrees.

          2. Sasha*

            Thank you! Although one sentence made me chuckle: “He like the freedom of academia.” I work in Academia IT now and if that’s freedom, then I’m afraid for Healthcare IT…

          3. Xay*

            There is also a lot of federal and state contracting work as well as private companies such as health information exchange and electronic health records vendors who are hiring health IT. There is a significant amount of Affordable Care Act money directed towards interoperability of electronic health records and public health systems such as immunization registries, surveillance databases, and Medicare/Medicaid billing systems so that aspect of health IT is booming right now.

    5. anonymous*

      I would not encourage other people to enter my original field (meteorology.) I left it after a year & never looked back. Meanwhile many of my former classmates are still stuck doing contract work, getting paid what I was when I started in my current field as a temp 10 years ago, and have no job mobility. Most of us agree that weather is much more interesting as a hobby than a career, and those who did not move on to something new early are all stuck now.

    6. Kat M*

      I’d definitely encourage people to get into massage therapy. It’s a growing field, and it’s incredibly rewarding. BUT, I wouldn’t encourage anyone without an entrepreneurial spirit to do it. Sure, you can get paid $30 per massage. But what do you do when you’re not booked up? And do you realize that “full time” for a massage therapist is 15-30 massages a week, and most people can’t manage more than 20 a week without risking injury? And that you won’t have paid time off?

      And in more shallow areas, do you realize that you’ll never have another French manicure again? ;)

      All that being said, I love it, and would definitely encourage people to get into it, especially if they’re enthusiastic about the human body and have a real love of working with people one-on-one. But if you aren’t willing to push your career forward, nobody else is going to do it for you.

      1. Anon in the UK*

        I just *did* encourage a bunch of hapless undergraduates from my alma mater to go into my field. If you want to spend your days looking things up, writing about your research, solving problems AND getting paid reasonably well, tax consultancy is where to go.

        1. Tax Nerd*

          Haha. I usually tell youngsters that tax is a decent career field to get into, though many self-select out for some reason.

          Though I do caution that it takes more people skills than many imagine. If people are upset that they owe money, they often blame you for doing something wrong, so you’re in the position of explaining the arcane tax rules to someone that’s angry with you. Not always fun. (There’s less anger and more understanding in corporate tax, but I find it very very dull.)

          1. wannabe tax nerd*

            AH! Didn’t mean to rip off your nick, I must have read it a long time ago and it stuck in my head…. =)

            I came across several taxpayers who were upset that they had to owe taxes, or were getting less than they were used to. Thankfully alot of them were understanding of it and knew their situation so didn’t take it out on me or my staff, but the ones who were upset at not getting enough were……interesting to deal with. In any case, we explained the rules and pointed out exactly why they ended up owing. It does take quite a bit of people skills to handle that, but not more than what’s required in most customer service positions.

          2. Jamie*

            My experience is with the corporate side of accounting (I’m not an accountant, but I head up cost accounting for my company and some work closely with our external accountants) and if I weren’t in IT I think that’s where I’d go.

            Besides the obvious skills like meticulousness, patience, etc. a love of order…because its all about finding and assuring precise order in the financials. There is also a fair bit of problem solving and if you like auditing there are opportunities to be an external financial auditor.

            I have a three pronged job (the third tine being internal auditor/QC) and if I was somehow banished from IT I’d be very happy as a corporate accountant, CMA. There are jobs out there outside of the Big Four.

            1. De Minimis*

              I also work in accounting and I do occasionally warn people that it isn’t 2002 anymore and the job market for entry level accountants is pretty tough. I’ve learned this the hard way, I was out of work nearly three years after washing out of my first job after school [somehow managed to get a job with a Big 4 and realized right away it was a horrible fit for me.]

              I think older career changers should be especially realistic about their prospects in the field, particularly in public accounting, which tends to favor a very young workforce.

              1. Lulu*

                This is good to know – I’m trying to figure out what I field I can get a certificate in that actually IS hiring, and once I eliminated paralegal I started contemplating accounting, as I tend to see a lot of job posts for finance-related jobs. (Of course, at this point I know that just because there are a lot of positions advertised doesn’t mean it’s remotely easy to actually QUALIFY for them…) It’s not like I have a passion for accounting, although I enjoy analytical problem solving, so sounds like I’d better keep looking!

              2. Anonymous Accountant*

                This is true. I’ve heard many people say they’ll go into accounting b/c it’s “easy to get a job”. In my area, it’s fierce competition for just entry level accounting positions.

                Now if you’re interested in public accounting as an auditor AND have a CPA license, firms are much more receptive to interviewing you. But entry level and experienced accounting jobs in my area are fiercely competitive now.

                1. Kathryn*

                  Agreed. I had to intern for 8 months (unpaid) just so I had enough experience to even be considered for an entry level accounting job in my area. It was one of the professions that everyone rushed to after the manufacturing crash, and now the field is just over saturated. Now, two years later, I have already moved on from the entry level job into a mid-level manager position. So, if you are willing to put in quite a bit of internship time, it may work out all right. But it was certainly difficult. And I will be paying off the student debt incurred during that time for quite a while.

                2. De Minimis*

                  Even with the license, without at least a few years of experience it is still a tough sell, although I agree that having a license can get someone an interview.

                  I had a weird situation where I had a license but only one year of experience, so I could often get the interviews but not the job. The license by itself doesn’t really add value.

              3. Natalie*

                Oo, accountants!

                What’s the market like for in-house accounting staff? That’s basically what I do know, without an accounting degree, and I’ve been considering going back to school for a bachelors in accounting. I think I’d rather work in house at some other corporation versus a CPA firm.

                1. wannabe tax nerd*

                  See, does it say something about my decision that I’m totally not familiar with the difference between being an in-house accountant or working for a CPA?

                  Also, accountants are supposed to be money smart and fiscally conservative; I’m a shopaholic and beyond a savings account, my money doesn’t earn money. ;-]

          3. Blanziflor*

            I understand creative accountancy can be similar – with an extra shot of adrenaline when the SFO/SEC get interested.

    7. AHK!*

      I worked in publishing for a number of years, and I have actively cautioned people against it. For a number of reasons already mentioned in the post and comments. But I’ve been working in an administrative role at a university for several years now, and I have encouraged many friends to work here or at other universities.

    8. Natalie*

      Interestingly, I actually don’t much care for my field (property management) for my own reasons, but I would totally encourage people who seemed interested to do it. It’s perfectly fine work and has a lot of breadth (commercial, residential, small companies, huge corporations, historical or green focused companies, etc).

      1. fposte*

        Wow, I totally had you pegged for social services/science of some kind; you’re so tactfully knowledgeable about human dynamics and factual context thereof.

        1. Natalie*

          Ooh, thanks!

          I am aiming towards nonprofit, probably in poverty work, although I don’t think I’ll become a social worker per se. Clearly, though, I need to carry my commenting habits into the rest of the world, because most people I know from meatspace would *not* describe me as tactful. :)

    9. Esra*

      I’d definitely recommend people get into graphic design. With the caveat that they develop ancillary skills in coding or illustration. There were a lot of people in my class who wanted to go purely into print or editorial. The wonderful world of die-cuts and expensive letterpress printing is shrinking, and more and more companies want an everything-and-the-kitchen sink designer-coder-illustrator-animator. It’s just not feasible anymore to be a pure print designer.

    10. Elizabeth*

      Elementary school teacher – I do highly recommend it, for the right kind of person. It’s really rewarding and often a lot of fun. I’m honest about it, though. Teaching might not be for you it: you like making your own schedule, want to work from home, don’t have a lot of patience for telling people the same thing over and over again (Jenny, please keep your hands to yourself), dislike being diplomatic (Mrs. Jones, Jenny has been having trouble using her words when she gets in a disagreement), have a strong aversion to germs, or don’t want to schedule your bathroom breaks. On the other hand, if you enjoy variety, like having small people adore you (even if they don’t listen to you), enjoy problem-solving, like to collaborate, can stay calm in the face of chaos… teaching might really work for you!

      1. danr*

        I did like the small people, but couldn’t take being in a classroom all day, so I switched to the school library. That was perfect. I’d still be there except that I kept running into budget defeat layoffs. I tried Indexing, and it was good to. *That* is the job where you sit and read almost all day.

    11. Lulu*

      Hmm, I wouldn’t say I really have a “field”, but having worked in various entertainment-related environments… I wouldn’t encourage or discourage people, but I would give a reality check re: the low pay, the long hours, the potential lack of benefits, basically all of the significant downsides. Most of my jobs have been accidental, I didn’t land there because I was passionate about x, but even with the one or two that were more inherently interesting to me, it was difficult for me to get past the negatives. However, I realize some people might be more willing to deal with it, or more ambitious/politically savvy and get past it more quickly. All I can do is make sure they have a full picture of what they might be getting into so they can make a more informed decision.

      1. Kristen*

        I work in a university’s PT department and I am convinced that it’s pretty much the best job in the world. I just wish I was smart enough/good enough at science to do it myself!

        Also, there are way more job openings than there are PTs right now. That in itself is pretty awesome.

    12. Josh S*

      Me–Absolutely! Granted, it takes a certain kind of person to thrive in market research. Someone who can evaluate numbers and trends AND understand how different trends influence each other AND communicate it clearly to people who can do something with it AND be able to defend your process in one breath and be flexible to see necessary changes (of an ever-fluid system) in the next.

      But I love the psychology of it and the never-ending fascinating details you learn about behavior and the thought processes that go into every little aspect of shopping/sales/manufacturing…all the stuff that happens in an economy.

    13. anonny*

      I have no issue with my FIELD–admin–OR my INDUSTRY–contract research. Unfortunately, I just work for a really bad company.

      I’d encourage anyone who is in any way scientifically-minded (social, in this case, or statistical) to explore this industry. I just wouldn’t steer them toward my current company to pursue it.


      As for admin work, I have always liked organizing things and working behind the scenes to keep things humming and even make people comfortable/happy. I have no issue at all with admin tasks, be they high-level editing/formatting projects or making copies and assembling binders. Would I like to move up/move on? Certainly! Who wouldn’t?

  3. Mark*

    I think it’s fair to say that very few people have realistic expectations, regardless of industry, because people have unrealistic expectations about working in general. AAM is giving very sound advice here (as she is apt to do). I think there is such a thing as giving earnest advice without painting a workplace or career path completely in one light on way or the other about it.

    You’re not a recruiter – people may talk about you having an obligation to the profession, but that doesn’t mean leading young professionals down the path only to create attrition later. Janet makes a good point though – in my experience with young folks (and I’m by no means old), many just don’t want to hear it after a steady diet of “follow your dreams,you can be a CEO!” their whole lives. But you’ll have done your part.

  4. B*

    OP, I can fully sympathize with your situation as I was also in publishing. I did what AAM said – tell the good and tell the bad. Most of the time they will only hear the good or think it will be different for them. Inevitably, they may need to find this out for themself but at least you planted that little seed of publishing life not being as rosy a they think.

    1. LMW*

      Me too. I worked in publishing for seven years and had to leave because I was sick of living paycheck to paycheck. The pay was soooo low. I loved the job though. But advice is always the same as yours: long hours, really low pay.

  5. Amouse*

    Spot-on advice as usual from Alison.

    I’m curious now: who does get to have hour long lunches with great authors? Somebody in that business must. Would some of these kids be better suited to starting out at a smaller publishing company where they could wear many hats? What about them starting their own companies? It’s ambitious but completely different than starting out at a huge publishing corporation at the bottom of the ladder. I probably sound ridiculous. But I’m throwing it out there anyway for discussion.

    1. Xay*

      An alum from my undergraduate college is an editor and worked on all of the US releases of the Harry Potter books. No long lunches with J.K. Rowling, just a lot of hard work. From what I’ve heard from friends who work at publishing houses and friends who are fairly successful authors, publishing just isn’t glamorous at all.

        1. Ariancita*

          Ha! No, no it isn’t. Even when you get a writing fellowship and get to hang out in Tuscany for a span of time. Writing is very isolating work.

      1. Anonymous*

        This! No hour long leisurely lunches or all the publicity you could get. Those days are long gone. Maybe an hour long chat on the phone going over plans or corrections, but that’s it. Mostly it’s nose to the grindstone, long hours, trying to fun space in a super crowded market, and being yelled at because the author had these high hopes of being the next Harry Potter or Emeril or Dr. Whomever or James Patterson or of making millions of dollars.

        1. Tax Nerd*

          Way back in my intern days I had a client whose job was shuffling authors on book tours around our fair city – picking them up at the airport, taking them to lunch or dinner, and most importantly, getting them to book signings and such on time. Probably what fposte describes below. (I never met the client – my boss just explained her job to me.) I have no idea how she got into this, but I vaguely remember my boss tellig me that she had to have a lot of poise and discretion, and be able to make conversation with all kinds of people. I don’t think it paid well, either.

    2. fposte*

      Long lunches with famous people (often famous people who have written a book rather than famous authors, if you get me on the difference there) are for senior editors, senior acquisitions editors, VPs and VIPs, and, at conferences, marketing/publicity people who put the details of the lunch together and have to keep jumping up to make sure the waiter hasn’t forgotten that the guest of honor is vegan and to find out where the missing VIP is. That last category is probably where most of the English majors going into publishing start out. The pay generally sucks but it can definitely be an interesting job; it’s also intensely competitive. Several New York and Boston publishers also have student internships, which are excellent ways of getting your feet wet in the business.

      They can start their own publishing company if they’re rich enough to fund it–or maybe if they’re publishing for pay. But if they’re rich they already know the famous people, and if they’re publishing for pay they’re not going to meet them that way. There are a few small presses, but they’re more geographically scattered, and positions open up less frequently; nonetheless, you’re right that they can be an interesting place to work (though often not a secure place to work). They’re not usually in a position to fund long expensed lunches.

    3. Britanny*

      “What about them starting their own companies?”
      Even a small book costs a lot of money, even if you are doing print on demand. You pay for: cover artwork or illustrations, copy-editing, proofing, review copies, contributor copies, advances, advertising, etc. A modest book run of 1,000 will cost you maybe $10,000 with all those costs added. And most books don’t make their money back. That’s why there are remainder sales. And you have to eat and clothe yourself while you are doing this. It’s not impossible to start a small publishing company, but it is difficult and hard work to make it something that pays your living. The investment in capital and the necessary experience to even run such a thing is very big for someone just out of college.

        1. Lore*

          It’s very easy to publish for Kindle but it’s very difficult to make money publishing for Kindle, especially as a publisher rather than an author. (It’s not easy to make money as an author either, or substantive money anyway, but your overhead is low…) You don’t have printing or inventory costs, obviously, but a lot of the other expenses will come into it if you want to produce a product that’s either more professionally prepared or more thoroughly marketed than what an author would do for herself–not to mention pay yourself as the publisher.

    1. Elizabeth*

      I’ll have the dark roast, venti, with peppermint syrup, and could you leave extra room for cream?

      My favorite barista has a BA in English and an MFA in creative writing. She’s working on The Great American Novel when she’s not the shift manager at our local Sbux.

      1. fposte*

        When I lived in San Francisco decades ago, there was a great article in the alternative paper about the “youpie”–the “young overeducated urban proletariat,” and I still remember the examples: “We are the bike messengers who did our master’s thesis on the lesser-known poems of Herrick. We are the cocktail waitresses thoroughly versed in Spinoza. We are the clerk-typists who turn out 300-page prose poems when the boss isn’t looking.”

      2. Natalie*

        One of my best friends from college has a BFA and is an excellent painter, and works in the deli at Whole Foods. She actually likes her job quite a bit – it pays enough for her to survive in NYC without 16 roommates and she has plenty of time to paint.

  6. fposte*

    I do a lot of dream crushing, but I prefer to think of it as vision-sharpening :-). I find that asking people what they think they’ll find satisfying, what they’re hoping for, what they picture spending the bulk of their time doing, etc., gives me an opportunity to add some realism to the picture if it’s too fanciful but keep it as a discussion about ways they might get what they want.

    1. Maria*

      I think this is a good thing. When I was considering law school, all lawyers told me it was a great idea. Then when I was IN law school, all those same lawyers began to really talk about how they disliked their jobs, how it wasn’t too late to get into another career…I’m not sure if people feel too mean discouraging you or what, but I would have appreciated more honesty than I feel I got from people about their level of job satisfaction and some other aspects of the field. I present each year to a career discovery class and I always tell them both the good and the bad, they can make their choice but at least they’ll have all the information.

      1. Joy*

        I also think it’s easy to end up sounding like there’s an even balance of “good” and “bad” when in reality, some fields (law right now, publishing, etc.) have a lot more “bad” than good. It doesn’t mean no one should pursue those fields, but it means putting more emphasis on the “bad” when you’re asked for your thoughts.

        The lawyers I talked to before law school were pretty honest about whether they hated practicing law, but none of them were recent grads with experience trying to get a first job in this market. If I had known that only 50% of law school grads would get full-time, JD-required jobs, I don’t know if I would have taken the gamble.

        The gamble paid off for me, but I hope no one who knows me takes my anecdotal experience and concludes that they’ll have a good shot at a job. Almost no one in law school right now has a “good” shot at a job.

  7. Jennifer*

    I work in communications for nonprofits.
    That could be a great career option for English Majors who don’t want to go “corporate.” Many (not all) pay competitively too.

    1. Anna*

      This is actually something I am interested in going into, as a former Philosophy major (so along the same vein). Would you say it’s more important to have experience in marketing or in the non-profit world? I have quite a bit in the former, but it’s been tougher getting attention from the latter!

      1. Ask a Manager* Post author

        As someone with a lot of experience hiring in nonprofits (and a former nonprofit communications director), the most important thing is a track record of success in communications work. Nonprofit experience is nice, but good organizations will be looking at what you’ve achieved more than where you’ve achieved it.

    1. Jamie*

      I actually know a couple of people who have been really happy with this.

      I’ve thought about it myself, actually, in moments of despair because I’m pretty good at documentation and I some days I long to never have to leave my house (or wear pants other than pajamas ever, ever again.)

      I wouldn’t call it a gig for an extrovert, but from what I’ve seen it’s not a bad job for people who work well alone and have clean and logical writing style – not a lot of room for personality in manuals…but that’s what you have other writing for (and us).

      I have no idea what it pays – but I do know people who have been happy doing it and they’ve done it from home.

      1. Elizabeth West*

        Hmm. That sounds good. Thanks for the input, Jamie. I have a blog and the books I write for personality–and commenting, ha ha. Really, writing is the only thing I can do well, and I’m good at directions.

      2. Sasha*

        Clean and logical style – yes. And taking an enjoyment in making writing efficient. I’m in charge of most of the documentation for my job and it’s one of my very favorite things to do. That being said, there are days when my brain is fried and I just don’t feel like doing it, but the same can be said of any task. I think if you are able to take a spaghetti mess of information (technical, training, etc.) and condense it down into an easily readable and understandable format, and enjoy doing that, then you can succeed in technical writing.

        Now how to get those jobs? You tell me. I’ve applied for many but maybe my resume isn’t focused enough, even though I’ve been doing technical writing as part of my job for nearly 6 years, but my job titles are not straight “technical writer.” I don’t have certifications either. Maybe those would help…but probably they are looking more for experience in this kind of writing.

      3. jj*

        There may be (probably are!) some who’ve done technical writing from home as freelancers, but for many others you are another part of the development team, and you report in every day like every other professional. Jammies are not an option. Sorry, but that’s another myth.

    2. Elizabeth*

      I wanted to do this when I got out of college.

      A friend who worked for Texas Instruments at the time was very sad to inform me that they didn’t hire anyone for tech writing who didn’t have at least 10 years of experience in programming or engineering, because they had to be able to distill what the engineers were telling them down to something regular people could understand. I almost started crying, because I am neither a programmer nor an engineer.

      The flip side of that, though, came when we did a “backstage” tour of Kennedy Space Center a few years ago, before the end of the shuttle program. The tour leader said that one of the engineers had helped his wife get a job with the shuttle program. She had two roles: she quilted the curtain that shielded the sanitary facilities from the rest of the shuttle, and she edited the technical documentation for how to use those facilities.

      If you have strong writing skills, this is an area where a community college or vocational/technical school may be able to help you get some technical skills to match up with them.

    3. AnotherDrJ*

      Tech writing has worked out really well for me. I’ve been in the field for 10 years, writing for the software/IT industry. I’ve worked with writers from all kinds of backgrounds (from English and theater to math and computer science). While writing well is essential, being able to pick up technical details quickly is also very important.

      There is a lot of variation in how writers are treated from company to company (and industry to industry). I deal with a lot fewer regulatory restrictions, for example, than friends writing for the defense industry. And the processes I follow are a lot freer than those friends in the medical/biotech industry have to use.

      In my experience, the pay can be quite good. And some companies do allow working from home. My current team, in fact, includes a couple of members who are only in the office a handful of times a year.

      It ain’t half bad.

    4. Headachey*

      Tech editing! It’s what I do now, and I love it. You need to know how to edit, obvs., but also how to write, how to read critically, how to handle technical language, how to communicate with SMEs & authors, how to handle formatting & design for various publishing platforms, and how to manage projects and competing priorities. And tech editing might be more accessible for those without technical backgrounds (who’ve been wasting their English degrees the last X decades).

      1. Elizabeth West*

        Thanks, all.
        The program I’m looking at says you don’t HAVE to have a tech / science background, but I think it teaches other things besides just tech writing. I really don’t know what else to do; I haven’t got any other talents and I desperately need to get off the front desk, because I can’t do accounting. They’re making everyone do that now. I can’t get those jobs anymore. And since no one wants to be with me :( I need a job that will pay my bills without any help.

        1. Ask a Manager* Post author

          “And since no one wants to be with me :( …”

          For what it’s worth, I think statements like that are (unintentionally) really self-destructive, even if they’re meant lightheartedly, and hate to see you making them.

        2. Rana*

          *passes the Tray of Comforting Things*

          Just so you know, Elizabeth, I’m pulling for you. You’ll get through this. *hug*

        3. Nester*

          One more comment: I design financial models, and documenting them is part of my job. The documentation has to be understandable by people who know the field but are not otherwise mathematically savvy, as well as being technically rigorous and correct.

          The frustrating part is that sometimes there is no intuitive way to explain the math involved: I make good use of analogies and example cases, but sometimes the difference between the real definition and the analogy is too much to bridge (confidence intervals in statistics are a repeat offender here: the statement that “model results are significant at a 95% confidence level” has a VERY specific and not-at-all intuitive meaning).

          However, I really enjoy explaining the assumptions that go into the model and how all the parameters work together to determine the result. It takes an abstract process that is very real to me and (hopefully) allows others without a mathematics background to understand how the model works and where the output comes from.

          Best of luck to you!

          1. Jamie*

            That sounds fascinating – I could see getting completely absorbed in something like that.

            I use the analogy technique too, all the time, to make technical explanations easier for the end user to understand. I’m surprisingly good at sports analogies even though I know nothing about them…but they help drive the points home.

      2. Lulu*

        Tech editing sounds interesting – I love editing, and did a lot of documentation/manuals for past jobs (although not necessarily *technical* documentation). Lord knows I’ve put in plenty of time managing projects & priorities. Most of the job posts I’ve seen for tech writers cite that “10 years of experience in aeronautical engineering” ( or whatever technology) as a requirement, however. And I’m guessing “how to handle formatting & design for various publishing platforms” means the editing probably requires 10 years of experience in InDesign/Quark/weird layout program I’ve never heard of before? Is the editing the kind of thing you can actually train for, or is it more something you slide into doing from something else?

        I really sympathize with Elizabeth West in that it is just hard to figure out what to do if you aren’t naturally an applied techie or financial wizard, but still need to make more than $10/hr. (I’m trying to pick up some of the accounting stuff, but I’m just getting the impression it doesn’t count for much unless you’ve already been applying it for years).

        1. Heather*

          I can’t speak for whether the same would be true for tech editing, but I have a certificate in copyediting from UC San Diego’s online extension program, and it taught me a lot of things I never would have known otherwise.

          I’m pretty sure the program offers tech editing classes. I know they have ones for medical/scientific editing, and that’s a VERY hot field if you have the interest. (Which of course, I don’t…figures.)

          One good thing about technical/medical editing is that there are a lot more in-house positions available than for non-tech editing (except in newspapers, but those jobs are high-pressure and low pay). I am not the entrepreneurial type, so at this point I’m basically looking for jobs that include copyediting among other responsibilities. It would be a lot easier if I could just force myself to be interested in medical editing!

    1. Seal*

      As an academic librarian at a large land grant university, I regularly field questions from students who think they want to be librarians, many of whom are English majors. I also regularly hear from library school students or recent graduates asking how they can “get their foot in the door” at my institution. My standard answer is that they need to make sure they have actual work experience in a library, either paid or unpaid. Doing research for your undergraduate thesis doesn’t count as library experience, nor does loving to read. These days there is a glut of unemployed or underemployed librarians; English majors with an MLIS are a dime a dozen.

  8. KayDay*

    I guess you could force them to watch the Proposal?

    In all seriousness, focus on the job and not the person. Don’t automatically make assumptions about what they want/expect, unless they actually tell you that they expect to be sitting down with famous authors. But do be very clear and straight forward about what entry level jobs entail, and also be clear about what mid-level jobs entail and how difficult it is for people to move up in a career. As long as you aren’t making it personal, you aren’t being a jerk. In fact, I think that white-washing the difficulties of the career would, in fact, make you a bit of a jerk.

    FWIW, a good friend of mine was an English major and is very successful in a very corporate environment–the degree was actually the prefect fit, because the job requires a lot of long, difficult reading, summarizing, and written communication. Not all English majors just want to discuss literature with famous authors.

  9. nyxalinth*

    Well, I don’t think anyone would ever wake up one morning and decide they want to go into call center work, and I would gently dissuade anyone who did away from it unless they wanted to be in a valley where crap rolls down from two hills (customer and management), have a thick skin, don’t mind being chained to a desk except at breaks and lunches and the occasional bathroom break, and poor pay (min wage to 14.00 an hour depending on the area and the employer).

    The good things about it are you get to problem solve, help people, advancement is usually pretty easy (do well, behave yourself, and usually in six months to a year you can move up or shift departments)

    I have to say I was one of those people who looked all starry-eyed at the publishing industry, then a friend who worked for Simon and Schuster told me the reality. Not as cool as I thought, but still pretty cool.

  10. Anonner*

    I’m an English major who ended up with a job in publishing – or rather, a job in textbook publishing. It took me a while to end up here, but the pay is great, and our company has a standard 37.5 hour workweek. It is DEFINITELY a giant corporation, but I have found I rather like it, being a very type A personality who has spent the past five years before this job floundering at startups with no clearly-defined standards and procedures.

    I will say that I have zero communication with authors, and my job definitely doesn’t involve reading books all day, but just working with books and being around them appeals very much to the book lover in me. Of course, everybody’s mileage may vary, but there’s a lot of different types of publishing companies, and a lot of different ways to enter the field.

  11. Erika*

    I’m very interested in this conversation as I am preparing to leave my job and will help with hiring the next person for my position. While the field I’m in is challenging enough, this specific workplace can be very difficult, and I’m wondering how to let people know about the problems they will face without going too far and scaring away people who might work well here.

  12. Britanny*

    I work in a related field (communications) and have worked in publishing and in newspapers. There is nothing wrong with honesty. When the child of a friend of mine was talking about studying journalism, I told him, point blank, that it would be a mistake to take a huge student loan to study that considering the current state of the industry. You don’t *need* to study journalism or creative writing, after all, to freelance and sell articles. Hiring editors are interested in the quality of your clippings, not the degree.

    Similarly, a young person who approached me to talk about my field had really wild salary expectations. I had to be honest about what she might expect salary wise and how long it takes to get to a better financial position (if ever).

    In publishing, just like in journalism, there have been many cuts and jobs that there were done by two, three, even four people, are now done by one person. And the starting salaries and working conditions are not very great, if you consider the big publishing houses are in large and often expensive cities.

    Journalism and publishing are also never like you imagine in your wild dreams. More often than not you will covering the annual yam festival or writing obituaries rather than working on a high-profile political piece. I remember in place I worked (publishing industry) people a saying that the bread-and-butter were kitten calendars. Because the silly calendars and ‘100 Raciest Frat Jokes’ were what kept the business going. Not great literature, mind you.

    In short, be honest about the potential pitfalls and the good parts. For example, a friend of mine is a long-time editor for a university press and he has been telecommuting for years. He is never physically in the office. But he started that job more than a decade ago. Some other people I know who are also in the publishing industry get to organize book tours and hence they get to see many cities. Etc, etc. But definitely be honest. I would have appreciated a candid discussion when I began my career.

    1. jesicka309*

      I second this. Why did no one sit down and tell me that the media industry is changing (and not in the way I wanted it to!)
      I went through a media degree wanting to be a journalist, all the while telling my tutors in every ‘self-assessment’ that I did not want to be a filmmaker. I pretty much told them every class as well, “I’m more of a writer than a filmmaker.”
      The course wasn’t my top preference, so I could have changed to a different degree later, but I was doing well in the media degree.
      All it would have taken would have been one tutor to sit me down and say, “You don’t want to make films, or work on a TV set? SO WHY ARE YOU DOING THIS DEGREE FOR THREE YEARS?”
      Seriously, a good kick in the pants into a marketing or public relations course would have been great. I’m studying marketing by correspondence now, and regretting the years I wasted holding a boom mic or making machinima.
      Same with high school counsellors. I wish my high school careers counsellor had even mentioned marketing and public relations when I was in school. I won the school’s English award but had never taken a business class…they never say “have you considered other uses for your English skills? Like Marketing?”
      A 17 year old kid doesn’t even KNOW that makreting exists. That’s what the careers people are for!
      :( I’m very bitter about this.

      1. Britanny*

        I took business classes years after finishing my comm degree and it was very helpful. The work I do right now supports the fundraising team and there are not many people who can do the comm work and are also committed to the business portion of the job. Essentially my writing skills came handy but it’s not something I imagined I’d be doing. Nowadays I recommend that young people do some job shadowing and interviews with people who work in the fields they want to work before starting a degree. Often career paths are not the way you imagine or you don’t need to get certain credentials you thought you did. Why spend money on a Master’s you’ll never need? Or, on the contrary, if you do need a Master’s it’s best to know you are going to be in school for longer than four years.

        1. jesicka309*

          I know! :( Again, I had no idea what I was getting into. Though it seems any entry level job in TV these days requires a degree, no matter how overqualified you are. I’ve been working in commercials at a TV station for 2 years, and I’m still wildly overqualified despite getting a promotion in that time. :(

    2. JT*

      Just want to add that journalism skills, and also librarian/info science skills, are very valuable in today’s world – just not in the jobs they are traditionally associated with. I don’t think most people, or anyone, should talk out significant loans for either degree at a graduate level. But journalism students tend to be great writers for communications. And librarians who can get into fields like information management, content management, etc can do well.

      One last thing, that may sound a little harsh — if a youngish person in college or just finishing up college believes they want to be a journalist but isn’t aware of the *tremendous* pressure and change going on in that industry, it reflects poorly on them. If you want to write about the world, you should be very well-read about the world.

    3. Marly King*

      The main benefit of getting your BA in journalism is learning the technical skills, getting internships, and if you’re planning on staying in your college’s city, connections for jobs. Even though I ended up leaving the industry, my courses exposed me to how to actually write a publishable article, how to report (the research that goes into it, the depth and diversity of sources, what a conflict of interests actually is, digital reporting), how NOT to get sued for libel, and I took some broadcasting tech courses. Also, I got several internships simply because I went to Major Texas School and the local news stations and newspapers would hire only Major Texas School grads. One of my professors was a Pulitzer Prize winner who routinely helped land his favorite students with awesome jobs.

      But most of your journalism BA is totally useless – I benefited from maybe 3 of the required 24 classes, too many students who think they’re going to be the next Katie Couric or Anderson Cooper, and a LOT of professors who have little real professional experience, so YMMV

  13. Blanziflor*

    On the publishing side of things… you could remind them that David Attenborough started out in publishing. He considered standing knee deep in bat guano to be a promotion.

    More seriously, it might have been nice if our postgraduate careers talk had contained reminders on:
    a) What ‘tenure’ means
    b) How many postgrads the average faculty member will have over the course of their career
    c) They only need one to replace them
    d) That higher education isn’t really expanding much
    Concluding with a showing of Kind Hearts and Coronets would have rounded out the advice nicely.

    1. Rana*

      True, but my own experience is that most people gloss over all of that, because they think “I will be that one” in item C.

      It’s at times like this that the very ability to persist in the face of challenges and disparagement that you need to get through grad school rises up to bite you on the a**.

  14. cody c*

    I didn’t work at a publisher but I did work for a major book distributor in the book dept and while there got to observe the two ladies that bought books and while there where some neat perks ie reading the new Nelson Demille a month before it hit shelves and ending up with quite the collection of signed copies they worked long hours and as another poster put it they were in crap valley. However it would be a good route for an English major and also provide many contacts in the industry.

  15. Anonymous*

    I don’t see presenting a realistic picture as crushing someone’s dreams. Saying, “no, you can’t make it, there’s no way you can do it, you’d better give up,” that’s a crush. When I was young, I felt I was getting a double message when obviously successful people talked about how hard it was in their field, because I was thinking, “Well, you did it. And you’re still doing it.” So I think it would be fair for the OP to also say why they stay in despite the challenges, and what characteristics they have noticed in people who succeed.

    (PS You will have to tell them that authors don’t have time for long lunches, either, alas :-) We’re all working combinations of day-job and writing, or we’re cranking out a supposed two books a year, or we’re writing and blogging and tweeting and doing facebook to promote our books … And that doesn’t even include time claimed by family, friends, pets, community, home maintenance, etc.)

    1. jill*

      I think this is really smart. We have been noticing that when we highlight “success stories” at work, it tends to focus on outcomes – what great thing did this person achieve? But it gives the impression that success is some kind of inborn quality, not a combination of good choices and favorable context. Those who aren’t doing so well aren’t really inspired by the top performer; they’re frustrated and resigned to the fact that they’ll never be one of the shining stars. It’s much more effective to lay out not just characteristics but actual practices that were effective in achieving whatever outcome you’re describing.

  16. KarenT*

    I also work in publishing. When I was starting out, I was told over and over that I should not enter in to it. I’ve (so far!) had a successful career, but I find myself warning new grads away from publishing all the time. I do remember in my first publishing job interview that hiring manager told me that publishing is one of the least glamorous careers you can pick, and that has certainly turned out to be true. I usually recommend people start with an internship–publishing is all about interns and I think that internships give a realistic picture (less lunching, more photocopying) of what the job is really like. At least where I am, it’s impossible to get a job without having done an internship first anyway.

    1. KarenT*

      And when you do get to a point when you are taking authors out for lunch, believe me, you’d rather not (though I’ve never eaten with anyone famous)! It mostly consists of sitting around stroking egos and talking about development plans. And when you disappear for a three-hour lunch, the pile of work mounting on your desk will be waiting for you.

      1. Ellie H.*

        Also, people who have the temperament to become writers (which involves spending a huge amount of time alone, working, usually at home, inside your head all day) aren’t always the most fun or easy to have lunch with!

        1. KarenT*

          It’s true. Most of the authors I’ve worked with are either extremely shy/awkward or extreme egotists.

    1. KayDay*

      I love that Alison gives actual examples of language to use, in general. It’s hard to find advice that gives such level of detail, and especially difficult to find advice that does it well. If people write in saying “I’m not sure how to tell someone this,” they obviously need more concrete advice than, “well just tell them.”

  17. ChristineH*

    Excellent advice Alison. To me, it’s not about crushing dreams, but rather just telling it like it is. If someone were to ask me about social work, I’d tell them how broad the options can be–helping displaced families find housing, counseling someone with a new disabling injury, or managing an adolescent program, just to name a few. However, I’d also probably point out what it takes to get into the field and that it can be emotionally taxing (the last part being why I’m not doing it right now).

    I don’t think anyone should ever discourage someone’s dreams. I had a dream crushed a couple of years ago when I was exploring the idea of being an academic librarian (with a social work focus). I had met with the social work librarian at my university; I don’t remember what she said specifically, just that it came across as very discouraging, and I left feeling pretty dejected. You can certainly be honest, but let the person feel that they can make their own decision.

    1. Anonymous*

      I’ve been thinking about doing social work but I feel like I’m not ready to decide. Being unhappy at what I do is a scary thought.

      1. Natalie*

        If you have an idea of which subset of social work you’d be interested in, you might be able to find some volunteer opportunities with direct service, which would at least give you some information about how you would like the field. As a volunteer, I have worked with homeless children and adults, refugee children, and domestic violence victims.

        1. Anonymous*

          I’m currently working with domestic violence victims but in a more legal way not social work. I think something like that would really interest me in pursuing

  18. Sasha*

    Right after college I jumped into a graduate program without a clear plan, because my parents encouraged it (it was part of a grand idea to get 2 MAs for…oh I don’t know. Something stupid.). During my second year in I was required to take a thesis practicum with one of the grad advisors. After talking to me about my goals, what I wanted to get out of the degree, etc, he asked me, “And why are you getting this degree again?” He asked very kindly and he explained why he asked that question – because my goals were hazy and not thought out. I did feel somewhat embarrassed and sad that my current life plan was not coming to fruition, but it was one of the best things that ever happened to me. If he had just encouraged me to stick it out and see if a goal ever materialized, I would be at least $20k more in debt with a useless degree.

    1. AP*

      I had an internship interview one time in college in which the interviewer asked me straight out why I wanted to be in that field because she didn’t see me there. ‘Real Truth’ like that is not for everyone and I was thunderstruck but I really did end up in an entirely different, barely-related field, not very long after that, hmmm.

  19. Victoria HR*

    I was an English major and I now work in HR/Recruiting for a marketing company. I really enjoy HR and would recommend it for any English major, although not necessarily the introverts, as you have to be a people person to some degree. I am not for the most part, but fake it when I have to :)

      1. AdaDoom*

        I’m also in HR, an English major, and an introvert who (usually) can turn on people skills for enough hours to get through a week. The college degree does apply somewhat as I do a lot of work writing and revising with managers, and analyzing written/spoken information for underlying meanings.
        I made some small efforts to enter publishing as a fresh graduate, but everything I found was so discouraging and not what I wanted, that I started to look elsewhere!

    1. Elizabeth West*

      I’ve applied for several HR assistant jobs but no dice. They seem to want you have a degree in THAT. So how does an English degree do it? God what a waste it was.

      1. Jamie*

        Fwiw I’ve known many HR professionals and only one had a degree in HR, and that was acquired after they were on the job with the company paid tuition.

        By far the vast majority of them had BAs in English.

        Small sampling of mfg SMB, but that’s what I’ve seen.

        1. Anonymous*

          Do they have professional certifications though? The name escapes me at the moment, but I know there’s a professional HR body.

          1. Jamie*

            One was PHR (I think that’s it) but she was the one who got her degree while working as HR. The others, not that I know of.

            The more I read about requirements, on some threads, the more I realize that manufacturing is like the wild west of the employment world. Not that people aren’t educated and have degrees, many do, but it seems like its easier to get your foot in the door without a lot of the requirements which immediately rule out out in other industries.

            Like when I read here about some places requiring an accounting degree to be an AP/AR clerk or places that won’t consider receptionists without at least a BA. That would be met with incredulity if it were to be suggested in mfg – at least in my experience.

            Manufacturing runs lean, but the upside of that is there is a lot of room for growth once you’re in because most people need to wear more than one hat. It’s not an industry where “that’s not my job” flies.

            1. Victoria HR*

              I just got my PHR and I worked towards it while working in HR. I was lucky enough to get into an entry-level position as a “Partnership Coordinator” for a recruitment outsourcing firm. Before that I worked in licensing at an insurance company, not HR related in the slightest. If someone wants to break into HR, I recommend small HR consulting or outsourcing firms or startups of same.

              1. Victoria HR*

                Replying to myself LOL

                If someone is really serious about wanting to break into HR without any experience, I would recommend looking into SHRM; buy the PHR study books and take the PHR test. You can do it for around $600. Around here (the Midwest), companies seem to value a PHR certification more highly than experience. If you have a strong administrative background and a PHR, you could get an HR job, IMO.

            2. Another English Major*

              “but it seems like its easier to get your foot in the door without a lot of the requirements which immediately rule out out in other industries.”
              This is very useful to know-thanks! This is one of the reasons why I love this blog so much. Even when the discussion is not related to my specific situation, I always find advice that can be.

      2. Lulu*

        Yes and yes. (I have also considered HR, since my jobs did involve onboarding and other HR-like elements.) And at the risk of sounding like a broken record, most of the HR asst jobs I see have Taleo/Peoplesoft/other-HR-specific-program-I’ve-never-used-as-I-haven’t-worked-in-HR as “required”. I think if you get in another way (as a temp, being hired by a friend, starting in the industry years ago) you don’t necessarily need a degree, but until employers start allowing leeway again in hiring, it doesn’t appear to be easy to crack this realm either with no degree or direct previous experience. I suppose there could be more open-minded companies out there, but this has been what I’ve been seeing during my search.

        1. Jamie*

          Just some generic advice, but don’t let “required” software scare you away from applying to a job which is otherwise a good fit. Software can be learned easily, and its a shortsighted employer who would rule out an otherwise good candidate because they don’t want to provide a couple days worth of training on software.

          1. Lulu*

            Thanks Jamie – I personally am cool with learning new software, and am used to having to do that, but between the ads I see and conversations about needing to perfectly match the ads I see, I’ve been getting the impression that most employers aren’t: they only want someone who can sit down and do the job on Day 1. I have stopped filtering for that in deciding what to apply for, at least, but I’m aware that my applications may be going into the circular file (or it’s computer equivalent) when I ignore the “must”s. Sadly, I think there are a lot of shortsighted employers at the moment!

            1. Blanziflor*

              Well IME, Peoplesoft isn’t so much software so much as a carefully concocted Pandora’s box from the ninth circle of hell.

      3. HR Gorilla*

        Elizabeth – while there are a lot of HR Assistant positions requiring degrees nowadays, the fact is that most HR professionals didn’t start out in HR. Actually, 5 or 6 years ago I attended a talk by the then-President of SHRM (Society for Human Resource Management), and I remember raising my hand to ask a question and giving a disclaimer that I “didn’t start out in HR.” She, along with most of the room, laughed and said “that’s true for most of us!”

        Look for job postings that specifically state that they’re fine with “equivalent relevant work experience” in exchange for an HR or business degree, and focus on those. HR Coordinator, HR Assistant, HR Clerk, are all good search terms. My degrees are in English Lit and French, and before HR I taught French briefly…My first HR gig was as an HR Coordinator and I was very lucky I was able to keep adding experience and certifications from there. No one would have ever described me (until now!) as business-savvy, but many of the skills that allowed me to excel in liberal arts are exactly the same skills I use in employee relations, recruiting, training, and development. Good luck!!

  20. DEJ*

    I work in sports. There are a ton of people who think my job is cool. And it is. But I also give a realistic picture to college students I come across looking to get into the industry.

    1. Ali*

      Ha…I was just coming here to mention sports. I’m actually the person who wrote in about working in sports a couple months back, and provided a subsequent update. (I just hid that at the time for obvious reasons.)

      I’m still thinking about getting out of a sports career. My enthusiasm for it has kind of waned, seeing as the only jobs widely available are ticket sales and I was looking for something more on the media relations/PR side. Over the summer, in fact, I applied for a media job that drew over 700 applicants. I had a contact who knew some people in the organization I applied to…he works in sports himself, and he said that the pay was going to be too low for me to survive relocation on. I didn’t consider it dream crushing per se, but rather, I was glad someone had it in them to be honest with me about my chances of getting the job. The low pay and long hours, plus the endless amount of internships that seem to be necessary in pretty much every circumstance, have now turned me off and I’m looking to make a break altogether.

      I majored in communications, and like was mentioned above about journalism, I’m now turned off to do that too. I’m thinking about HR, as Jamie said about English majors, as it seems like a more stable path. I know every job/career has downsides…I think I just need to pick something where I can live with the downsides the easiest.

      1. AP*

        And there are some people for whom “stable” isn’t a top-ten career requirement, for whatever reason…those are the people you usually see in those jobs, you just don’t realize it. I should know, I’m one of them.

      2. DEJ*

        I remember – I also posted some comments to you about what it usually took. I am in PR/media relations and also have a journalism degree. You seem to have a realistic picture of what it takes to work in sports. I’ve seen many people get out of the business also because of a lot of the negatives that you’ve mentioned as well.

    2. Niki C*

      My jobs in sports were cool too, but living in a group house eating Ramen past the age of 25 was not :)

      To the point of the thread, I have been talking people out of law school (which I loved) since the six month mark of my first legal job!!!

  21. Anonymous*

    I have a degree in sociology. I wish someone told me I’d probably be jobless for a year, then work in a call center. I have a great job now that I love, 4 years after graduating, completely unrelated to my major.

    1. Anonymous*

      I’m just curious because I know next to nothing about sociology – what kind of jobs are related to your major?

      1. Anonymous*

        sociology– the degree for people who just need a degree

        It’s the study of human social behavior and its origins, development, organizations, and institutions.

        It’s REALLY interesting if you’re into that sort of thing (for example I LOVE NAT GEO) I love researching, coming up with my own theories, and writing long long long papers. My initial plan was to major in sociology, minor in urban studies. I planned to get into some grass-roots, non profit research/community enrichment program. Basically, trying to find new ways to promote health and education services in my innercity hometown. Eventually, I’d plan on getting my MA in Social Work or Public Policy.

        Reality: All the research jobs dried up. Everything was short term, temporary. It was awesome as an undergrad for work between semesters, but I couldn’t support myself long-term obviously with student loans kicking in. I wasn’t experienced enough for full time work with so many other people competing. I worked in a call center to pay the bills and had a second part time position on the weekends for over a year with a famous ivy league school. After a whole year, no full time research position in sight, I quit. I even moved up from just collecting the data to training new hires and co-ordinating the areas where we would work every week. The job was basically waking around in the rain, snow, sun lugging around a backpack with a laptop. A thankless, thankless job.
        I started taking my work at the call center seriously. Got really into the financial aid and loan counseling aspect of my job. Translated that experience into something I could offer a higher ed institution and now I’m doing a job I like for a lot more money , I can go to school for free (MA here I come) and the days off…

        Sorry for the book, but honestly, there is no clear cut career path for a sociology major.

  22. anon in tejas*

    I think that there is a fine line between giving someone honest feedback about the industry you are in, and drawing conclusions about whether or not they should go into that field.

    i.e. I am an attorney. I was a domestic violence attorney for a number of years. Many young law students came to me wanting to be a public interest attorney who changed the world. I told them about the long hours, high stress, low pay/high school debt and limited job/management opportunities. I did not tell them that they should not go into the field because it would be really difficult to find a job and want to stick around. I let them draw their own conclusions from my conversations and their work experience. I would be more direct about asking the “tough” questions of anyone that I would recommend to for a position or help network (i.e. use my name to get in the door), but I would let someone draw their own conclusions. I think that’s key.

    1. Kelly*

      I had intended to go to law school, and am immensely grateful to a number of lawyers and people with law degrees for being honest with me about the market (before people trying to sell back their law degrees became a news story), the loan burden, and what the work was really like. Unfortunately, I spoke with a lot of attorneys who hated their jobs. I interned with one woman who liked working in law (in the women’s section of an international non-profit: she did a lot of consulting other countries on how to draft domestic violence law). I knew one more who was ambivalent. They were all really honest though and it just made me rethink, to my father’s eternal disappointment.

      Unlike some of my law school friends, I’ve been profitably employed since graduation working as a teacher at an international school. It’s interpersonal and I get to help people. It has ups and downs, but I would wholeheartedly recommend it to anyone who: enjoys learning, is a BIG extrovert, has solid communication skills, doesn’t mind taking their work home with them every day (you never really stop thinking about the kids), and is okay with the pay scale.

    2. TL*

      I think this is key – about not trying to force them into a particular decision, but also being honest and thorough in explaining the good and bad aspects.

      After all, it’s possible that the student might be just the sort of person who would thrive in your field. Based on my own experience as a student, it seemed that sometimes, the “grown-ups” were very quick to discourage certain things, when I probably could have enjoyed those very things, and done well at them.

      I’m speaking for myself here, but it might also be VERY helpful if you had any ideas of less well-known niche positions/career focuses that wouldn’t necessarily occur to someone who has no experience in your industry. Part of the trouble, as a student, is that every industry is painted in such broad brushstrokes that it’s hard to know WHAT careers, exactly, you should even be looking at. You get to hear about a narrow slice of jobs within an industry, but nobody discusses the less “famous” (though not necessarily less common) jobs or niches that could be really interesting.

      1. jesicka309*

        YES. This ^
        Talk about the other careers that you can have in that field.
        You’re a journalist? Great! Do you know how many grads the TV stations are hiring? Zero. They’re actually laying off experienced staff, and they can’t get jobs…newspapers? Well, BigPaper1 just laid off 1000 journalists…what does that tell you?
        Now, here are some super alternatives that might interest you: public relations, marketing, HR, technical writing. Researching is a great way to start, moving to the country if you’re prepared to do that etc.
        A lot of people stop after the negatives…they don’t offer feasible alternatives. I honestly had no idea what marketing WAS until I lucked out into a marketing internship at a TV station, that I’d applied to with no idea what the job was, and only knowing it was at a TV station.

      2. Anonymous*

        Also, in case anyone here is a high-school counselor – don’t tell me I could do an internship (hs level) in “accounting” or “engineering” or “healthcare” – tell me what roles are available. I was practically shoo’ed out of my counselor’s office back in HS because I was having trouble envisioning a high school student working at “professional” jobs.

      3. Lulu*

        +1 even for those who are no longer students, new industries or even new companies within a familiar industry often have positions or areas we’ve never heard of but which we might be well suited for.

        Honestly, the world has gotten so complicated now, we can’t be aware of half the opportunities out there. I had a conversation with someone the other night whose specialty is “digital humanities” – what??

        1. Waerloga*

          And sometimes the job titles are different even though its the same “job”.

          Radiation Safety Officer, Rad. Protection Off., Risk Management Off., health Physics, etc. While some titles are similar, a lot of them can be missed by the newer grads. Part of it comes from which department gained control over a position, some of it because of adverse reactions to “Nuclear” anything.

        2. Heather*

          Yes, this! And it seems like a lot of those areas are things you only find out by stumbling upon them, because you wouldn’t know to actively look for them.

  23. Happy Friday (almost)*

    I am an engineer and work for a medical manufacturing company. I love my job, we make cool things that save people’s lives. I tell young people if they want great pay, decent hours, good working environment, career advancement, using your brain daily, solving problems, etc…go for engineering! Great field with awesome prospects in any discipline.

      1. Anonymous*

        QA really varies though – a QA analyst could be doing anything from literally pressing buttons all day (manual testing) to complex automation work.

        1. Blanziflor*

          Indeed, in my group, if they wouldn’t hire you as a developer, you won’t be getting a QA job.

        2. Mike C.*

          They could also be doing process improvement, monitoring, generating metrics, documentation, regulatory paperwork, analysis, project management and so on. I do a huge variety of stuff where I work.

          The variety is really the whole point. I can move between all sorts of projects and roles and departments and industries. I find myself able to contribute in a lot of different ways and find myself on high priority projects because of this.

    1. Kristen*

      My dad is an engineer and I think he would tell most people NOT to go into engineering. One of my good friends who is an engineer felt this way too–she actually considered running up to tour groups on campus and telling them not to major in engineering.

      That said, I think it depends on the kind of engineering you are in. My dad is an environmental engineer and works in waste water management so that’s pretty different from what you do. He has to go in sewers and check them out sometimes too–blech.

  24. Z*

    I had wanted to go into publishing ever since I read Judy Blume’s book Just as Long as We’re Together, in which a minor character works in YA publishing and apparently lies by the pool all day reading YA fiction and deciding whether to publish it.
    By the time I got to grad school, my goals had changed enough that I wanted to work on editing/improving academic books. I told someone in the publishing industry that I wanted to be the person who works with academic authors, saying, “I think this part needs to be rephrased so that it’s clearer. Chapters 4 and 7 should be merged into a single chapter, and you used an incorrect statistical test here. You need to run Test Y instead.” I asked this person, “Does that job exist, and if so, what is it called? I just see job postings for acquisitions editors, who seem to really be in sales. I want to do actual editing.”
    She said, “That job doesn’t really exist.” Apparently, publishing houses no longer hire people to edit books. If authors want that service, they have to hire freelancers themselves, and most authors don’t.
    I have to admit, I died a little when I got that news. However, I’m really glad to know that the job just simply doesn’t exist, rather than thinking that those jobs are out there and for some reason I just can’t find or land them.
    It sounds like the young people you hear from have slightly different expectations than I had (it truly never occurred to me that I might discuss literary theory with an author), but their expectations still aren’t in line with the reality of the industry, and it’s best to be honest with them. I definitely think it’s better to be honest than to let an introverted bookworm start in a position where’ they’ll have to go out to conferences and schmooze and generally be miserable.
    (And I second what others said above about some people perhaps not being ready to listen to your honesty. A few years ago, I did some information interviews with a couple people who were sort of in the publishing industry, and I had to make a conscious effort to actually listen to what they said the job was about, rather than just going, “La la laaaa! I can’t hear you! I know this is my dream job, and I refuse to hear the bad things you’re saying!”)

    1. Lore*

      Having worked in both academic and trade publishing, I think the reality of the editing profession is a little more nuanced than that. On the scholarly/academic side, I think you’re right that the kind of content editing you’d like to do doesn’t go on very much, but that’s not so much “publishing houses no longer hire people to edit books” as academic presses are less likely to do that kind of in-depth line-editing because of who their authors and their audience are (and what their economic picture looks like), just as they’re infinitely more likely to have authors doing their own indexing and proofreading than a trade house. On the trade side, though, it’s still not “people aren’t hired to edit books” as much as “you will do a great many things under this umbrella and the actual editing will often take a back seat to marketing plans and P&L statements and negotiating contracts.” I think a lot of the “discovering new writers” part of the job has also started to fall more under the agent’s purview than the editor’s. And then, a lot of the more mechanical and detailed aspects of editing, like “That sentence isn’t clear” or “that chart doesn’t do what you think it does” are actually handled by a production editor like me or the copy editors I hire, who are doing detail-level editing rather than big-picture story-and-structure editing.

      In short–a lot of editing still gets done, at least on the trade side. It’s just done in a fairly unglamorous way. I love the work that I do, but it’s largely unsung.

  25. Anonymous*

    I’ve worked in the arts for 15 years, and now manage artists. I’ve always put it “You can make a living. But nothing says what standard of living”, and that’s the truth. I have found that’s a great way to approach people looking to enter the field. It’s fairly neutral, and a great segueway into what standard of living they are looking at.

    And to all you youg freelance bloods out there – it’s feast or famine. Plan ahead – you are farming yourself as crop, and nothing is as unpredictable. :-)

    1. Anonymous*

      Sweet jesus, I just re-read that and… I’ve worked in the arts for FIFTEEN YEARS!!!!!!!!!!!! Hells yeah!

  26. Steve G*

    But please don’t overdo the “reality check.” Young people are sooooo used to hearing “it’s bad, much worse than you think,” that they instinctively fight back. And so the older person ends up in an argumentative mode saying something along the lines of “it is 100X worse than you ever think it is.”

    Young people are so used to hearing this in general, that they’ll totally drown you out. It’s like a Dad telling you repeatedly to be an Accountant to

    1. Anonymous*

      Somtimes I think that is what drives progress. Each generation somehow manages to make its mark, and drive things forward. If putting your head down and being stubborn can get you there… overall I think people get in more trouble by starting out wanting to be “job title”. Broaden your perspective to the field, and success/progress is easier, IMHO.

  27. Katie the Fed*

    I think the same can be said about most career fields – it will be worse than you think but there will be some good moments. My job sounds awesome on paper. Reality is far more dull. But let’s face it – it’s what you make of it. A good attitude and reality check is going to get you far.

    Lay it out for her the way you have (maybe soften some of the sharper edges). You might want to also talk more broadly about what her interests are and what other careers she might want to explore.

    1. AP*

      Also, most jobs are wrong for most people – thats what makes the few people that are good at each one perfect for them. What I’ve learned from reading the above comments is that every job has a significant down side – but there’s one out there thats perfect for you. You just have to find it, often in an unexpected, unglamourous place. So for the OP, you should be honest and straight about the bad aspects, because that really will encourage many people to realize that whatever field you’re in may be the wrong one for them, or what they think is perfect because of X reasons may not meet Y necessities, but also take a tone that allows for the fact that for the right perople, they are in the right place. And hopefully you can help the wrong people find their right place as well.

  28. wannabe tax nerd*

    I can’t offer advice or any anecdotes but I’m hoping someone can shed some light–what kind of person should go into the Accounting field? I only know that if you work for the big4, the hours are extremely long but is there anything else I should know to get a clear picture of this field?

    The only reason I’m contemplating going into Accounting is that I took a few courses in undergraduate and I found them interesting and I’ve done volunteer work in tax preparation and found the tax part very very interesting.

    1. Tax Nerd*

      If you’ve taken a few classes and done some volunteer work prepping tax returns, you’re better off than many in the field, who just hope they’ll like it. An unlucky few find out that they don’t care for it until too late. Check out goingconcern(dot)com to taste the bitterness and tears.

      If you’re still in undergrad, pursue internships will all your gusto. The larger firms get the vast majority of their new recruits from the ranks of interns. An internship not only gives them a chance to see if you have the intellect and personality for the work, but gives you a chance to see if you’ll like it. If you’re out of undergrad, consider getting a Masters in either Accounting or Tax, since you’ll need 150 credit hours to take the CPA exam, and it will give you a chance to go through the recruiting process. Most firms won’t hire someone who won’t be eligible to take the CPA exam in the near future.

      The hours are very long for part of the year, but may be semi-reasonable the rest of the year. This varies based on the size of the firm you’re with, geographic location, practice area, and your boss. But don’t count on anything less than 40-hour weeks the rest of the year.

      Good writing skills help, and poor writing skills will really hurt your career. Using the wrong homonym in an email is a mortal sin. Have a personality. People may be trapped in a conference room with you for very long days for weeks on end, so they want to like you. Don’t be that person who is still talking about their 4.0 from Yardale. Also read the thread from the other day about what to know to go into a white collar fields. Accounting is generally not a place for cursing or anger or dressing as sloppily as the dress code allows.

      Sales skill becomes increasingly important as you climb the ranks, so work on those, even if you’re folding t-shirts at The Gap or selling cars now.

      Many people go into auditing with the large firms because it’s easy to get out after a couple years – they can go to a smaller firm, go work for a client, or change gears and go into something else. Once you’re in tax, though, it’s rather difficult to get out. You’re kind of branded for life.

      1. wannabe tax nerd*

        Thanks for the detailed reply!

        I have been out of undergraduate for quite a while now; from my job search it has appeared that I would need at least an undergrad in Accounting to even land AR/AP/bookkeeping type positions (or at least YEARS of experience). Either way I’m still determined to go back to school and get an Acc degree because without it I don’t think I’ll go anywhere at all. From what I’ve researched, I dont’ need to get a masters, just have 150 credit hours and certain courses, which I can take without enrolling in a masters program.

        From what you’ve mentioned I do have the personality traits/language skills.

        1. Cassie*

          If you don’t want a job in one of the Big 4 companies, there’s always civil service jobs. You don’t need an accounting degree for low-level positions like accounting technician or account clerk, and positions up the ladder – sometimes you only need accounting course credit (either in college or community college/extension courses) and not the full degree.

          Hours for those civil service jobs are not long, either – just standard 8 hour workdays.

          1. wannabe tax nerd*

            I’m nto sure exactly waht kind of company I would want to work for though–I only know that the Big 4 are but that’s not exactly my goal, you know what I mean? At this point in my life, I’d be happy to work at any decent company for a decent wage.

            So far, my tax knowledge and experience is limited to individual federal taxes, and that too in a limited capacity since my volunteer positions were geared towards low income taxpayers. But to my surprise, I enjoyed doing that kind of thing, and I’ve realized that it’s hard to do any tax work outside of the season w/o a degree.

            1. anonintheUK*

              Certainly in the UK, there are a whole host of smaller national and regional firms. So it’s not all big 4

            2. Tax Nerd*

              Knowing a little more about where you are in life, I’d suggest that you consider going through the training program and working for H&R Block for a tax season. The training program isn’t a huge commitment like a new degree. I also think they’re flexible on hours so you don’t have to quit your dayjob just yet. Plus it’s practice for the hours you might expect if you did taxes full-time.

              If you love the work and flourish, you can take it from there, and either stay with them, or find a small firm that appreciates the experience. There are ton of firms out there that aren’t always actively recruiting. They just may look at an unsolicited resume from an experienced preparer received around this time of year. If you find that working for paying clients isn’t all that you hoped, you still learned something and made a few ducats on the side.

              [Let me caveat my hypocrisy in that I generally take a dim view of tax returns prepared by H&R Block, but I admit that they can be a good stepping stone for career changers.]

              1. wannabe tax nerd*

                [Let me caveat my hypocrisy in that I generally take a dim view of tax returns prepared by H&R Block, but I admit that they can be a good stepping stone for career changers.]

                What are your feelings towards it? Is it their business practices or the quality of their tax returns that they prepare?
                I was always uncomfortable with these kind of places, both as a tax preparer and a prospective customer. I took a course with TheFreedomTaxServices, but I didn’t like that they kept their pay a secret (you had to agree to the job and attend unpaid training before they would tell you how much your pay would be–I did some googling and figured that it was around minimum wage or slightly higher. I was being offered positions that paid $15/hour so I went with those). Also, I have ethical concerns; since I worked for the volunteer program where we did tax returns for free, I feel that it’s unfair to have to charge people hundreds of dollars for the same exact stuff that can be done for free…..although this year I did think about working for them was going back and forth between my principles or…just wanting a damn job. I’d prefer working for a CPA but I’m open to these too now.

                1. Tax Nerd*

                  I’ve never figured out H&R’s fee structure, but suspect it’s by the form. (For instance, I’ve seen them prepare a Schedule B to report $14 of interest, even though a Schedule B isn’t required for an amount that low.) Historically, they’ve pushed rapid refund loans and such way too hard, even though they charged something like 450% interest. And yes, the quality of the returns… varies, to put it politely. Most are fine, but some make you understand why they’ll review last year’s return for free. This is all HR&B, who I know a little better, since I’ve seen more of their returns from clients I’ve inherited, and I’ve read more about their business practices more than comparable outfits. H&R Block Premium is supposed to be, well, premium, but I am talking about the regular part of the company. I take a dimmer view of Liberty Tax, but that’s because I don’t think someone dressed as the Statue of Liberty should be a method for getting tax clients. The pay structure at these places is something I can’t even imagine. There is some level of “depends on experience”, but a lot of it seems to be a complete mystery.

                  I don’t have a problem with them charging for their work. They’re providing a service by trained people that want things like paychecks and computers and paperclips. Their customers are only people willing to pay them. VITA tends to set an upper income limit and only do basic returns, and they’re done by people willing to prepare tax returns for free, whereas a paid preparer can accept clients of all income and complexity levels. A return for a day-trader with 20 rental properties isn’t comparable to a W-2 only return. Similarly, someone might volunteer a few hours a week, but they probably aren’t going to make a career out of working for free.

                  That said, most CPA firms prefer to hire someone fresh out of college (with no habits from other jobs that they’ll have to unlearn), or they want people with experience. A year or two with H&R Block or the like provides that experience at no cost to the CPA firm.

                  If you want to email me, I’ve set up an account at taxnerd (at) hotmail (dot) com. [Before anyone else emails me, I absolutely will not give out any tax advice to anyone that isn’t a fee-paying client of my CPA firm. At most I’ll give out some very general career advice to people interested in tax careers in public accounting firms, because that’s what I know. Finally, I’ll only check that account when my time and interest allows, so not at all for months of the year. And it’s at your own risk.]

              2. wannabe tax nerd*

                apologies if I’m overstepping any boundaries but would you mind if I emailed you with more questions?

    2. Omne*

      I would give serious thought to getting an auditor job with either the state or federal government. After a couple of years you will be pretty marketable to a lot of accounting firms. Even during the downturn recruiters were really active here ( state level department).

  29. De Minimis*

    Very true, I came to regret focusing on tax—I was very fortunate to be able to start over in my current position [governmental accounting.]

    The thing about tax is that starting out a lot of it is just data entry and working with software. You really have to get to senior associate before you really start to apply any technical knowledge.
    Or at least that was my experience.

    Networking skills are key, not just to obtain a job, but to keep it. You have to constantly be working to meet people and convince them to involve you with their projects. That was a big weakness for me.

    I worked at a Big 4 but was not an intern, and feel like I started out at a huge disadvantage compared to the new hires who did intern and started their full time jobs with a network and track record already in place. I think a lot of the time if you can’t get an internship with a Big 4 you probably should be cautious about working there full time.

    I have since realized that public accounting was just not for me, I have the CPA designation but my state permits people to register as inactive so I decided to do that…..maybe at some point in the future I will decide it’s worth it to reactivate, maybe in a few years if I decide to switch agencies or something.

  30. Amanda*

    I have a bunch of education and work experience in loosely related but still different areas. During this period of unemployment I’ve been talking to a lot of professionals in the fields I’ve interested and trying to decide what career path would make me the happiest and be something where there’s a market.

    I really appreciate it when people are upfront with me about the challenges and less glamorous aspects of their jobs. I’m glad that the Director of the local Health Dept. gave me the information that I needed to decide that Public Health was too policy-based and not community-based enough for me. And I was grateful when, in my recent informational interview, that working for a grassroots international development organization would probably NOT lead to five trips a year to Africa and Asia to check on projects because there simply isn’t the budget for it.

    I’m still not sure what my absolute dream career would be, but I have a much better idea of what would be me happy and I’m grateful for all the feedback, even (and sometimes especially) the negative points.

  31. wannabe tax nerd*

    I’m tickled to see English majors here…I was an English major too. Loved reading and writing since I was a kid, so it was a natural choice for a major. May I also add–I had no real career ambitions at the time; I wanted to be a housewife. Fast forward a couple of years, a couple of jobs, and a not-very-easy-marriage, and I really want to kick my 18-year-old self for pretty much ruining her future. (Note: being an English major didn’t ruin my future, not having ambitions and goofing off during college did). I’m NOW beginning to see the consequences of my actions in college and desperately wish I could undo the damage I’ve done because it seems nearly impossible to climb out of this crapbed I made for myself.

    When I talk about my job search woes, lots of people step in with suggestions–“Why dont’ you be a teacher? Why don’t you work at a daycare? Why don’t you start your own business?” etc etc. It’s frustrating because I don’t like how education is seen as an “easy” field that one can just “fall back on.” I know many excellent teachers and I know I can’t be close to that. Also, no one aside from a few close people even know what my professional goals are–I keep them a secret so that, I dunno, no one will laugh at the dunce trying to be something.

    Sorry for the long rant/tangent, but does anyone else get what I’m saying in my last paragraph? Keeping your professional goals a secret, wondeirng how to shoot down peoples suggestions?

    1. TL*

      I understand what you’re getting at in your last paragraph. Everyone has suggestions, not all of them practical or reasonable in your individual situation, and it gets irritating FAST.

      If possible, I’d encourage you to share your long-term (and short-term) career goals with more people, since it sounds like you know what you’re looking for. This doesn’t necessarily mean that you have to share this info with distant relatives who always have new suggestions, but if you can condense your long-term plans into an elevator speech or two, this could give friends, new social acquaintances, and networking contacts something concrete about you that they can remember when a job opening pops up. It would also give you a positive comeback when someone gives an out-of-left-field suggestion: “In the long run, I think that would probably divert me from [insert career goal here], but thanks for the idea.”

      Or just smile, nod, say thanks for the idea, and move on to another topic. It’s usually easier to avoid explaining why the suggestion is not at all relevant!

    2. Lulu*

      I do get the reaction to the “why don’t you ___”, as generally I wonder if these people live in caves, since usually ____ is some area that has zero opportunity. Forget the nuances of teaching and the fact that it requires a certain personality, dedication, additional education, and a million other things that make it so much more than a “fallback job” – it’s also been highly subject to layoffs of late, and yet another field where people who already have experience and WANT to be there are having difficulty getting work. I think that a lot of people have trouble figuring out what someone with a humanities degree would do other than teach or write, so “teacher” is their go-to. As far as shooting down their suggestions, you can just tell them you have a few ideas you’re looking into, &/or you’ve considered x and currently it’s just not a good option. No need to get into details.

      I’ve also been struggling with beating myself up for being an English major – I have to remind myself there was no way for me to know back in the day that the advice I was getting was wrong, and maybe it wasn’t so hugely wrong back then. At the time, I didn’t intend to use it for anything specific, anyway, so it didn’t seem like that big a deal. I certainly don’t feel like the degree is worth much to anyone now (partly because mine was obtained so long ago), and would definitely not advise anyone to choose it unless they really DO want to teach.

      1. Amanda*

        Out of curiousity and not snarkiness, what DO you think are good majors for those who are simply better at the humanities than they are at the STEM fields?

        I mean, I have a humanities degree, but I don’t really regret getting it because well, what else could’ve I done? Given my weaknesses at math and science, it’s unlikely that I could’ve gotten through a nursing program and computer operations beyond internet/word processing/downloading pictures make my brain hurt (I’m SUCH a bad Gen. Y’er). At least I walked away with a degree (even if it is a worthless one) and didn’t join the ranks of college dropouts.

        So what advice can we give to those who simply suck at the currently marketable fields and rock at the unmarketable ones?

        1. Rana*

          For one, I’d ignore the people who talk about “marketable” fields and instead go browse the occupational guides at the library. These books will provide descriptions of various jobs and the skills and degrees needed to enter them, and often they’ll include something about the field’s probable prospects for the future. It’s particularly useful to browse through the sections that at first glance don’t strike you as all that interesting or relevant; there are some weird correlations between fields and skills, sometimes.

          For example, who knew that my skills at academic research in history could line up nicely with the analytical skills needed for product assessment research in marketing – the sort of thing where you listen in on people testing and talking about a new product and then summarize their comments for a client? But, apparently, they do. (I didn’t follow up on this lead, as there were other areas where the fit was poor, but sitting in on one such session during an informational interview was one of the most interesting career experiences I’ve had to date.)

      2. Another English Major*

        I wish I could like your last paragraph. I actually planned on teaching, but when I graduated there was a hiring freeze for over two years in both the county I lived in and the county I worked in (I subbed for two years trying to get my foot in the door-there was even a hiring freeze for substitutes in the county I lived in!). Eventually one of my summer temp jobs offered me a full-time (non-teaching position) and I took it since it was more stable than the sporadic calls I would get from Subfinder.

    3. fposte*

      I get what you’re saying, but you’re making my heart hurt a little with that “laugh at the dunce” thing, because I fear you really think it’s true, and if so please go find nicer people to know because you deserve better. Not that you’re required to tell everybody what you think you might like to do–I’m private myself and get the “not their business” thing–but boy, do you sound hard on yourself. (And if it’s accounting, as you describe above, that seems pretty reasonable to me!)

      I think a lot of people naturally want to be helpful when you describe a problem, but that doesn’t keep it from being incredibly annoying when they offer random suggestions. I don’t think straight out shooting down actually works, but depending on the relationship, you can either say up front that you’d just like to vent a little without getting advice, okay? or respond with vague noises (“Hmmm, teaching…”; “Hmm, always good to get suggestions…”) while you check your messages or something and just let them run out of gas.

    4. John Quincy Adding Machine*

      Keeping your professional goals a secret, wondeirng how to shoot down peoples suggestions?

      I don’t really bother to shoot down the suggestions. I know my friends mean well, and I know that they’re misguided and wrong, and I know that if I argue with them about why whatever suggestion they make is misguided, I’ll just get into an argument and feel bad about myself and probably start to cry, and no one wants that. So every time they forward me a job posting I just say, “Thanks, I’ll look into it!”. Every time someone brings up a friend of theirs, who has a science degree (just like you do, JQAM!) and does such and such job, and why don’t I look into that, I make a non-committal noise and say, “Hey, didn’t you guys just get a new puppy/baby? Bet that’s a handful, amirite?”

    5. Rana*

      I do. It’s especially bad if you’re doing a career change not because you have a vital new interest to pursue, but are more in the position of a rat fleeing a drowning ship. For a while I was very open about my lack of direction, which meant that people kept offering all sorts of possibilities that might have worked for them, or for a person living in a different city, or someone with a different field background, or… in other words, if it were someone who was not me. It got sort of old, even though it was sometimes interesting to see what they came up with.

      Not least because they thought I was being unfairly down on myself by rejecting their suggestions; in fact, many of them were perfectly fine suggestions, but I’d already done my homework on them and knew that I wasn’t competitive in those areas, and wasn’t interested in doing what it would take to become so. And then they’d argue with me about the importance of not giving up, even though I already knew that.

      What I knew was a realistic assessment of my situation, they tended to view as unduly pessimistic and interpret as a lack of self-esteem. So I stopped telling those people what my goals might be; instead I tell them what I’ve accomplished. It’s much more satisfying saying “I did this” than “I might like to do this,” I have to say.

      1. Heather*

        Another rat fleeing a drowning ship here. (Actually, the ship is doing fine, but being on it is making me want to drown *myself*). I don’t want to jump out of the frying pan into the fire, so I’m trying to figure out the right direction to go instead of just grabbing at anything that will get me out of this job.

        But networking sucks because when you are an English major who loves to read (nice to know I’ve got lots of company here!) and can’t articulate exactly what you want to do, everybody assumes you’re just dying to be a writer of some kind. Then you’re in the position of constantly saying, “Thanks, but I’m not interested in that copywriter/blogger/magazine writer position.” I end up feeling like an ungrateful wretch – I know they’re just trying to help, but how many times do I have to say that I don’t want to be a writer?

    6. Victoria HR*

      I got the “Why don’t you teach?” a lot also. What people don’t realize is that, at least here in the Midwest, you need a degree in education or a minimum of xx hours in an ed curriculum, plus practical time spent teaching or assistant teaching, before you can be hired on at a school. If you don’t have a master’s degree, the chances are even less. I personally worked 2 jobs and went to school full time, so I had zero time for practical teaching work during college. It was probably for the best – the number of times I get impatient with my own children lead me to believe that I would not have been a good teacher :)

  32. Cassie*

    My friend and I both majored in humanities-type fields and we’re both in office jobs that don’t have anything to do with our majors. For the most part, I’m fine with what I’m doing – it’s not rocket science nor is it glamorous but there are plusses and minuses. I was doing some filing today (matching up orders to receipts) and it was kind of depressing to think that I was doing the exact same thing when I was a work-study student in my freshman year in college. Of course, my job now entails much more than just that.

    My friend, though, has been lamenting lately… she feels it’s much better to have a technical skill like being a doctor or scientist or pharmacist. While I agree that those types of jobs may be more fulfilling and I wonder how my life may have been different if someone had introduced me to STEM subjects as a kid, I don’t see office jobs (even dead end ones) as being as bleak as she makes it sound. Yes, we have to deal with crazy office politics and much of the time, we feel like glorified secretaries (regardless if we’re in HR or accounting or admin support) – but mostly, your job is what you make of it.

    We can’t all be rock stars or pro athletes…

    1. KayDay*

      One thing that’s always lost in the you-should-get-a-STEM-degree conversation is that the field isn’t for everyone. I actually wanted to me an chemist/engineer/scientist (or a lawyer; my career goals weren’t that focused) when I was in elementary and middle school. By high school I had lost my strong interest in that sort of thing, and then I got to physics and calculs and I realized that I actually sucked at higher level math and hated it too. So I’m very glad I didn’t get a STEM degree. True, I’m not making $100K, but I am making a livable wage and I enjoy my broader career field (if not my exact job).

      Also, if everyone gets STEM degrees they won’t be nearly as valuable, particularly for the lower-tier degree holders (ahem, JD, ahem).

      By all means, if you like Math/Science/Engineering at all go for it, but if you really hate those subjects, you won’t do well by majoring in them.

      1. Amanda*

        I agree with you. In fact, I agree with you so much that I just wrote the exact same comment before realizing that you had replied. Sorry!

      2. Lulu*

        Thanks for articulating that KayDay – trust me, if I had the aptitude to go into engineering, software or otherwise, I would do it in a heartbeat! But even though I’m far more interested in STEM-related topics now than when I was younger, I’m still the person who only passed Algebra because she stayed after school and went through the tests with the teachers, so got credit for persistence. I’m fascinated by string theory, read Michio Kaku, could not possibly deal with the equations involved. I’m so sick of feeling dime-a-dozen-unemployable, but the reality is that STEM is not for me, and if I forced myself to get into it I would probably be even worse off.

        re: my comment on majors, I wish I had a good answer! I’m pretty beaten down by a long and fruitless job search right now, so in my mind there is no room in the world for non-STEM people, but I know that’s more a reaction to my personal situation than reality. (I hope) There are obviously quite a few employed English majors here! I would say that if you have any aptitude/interest in hands-on professions like health care or PT, or computer science, head that way, make the humanities your minor. It does seem there’s no longer room to enjoy the intellectual activities of college without being conscious of the business implications of your study from the beginning – so you can be an English major, but heed Rana’s advice re: developing an understanding of the skills involved and where you can apply them when you need to earn money.

        1. De Minimis*

          I majored in English too…I was fortunate that I was okay with math at least up to the point of basic algebra, which is all the math you really use in accounting other than some basic statistics.

          I would not have majored in English either if I could go back. At the time I had no real career plan and it seemed like it was the only thing I was good at. By senior year I knew it probably wasn’t the best choice but at that point it was too late. I was very lucky to find a job with the Post Office a little over a year after graduation—ended up going back to school for accounting seven years after that, I didn’t like the Post Office much and knew it wasn’t going to be around for me to be able to retire from it.

          1. Chaucer*

            English Major here who tried to go the STEM route while in college. I tried, and by tried I mean I filled study guides cover to cover, went to study groups and practically lived in the professors’ office during their office hours, but I just did not have the aptitude for those things like my aptitude for reading comprehension and writing composition. It’s really frustrating, and at times even hurtful, to hear people mocking non-STEM graduates or categorizing all of us as lazy. Even though I am struggling a lot in my job search, I know I have skills and I know that eventually I will find something, but I would be lying if I said I never feel awful about not having the aptitude to be an engineer.

            1. Heather*

              I know, right? Yes, people, we English majors are aware that engineers are in demand and get paid well. That doesn’t change the fact that you really do not want us designing bridges or messing with electricity!

              Every time I hear some talking head spouting off about how we should cut funding for humanities education, I want to tell them that they should quit knocking it because some education in critical thinking would have done them a lot of good.

              1. Chaucer*

                I read that in Forbes, actually, and sent him an email in response to his article about cutting Humanities completely from Universities. I told him that if that were come true, the demand side would actually diminish, as the supply side would greatly increase, and that would cause wages to plummet. Furthermore, that wouldn’t magically increase the number of jobs available, and the competition would increase even more. That would leave out those who manage to finish a STEM program but don’t have an aptitude for their respective field, and the jobs would go to those who would have gone into that field in the first place.

                Needless to say, I didn’t get a reply back :)

            2. Amanda*

              “It’s really frustrating, and at times even hurtful, to hear people mocking non-STEM graduates or categorizing all of us as lazy.”


              1. Ask a Manager* Post author

                For what it’s worth, I think you guys are probably being overly sensitive here. Anyone who categorizes everyone in a particular field (let alone everyone NOT in a particular field) as lazy is so obviously off-base and silly that it’s hardly worth taking offense at. If people do that, assume they’re revealing something about themselves, not something about you.

                1. Chaucer*

                  You’re absolutely right, but I think the reason that we are taking it so harshly is because we are unfortunately bearing that brunt of a bad job market. It hurts even more to hear “The only thing you’re qualified for is folding shirt!” when you are stuck doing just that while struggling to find something worthwhile.

                2. Ask a Manager* Post author

                  I totally get that. But you will be doing yourself (and your quality of life and peace of mind) a huge favor if you really make a point of not letting silly outside assessments shake your sense of who you are. There will always be silly/rude/dumb people out there, and it’s so crucial not to give them power to influence the way you think about yourself. I know it’s easier said than done, but it’s sooooo worth doing the work to make it happen. It pays off massively.

                3. wannabe tax nerd*

                  “But you will be doing yourself (and your quality of life and peace of mind) a huge favor if you really make a point of not letting silly outside assessments shake your sense of who you are. There will always be silly/rude/dumb people out there, and it’s so crucial not to give them power to influence the way you think about yourself. I know it’s easier said than done, but it’s sooooo worth doing the work to make it happen. It pays off massively.”

                  So simple, so easy, and yet so true and applies to pretty much all situations. It’s not easy to accomplish this at all though. Of course I’m thinking of this in a very general sense, not just in regards to work/career.

              2. Jamie*

                Just a basic lack of appreciation for abilities other than your own, which is ironic since I’m generally more impressed by that which I can’t do than stuff I can learn myself.

                It extends to the workplace, too, marketing introducing IT to a vendor or customer as “our resident geek” (never funny) or IT wanting to jump off several cliffs because someone on the sales team needs to be continually told what “reboot” means.

      3. Cassie*

        I was/am good at math, mediocre at science and had absolutely no idea about engineering. I just think it would have been nice to get a little exposure to it and then I could decide whether or not to pursue it further.

        I think we all have things we wished we had the opportunity to learn or try :)

    2. Rana*

      those types of jobs may be more fulfilling

      Eh, I don’t know. More in demand, maybe, but more fulfilling? That’s such a personal thing.

      For example, I’d hate to have a job where I was stuck behind a counter at CVS all day, counseling people on how to apply hemorrhoid cream and suppositories, even if that was only a small part of my job. But that’s what a lot of pharmacists seem to end up doing, and I’m grateful that they want to do it, because I do not. And the stories I’ve heard from lab grunts who get stuck doing repetitive and boring lab sampling or culture tending… It’s not like my own work doesn’t have its unpleasant or boring aspects, but they take forms I’d rather deal with given other alternatives. (Hours of mindless data entry versus scrubbing test tubes or cleaning bedpans… hmmm… choices, choices.)

      I don’t think there’s a thing as a perfect career for all people, is what I’m saying. And even ones that are currently in demand now have no guarantees of being equally valued ten or twenty years down the line.

      1. Jamie*

        (Hours of mindless data entry versus scrubbing test tubes or cleaning bedpans… hmmm… choices, choices.)

        I think even mindless data entry beats any task involving human waste. :)

        Your overarching point is so important. What would be a nightmare job for one person would be a perfect fit for someone else. It’s like dating – the person you may think is nice but meh will turn out to be the grand passion in someone else’s life.

        It’s all about fit. That’s why employers should be upfront about the drawbacks of the position for which they’re hiring, because there are always drawbacks…but they aren’t always deal breakers. And one person’s deal breaker could be another person’s perk. I need off-street parking. When I was looking I’d scout out a location before even accepting an interview. I have a friend who could care less, but she needs to be near public transportation because she doesn’t drive. There are a million other examples both circumstance and work related like that.

      2. Cassie*

        I agree – that’s why I had written “may be” more fulfilling :) I think maybe we all have glamorized ideas about certain jobs and it’s different for everyone. For English majors, it’s in the publishing industry. For my friend, it’s pharmacology. For me, I’m not sure but I think being an admissions officer would be kind of cool (maybe not so much after reading the 1000th essay on why little Timmy wants to get into this school).

  33. steve g*

    Just realized something – I’ve never heard of something thinking of publishing as glamorous. Why are so many people writing about publishing????

    When I was in school I found it odd that so many people wanted to do finance or accounting, like they had any ideas what it involved at 19…..

      1. Lulu*

        That and it may be what they knew was available – a parent was an accountant, they encouraged it, the kid has no idea what to do but, hey, everyone says I should be an accountant and there seems to be a future in it…

        I always say I don’t have a “dream job”, but there may actually be one out there, I just haven’t heard of it yet!

        I think publishing = glamorous is a holdover from many years back (when lawyer=big $$ and people had three martini lunches). Public perception has not caught up to the current reality yet!

  34. Tricia*

    I’m a recent college grad (as of yesterday!) and I’m about to start working in construction company’s contracts department. I’m hoping to save up to eventually go to grad school to study national security with the dream job of working for the State Department.

    Anyone in national security/intelligence/diplomacy? Can someone tell me what working at the DOS/similar field is REALLY like please?

    1. Katie the Fed*

      Tricia – I’d be happy to talk to you further (although national security/intel is a very different beast than foreign service). If you want to work on international issues there are a lot of options other than State.

      Perhaps we can discuss over email.

      1. Tricia*

        Thanks, Katie the Fed! Maybe Alison could exchange our emails? I’m interested in State Department’s consular track in particular. I would love any advice.

                1. Anonymous*

                  From the context I think you’re probably US-based, but just FYI, yahoo isn’t always dot-com, depending on which country site you registered from.

          1. Jamie*

            For anyone interested –

            LinkedIn search for Ask a Manager in the groups.

            Just send a request to join. We have almost 600 members now, which is pretty great.

            1. Tricia*

              Thanks Jamie!

              Katie the Fed – Can we still exchange emails through the group? Sorry for the hassle! I just opened the account, so it’s super light on details other than name, employment, etc.

              And Archer is addicting. Love that show.

        1. Katie the Fed*

          sure. Alison – you can share this email address (stlouiscardinals….) with Tricia if you feel so inclined :)


      2. Katie the Fed*

        I’ll add though that you don’t necessarily need a graduate degree in national security. A graduate degree is important, but what’s most important is showing that you have critical thinking skills, so other fields are just as valuable. If you have a language (especially one like Pashto, Urdu, Chinese, Dari, Farsi, etc) then you’ll be MUCH more competitive. And you’ll need to be able to get a Secret clearance at a minimum but most likely a TS/SCI clearance which means you’d better stay out of trouble.

        Anyway, we can talk more. I enjoy talking to young people about my field.

        Oh, watch Archer sometime. I’m convinced there’s a consultant on the inside writing for that show.

    2. beltway bunny*

      State department is really, really competitive. Ditto for intel agencies. Look for jobs with consulting firms that work with the agencies you want to work for to get your foot in the door. Contracts is a very good field to start in, but you’ll need to learn about the FAR. (

      A graduate degree is needed for more of the “fun” type jobs, but you can get a lot of good administrative jobs with only a Bachelors. I’d say work for a year or two doing contracts then try to get a job doing contracts either for a federal agency or consulting firm. It won’t be easy, but your starting out in a good position.

      1. Tricia*

        I appreciate the link – and yes, I’m excited about contracts. I’m going to be working for a federally contracted company (operates in several Gulf states), so hopefully I’ll get some decent work experience there.

        Thanks a lot !

    3. Victoria HR*

      I actually have worked at embassies overseas – my Dad was CIA for 30+ years and we moved around a lot. What I would recommend for working for the State Department/Foreign Service would be to learn Arabic – they really need people with that mastery. Study American history and politics, as well as world geography and the politics of the currently volatile countries, then when you’re ready, take the Foreign Service exam. BUT – do it as soon as you can, because once you reach a certain age they won’t take you.

  35. Josh S*

    First thought upon reading the title, but before looking at the text:

    “Wow. This oughtta be a fun one!”

    Let’s see how this goes. Lots of comments to have fun with, too…

  36. A somewhat new reader*

    Hmmm…this is an interesting question. I went to law school which is terrible and wonderful in many ways. But what I learned is that you can’t really understand the terrible parts until you go through them. I don’t think you should try to “crush someone’s dreams,” just be honest and realize they still may not “get it” until they’ve gone through it. I say this as someone who spoke to MANY people about law school and heard the warnings, but didn’t really understand the stress/pressure until I went through it.

    When I speak with students thinking about law school now, I warn them about the stress but I don’t harp on it because they will have to learn for themselves. Rather I focus on how to manage the stress, pressure, and work load because that seems to be a more valuable and worthwhile discussion. When I start to tell students how to prepare, the time commitment they should make, and how to study for tests this seems to get them planning and thinking in more productive ways (as opposed to conveying only horror stories).

    1. Joy*

      Experience of law school is one thing (and yes, extremely stressful), but the “dream-crushing” part comes down to the question “Will you be able to work in the field and be happy doing it?” About half of all law graduates right now aren’t finding work in the field at all, and there are a lot of lawyers who thought they’d love practicing and actually hate it.

      Big firms (at least in my city) lose associates after 2-3 years, after they realize that they hate sitting in an office all day just doing research/writing and answering discovery requests, etc. Very few lawyers (outside of criminal law) spend much time in courtrooms.

  37. A teacher*

    Most the advice has been great and while I’ve loved both of my careers, I know I’d tell a new grad to carefully consider education and athletic training very carefully before choosing either as professions.

  38. Anonymous*

    How do you figure out what you want to do? Even after graduating college. How do you get to that point where you know that’s the job or career you want to pursue?

    1. fposte*

      I never had that long-term vision about anything, and my career path keeps taking little adjustments that make me have to reconsider it each time. I use the metaphor of driving–I think a lot of us expected life to be like daylight driving, where we could see what was ahead of us for miles, but it’s more often nighttime driving, where we can see only what’s in the headlights and travel accordingly.

      So if I’d waited for what I want to do for life, I’d be unemployed. But I found something I wanted to do for a while, and it stayed interesting and rewarding enough in different configurations that I’ve been happy to keep doing it.

    2. Xay*

      Honestly? The career that I have and love found me. I knew that I wanted to work in a field where I could help people and I knew that there were some issues that I was passionate about. I did not know when I graduated from college or even when I got my first job that public health was going to be the career that I wanted to pursue. Once I really got into the work and started getting more responsibility, I realized that this is the career I want to pursue and excel in.

      I think you have to be flexible and patient with yourself. It’s ok to try a job and find out that is not the career for you. There is a surprising amount of room to move from one career path to another and apply your skill set to something else.

    3. Ask a Manager* Post author

      Like fposte, I never really figured it out either. I knew that I wanted to do work that would make the world a better place, and for me that pointed me to nonprofits and I started by taking whatever jobs I could get in the sector and just kind of worked my way up from there. That exposure made me realize that just because an organization is a nonprofit, it’s not necessarily making the world a better place, if it’s badly managed … and that started pointing me toward what I do now. But my point is, I started only with a really general idea — a broad sector — and just dove in and figured out a (somewhat winding) path as I went. I think that’s pretty common.

    4. Jamie*

      Like others have stated – I didn’t have a plan from day one, my path wound to this somewhat organically.

      I did a lot of temping when I first started and that was a great way to try out a lot of different positions in many different offices and industries. I started to gravitate toward manufacturing as hands down those assignments gave me the most room to do more advanced work and stretch. Other industries seemed to have more formal processes for moving into other things, and you often couldn’t touch what you weren’t specifically hired to do.

      I took my first permanent job in manufacturing as an office manager for two plants and my love of tech stuff and an overworked IT department that was thrilled to have someone on site willing to learn this was the greatest gift I could have had. Perfect OTJ training.

      I found the better you are at the technical stuff the more tptb want to move you in that direction as there was a great need…so I ended up in IT.

      That said, my background in the accounting side of things as well as QC, which all came from temping in the mfg sector, was ridiculously helpful as I was able to take on responsibilities outside of IT.

      If I could offer any advice to anyone it would be to understand how your business works on a deeper level than just your department. You could be a much better system admin than the other candidate – but if they also understand operations and how the product and dollars flow through the system that will probably edge you out.

      I just kept gravitating toward the things that interested me and my career kind of grew itself without a whole lot of planning on my part.

      1. Anonymous*

        Thanks for all the replies!!! They are very insightful it sounds as thought everyone kind of has the same experience. The job/career was a product of things they encountered a long the way rather than something they planned on. Hopefully that job/career crosses my path sometime soon

    5. wannabe tax nerd*

      I guess I’m lucky in this sense, I stumbled into it accidentally. During/after college I had a bunch of low level/dead-end jobs. At one point I was free and desperate to do SOMETHING so started volunteering by doing tax returns–ended up getting hired, worked the tax year after that, so I know that this is the career I want to pursue.

      Now how to pursue it is posing its own challenges.

  39. Chaucer*

    *raises hand* English Major here. Technical and copywriting have dried up in my city, so I have been trying to use my background to get into either HR or Analytics. No luck so far, but working on it!

    And don’t worry about being a jerk by being honest. A lot of graduates need an honest perspective on the realities of certain industries.

  40. Anon*

    English major here, who previously worked in book publishing and now works in public libraries. I’ve had positive experiences in both fields, but I also went into them with my eyes open–internships and volunteer work gave me a good sense of what I would actually be doing. I actually left publishing because I asked myself, “Do I want to do this for the next 10 years? Do I want to take the next steps that would be required to actually advance in this career?” And the answers were “no.”

    By the way, working with authors was great preparation for working with demanding members of the general public. It requires lots of tact and diplomacy and a general willingness to accept that even nice people are often irrational. Having a sense of humor really helps.

  41. OP*

    I’m the OP, just checking in. Thanks for the advice Alison! I met with this recent grad and he was very sweet and eager, but as I feared he had a very skewed picture of what working in publishing as an editor is like. He was definitely surprised when I mentioned how low starting salaries are. But I think (hope!) we had a very productive discussion, and I just tried to be honest about what the average day is like.

    I want to thank the commenters too for all of their advice and discussion. Somewhere I did think I was helpful for this kid was pointing out that if he’s interested in reading/writing/editing–basically, communicating with people–that he should look into marketing and publicity as well. He seemed surprised to hear that, so hopefully he’ll keep an open mind about what sort of career to start in.

  42. FD*

    I’m in the hospitality industry, currently at an entry-level job but with a manager who’s been mentoring me and helping me get into a good position to get advancement later on. My degree was completely unrelated (BA in history–I’d originally wanted to become an academic), although I had a lot of customer service experience.

    Turns out I really love it, at least with a decent manager! It’s a completely insane job. Honestly, when you walk in that door *anything* can happen, and frequently does. I really like it because I get to work with people while also getting to keep things organized and use my multitasking abilities in a concrete way. At least right now, the thing I want most is to become a GM of a hotel, because I’ve seen how much difference a good manager makes.

    That said, it’s something I’d only recommend to the right kind of person with a few key skills.

    First of all, you *have* to be really good at multitasking. For example, on a busy night, I can be having to answer phones, check guests in, refill coffee pots, fix keys that aren’t working, and keep up on paperwork–all at the same time. If that idea stresses you out, this is not the field for you.

    Second of all, you have to have a cool head. I’ve worked in several customer service settings, and hotel guests are the most demanding group I’ve dealt with. You have to be able to have a guest shouting at you for something that’s not remotely your fault without getting angry or taking it personally.

    You also have to be willing to work odd hours, even at management level. Sure, a GM’s official hours might be weekdays, but you’re pretty much married to that hotel. You can and will be called at any hour of the day or night, including on holidays. It can be a really rewarding job, but it takes a certain kind of personality.

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